On November 11, 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates opened its doors to the public, nearly ten and a half years after the initial announcement of the project. Social media was awash with pictures of visitors in the rays of sun filtering into the main atrium, in what the museum’s architect, Jean Nouvel, called a “rain of light.” The fact that a significant repercussion of the museum’s establishment was felt long before it opened was lost in the flurry of self-portraits taken under the signature dome. The 2007 declaration of plans for the museum triggered important changes in the Gulf art scene. The Emirati government’s indication of support for the project, and thus the arts more broadly, paved the way for profound changes over the next ten years, including the creation of new social and aesthetic hierarchies, as the local art community anticipated the arrival of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and other museums planned for Saadiyat Island.
Media reports about the projects on Saadiyat over the past ten years have generally focused on important critiques of labor conditions, or on its many delays. Reports also questioned the compatibility of liberal arts institutions with the UAE’s authoritarian regime. Less noticed by the media was the hard work of artists, gallerists and curators to develop infrastructure and audiences in those intervening years. There were certainly thriving artists and initiatives prior to 2007, but the art scene in the UAE gained more sustained and serious momentum after the announcement of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Several art fairs were established to support regional collectors: Art Dubai (originally called DIFC Gulf Art Fair), the region’s first commercial art fair, was held in Dubai in March 2007, and Abu Dhabi Art (formerly Art Paris Abu Dhabi) was held in Abu Dhabi in November 2007. Parallel to these commercial developments, in 2008 Mona Hauser of Dubai’s XVA Gallery launched the Creek Art Fair, later called Bastakiya Art Fair, and since 2011 SIKKA Art Fair. This fair is an important exhibition venue for local and emerging artists. In Sharjah, in 2008, longtime arts enthusiasts and practitioners put together the Sharjah March Meeting as an annual forum to discuss issues relevant to the art scene in the region. The Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (DUCTAC) opened in 2006, and Sheikha Lateefa Bint Maktoum opened Tashkeel, also in Dubai, in 2008. Both spaces offer art classes and workshops. In 2009, the UAE participated in the Venice Biennale for the first time. The Sharjah Biennial, inaugurated in 1993, led to the formation of Sharjah Art Foundation in 2009, which mounts modern and contemporary art exhibitions year round for local Sharjah audiences. In addition, the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation adopted art as one of its core foci, launching a prestigious fellowship for emerging artists in 2013 and opening a sleek new exhibition space, Warehouse 421, in Abu Dhabi in 2015. Alserkal Avenue, which began as a cluster of independent galleries in Dubai’s Al Quoz neighborhood in 2007, emerged as a cultural producer in its own right around the time of its expansion in 2015. Art Jameel, a non-profit organization supporting the arts, opened a space in Alserkal Avenue in 2017, and Sotheby’s—long active in the region—held its first auction in Dubai in November 2017.
While the Sharjah Art Foundation and SIKKA Art Fair have made important attempts to exhibit art in spaces that incorporate vernacular architectural forms, most spaces of exhibition and display in the UAE are now eerily universal, mimicking the minimalist, white cube style found in commercial New York City galleries or museums like London’s Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). More local forms of art organizations, such as the artists’ cooperative, Emirates Fine Arts Society, continue to exist but take a back seat to flashier galleries and organizations that exhibit star international and regional artists and participate in international biennials and art fairs. Thus, the past decade has witnessed a sea change in the UAE’s art world, but one that needs to be seen in the context of shifting social, linguistic and aesthetic hierarchies, as well as in relation to the political, economic and diplomatic deployment of art on a global scale.
While the past decade witnessed the development of a plethora of arts organizations, it has also entailed a shift in direction away from an Arabic speaking, local art scene towards an English speaking, internationally focused and commercial contemporary art world. Recently, curators have attempted to excavate a history of contemporary art in the country by showcasing the work of locally based artists whose work fits within a paradigm of contemporary art (as opposed to modernist art), but they often privilege those who speak English. These choices often sideline Arabic speaking artists, and especially those who work in more traditional mediums like painting or sculpture.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi itself was not the sole source or motivation for these various initiatives and the institutional shifts within the country. Rather, the Emirati government’s public declaration of support for the museum established the validity and legitimacy of the arts and helped set the stage for the massive reorientation and development of the UAE art scene over the past decade. The opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a critical milestone for the arts in the UAE and the region, but does not simply mark the beginning of a new chapter, as many observers suggest. It is critical to look past the distractions of paparazzi hoopla and social media flurry to the very real and critical changes already enacted by those in the local UAE art community.