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When the novel coronavirus began spreading across the world in 2020, art galleries, museums, and institutions around the globe were forced to temporarily shutter their doors to in-person visitors. The months of international uncertainty that followed prompted a massive move to go virtual to grant the restless public access to art from the safety of their homes and continue engagement. The digital transformation began before the onset of the pandemic but had never transcended its role as a back-up, or underdeveloped, engagement strategy. The coronavirus pandemic changed all that. During the pandemic, for example, the Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA, held a series of online art exhibitions, and the Louvre Paris digitized its entire collection to make it available to the global public. In addition, new, entirely online initiatives and institutions also emerged during this time, including the COVID Art Museum, a digital museum that pitches itself as “the world’s 1st museum for art born during COVID19 quarantine,” and the Virtual Online Museum of Art, which was described in Smithsonian Magazine as “the world’s first entirely virtual art museum.”
Art centers and museums in the Gulf region, which has, over the decades, become a vibrant art hub, made a similar digital shift. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Ithra, for example, launched an online art exhibition that virtual visitors could access at the click of a button. The National Museum of Qatar teamed up with Microsoft in late May 2021 to accelerate and improve the museum’s digital transformation and to help it build “state-of-the-art” smart exhibitions. In announcing this collaboration, Ahmad Musa Al-Namla, the chief executive officer of Qatar Museums commented, “Enhancing Qatar Museums digital technologies has always been a key part of our audience strategy, but events over the last eighteen months mean we have accelerated our efforts.” Other new initiatives in the region were also motivated by efforts to cope with the pandemic, including both the Khaleeji Art Museum, which is the first digital museum dedicated to exhibiting modern and contemporary Gulf art to a global audience, while building cultural bridges and sparking cross-cultural dialogue, and, as well, the Kuwait-based Gallery Bawa, the first online gallery devoted to showcasing – and selling – art by contemporary Gulf artists. Furthermore, the Dubai Collection, with a slightly different objective, aims to be “the first institutional art collection for the city and by the city,” was announced during this time. Its goal is to collect and showcase works that reflect the spirit of Dubai partly through a forthcoming digital museum.
The rise of new online art platforms and the digital transformation of existing galleries, museums, and other institutions has helped democratize the arts and increase cross-cultural conversations in the borderless virtual sphere. However, concerns have also been raised within the industry about the widening of the digital divide among the world’s populations – with large numbers of the global population lacking the means for digital access – and about the authenticity of the overall art experience when it is set in the digital, or virtual, sphere.
Regarding the digital divide, Manal Ataya, the director general of the Sharjah Art Museums Authority, argued in the recent Second Level UNESCO High Level Forum on Museums, that the thinking surrounding accessibility is “limited if we’re only thinking about it from the digital perspective.” While a digital gap does exist in the world, she states, the majority of the world’s population, in fact, already has access to the internet. According to the World Bank, approximately 4.5 billion around the world now have access to the internet – more than half of the planet’s population – and the number of those with access to the internet is rising. In addition, the Gulf cumulatively has one of the highest rates of internet penetration in the world at 98.6%.
Nonetheless, there are groups that don’t have access to the digital or to physical spaces, for that matter, for a myriad of reasons, Ataya noted. She emphasized that museums have a duty to engage with communities who cannot easily access the cultural institutions or their digital equivalents through community events. “A lot of what we do is not always about the objects in the museum anymore, but it’s about how we can become a space for social interaction.” In 2020, Sharjah Museums, which have both physical and online presences, hosted an art exhibition for inmates in a correctional facility in the emirate and offered a mobile museum experience, the “Museums Express,” driving a bus to visit students in schools that are located hours away from the Sharjah Museums. Similarly, the Khaleeji Art Museum has also held in-person events through a partnership with Dubai Festival City (DFC) to introduce and highlight the work of regional artists. Through the collaboration, they have organized art shows during which they projected the works of Gulf-based artists on a 37-story high building located in DFC and have thus brought the works of Gulf-based artists into the physical realm for visitors. Likewise, while Sultan bin Sooud Al Qassemi’s extensive Arab art collection has long been displayed virtually on his Barjeel Art Foundation website and through Google Arts and Culture, the Emirati art collector, lecturer, columnist, and author still exhibits works from his collection around the world through partnerships with various cultural institutions to further put Arab art on the map and foster more cross-cultural dialogue.
But while a number of Gulf institutions have opted either for an entirely digital or hybrid model of operation, others have resisted the digital transformation, underscoring the need for the physical space and referencing concerns about losing the still nascent, hard-earned tradition valuing the art museum visit. For example, the Jameel Arts Centre, an art center located in the heart of Dubai, has provided online educational resources and hosted virtual art talks, however, it did not move its exhibitions to the digital realm with the onset of the pandemic. Lana Shamma, the head of programming at the Jameel Arts Centre, in an interview stressed the importance of the experience. “We have not had the culture of going to museums our whole lives, especially contemporary art museums … There is an importance of people learning how to go to a museum and how to interact with the artworks … how to engage in conversations that might be difficult. This can get lost on you if you go to a digital exhibition … The experience of walking into a museum is important and foundational in interacting with our audiences.” This is especially true, Shamma said, when it comes to bigger works of art, site specific works, and installations, which she mentioned, “you cannot experience the same way online.”
Shamma made an important point that is being raised within a wider discussion taking place within the arts and culture industry as the world slowly opens back up and works to heal from the pandemic. What should the future of the art world look like? Should digital experiences be maintained and developed further, or should the industry return to a place where physical exhibitions and events are king?
Bandar Al Wazzan, the founder of Gallery Bawa, noted in a December 2020 virtual talk hosted by Saudi Arabia’s Misk Art Institute on the Gulf’s new artistic platforms that, “Physical spaces complement digital spaces.” Indeed, rather than replacing the other, physical and digital spaces can in fact be used to enhance each other. The experience of the pandemic has shown the value of using digital tools to disseminate knowledge and engage in cross-cultural conversations and demonstrated the demand for digital and virtual art experiences. For example, though the number of in-person visitors of the Louvre Paris fell by approximately 7 million in 2020 because of the coronavirus-related lockdown, the museum’s online subscribers grew by nearly 900% during the same period and website received 21 million hits, thanks to the expansion of the museum’s digital offerings.
In a post-pandemic environment, art institutions in the Gulf region will likely find value in having complementary physical and online presences, which can be facilitated through partnerships, as in the cases of the Qatar National Museum, Khaleeji Art Museum, and the Barjeel Art Foundation. Institutions’ websites could be used to showcase permanent collections or feature a small selection of works to increase interest and drive more in-person visits to physical exhibitions. This may be a way to draw in more tech-savvy crowds to further explore and engage with art institutions. After exhibitions end, documented versions could be made available online for those who were unable to visit and for research purposes. Furthermore, in-house art talks could be streamed live or recorded and later made available online to continue the conversation and increase worldwide engagement. After all, the virtual experience triggered by the pandemic has helped to widen cross-cultural engagement with arts institutions – one of the few silver linings of this otherwise dismal global experience.
is the founder of the Khaleeji Art Museum, where she serves as the director, and the founder of Sekka Magazine, where she serves as the managing editor. Alhinai is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies and the University of Oxford and is the recipient of the Arab Woman Award 2020.
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