Dubai - Welcome to the happy city

Is Dubai a future city? Which role will cultural soft power play in achieving the strategic plan ‘Dubai 2021’? Anna Seaman investigates these questions with a spotlight on Dubai Opera and Art Dubai, two of the city’s leading cultural institutions.

 His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum and Myrna Ayad, director of the fair at the opening of Art Dubai 2017. Courtesy of Photo Solutions.

His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum and Myrna Ayad, director of the fair at the opening of Art Dubai 2017. Courtesy of Photo Solutions.

In March 2017, His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai announced – via Twitter – that he was putting together a centennial committee for the UAE’s 100-year anniversary in 2071. It is a long-term visionary plan to fortify the country’s reputation and involves, among other things, the opening of Area 2071 – a headquarters for futuristic technology companies and start-ups as well as highly ambitious plans to establish the first inhabitable human settlement on Mars, a further century into the future, in 2171. For those who prefer to plan step by step, the ‘Dubai Plan 2021’ was created.

Preparing Dubai to embrace the future
There is no doubt that the leaders of the UAE are aware of the relentless march of time and the importance of forward planning on a government scale to stay ahead of the curve. However, away from the headline-grabbing figures and the ever-present superlatives, the city of Dubai is also putting in place a rigorous structure of soft power and a cultural infrastructure, which will be invaluable towards driving change in this ultra-modern city.

Perhaps the most indicative of this are the plans for Dubai 2021, a comprehensive and strategic federal ruling that dictates that within the next three years, Dubai will cement itself as a global centre and destination for a number of industries. It also aims to make Dubai a place for educated, cultured and healthy individuals who are safe, secure and sustainable. Art Dubai is one of the many projects that will help to achieve the government’s ambitious vision.

 The Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall - two of the world's largest buildings in terms of height and scale.

The Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall - two of the world's largest buildings in terms of height and scale.

Positioning Dubai and the Middle East on the global art map
Art Dubai, which began in 2007 as an experiment by two Londoners – art dealer John Martin and investment banker Benedict Floyd – has galvanised into a game-changer in terms of Middle Eastern contemporary art. Over the past 11 years, it has become one of the world’s most diverse art fairs, attracting art enthusiasts from all over the world and positioning Dubai on the global art map. “The regional art scene congregates in and gravitates towards Dubai,” says Myrna Ayad, the fair’s director. “It is the city whose dynamism, energy and multiculturalism make it a pull for the international world to explore, through vehicles such as Art Dubai, the art scenes of several geographies.”

This year the fair is showcasing art from 104 galleries from 47 countries and this, alongside a robust non-profit programme, collector’s tours and intellectual debate, has helped to lay the foundations for what is now a robust market for regional art.

This kind of appetite for exploration as well as the financial stability and prosperity in the city, has augmented art sales across all sectors of society in a way that simply didn’t exist before the fair. “Undoubtedly Art Dubai has changed the face of contemporary art in the entire Middle Eastern region,” says Cyril Zammit, design consultant. “It created the dynamic in the city for commercial art trade and in some ways, this was a natural progression because Dubai is a business hub and is constantly smart in the way it positions itself.”

Dubai Culture & Arts Authority – working towards achieving the Dubai Plan 2021
Zammit spent six years working for Art Dubai Group, during which time he founded Design Days Dubai – one of the region’s only platforms for design-based products. He has since established himself as an independent advisor and works for the governmental cultural arm, Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, which was founded in 2008 to establish the city as a vibrant, global Arabian metropolis that shapes culture and arts in the region and the world.

Currently, the authority oversees Dubai Art Season – the umbrella term that encompasses all artistic endeavours over March and April as well as Sikka Art Fair, the platform for UAE-based emerging artists.  Besides art-related projects, the authority sponsors the film festival and other cultural events.

Zammit is in no doubt that Dubai’s proactive way of addressing the future will continue to lead the city towards success. “Dubai is, by default, a city of a future because it started with a blank canvas. Part of the city’s DNA is always looking at what is next as well as striving for bigger and better things. One of the vital elements in this is that even in the face of failure or difficulty, Dubai moves forward. Dubai is a city with a positive and accepting energy with one eye on the goal and the other eye on the goal that follows.”

 The facade of Dubai Opera during an event sponsored by Jaguar. Courtesy Dubai Opera

The facade of Dubai Opera during an event sponsored by Jaguar. Courtesy Dubai Opera

Dubai Opera – goal accomplished
As a champion of transforming cities through culture, this is the fourth year in which Julius Baer has supported Art Dubai as the main sponsor. For the 2018 edition, the bank commissioned Egyptian-Swiss artist Karim Noureldin to create two large-scale textile artworks that will be shown at the Julius Baer lounge within the fair. This year also marks the beginning of a partnership with Dubai Opera, with Julius Baer becoming the main sponsor from the financial services industry. This is a demonstration of the bank’s commitment to the UAE, its development to becoming a cultural hub as well as providing its clients with memorable experiences.

Dubai Opera opened its doors to visitors on August 31, 2016 and showcases some of the cultural diversity and cross-pollination of influences that characterises the city as a whole. In the first three months of 2018, the opera played host to the Shaolin Warriors, a troupe of martial arts performers from China, the renowned Mexican guitarist Mauricio Diaz Alvarez, leading British soul artist Mica Paris and the Polish National Opera – to name only a few. In the plaza at the front the building, eL Seed, an internationally acclaimed, Dubai-based artist with French and Tunisian roots was busy installing a permanent sculpture and wall mural that puts a contemporary twist on Arabic calligraphy.

 eL Seed's calligraphic sculpture - a 30 metre piece weighing 3.5 tonnes - is installed in the piazza outside of Dubai Opera. Image by Christina Dimitrova. Courtesy eL Seed Studio.

eL Seed's calligraphic sculpture - a 30 metre piece weighing 3.5 tonnes - is installed in the piazza outside of Dubai Opera. Image by Christina Dimitrova. Courtesy eL Seed Studio.

It is this kind of multi-pronged approach that sets Dubai Opera apart from the more traditional opera houses around the world and defines one of its key missions – to open up arts and culture to the wider public. “Dubai is an incredible place with an extraordinary ambition for its future and Dubai Opera, whilst just one small part of the picture, sits centre-stage in this city of the future,” says Jasper Hope, the chief executive of Dubai Opera. “In art, culture and entertainment terms the city has never been more alive or more exciting with a vibrant scene local and international talent performing here regularly and working across genres to create new audiences.”

“Art and culture take time to develop” – is it time to decelerate?
Whilst in many ways Dubai resembles a kind of utopian living, Peter Goodwin who is CEO of Mestaria, a company founded in Dubai in 2015 to promote creative freedom and to support independent artists in the UAE, also says there can be a danger of pushing forward at too high a pace. “Art and culture take time to develop and mature. There are ways to enable quick growth, but shortcuts undermine this sector more than any other,” he says. “In my opinion Dubai has to do two things. First, it must focus on sustainability. This is entirely underpinned by a robust creative economy - the financial economics of the cultural world require acute attention in the small and medium-sized business enabling creativity to make fiscal sense for those that exist within it. Secondly, it has to accelerate (as it is) while paying careful attention to maintaining the integrity of both the presentation of its cultural history and the standards of the creatives that are contributing to the contemporary scene.”

  • This article was published on March 19, 2018 by Julius Baer.