Here in the UK we’re tightening our belts and questioning whether the arts are really worth investing in. But across the globe new cultural centres are emerging, and with them an exciting new aesthetic as well as energetic and fresh ways of engaging with the arts. Leading the charge is Qatar, whose royal family are now the world’s leading contemporary art collectors. We spoke to international art advisers Michael and Nicolai Frahm on how this tiny country is blazing a trail for the future of culture.
Why do you think Qatar is investing so much in the arts?
Nicolai: It’s extremely important to have a strong cultural platform. Qatar realizes this importance, and they are now building what will be an incredible collection of art from all over the world. It’s a collection that can be shared with the rest of the country through educational initiatives and local museums.
Michael: Its simple, they want to be a global leader in the world of museums, art and heritage and culture has no price tag.
How far will they go with promoting contemporary art? So far, it appears they’re buying what is known or fashionable. Is this a fair comment? Do you think they will seek out and promote emerging artists?
Michael: No, I don’t think that is true. People in the West only hear and read about the important and expensive acquisitions made by the Qatar Museum Authority ( they recently paid a record £160 million for Cezanne’s The Card Players) the big prices being paid in auctions and the headlines pieces. However, there is much more to it than that.
Nicolai:The reality is that Jean Paul Engelen (formerly at Christie’s) and his team is doing a highly applaudable job when it comes to promoting and supporting both the local art scene and international artists. They are encouraging art education and exhibiting local artists at all levels.
What are the implications for western buyers, who perhaps don’t have such deep pockets?
Michael: The challenge for the buyers at the top level is they now have stiff competition… but they will have get used to it. Qatar is only the beginning, just wait until China really gets going!
Why is there so much mystery/confidentialty about what exactly they’ve bought?
Nicolai: When you buy at that level you have to be careful not to become your own worst competitor. If the market players knew exactly what the Qataris are buying they would start pricing works according, and soon the Qataris would have to pay premium on everything they buy. Michael and I saw this happen first hand with major collectors buying contemporary art in China. Plus, don’t you just love the surprise element of these works showing up at museums in Qatar?!
How much does the Qatar collection filter down to everyday life in Qatar: have people become more interested in modern art? are new, smaller galleries opening?
Michael: Let me put it this way: the Museum of Islamic Art is the most impressive space that I have seen anywhere in the world. From the architecture to the way that the works are installed to the attention to detail, it is second to none. In Doha we saw a major show by the great Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, there were huge Louise Bourgeois spiders on display as well as a beautiful 80 foot vertical outdoor sculpture by Richard Serra overlooking the waterfront across Doha Bay.
On top of that, the Murakami exhibition at the Al Riwaq Exhibition Space is one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen by any contemporary artists. But that’s not all. The Jean Nouvel designed National Museum of Qatar is yet to open as is the new Santiago Calatrava designed photography museum, and the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki is designing a National Library. The famous Souq Waqif now houses small studios, exhibitions and public art classes and a small number of contemporary art galleries have recently opened there. I think I’ve made my point.
Nicolai: As previously mentioned the QMA is doing a great job at creating ways and avenues for the people in Qatar to educate themselves and to get an appreciation of art by seeing and experiencing it. Something that many counties could learn from.
Was the Cezanne worth £160 million?
Michael : Yes, and for that money they bought a piece of art history by one of the most important and influential artists of the 19th century. We are moving towards the $1 billion artwork, which we foresee happening within our lifetime.
What’s next for Qatar? A Frieze Art Fair in Doha?
Nicolai: I hope not there are too many fairs already.
There’s been criticism that westerns artworks should remain in the west, especially when the Qatari buying spree is against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. What are your thoughts on this?
Michael: I disagree with that criticism. I think it’s very important for the Middle East to get an understanding about Western Art and vice-versa. There is no better way to encourage that education than showing great Western artists in museums in the Middle East. Let’s not forget that a lot of important Islamic art is housed in Western museums such as Tate Britain in London, the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Maybe those collections should be returned before we start criticising Qatar for buying and supporting Western Art? It’s not like we are not talking about national treasures here.
I embrace the huge support and dedication to arts and culture shown by the QMA and I welcome the fact that the Cezanne will now be shown in a museum next to Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Mark Rothko in Qatar.
Lets not forget either that the QMA has been buying art for years and therefore its not a recent thing, which is suddenly happening against the backdrop of the Arab Spring.
Main Image, Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar.