What About the Art?
The Art for Tomorrow Conference 2016 in Doha
The question of the future is pervasive in the Gulf, almost to the point of becoming a cliché. Nevertheless, the 'Art for Tomorrow' conference, a joint project between New York Times Conferences and Qatar Museums, opened up the floor for predictive debate at its second edition 'Technology, Creativity and the City'. This year's programme included three days of panel discussions from leading art world professionals, guided visits to local art spaces, and a number of 'art salons'. According to Achilles Tsaltas, vice president of New York Times Conferences, the premise of the conference was to consider 'the role of art as a catalyst for economic growth and development, the role of art as a driver for tourism, and also as a mechanism for nation, city, and even corporate branding', for which he considers Doha 'a living showcase'.
Therefore, and in spite of its title, art took on a tertiary role in the 'Art for Tomorrow' conference. The main motivation for the event seemed rather to act as a venue for high-profile artists and arts professionals to network, and as an opportunity to introduce and present Doha favourably to such individuals, all with a predominantly commercial outlook. To this end, the conference was an enormous success – Qatar Museums and the New York Times collectively attracted big stars such as internationally acclaimed artists Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic, who gave keynote speeches, as well as participants including art collector Dakis Joannou, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Martin Roth, and global director of Art Basel, Marc Spiegler. The fact that the cost to attend the conference was around $2000USD further emphasised the purposefully exclusive and commercial nature of the event, rendering it inaccessible to much of the audience in what was openly recognized and discussed as an 'emerging art scene' in Qatar.
Tours of the Museum of Islamic Art and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, as well as trips to Gallery Al Riwaq, and Fire Station Artist in Residence (a residency and gallery space), presented the already well-established arts infrastructure in Doha to the high profile conference guests. A tour of the National Museum of Qatar, currently under construction, was led by French star-architect Jean Nouvel (who designed the museum), presenting an exclusive selection of delegates the 'tomorrow' that the conference's title promised. Those who visited returned impressed, but confused – after five years of construction and an expected completion date of 2016, the museum is far from finished and questions about the opening or approximate costs were shrugged off entirely – clearly, 'tomorrow' is not quite tomorrow.
The impression that art was a circumstantial aspect of the conference was predominantly due to the scheduling of the panel discussions. In what Marc Spiegler described as 'a rather fast and furious format', each discussion featured two speakers and a moderator and lasted 30 minutes, each tackling an enormous, and often pertinent, subject. For example, a talk on 'The Digital Museum' with the general director of the Rijksmuseum, Wim Pijbes, and Giorgia Abeltino from the Google Cultural Institute barely allowed for an overview of the digitization projects taking place in the two institutions, scratching only the surface of a debate that deserved further analysis and discussion. Similarly, the panel 'Culture Under Attack' was predominantly discursive, leaving one feeling that the topics had been chosen for their timely, immediate appeal and irrespective of a desire to engage more deeply with the subject matters. While the art salons allowed for more audience interaction and debate, the overall feeling of the conference was mired by many unanswered questions.
The lack of art was a troubling aspect of the conference that ran deep into the fundamentals of the event itself. The conference was hosted by the five-star W Hotel and Residences in Doha – an odd decision considering the array of arts venues that Qatar Museums has at their disposal. There were attempts to assert the missing art elsewhere in the programming – The Lab, a temporary gallery space, was set up on the 29th floor of the hotel and open throughout the conference. Although the starkly un-glitzy aesthetics of the space were refreshing, the curatorial vision of the show – beyond the desire to have some form of art in the conference – was absent. While there were artists speaking during the event, their talks were, again, mere presentations that were not further engaged with.
The highlight of the conference was undoubtedly the opening of What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China (until 16 July), an exhibition at Gallery Al Riwaq curated by artist Cai Guo-Qiang, to which all of the delegates were invited. The show was an enormous production that included 15 Chinese artists and a number of exceptional monumental commissions. This show demonstrated exactly what 'Art for Tomorrow' was trying to articulate – that a city like Doha can, and does, use art as an important tool for development. But it also showed that the opposite is equally true – the development of a city can be used to improve art, stage important shows, and inspire local audiences and artists. Leaving the exhibition and returning to the conference, the question persisted: 'What about the art?'