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

Sherri Wasserman
8 May 2014

To think about the future of arts infrastructures and organizations across the Middle East and North Africa, I suggest that we take a look at the past and present strengths of cultural organizations, which have always served social and informational purposes, regardless of region and time. It is in these two spheres that the future resides.


In an age of ubiquitous digital information, the physical spaces of arts and cultural organizations maintain a unique advantage over online-only information sources since, in an age of persistent intangible connection, physical experience has become that much more important. Our current technological landscape – through direct digital communication and the use of social media platforms – allows organizations to leverage the audience impact they create with meaningful, shared, physical experiences through maintaining ongoing, low-level, digital relationships. This follows the same idea that surrounds how telecommunications have changed, in that though telephones were once tied to a physical location, we now carry our mobile phones with us at all times. When thinking about relationships between organizations and audiences, and audiences to each other through such smart technologies, connections can be made through meaningful, in-person interaction in specific places, with lines of communication remaining persistently open and connected through social media platforms until the next physical meeting.


Being able to provide audiences with experiences that can only be found within institutional/organizational spaces shouldn't be under-estimated, and should be a mandate for any future development. Of course, this paradigm of combining physical and virtual interaction isn't new, but I mention it within a question of the future because it should not be forgotten and institutions should not take this opportunity for granted. In fact, they should emphasize their tangible physicality by holding highly physical and durational time-based events within their spaces. In these events, audiences can also experience the visceral impact of artworks within the exhibition space. Even strong online collections displayed on virtual platforms rarely give a powerful sense of scale, texture, and effect of a piece in the way a physical experience can. This should continue to be leveraged.


However, the future of arts organizations also lies within the strength of, and access to, physical collections. The digitization and distribution of digital collections is imperative for the ability for Middle East and North African institutions – both large and small – to have conversations both within the region and with the rest of the world. Increasingly, it would be irresponsible for organizations to only look to fulfill the needs of local, physical audiences. Whether as the keeper of regional history, as a museum might be, or the catalyst for current production, as is the function of a commercial gallery, I believe that organizations are responsible for making sure that the work they represent is present in a larger, global, informational landscape. Physical spaces should connect to other physical spaces overseas, through programming or technological telepresence.


Right now, the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands is giving us a glimpse of what a possible, well-crafted future could hold: significant, unique collections digitized at high-resolution, communicated with clear rights parameters for use, and which provide the opportunity for visitors to peruse and manipulate these works for their own creations. I personally would like to see a future where institutions produce robust, digital platforms that are better integrated into the physical experience of the galleries. The online example of the Rijksmuseum is already a significant step beyond most current institutional approaches and serves as a guidepost for industry best practices. Also notice that, in the description of what the Rijksmuseum is doing, I did not mention any specific technological platforms; infrastructure should be determined by use more than specific technology, since it is inevitable that any specific technology – and how audiences will use it – will inevitably evolve.


I would like to see a future where even more MENA institutions provide significant information on their collections online alongside images of decent resolution as resources to researchers and makers alike. I would also like to see more access to physical and digital publications created by MENA organizations. Taking it a step further, I'd like to see MENA institutions – small and large – taking a cue from institutions such as the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt; I'd love to see a rich landscape of access to MENA collections data through APIs (application programming interfaces), allowing artists and technologists to access and communicate data in new ways. Could MENA institutions have internal, experimental labs such as the ones that the Cooper Hewitt or Indianapolis Museum of Art have established? Could they lead the way in creating not only art-friendly, open-source environments, but also multi-lingual platforms for web and mobile? Could MENA institutions increasingly also target other institutions as an audience, in order to lead the way in inventive development?


I think that it's the responsibility of MENA arts organizations, large and small, non-profit and commercial, to increase awareness, give access to collections, support the development of a culture of rights awareness and respect with regard to image usage and identification, and establish best practices in the development of tools that use local languages and multi-lingual paradigms. Changes in technological infrastructures – ubiquitous access to information, our persistent engagement with mini-computers and the connections found through the internet – demand more robust digital development from arts organizations. If the information is not easily accessible, it might as well not exist to most audiences. 

Sherri Wasserman

is the Design Director/Senior Producer for FIND (Forming Intersections and Dialogues), a NYU Abu Dhabi-supported research project that engages artists and scholars with the diverse UAE landscape. Previous to FIND, she led strategy and digital integration for award-winning exhibit design studio Thinc Design; designed books, exhibitions, websites, and oversaw the archives for renowned photographer Bruce Weber; and provided media strategy for clients including the documentary theatre company The Civilians and the Smithsonian Institution. She received a Bachelors of Arts in both Visual Arts (studio art/art history) and History from Oberlin College and a Masters degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

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