I would like to begin this report by expressing my gratitude to the Getty Foundation as well as to CIMAM’s Travel Grant Committee for giving me the opportunity to join the 21 grantees among museum professionals and independent curators in this conference, which proved to be an extraordinary experience. My appreciation goes also to Inés Jover and Jenny Gil Schmitz for their invaluable support before and during the event. In Doha, I could not fail to mention Mathaf’s team, who welcomed everyone with great enthusiasm and generosity.
I arrived in Qatar right after the museum I work for went through major and sudden changes in its structure as consequence of undue interferences in the process of curatorial decision-making. The conflicts of private funding vs public interest were very alive at the back of my mind while I listened to Hito Steyerl inspired talk at the opening of the conference. Her use of metaphors such as the “free port” and the collapse of space and time as means of creating new possibilities for contemporary art set the tone for the beginning of the debate.
In a way, her talk was echoed and taken even further by Maria Lind’s presentation. Lind highlighted the importance of smaller institutions in generating opportunities for risk and experimentation, which are central to contemporary art practice. Once, she argued, museums and museum professionals are being valued by efficiency and quantification, criteria used in the corporate world, they are reducing dramatically their capacity for assuming risks. On a similar note, Olav Velthuis brought impressive statistics about the boom of the art market, stating that collectors are becoming more important than institutions in terms of valuation and validation of contemporary art.
Graham Beal addressed the successful effort the Detroit Institute of Arts undertook in search of a deeper engagement with its audience. Rana Sadik, Shirin Neshat and Abdellah Karroum brought the conversation to the Middle Eastern reality, emphasizing the vitality of the artistic scene in spite of the lack of institutions in the region. Sadik raised what was, in my point of view, one of the most interesting questions up to then –actually, something that would return to my mind while visiting the Museum of Islamic Art later that same day–, which had to do with the meaning of museums in places where the largest part of the population is made of temporary residents. Neshat’s conversation with Karroum was very much a testimony on her artistic trajectory, touching on issues such as the conditions of being a woman artist of Iranian origins and her purpose to work from the intersection of tradition and contemporaneity.
Overall, the first day put me to think about two main topics:
- How institutions, having to survive as such, are more and more submitted to rules alike those of the corporate world, losing sight of their role as spaces for independent thinking and research;
- Who are we building institutions for?
The absence of a keynote speech to open the second day led to the setting up of a panel to discuss the specificities of institutions in Africa and Asia. Karroum emphasized the importance of institutions in preserving artistic production in face of wars and revolutions in the Middle East; and the need for solid links between museums and universities in order to stimulate research, networks as well as set standards for museum professionals.
Gabi Ngcobo addressed many interesting issues in regards to Africa, among which I would point out: the interference of authoritarian governments that ultimately decide what kind of art is to be shown; the challenge of keeping small projects active so that they can inform institutions and be, at the same time, spaces for displaying local artistic production.
The following round of presentations focused on private initiatives carried out in Lebanon (Zeina Arida), Jordan (Suha Shoman) and South Africa (Gabi Ngcobo), ending with a talk that introduced to the audience the project of our host institution, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (Abdellah Karroum). As inspiring as they were, however, those talks did not generate as much discussion as I would expect. Even when the moderator tried to instigate the public to participate, little was achieved. Indeed the debate was mainly generic and very much about abstract concepts as opposed to the concrete examples that were addressed in the presentations. In this sense, I would mention especially a colleague from Pakistan who introduced important remarks on the situation of institutions in her country that went completely unanswered.
It seems to me that creating strategies to have a more productive conversation is something to be pursued in future conferences. Significant topics such as the internationalization of the art from the Arab world and its insertion in broader art historical narratives, or the fundamental role institutions have to play in constructing a collective memory in post-Apartheid South Africa were not explored to their fullest potential.
On the last day, collector and lawyer Luis Teixeira de Freitas was responsible for opening the conference. In a very provocative way, he argued in favor of greater regulation of the art market, still oriented by what he called “obscure practices” both in galleries and in auction houses. When talking specifically about the increasing presence of corporate money in museums, Freitas brought to discussion some extremely relevant issues, such as: How to accept private financing and still keep the public interest?; How can museums avoid interference, conflict of interest and speculation once their program is only made possible through private funding?. Despite these words, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Freitas is a collector, member of acquisition committees in different international institutions as well as father to a young curator, who happens to be working on an exhibition project about Latin American art for the art fair Art Dubai 2015. For better and for worse, he is therefore intimately involved with the system he criticizes.
The final section, bringing together Kate Fowle and Bernard Blistène, provided me in particular with a curious occasion for thinking about different definitions of the word “public”. On one hand, Russia, where “public” evokes a sense of an authoritarian rule imposing notions of collectivity; on the other, France, where the same word is embedded with the idea of a shared memory, heritage and history. In her presentation, Fowle highlighted how recent the very notion of contemporary art is in Russia and the challenge of creating a system for it.
The private institution ran by her engaged in tasks like translating referential books on contemporary culture into Russian, forming an art library, training education professionals and so on. As for Blistène, the head of a gigantic public institution –to which he recently won a competition to become the director–, the perspective was very different. He talked about strategies for displaying the collection both inside and outside the Musée National d’Art Moderne’s premises. He spoke in favor of strengthening links with provincial museums in France as well as putting the collection to circulate out of the country, in specific projects idealized as “conversations between cultures”, as he put it. Blistène made a final claim for museum professionals to find together alternatives for the high costs of exhibition projects that are becoming increasingly prohibitive. Someone in the audience recalled the fees that are currently charged by the MNAM, which he denied.
I was not present at the final session of the conference, having had an opportunity to go to the site of Richard Serra’s installation East-West / West-East. However, before finishing my report, I would like to add some words about the post-conference tour to Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.
Among those places, Sharjah was a real revelation to me. The museums we visited –and I am referring specifically to the Botanical Garden, the Museum of Wild Life and the Archaeological Museum–, although built in much more modest terms compared to what we saw in Doha, stood out in my opinion as being institutions that relate intimately to the local culture. They are clearly aimed for developing a sense of belonging in the local community and that seemed extremely meaningful to me. This feeling was reinforced later that day while we visited the Sharjah Foundation for the Arts, whose program is designed both to involve the local people and to speak to a broader audience. This same principle was somehow reflected in the architecture design of the Foundation, which respectfully inserted contemporary buildings in a historical site.
I can hardly say I have any memory of Dubai, whilst Abu Dhabi presented to me not only a diverse artistic scene but also a more cosmopolitan feeling. To be introduced to the projects of the spectacular museums that are being built in that city was a high point. Nonetheless, despite all the explanations and justifications I heard, I confess that I remain a bit suspicious of these institutions, especially in regards to their link to a real estate development project. I can’t tell obviously if I will ever have a chance to go back to the Emirates, but I would very much like to see what will become of those magnificent buildings and what sort of resonance they will generate in the years to come.