The visual arts are big business. A recent episode of the American TV program 60 Minutes noted that “… contemporary art has become a global commodity, just like oil, soybeans or pork bellies.” Most recently, in 2011, visual art products sold for $5.5 billion at auction alone.
One of many factors contributing to this supercharged contemporary art market is the rise of a relatively new elite in Russia, China, and the Middle East. In the Gulf, while older elites have been collecting art for some time, the younger generation has become even more active on the international art scene. The establishment of new, première cultural institutions adds a public dimension to these acquisitions, ensuring they do not disappear into private collections. Abu Dhabi alone has attracted franchises of the Louvre and Guggenheim, which will prominently feature contemporary art collections. As recently profiled in The Economist, the daughter of the emir of Qatar has been active in the modern art scene. In addition to her plans to bring contemporary art to Qatar’s museums, she also hopes to display the government’s impressive collection in places like the Doha Airport. Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, and Qatar also have vibrant art scenes featuring numerous galleries and art shows. In recent years, the Gulf’s auction market has become so important that major auction houses, like Christie’s, now have branches in the region. The Gulf region recently hosted several high-profile art auctions where items sold at prices unimaginable to the region’s migrant laborers.
Along with mega-malls and World Cup Soccer, museums and public art have become an integral part of the ongoing reformulation of public and private space in the Gulf region.
Interpreting the Interest in Art
While contemporary art can be a shrewd investment, especially in a climate of bursting housing bubbles and unstable financial markets, there is much more behind the rise of the Gulf’s art market. At first glance, efforts to build a robust art scene may seem aimed at diversifying the hydrocarbon-based economies of Gulf countries through tourism promotion. In the case of Abu Dhabi, art initiatives appear geared toward creating an upscale version of its cousin down the road, Dubai, and to attracting wealthier visitors. There are, however, serious political and social ramifications, both domestically and internationally, in terms of how these nations use art to brand themselves.
Qatar’s (and to a lesser extent the UAE’s) moves in the arts sector are particularly interesting given its fairly muscular role on the geopolitical stage. Entry into the contemporary art world suggests a degree of parity with Western powers. Along with establishing new universities and attracting the regional headquarters of multinational corporations and media companies, cultural institutions are an important part of how states choose to brand themselves and articulate their influence on the geo-political stage.
The championing and purchase of Islamic art, little of which was produced in Qatar, helps promote the country as a leader in the broader Muslim world. This, in turn, can be leveraged to increase Qatar’s international influence and to help generate global respect for the Gulf nation. Through its artistic endeavors, Qatar gains a more cosmopolitan, flexible array of public diplomacy tools, notwithstanding its commitment to follow Saudi Arabia’s more conservative soft power efforts. This positions Qatar to potentially enjoy good relations not only with Muslim majority countries, but also compliments its effort to develop connections with the BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, and China] nations, an important part of its broader geo-strategic plans.
Of course, all this is happening against the backdrop of colonial desire (sometimes through theft) for art and antiquities from the Middle East. Over the years, numerous Islamic and pre-Islamic works from the region have ended up in Western museums and in private collections. Western interest in the region’s artistic and cultural legacies only seems to have grown in the last decade, with Islamic art becoming a particularly hot part of the auction circuit as of late. Recently an illuminated manuscript of the Shah Nameh sold at auction for over $2 million.
Western interest in Middle Eastern art has also resulted in serious legal wrangling. Taking a cue from recent victories by Greece and Italy, Turkey is using the U.S. legal system to try and reclaim Turkish art and antiquities held in the United States. Many of these works were likely looted more than a century ago before the advent of international legal frameworks regarding cultural heritage.
In the coming years, it will be interesting to see whether Iraq takes legal measures against Western museums and collectors to reclaim artifacts stolen in the aftermath of 2003 Iraqi invasion. Such recourse is far from likely as collectors will undoubtedly keep a low profile when acquiring questionable artifacts and museums will probably entirely clear from Iraqi antiquities on the black market.
At the end of the day, a tremendous amount of money is pouring into both the Islamic and contemporary art markets with Qatar and the UAE playing a particularly important role. While the United States still seems to be having some trouble developing its “soft power” strategies, Gulf states have largely been successful through a potent combination of popular and high culture that has given them tremendous global influence and the ability to control their own brand.
*Laith Ulaby is Muftah’s Art + Culture editor.