February 2009

Culture Gulf
by James Panero

With his Museum of Islamic Art, the Emir of Qatar makes a bold bid to transform the desert nation into a world art center....

It was an evening out of the Arabian Nights, with the air of the Gulf hanging thick over a campsite of tents and divans. The entire art world, it seemed, had been flown in as the personal guests of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, on Nov. 22, to celebrate the opening of his new Museum of Islamic Art. There was Sheikh Hamad, the supreme monarch of the gas-rich country, sitting with his family by the upper entrance of his new museum. His guests marveled at the spectacle from the tents below, mingling in black-tie attire with local grandees dressed in white dishdashas, waiting for the doors to open to the Emir’s new museum. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed with his Silk Road ensemble from a small outdoor stage. Jeff Koons admired the pillars of flowers dotting the landscape. Damien Hirst posed for snapshots with tongue literally in cheek. Ron Wood, the Rolling Stone, made his way over a rug-covered boardwalk. "I’m knackered," he said to White Cube gallery owner Jay Jopling. Wood had missed his flight to Dubai for a party the previous night.

An array of fireworks went up around the new museum. Starbursts illuminated the water. Golden tracery mirrored the fronds of the corniche, the bay at the center of Qatar’s capital city of Doha, in which the Museum of Islamic Art now stands. "It is like the beginning of the world and the end of the world," remarked James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum. "The fireworks are from another aesthetic." Speaking of his own situation as an honored guest in a Gulf state, Snyder noted, "One needs to interpret this invitation as an important development."

Many of the Emir’s assembled group of museum curators and art stars pondered the significance of the event in which they were participating. With an opening party that appeared untouched by economic concerns, the Emir was making a significant overture to world culture with the unveiling of his new museum, a Western-style institution housed in a faceted gem of a building designed by I. M. Pei.

"I think it is spectacular," said Stephen Lash, chairman of Christie’s Americas. "This is a new development in a new region. We are staring at an important part of the future." Thomas Campbell, the new director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said, "We’re extremely supportive of what is going on here." He was heading up a contingent that included outgoing director Philippe de Montebello and president Emily Rafferty. "The kind of money they’re spending, we can’t compete with that."

Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, said, "The critical issue is that finally an Islamic nation has recognized the significance of their own culture in a major way and felt the importance of making that culture alive and valid to the entire region and beyond. They are sending a message how Islamic art could help reduce tension and go back to the fundamentals of beauty and harmony and order. This is the new world in the cradle of civilization. It is the ancient world reborn."

A hundred years ago, the oil barons of the United States converted their petrodollars into world-class art collections and the museums to house them. Today it is the energy-rich states lining the Persian Gulf (here known as the Arabian Gulf or simply "the Gulf") that are competing to do the same. The story of Qatar’s cultural ambitions begins in 1995, when Sheikh Hamad, then in his early 40s, deposed his father, who was vacationing in Switzerland, in a bloodless coup. Sheikh Khalifa had ruled Qatar since a year after its independence from Britain in 1971, but he had been slow to invest the country’s petroleum revenue in cultural improvement. Doha, now a vast construction site, continues to show signs of poor urban planning and cheap cement construction from its initial development in the 1970s.Upon his ascension, Sheikh Hamad ushered in a series of political and cultural reforms—religious tolerance, private foreign ownership, women’s suffrage, the creation of the news channel Al Jazeera—turning his conservative Islamic country into a new model for the Middle East. At the same time, the Emir invested in the technology to explore and tap the vast gas reserves beneath Qatar’s territorial waters known as the North Field, converting this one-time hamlet of pearl divers and nomadic tribesmen into the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.

An upturn in world energy prices, combined with steady oil production and increased gas exploration, has created unprecedented wealth for this small country, which is the size of Connecticut and boasts one of the world’s highest GDPs.

The same oil money that helped pay for a new skyscraper skyline rising out of the corniche has led to the creation of Qatar’s 4,500-object collection of Islamic art, with artifacts ranging over 1,400 years, from Spain to the Far East—the results of a decade-long buying spree. Backed by a blank check from the Emir, Qatar has been an unstoppable force as Islamic work came up at auction, but due to the relatively short acquisition period, the collection has been limited by the public availability of important work. Even after the Al-Thani family paid £2.9 million for the Clive of India flask in 2003, for example, it took nearly five years to negotiate its export from Britain to Qatar.

Eight years ago, after an initial architectural competition fell through, the Emir convinced Pei to take on the project to house his collection. "I started this project with the Emir," said Pei, 91, as he toured the new museum. "He asked me to do a building of this kind for Qatar to put an emphasis on culture. Here, in the oil-and-gas world, culture is not emphasized as it should be. I accepted it because of that challenge. I’ve never had the opportunity to do anything like this."

Pei researched Islamic architecture, eventually rejecting the opulence one finds in Cordoba, Spain, for the simple massing of a 13th-century ablution fountain, which he admired in the mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo. Pei filtered the stepped proportions of this domed building through his modernist sensibility to create a refined structure that is a near-perfect architectural pairing of ancient and modern. It is more conservative in materials and form than other recent museum projects around the world, but its restrained opulence mirrors the elegant treasures contained within.

