Artistic synergies: Increasing investment in cultural facilities bodes well for the industry

With energy windfalls fuelling large-scale development in virtually every area of the economy, Qatar has attracted – and continues to bring in – flocks of business visitors from around the world. Although business tourism is still a major breadwinner for the overall industry, the state is not placing all its eggs in one basket. Indeed, the tourism sector has been working to expand its range of offerings, and cultural tourism in particular has seen impressive growth in recent years. In addition to drawing a broader pool of visitors to Qatar’s shores, the development of cultural institutions builds upon Qatar Foundation’s drive for greater human development. These synergies are likely to continue promoting cooperation among the state’s tourism, education and cultural organisations.

PRESERVING GROWTH: The Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), established in 2005, is leading the efforts in promoting the expansion and proliferation of museums in the country. QMA is pioneering new ways to tap the state’s potential as a repository and exhibitor of art, both old and new. It is working toward long-term goals of developing Qatar’s credentials as a cultural destination, building up internationally recognised institutions and integrating them into the community. Under the leadership of chairperson Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad Al Thani, daughter of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, QMA has undertaken a major drive for the state’s museums. Qatar’s plan for developing cultural institutions is somewhat different than those of neighbouring countries. Rather than importing famous names from abroad, Qatar has opted to develop its cultural institutions from the ground up by building upon local collections, according to QMA. Perhaps the most eye-catching symbol of the government’s drive to increase Qatar’s profile as a cultural destination is the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA). Designed by world-renowned Chinese-American architect IM Pei and constructed at the cost of $3bn, it is perched atop a man-made island in the Gulf. Pei took a six-month world tour to explore traditional Islamic architecture before settling on its unique design. The MIA houses exhibitions from almost every region in the Islamic world, including from Europe, Africa and Asia. A large part of the collection was built up over time, using many artefacts found in Qatar and the region. The housed textiles, ceramics, manuscripts and other artefacts span 13 centuries, beginning around the seventh century and reaching up through the 19th century.

MAJOR WORKS: Although the MIA made a splash in the international art scene, QMA has been continually working to increase the number of major venues it operates, which currently stand at five. These efforts received added momentum when Doha was selected by UNESCO as the 2010 Arab Capital of Culture. In the fall of that same year, QMA revamped the Al Riwaq exhibition space, once connected to the MIA, as an independent venue. In December 2011, QMA opened the Mathaf: Museum of Modern Arab Art, a joint project with Qatar Foundation. Nestled in the foundation’s headquarters not far from the city’s centre, Mathaf includes exhibition spaces capable of presenting multi-media art and installations, as well as a library open to the public with media equipment. QMA also has plans to open the Orientalist Museum, where it will display the state’s collection of roughly 900 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures that date as far back as the 1500s. The museum is not yet open to the public, but in the meantime its organisers have created travelling exhibitions and are working with researchers to allow some access to its collections.

BUILDING THE BASE: Qatar’s museum expansion drive is not only geared towards foreign consumption. One of QMA’s major objectives is promoting the integration of art into the daily life of Qataris. According to QMA, the goal is to boost the country’s overall effort in establishing a greater local knowledge economy. As such, more public art and museum spaces are on the agenda. The latest of QMA’s highlighted projects, the MIA Park, exemplifies this mission. The park hosts a sculpture made by American process art sculptor Richard Serra.

RENOVATIONS: In addition to the construction of new museums, Qatar is on a drive to restore existing cultural resources. QMA’s Restoration Department, in cooperation with the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, has undertaken work on several mosques, including the Abu Manartain Mosque in Al Wakra, the Sumaisma Mosque in Sumaisma and the Al Owaina Mosque in Dukhan. Traditional homes, castles, forts and former residences of the Qatari sheikhs have also been on QMA’s agenda for restoration and preservation.

Perhaps the largest of these renovations, however, is the palace of the Qatar National Museum. The original museum opened in 1975 and was housed in the palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani. Its exhibits tell the story of the state’s history and the development of its culture. In 2010 French architect Jean Nouvel unveiled his design for the museum’s renovation. The new structure, modelled after a desert rose, will surround the original palace. The structure’s grand opening is scheduled for December 2014.

Historic sites in the surrounding area, including Souq Waqif and its neighbouring Gold Souq, have also been successfully restored. The complex was renovated in 2004 using traditional Qatari architecture and building materials, including mud rendered walls and exposed timber beams, to create a modern souk with historical influences. The result is a network of alleyways where visitors can find a range of local goods: jewellery, dried fruits, nuts, teas, herbs, spices, local honey and perfumes. Meanwhile, handicrafts and freshly cooked traditional Qatari dishes are available in specially designated areas. The souq’s facilities also offer opportunities for entrepreneurs and small-scale merchants to sell their goods in a unique environment.

CULTURAL NETWORK: Alongside the museum projects, Qatar has introduced more small-scale exhibition space, workshops and educational programmes to invite the community and private sector to support cultural institutions. The prime arena for these initiatives is Katara Cultural Village, a complex built on 1m sq metres of reclaimed land in Doha between the West Bay and the Pearl. Katara, which is the historical name of Qatar, had its soft opening on October 26, 2010 in concert with the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.

Artistically, the area has cast a wide net, building infrastructure that is capable of hosting virtually every type of art medium, from paintings to interactive installations. Its broad range of facilities – including galleries, an opera house, a cinema, a dramatic theatre and an amphitheatre – are built to display a variety of works. There are a number of enterprises, state institutions and non-governmental organisations operating in Katara, including the Doha Film Institute, the Qatari Society for Engineers, the Qatar Fine Arts Society, the Qatar Photographic Society, the Qatar Music Academy and the Theatre Society. The complex also houses private businesses, such as restaurants and shops, which allow the space to adopt a more natural and lived-in feel. In addition to these, Qatar Islamic Cultural Centre (FANAR), a charitable organisation that works to inform non-Muslims about Islam, recently announced a partnership with Katara. FANAR will use space provided by Katara to explain aspects of the Islamic culture and way of life in an interactive manner.

TRADITIONAL VALUE: Through its extensive work on cultural projects, the state has demonstrated the value it places on preserving its culture and history while at the same time inviting outsiders to its shores. These efforts could pay off in a number of ways. In addition to raising the international profile of the state and its tourism industry, these institutions can create jobs in many fields. Demand for craftsmen and artisans skilled in traditional techniques will increase, helping to preserve these art forms and provide employment for locals interested practising these trades.

A growing cultural tourism segment is likely to increase the demand for highly skilled workers in fields like curatorship, research and museum management. Although many experts are currently being brought in from abroad to fill these roles, plans are under way to cultivate more domestic know-how. A museum education project was begun in October 2010 and has brought together the resources of University College London, Qatar Foundation and QMA. These organisations collaborated to create educational programmes that offer postgraduate qualifications in museum studies, conservation and archaeology. The programme currently aims to have 145 local and international students matriculating on its Doha campus by 2015.

Although the activities of QMA, Qatar Foundation and other stakeholders will not bring change overnight, in time they can do much to raise Qatar’s profile as a cultural hotspot. In this way, these activities are deeply embedded in the economic diversification plans the state has set out to accomplish in the country’s long-term development plan, Vision 2030: transforming itself from an oil- and gas-producing country to one that promotes human capital for knowledge-based products and services. Indeed, new museums, accompanying education initiatives and an overall rise in cultural activities are designed to help make those goals a reality.

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