Mariana Heilmann at KAC

Installation view, Mariana Heilmann at Kantara Arts Center (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

At the end of this month, Doha, Qatar’s Katara Art Center (KAC) will close its doors due to a lack of funding. This is a big deal: KAC’s unclear future has exposed an underlying condition affecting the arts in Doha — a lack of support for independent arts initiatives.

This announcement by KAC comes at a time when money and art seem to be getting along quite well in Doha. The Qatari government, through the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), has spent the last few years spending millions of dollars on the arts. Just over two months ago social media was awash with images of Richard Serra’s “East-West/West-East,” the American sculptor’s new work in the Qatari desert. There is currently a solo exhibition of Serra’s “Passage of Time” at Doha’s Al Riwaq, an exhibition space that also hosted Damien Hirst and Takeshi Murakami in recent years. And I have yet to mention the stunning Museum of Islamic Art designed by I.M. Pei or Jean Nouvel’s National Museum, currently under construction in Doha.

So then why is there a problem for KAC? When I arrived in Doha last year, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the amount of money being spent on the arts there, though I quickly realized the underlying intentions. What the QMA is doing is making strategic investments in the arts with the clear intentions of attracting international tourists. The QMA has paid to feature artworks by world famous artists, either through temporary exhibits or with the permanent installation of public pieces, rather than trying to foster an active artistic community within Qatar to serve the local population. Additionally, the residents of Qatar — both native and foreign — have shown little interest in supporting the arts financially themselves. While the Qatari government has chosen to make an investment in the international art scene, residents of Qatar have opted to make no investment at all. This kind of climate makes it all the more difficult for an independent initiative like KAC to survive.

To understand the KAC’s significance, it is important to know the role it played in Doha. As an institution, KAC served as a platform for contemporary art and its surrounding discourse. In addition to its gallery space, it held regular workshops for both adults and children, along with a variety of lectures and other programming. KAC organized a rotating pop-up shop that featured up-and-coming designers from around the Gulf Coast region, and is home to arguably the best bookstore in all of Qatar. But rather than inviting big names from around the world to come and teach Doha about art, KAC primarily focused on the artists who called Qatar home. This is an important distinction, because no other place I visited in Doha did this.

With the closure of KAC, the number of art institutions in Qatar that are not funded by the QMA is quickly dwindling. Mayssa Fattouh, Artistic Director and Curator of KAC, noted in her announcement of KAC’s impending closure that, “it is an unfortunate reality that small cultural entities receive little financial support, and in a city that has large ambitions the smaller efforts are often overshadowed.”

With QMA’s focus on the international stage and the general public’s lack of interest, who will support the artists in Qatar who have not yet — and likely never will — achieve such fame? That is a question that is difficult to answer without the Katara Art Center.

Ashley Gardini is an independent arts researcher and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She called Doha, Qatar home from August 2013 to February 2014.  When she isn’t lost in a bookstore, you...