Project costs, like much in Qatar, remain a court secret, but no expense was spared in the museum’s construction. Pei rejected the museum’s initial proposed location and insisted his project be set off from the encroaching city on a 64-acre park of landfill extending out in the Gulf. "I didn’t choose it. I made it!" he declared of the site. The same limestone that Pei used in his addition to the Louvre was quarried and imported from Burgundy, France. Black jet mist stone was brought in from Virginia for the museum’s granite base, which extends down to the water line. Due to the desert heat, which can reach 130 degrees in the summer, much of the construction took place at night, with ice poured into the cement mix to prevent the museum’s molded coffered ceiling from cracking as it dried.

To lead Qatar’s growing cultural concerns—the Museum of Islamic Art is the first of the Emir’s many museum projects to be completed—the country drew on American and British expertise. Marie-Josée Kravis, the president of the board of the Museum of Modern Art, joined the Qatar Museums Authority board two years ago and helped secure a launch event at MoMA. "Islamic experts tell me that in quality it compares to the great collections of the world," she said. A year ago Roger Mandle, the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, became executive director of the QMA. "We are able to build these museums afresh, from the ground up," he said, explaining the appeal of his new appointment. "We hope to create a new paradigm for museums in the 21st century." Last summer, Oliver Watson, a one-time curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, left his post as keeper of Eastern art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to become the director of the Museum of Islamic Art. "It is an educational thing for the world," he said on opening day. "It’s not Bedouins and oil and terrorism. It’s about one of the great cultures of the world in its time. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true—if, as I hope is the case, America realizes that the Middle East is important."Behind these high-profile appointments is the leader of the ruling Al-Thani family, Emir Sheikh Hamad, and behind him a duo of powerful women: the second of his three wives, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, and their daughter Al-Mayassa. The opening of the museum became a coming-out party, of sorts, for the elegant 25-year-old Sheikha, the new public face of the Al-Thani clan, a Duke University alumna who is now taking graduate classes at Columbia. "We are truly becoming a global capital of culture," she proclaimed from the museum steps. A day later she held a surprise press conference on the museum balcony with the actor Robert De Niro to announce the creation of a Doha branch of the Tribeca Film Festival.

The cultural establishment has been wary of the Al-Thanis’ buying power. A year and a half ago, there was a small uproar over their reported $72.8 million purchase of a Mark Rothko consigned to Sotheby’s by David Rockefeller; critics gasped at the price and objected to a foreign buyer snatching up an important modernist work. The Al-Thani family’s acquisition of a multimillion-dollar Damien Hirst sculpture spoke little of artistic leadership or sound cultural investment. Then there was the scandal of Sheikh Saud Al-Thani, the Emir’s high-profile cousin and one-time principal art buyer, who was stripped of his purchasing authority in 2005 and placed under arrest for the misuse of Qatari funds.

Against this backdrop the new Museum of Islamic Art stands out as a remarkable achievement. The redevelopment of Qatar might lag half a decade behind its Gulf neighbors in the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two most powerful principalities in the UAE, already boast glistening new cities and thriving cultural scenes. There are art fairs such as Art Paris Abu Dhabi and Art Dubai (where this year the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, worth $1 million, will be handed out), and galleries such as Dubai’s Third Line, which recently opened an outlet in Doha. The emirate of Sharjah is making its mark with the Sharjah Biennial, which coincides with Art Dubai this March. And for the past three years, Abu Dhabi has been making headlines with its monumental proposal for the development of Saadiyat Island, which is to include a Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry and a branch of the Louvre designed by Jean Nouvel (the Louvre’s naming rights alone are reported to have cost $500 million).

The opening of the Museum of Islamic Art might be a minor event compared to the plans for Saadiyat Island, but Qatar has distinguished itself by founding a museum that, in Mandle’s words, is "not about glitz, how big it is, how much it costs, but how good it is." As an independent institution, the museum resists the allure of Culture Inc. that one sees in the franchised development of Saadiyat. It also contrasts with Qatar’s own "Education City," with branch campuses of six American universities, including Georgetown, Cornell and Texas A&M, which come off as dislocated outposts of imported culture—replete with banners of football players and "Welcome Home Aggies"—rising out the desert sands. After initial talks, Yale balked at opening a branch campus of its own in Qatar, over the requirement that it award undergraduate diplomas indistinguishable from the ones handed out in New Haven.

With a notable collection that is set to grow, a contextualized architectural landmark and a seasoned staff to study, conserve and display the art inside, Qatar has raised the bar of its cultural ambitions. For the emirate’s contentious Middle Eastern neighbors—Qatar’s precious gas claim abuts Iran’s—the museum speaks to the beauty of a shared civilization. For the West it communicates a view of the Islamic world that looks past the latest terrible headlines.

So as the doors opened, the guests—an assembly of cultural luminaries, imported like much else in Qatar from New York, Paris and London—made their way inside. Hirst was full of praise for his collector’s new museum. "Brilliant. I’m so busy looking at the building I can’t focus on the art," he remarked in a room of brass astrolabes, the astronomical computers of Islamic science. "This is where it all comes from, the past." De Montebello, meanwhile, absorbed his surroundings with more reserve. "Floor-to-ceiling vitrines—if you can afford them," he remarked, overlooking a room of glazed earthenware from ninth-century Iraq and a jade pendant made for the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal.

With the opening of its Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar has made a serious play in the art world. Now it remains to be seen whether the country can operate an institution up to international standards. Its intentions are good and its buying power is unrivaled, but Qatar has yet to convince the West of its full ability to run a serious museum. In a world where money is no object, the approbation of the museum establishment is one commodity that still needs to be earned.

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