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Analysis out of the box

The keys to understanding the art scene in Qatar

Analysis out of the boxArt Market | In the 1940s, the discovery of oil transformed Qatar’s pearling economy into a global one. Nowadays, the Emirate has adopted a development strategy similar to that of a multinational company; it focuses on transforming the oil and gas rents into financial ones through diversified global investments, which have drastically increased since 2011. Contemporary art domain holds a key position in Qatar’s overall strategy at the crossroads between culture and influence.

Exterior of Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall, Doha, Qatar © Artwork ©Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Photo by GION
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Exterior of Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall, Doha, Qatar
© Artwork ©Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Photo by GION

Key economic and geopolitical considerations

This small peninsula is situated in the Persian Gulf, neighboring Saudi Arabia and facing Iran; it has approximately 2 million inhabitants,88% of which are expatriate workers (in Le dessous des cartes, Arte). Thus, Qatari citizens represent a mere 12% of the population and benefit from privileged conditions such as free education, electricity and gas.
The country’s regime has survived many coups and, since the mid-20th century, absolute power remains in the hands of the Al-Thani family. In June 2013 the Emir Hamad Al-Thani abdicated, his son Crown Prince Tamim Al-Thani succeeded him, marking a break with the previous diplomatic strategy and isolating the country from its neighbors.
Most of the country’s wealth depends on the exploitation of hydrocarbons, including the gas liquefaction industry. However, since the third oil shock in 2008, the country’s global investments have focused more specifically on strategic sectors such as the hospitality industry, real estate, luxury, research, agriculture (having purchased land in Australia and Africa) and sports. These investments are made through the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) , a sovereign fund valued at more than $300 billion according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute.
Finally, Qatar has shown its desire to develop a knowledge-based economy in its territory by 2030, implanting satellites from the best American universities and developing cutting edge technology infrastructures for medical research.

The Qatar Museum Authority : an influential sovereign fund used as a global communication tool

The city of Doha aims to become the cultural capital of the Persian Gulf through the work of the
Qatar Museum Authority
(QMA)
, a sovereign fund chaired by the Emir’s sister, Sheikha al Mayassa. The fund finances large-scale projects such as parks for new museums or the reconfiguration of Doha’s city center, but it also commissions and purchases artworks from internationally renowned Western artists.
It is worth noting that Doha’s cultural strategy differs from that of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The latter has focused on building structures affiliated to international museums in its territory, such as the new Guggenheim platform designed by Frank Gehry - 12 times larger than the New York version- at an estimated cost of $800 million euros, or the Louvre Abu Dhabi designed by Jean Nouvel - the right to use the French museum’s name exceeded half a billion dollars.

On the other hand, Qatar’s monarchy intends to create an identity of its own, to keep total control over the management of its institutions and exclude any external interferences.
To do so, Sheikha al Mayassa has gathered major personalities from the international art scene through the Qatar Museum Authority. Roger Mandle, former Director of the Rhode Island School of Design was the QMA’s Executive Director from 2008 to 2012; Edward Dolman former president at Christie’s, directed the QMA from 2011 to 2014 before joining the Phillips auction house; another personality that formerly worked at Christie’s, Jean-Paul Engelen, has taken charge of the public projects’ management - Richard Serra’s sculpture commission « East-West / West-East » was one of his initiatives. Finally, in 2014, the QMA appointed Guy Bennett, former International Director at Christie’s, as head of the Collections and Acquisitions Department.


Since 2012, a series of monographic exhibitions by valued artists have been entrusted to increasingly influential curators : Massimiliano Gioni organized the exhibition on http://www.qm.org.qa/en/project/ego-takashi-murakami Takashi Murakami, « Ego »] (2012), Francesco Bonami curated Yan Pei-Ming’s « Painting the History » (2012-13), Philip Larratt-Smith was in charge of « Louise Bourgeois : Conscious and Unconscious » (2012) and Francesco Bonami curated Damien Hirst’s « Relics » (2013-14). For the group exhibition « Here There » (2014-2015), Qatari curators Alanoud Al Buainain and Khalifa Al-Obaidly associated with three international curators : Brazilian Gunnar B. Kvaran (Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art), Swiss Hans Ulrich Obrist (co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London) and French Thierry Raspail (director of the Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon). Lynne Cooke, Senior Curator at the National Gallery of Art Washington, organized the Luc Tuymans exhibition, « Intolerance » (2015-2016) and Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang conceived « What’s about the art? Contemporary Art from China » (2016). 2017 has followed this trend with Catherine David from the Centre Pompidou curating a retrospective on artist Dia El-Azzawi, « I’m the cry, who will give voice to me » ; while Catherine Grenier, Serena Bucalo-Mussely and Virginie Perdrisot are in charge of the exhibition « Picasso - Giacometti » in collaboration with the Picasso National Museum and the Giacometti Foundation.

