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Doha: alien New York Times conference out of tune with new policies

Art for Tomorrow 2016

The Art for Tomorrow conference, subtitled Technology, Creativity and the City, is the second edition of the New York Times Conferences in Doha, the first business venture in the Middle East for the newspaper’s forum for discussions and debate. In order to make sense of it, it is necessary to understand that it is not a local production—it is taking place under the patronage of Qatar Museums for only four editions before moving to another city, yet to be named.

The imported nature of this glitzy, international event explains the choice of venue (the W hotel, not the Museum of Islamic Art), the limited local dissemination of conference information, and the restricted access. Last year and this, delegates have needed to apply, while in 2016 a fee of $2,000 has been introduced; usually, in Doha, such events are free, the local audience for this kind of international culture being limited.

The speakers and topics show that this is a conference from and for elsewhere. In 2015, the focus was on architecture and the conference opened with a series of short talks from “starchitects” including Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel, with panel discussions on the connections between creativity, culture and urban development. This year, digital arts and culture are the theme, with keynotes from Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic. Only two sessions include Qatari speakers: the artist, Sophia Al Maria, in discussion with Emirati cultural commentator, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi on Doha as an emerging creative city; and Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, discussing the “creative airport”.

While the artists and architects featured have indeed been patronised by Qatar’s ruling family, the focus of the debates is on concerns that are relevant to established urban centres elsewh ere and remains within an international conceptual framework. This is true even of the session Culture Under Attack, with Martin Roth, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and Robin Pogrebin, a writer for the New York Times, rather than, say, a Syrian speaker who could have introduced more authentic, urgent argument.

More broadly, a conference focusing on international (for which, read Western) culture is perplexing given the change in Qatar’s cultural agenda since 2013, when budget restrictions introduced by the current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, compounded by falling oil prices and a level of local indifference to state-sponsored international art and museum projects, have resulted in fewer large international exhibitions, the pausing of a number of the planned museums, and a declared intent to concentrate on local artistic production. It is likely that the conference reflects the internationalising agenda of the previous emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, whose period in power (1995 to 2013) was a time of economic growth and stability. The conference’s title, Art for Tomorrow, is untimely in the present Qatari context.

• Karen Exell is an honorary senior research associate at UCL Qatar and the author of Modernity and the Museum in the Arabian Peninsula (Routledge, April 2016)

Art for Tomorrow conference, 12-15 March, W Doha Hotel & Residences, Doha, Qatar