Hosting this year’s Annual Conference on Museums in Progress in Doha, raised interesting questions around contemporaneity, the politics of locality, and the cultural economy. Given the interest in Doha as a new site of rapid arts investment and cultural exchange within the global arts market, the conference offered a unique opportunity to understand the city through its cultural and education platforms.
During the three-day conference the multiple venues across the city served as critical platforms to host a range of themes and debates on the future of institutions in the context of a shifting arts ecology. The presentations sparked lively debates regarding the important role museums can play in shaping national and transnational histories, whilst remaining vigilant to the pitfalls of neo-colonialism and elitist framings of exhibition narratives. The role of funding –both private and public– featured strongly in the first-panel titled What is public interest today? in which Maria Lind spoke about the shifts towards bureaucratization in arts sector and the potential for small-scale creative-led initiatives to agitate how we think about funding and development of the arts.
For Graham Beal, the role of public engagement is vital to the development of institutions today; citing the evolution of Detroit Institute of Arts as an example, he argued it is not so much that public opinion should dictate art collections, but that institutions and museums should work in innovative and collaborative ways to engage the public and local communities in exhibitions. At the heart of the panel discussions, was an ethical responsibility for arts institutions to consider –around audiences, access to funding, to non-elite networks– as they confront an arts market that includes some, and excludes others.
As a researcher and writer on cultural development in the Arab world, the case studies presented on the second day was of particular interest to me. The panel titled Building Institutions in the African and the Middle East contexts served to remind us of importance of subjectivities and context for developing arts practices. Suha Shoman’s presentation on development of Darat al Funun, as an important site of cultural intervention for collecting and showcasing the work of Arab artists at a time when no other organization in the region was doing so, was an important reminder of the role institutions can play in developing art histories. And Gabi Ngcobo’s presentation on role of institutions in a post-independent context –here JAG in South Africa– offered a powerful case-study for regions that continue to be dominated by power-bound inequalities.
The presentations were supplemented by a highly engaged discussion around cultural policies, legal restrictions and socio-political uncertainties that problematize institutional development in certain regions, reminding us that arts institution today cannot be spoken on cohesively.
The global focus of the presentations offered a diversity of perspectives on artistic development, allowing us to see the affinities and stark differences between institutional building in different cultural, political and economic contexts.
As a discursive platform that works to critically engage audiences and panelists, CIMAM offers the potential for new political and aesthetic solidarities to be formed within a networked arts industry. I would like to thank Qatar Museums and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, for selecting me for this year’s travel grant award and for giving me the opportunity to forge new connections and solidarities with fellow participants.