An artist’s rendering of the new Art Jameel Art Center in Dubai, UAE (all images courtesy Art Jameel unless otherwise noted)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Today, The most ambitious project to date for the creation of a contemporary art institution in Dubai appears to be underway with the announcement of the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. The center is the brainchild of the Saudi Arabia-based nonprofit Art Jameel, and it is an attempt to further expand on what has happened in the UAE in the last decade and bring a serious long lasting local institution into the picture.

Art Jameel’s director Antonia Carver at today’s press conference in Dubai (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Art Jameel’s director Antonia Carver, who was formerly the head of the Art Dubai art fair, told Hyperallergic: “We really thought about what we want to do for Dubai, what is suitable for the city, what is necessary, what is the missing piece of the puzzle at the moment and for me it’s a critical not-for-profit contemporary art institution which can bring rigorous curated shows, which has a collection, but also who works in partnership with others, constantly raising debate.”

The project, slated to open at the end of 2018, will be a 10,000 square meter multi-purpose complex designed by UK-based Serie Architects, comprising exhibition spaces, a research library, and other communal facilities. Interestingly enough the complex won’t be set — as it usually happens with art organizations in the Gulf region — in a faraway location with limited access, but in this case the institution will be on Dubai Creek, which is part of the historical northern quarters of the city. Gentrification may be too strong a word to use for what is happening currently in Dubai Creek, but it remains to be seen what role Art Jameel can play in this fragile and ever-changing social environment.

An artist’s rendering of the new Art Jameel Art Centre

The 14-years-old organization, part of the philanthropic activities of the Jameel family, has also announced a partnership with and endowment for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to acquire contemporary art from the “Middle East.” Under the oversight of the Metropolitan Museum’s curator for the region, Clare Davies, they have already funded the acquisition of work by Egyptian artist Maha Mammoun, but there’s little information about future activities.

The architectural model for the new Dubai arts complex

Carver insists on the importance of building the center in the Dubai Creek area: “To locate the center on the water seems really significant, and you know, this is an open access institution, the doors are open for everybody, it’s free, and we’ve deliberately put together a program that is rigorous yes but is open to all audiences.”

Despite massive unrest in the region, and a weak economy, the art scene in Dubai seems to be growing at a steady rate; the Alserkal complex that hosts most of the city’s leading galleries has doubled in size recently, and it has incorporated — alongside their regular screenings, exhibitions, and talks — expanded programming, which includes a residency program, which was also announced today.

Carver was careful to emphasize that there was an art scene in Dubai before the international influence arrived most notably this century and that everything began from the ground up and that the Jameel Arts Center is building upon this grassroots tradition.

Many people may question the grassroots nature of the development of the arts in the UAE, but the growth in the number of local artists and collectives working in the city is certainly noteworthy, and the input of long-term artists and curators from different parts of the world have helped to give Dubai a rather heterogeneous cultural identity. Many questions still remain unanswered about the project, including the budget, the extent of the actual collection, how they plan to tackle censorship in the UAE, and what the future of their partnership with the Metropolitan Museum may entail, but the enthusiasm for the future, which is a characteristically Dubai outlook, appears promising.

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Ari Akkermans

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a freelance writer and art critic based in Beirut, his research focuses on visual culture in the Middle East, politics of memory, and architecture.