Playing to win: how Qatar aims to become a world-beating hub of arts and culture
With the FIFA World Cup under way, the eyes of the world are focused not only on football, but also on the host nation: Qatar. Alastair Smart reports on the small country’s vast cultural ambitions, and its efforts to foster a new generation of homegrown artists
A century ago, Qatar was a sleepy British protectorate whose locals spent the summer diving for pearls and the winter herding camels. The discovery of oil and, in particular, natural gas during the course of the 20th century, however, has seen the country undergo a dizzying process of enrichment and modernisation. It currently has a sovereign wealth fund worth around $450 billion.
From 20 November to 18 December, Qatar also hosts the FIFA World Cup, with more than a million international football fans expected to visit. Eight new stadiums, as well as an entire metro system, have been built ahead of the tournament, in and around the capital city, Doha.
Under the leadership of Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, chairperson of Qatar Museums (QM), the country is seeking a legacy far longer than a month-long festival of football. Sheikha Al Mayassa, the sister of Qatar’s Emir, hopes the nation’s ‘exciting cultural offerings’ will make visitors ‘want to return again and again’.
QM is an influential government body, a kind of national endowment for the arts, and a key part of its remit is managing Qatar’s fast-expanding museum sector. One of the jewels in its crown is the Museum of Islamic Art, which opened in 2008 at the end of a peninsula overlooking Doha Bay.
Designed by the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei (whom Sheikha Al Mayassa had to coax out of retirement), it is a five-storey structure inspired by the geometric patterning of Islamic buildings of the past.
Featuring metalwork, jewellery, glass, carpets, armour and more, the museum’s collection spans 14 centuries of Islamic art made across three continents.
Pei passed away aged 102 in 2019, the same year that saw the opening of another of Doha’s landmark buildings: the National Museum of Qatar. This was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, and cost more than $430 million to construct. The building takes the form of a giant desert rose, with galleries laid out beneath a roof of myriad interlocking discs.
The museum tells the history of Qatar across the ages, starting with a fossilised local fish that’s hundreds of millions of years old. Other exhibits include coinage from the 6th century AD (when the land was part of an empire ruled by Iran’s Sasanian dynasty) and documents relating to the achievement of independence from Britain in 1971.
The aim of the museum is to show Qatar as an ancestral land of rich heritage. Stepping onto the streets outside it, however, one is overwhelmed by the sense of modernity — especially when glancing in the direction of Aspire Tower and the other futuristic high-rises that have shot up in the past two decades to form the business district of West Bay. (Nouvel describes Qatar as being in the midst of a ‘period so powerful’ it might be called a ‘mutation’.)
The country’s streets and sands have also been enhanced by an ongoing programme of public art. Directed by QM, this has seen more than 100 artworks popping up in public places in recent years, with 40 being unveiled in the second half of 2022 alone.
In Doha, these include Le Pouce by César Baldaccini, a shiny bronze sculpture of an outsized thumb in Souq Waqif marketplace; and Dugong by Jeff Koons, a polished stainless-steel sculpture, in Al Masrah Park, of a marine mammal that has inhabited the waters around Qatar for millennia.
Most impressive of all is Richard Serra’s East/West-West/East, located in the desert area of Zekreet, 80km west of the capital. The work — described by the artist himself as ‘the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done’ — consists of four monumental steel plates positioned in a straight line over a kilometre of barren landscape, like the totems of an ancient civilisation.
‘The scale, quality and boldness of our programme is unprecedented,’ says QM’s Director of Public Art, Abdulrahman Ahmed Al-Ishaq. ‘The goal is to make art a permanent part of Qatar’s urban fabric.’
Others to have contributed to the programme so far include international artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Yayoi Kusama, KAWS and Subodh Gupta, and homegrown talents such as Shouq Al Mana and Shua’a Ali.
‘The important thing is that you don’t need a ticket to see these works,’ says Al-Ishaq. ‘They’re open and accessible to all, to be encountered — and engaged with — by people from all segments of society, as they go about their lives.’
Al-Ishaq has spoken previously about the ambition of turning Qatar into ‘the art mecca of the Middle East’. Today he adds that ‘the transformation of the [country’s] creative scene… is echoing around the globe’.
Such a claim is borne out by a quick look at the exhibition schedule. The biggest show in town right now is a major retrospective on the Italian fashion house Valentino at Doha’s design centre, M7. (The likes of Naomi Campbell and Janet Jackson attended the vernissage.)
M7 opened in 2021, and Qatar’s building work is far from over. Earlier this year, QM announced plans to open another three institutions by the end of the decade. These are the Qatar Auto Museum (dedicated to cars); the Lusail Museum (Orientalist art); and the Art Mill (a vast museum of modern and contemporary art, roughly twice the size of London’s Tate Modern, located in a converted flour mill).
It’s worth adding a few contextual points here. First, that all three venues will have extensive collections from which to draw their exhibits. The Qatari state has been one of the 21st century’s most avid buyers of art globally — which is reflected in the fact that Sheikha Al Mayassa was named the most powerful person in the art world in 2013, according to ArtReview’s annual ‘Power 100’ list, which cited Qatar’s ‘sheer buying power’.
A second point is that the Lusail Museum is named after the rapidly growing coastal city, just north of Doha, where it will be located. Lusail is also where the final of the FIFA World Cup is being held. The idea is that culture should not to be confined solely to the nation’s capital.
A final point is that the deadline for the opening of the three new museums — 2030 — is not coincidental. The government sees art as a component of Qatar National Vision 2030, its ‘roadmap for Qatar’s future’, in which non-economic development is considered as much of a priority as fiscal growth. This is in the name of creating an ‘advanced society’ by the end of the decade (healthcare and education being other components).
The truth is that, even now, Qatar has more than enough on show in its museums to attract visitors. The creation of an artistic scene, however, is another matter entirely. That requires more than simply the splashing of cash on artworks, and on buildings in which to house them. It requires organic growth, generated by a lively network of working artists.
To be fair, Sheikha Al Mayassa has identified this issue herself. In an interview last year with the Financial Times, she acknowledged ‘gaps in the ecosystem’, and said that QM will spend the 2020s ‘trying to nurture… a community of creators’.
Some might wonder how free artists will be to express themselves — especially when QM’s influence is so pervasive, and there’s little in the way of an independent sector. That said, there’s no doubting the emergence of a number of spaces for local creatives. M7 includes studios and labs for up-and-coming designers; and, as its name suggests, Liwan Design Studios and Labs does likewise.
And then there’s Fire Station, an art hub (housed in a one-time fire station) that has served as a conveyor belt of local talent since its opening in 2014. It offers residencies to artists and curators alike, and a group exhibition featuring work by 36 resident artists of the past is currently on view at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.
It will also be worth keeping an eye on the alumni of VCUarts Qatar, a satellite campus set up in Doha by America’s Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, offering fine arts degrees.
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It’s still too early, of course, to say how this will all play out; too early to know how many domestic artists will emerge, and what the quality of their work will be — even in a country like Qatar, where everything seems to progress in fast-forward.
As Scotland’s godfather of urban planning, Sir Patrick Geddes, once observed, ‘A city is more than a place in space; it is a drama in time.’ What’s unfolding in Doha and the country beyond right now is a drama off which it’s hard to keep one’s eyes.
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