Qatari museums have been designed by internationally renowned architects : The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is Leoh Ming Pei’s work, French architect Jean-François Bodin created the MATHAF : Arab Museum of Modern Art and Jean Nouvel is working on the National Museum of Qatar.

The place of art and culture in Qatari society

An almost non-existing private sector

Qatar’s fragile network of galleries and private art spaces brings to light the contrast between the boom in public cultural infrastructure construction and the Qatari society’s reality : its fairly modest interest in art.
Collector and businessman Tariq al Jaidah launched the Katara Art Center in 2012. In June 2014, following Qatar’s diplomatic crisis with its neighbors and the drop in oil prices, the Center had to close, revealing the long term instability, of Qatar’s cultural strategy. Before the reopening of the space, the curator Mayssah Fattouh declared that she regretted the lack of global cultural perspectives outside the central vision, reflecting how instead of acting as a driving force, the QMA’s extreme centralization seems to suffocate private initiatives. It is worth noting that the oldest gallery, the Al Markhiya Gallery, opened “recently” in 2008.

A regional market still in the making

- Apart from Sotheby’s, which organizes an annual contemporary art sale in Doha since 2009, AlBahie is the only auction house found in the country. Sheikh Faisal Al-Thani and collector Khalid Al Sulaiti launched the initiative, which is directed by French art historian Corinne Lefebvre and focuses on the regional art market, with an average cost of $5,000/10,000 for a local painting.

- In September 2017, in collaboration with the New York Times, the Saatchi gallery organized the first version of the Start Art Fair Doha - affiliated to Start London - on the W Hotel Doha’s top floor. The Fair took place at the same time as the conference cycle Art For Tomorrow, organized by the American press group and hosted in the same location.

A place of paradoxes

The drop in oil prices in July 2014 was followed by several budget cuts and lay-offs in key areas such as the medical field and the oil sector. While Qatar Petroleum dismissed 3000 employees, The Art Newspaper announced a wave of layoffs in the cultural sector that deeply affected museums and led to the suspension of several projects. The Financial Times reported that the QMA also had to dismiss 400 employees, which meant that in two years the institution’s team of 1,200 employees diminished to 800. This change of circumstances has also had an impact on the National Museum (estimated at $434 million) : its opening has been delayed twice, originally planned for 2016, it was postponed for 2017 and finally announced for December 2018.

Moreover, it is worth highlighting that Qatar has broken most of the sales records in the field of Western art history : White Center by Mark Rothko was sold for $72.8 million in 2007; 11 paintings by Mark Rothko were purchased for $310 million in 2009; Les joueurs de cartes by Paul Cézanne was sold for 190 million euros in 2011; Francis Bacon’s triptych, Three studies of Lucian Freud was sold for $142.4 million dollars in 2013 and Paul Gauguin’s Quand te maries-tu? was purchased for $210 million in 2015.

In this context riddled with paradoxes, art, architecture, culture and market considerations take a central part in the Qatari central power’s overall strategy : establishing its political leadership in the Persian Gulf as well as in the Arab world.

Vincent Kozsilovics / Nina Rodrigues-Ely
Publié le 30/08/2017
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Exterior of Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall, Doha, Qatar © Artwork ©Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Photo by GION The Fire Station © Courtesy the Qatar Museums Authority, Doha The Fire Station © Photo courtesy Qatar Museums Museum of Islamic Art © Photo copyright Iwan Baan Museum of Islamic Art © Photo copyright Iwan Baan MATHAF © Courtesy Qatar Museum Authority Damien Hirst - Relics - Alriwaq Doha © qatar museums authority

Exterior of Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall, Doha, Qatar
© Artwork ©Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Photo by GION

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