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What is the future of arts infrastructures and audiences across North Africa and the Middle East?

Judith Greer
8 May 2014

My first in-depth exposure to art in the Middle East was in 2007, when I visited the 8th Sharjah Biennial and attended the first Art Dubai. That was also the year that the Sadiyaat Island master plan was announced and just before Museum of Islamic Art opened in Doha in 2008.


There was perhaps something about the critical mass of both regional and international attention that was directed towards the MENA after 2007 that helped dramatically quicken the pace of development across the region. While this was, in part, due to the ambitious scale of major infrastructural plans in the Gulf, and the emergence of a viable commercial art market in the region, it is important to remember that these developments were built on foundations created by years of consistent and serious programming by existing regional organizations and initiatives. 


Here are a few points to help put this into perspective: Ashkal Alwan was formed in 1994, one year after the first Sharjah Biennial in 1993, the first Homeworks Forum was held in 2002, Townhouse Gallery in Cairo was established in 1998 and Jordan's Darat Al Funun even earlier in 1988. These are just a few of the initiatives that are still considered the backbone of the art landscape in the Middle East and North Africa. And in spite of ongoing political difficulties and modest funding possibilities, the number of small, organic initiatives continues to grow. 


When one speaks of 'art infrastructures', it is crucial to recognize that infrastructures are not just large-scale buildings, but also, most importantly, people. And in respect to the future of infrastructures in the region, one of the most critical and urgent needs is for arts education. By this I mean education for audiences as well as education for professionals, both artists and the experts who are needed to not only work within the many institutions currently in planning, but who are also needed to help imagine new ways of animating the diverse and distinctive cultural landscapes of their respective communities.


This, of course, takes time, but there are a significant number of new educational initiatives that hold promise for the future. Many of these are government-led initiatives such as those at the various regional universities for both artist and art professional training, but there are also projects such as Wael Shawky's MASS Alexandria, Ashkal Alwan's Home Workspace Programme, and the Sheikha Salama Foundation's Emerging Artists Fellowships. At Sharjah Art Foundation we have found that the interest in learning about art continues to grow at all levels and for a wide range of different audiences, so it has become a major focus of our programming. 


Another productive development is the increase in collaborations and partnerships, both regionally and internationally, and between institutions and initiatives of all sizes. This is a way of working that offers enormous possibilities for sharing knowledge and expertise and just opening up the conversation about art. 


Over the past seven years since I became involved in the MENA, there has been incredibly rapid growth and change in the art world, alongside an evolving understanding of what these developments mean. In this context, I believe that the future of audiences and art infrastructures in the region will be intimately tied to and benefited by initiatives in education and the prioritizing of more collaborative models for working.

Judith Greer

is currently Associate Director of International Programmes for the UAE based Sharjah Art Foundation, and previously worked as International Director at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. Along with her husband Richard she has been a collector and art patron since the late 80s and in 2006 co-authored Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector's Handbook. She lectures internationally on the topics of collecting and arts patronage and was a juror for the 2007 Max Mara Prize for Women Artists and, in 2009, on the jury for the Dubai-based Sheikha Manal Foundation Prize for young Emirati artists.

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