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Where to Now? Shifting Regional Dynamics and Cultural Production in North Africa and the Middle East

Saleh Barakat
1 June 2016

The development of a healthy regional Arab art scene, like anywhere else in the world, requires the collaborative efforts of the different components that constitute it. An art scene is generally comprised of a market, the academic establishment, the media, public museums, and non-profit institutions. The successful interaction between them allows the establishment of a system of checks permitting to balance out any excesses generated by any component being inefficient or too efficient with regard to the functioning of the others. 


The first major contributor to any art scene remains the market, as represented by artists, galleries and auction houses. Naturally driven by self-interest, the market needs to be monitored by other regulating bodies that wave any manipulation or speculation, in order to allow for a real equilibrium to be reached.


Academic institutions providing art education are another powerful component, especially when they become involved and implicated in regional art. Dedicated chairs are quintessential to allow continued commitment in this direction. Research grants must be made available to graduate students to allow for in depth research in the field. Master's programs proposing history of art, critical writing and curatorial studies should be empowered to build the human capital necessary for any art scene to blossom. Other specializations, such as professional restoration and art management, are also necessary to train a new generation of field workers and specialists.  


Investing in specialized publishing houses is primordial to allow for information to be preserved and disseminated. Powerful and successful publishers provide major recruitment opportunities for art critics in need of sustainable jobs to produce serious critical work. Major newspapers, learned magazines and television networks should also be solicited to invest in more cultural programs and reviews, run by professional art specialists. Without critical thought, independent and uncensored, empowered by engaged institutions, any art scene will remain faltered. 


Museum institutions, with well defined mission statements and committed public support, are foundational pillars to preserve and promote visual heritage. While private museums are highly welcomed to fill in interim gaps and carved niches, national museums remain the official defendants of any national culture and identity. 


Finally, in times of staggering state budget deficits and shrinking public funds, the nurturing of patronage culture is necessary to prepare a new generation of patrons willing to give back to their societies without any return; the kind of philanthropic collectors who go beyond the fructification of their own investments in art, to endow creative thought and cultural production to happen, patrons who go beyond the tangible trophies to the intangible buildup of a certain human heritage they believe in.

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