Fund and Games

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie at a summit on arts and patronage in the Middle East

Left: Curator Reem Fadda and Ashkal Alwan director Christine Tohme. Right: Art & Patronage Summit Director Hossein Amirsadeghi. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

WITH FOUR KEYNOTE LECTURES, six panel discussions, and a grand total of forty-two speakers divvied up over two full days of heavy-duty talk, the so-called summit meeting titled “Art & Patronage: The Middle East” trundled into London last week with no heads of state in sight but so many elephants in the room that the hosting venues—the British Museum on Thursday, the Royal College of Art on Friday—felt squeezed and suffocated by their collective heft.

Explicitly billed as a gathering of minds and implicitly sold as a pooling of funds, the summit was the brainchild of Hossein Amirsadeghi, who, according to his own rags-to-riches, Bentley-to-bicycle mythology, was the shah’s last spokesman before the revolution in Iran, came into great wealth through oil and gas and aircraft, lost it all, and then took to the seemingly lowly task of publishing art books five years ago.

A series of titles on contemporary Iranian, Arab, and Turkish art culminated in late 2010 with a back-breaking, hardbound volume on collectors in the region, which was essentially a social register dolled up as a luxury coffee-table tome. All of Amirsadeghi’s books carry the veneer of vanity publishing, but they also pack in a decent amount of art-historical scholarship, along with an abundance of fighting spirit. It was the latter that saved the two-day London summit from collapsing under the weight of pomposity, pretension, and bald desperation for a Middle Eastern buck.

Left: Tate Modern director Chris Dercon with Irit Rogoff of Goldsmiths. Right: A video letter from artist Shirin Neshat.

Day one was a power play. Tickets to enter the British Museum’s BP auditorium (elephant number one) were well oversold, and the idea—I think—was that anyone willing to spend three hundred pounds to hear a bunch of museum directors effectively pitching their own institutions probably had money to burn and enough to be a patron.

“You are powerful people,” said Jude Kelley, artistic director of London’s Southbank Centre. “You have access to great wealth. You are potent. You can collect work that’s nostalgic and romantic and that’s wonderful”—a diplomatic riposte to a pair of rather obscure presentations by Shafik Gabr, collector of Orientalist paintings (who credited auction houses as educational institutions), and Olga Davidson, collector of Persian artifacts (whose fundraising tip was “throw a Nowruz party; people love Persian food”)—“but to support the stamina, brio, and bravery of artists and arts institutions is something we need you to do. The quixotic nature of art is so primal that we must have it next to health and education.” Whew. “She sounds like a Ted talk,” said a colleague by my side.

What was the point of this mingling of minds and money? After so many hours of confabulation—Hans Ulrich Obrist on Édouard Glissant’s creolization and archipelic thought, Chris Dercon on soft power and cultural diplomacy—I’m none the wiser and I’m not alone. A video letter that beamed in the artist Shirin Neshat for a pubic service announcement, like Alanis Morissette playing God in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, did not so much clarify as confound. Ditto a to-describe-it-as-“perplexing”-would-be-kind performance by the artist Amir Baradaran. Certainly, one massive mystery that the summit did not solve was whether or not the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will ever be built (elephant number two).

With that project sliding ever more perilously into the conditional tense, its associate curator Reem Fadda gave a great and impassioned speech on the importance of museum collections as accumulations of material history and bulwarks against political erasure. (“It’s not just Egypt today, it was Egypt a hundred years ago.”) But she dodged any and all practical questions about the planned-for museum’s future. “I was really invited here as a moderator,” she said. “We’ll have a lot to say when the time is right.” At this, curator Norman Rosenthal was gruff, while the Art Newspaper’s Anna Somers Cocks was apoplectic.

Left: Artist Yto Barrada. Right: Arif Naqvi of Abraaj Capital with Art Dubai director Antonia Carver.

In the meantime, Barry Lord, of Lord Cultural Resources, gave what was, to my mind, a chilling analysis of how Arab states could command control of their resources, then their industries, and then, with the advent of the Arab Spring, their cultural energies, suggesting a seamless cooptation of political discontent by and for the (depressingly undemocratic) regimes that have historically hired him to plan their museums.

Yto Barrada, founder of the Cinémathèque de Tanger, and William Wells, founder of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, provided much-needed counterweights to Lord’s argument. In Morocco, the push for political reform was coming hard and fast from artists in the nonprofit sector. In Egypt, Wells said he had never wanted Townhouse to become an institution but rather a space that stood apart from the models of cronyism and corruption that characterized the infrastructure of the state. Anyway, he added, most artists he knew had put down their tools, were busy with other things—“I don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s been a little noisy in the neighborhood”—and were using Townhouse to address the urgency of a dangerously unfinished revolution.

On face value, the summit was almost utopian in its intent to convince the rich to lend support to the long-term sustainability of independent arts organizations in the region with the capacity to bring about social justice and political change. If that’s not instrumentalizing art—or expecting artists to succeed where activists, diplomats, and dissidents have failed—then I’m not sure what is. But at least the summit made good on its claims by handing out three sizable grants on Friday morning to Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program in Beirut, the Townhouse Gallery’s Independent Study Program in Cairo, and Echo for Contemporary Iraqi Art’s Sada education portal in Baghdad.

Left: William Wells of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. Right: Artist Haig Aivazian and Samar Martha of Art School Palestine.

Day two was an altogether feistier affair. To disclose, with a brief talk on the risks artists and arts organizations take in the course of doing their work in the region (from the threat of assassination to being caught up in wars, corruption, and mind-numbing bureaucracy), I had the daunting task of trying to set the right tone—to question and be critical without it being perceived as ingratitude, insurrection, or betrayal. But it was the artist Haig Aivazian who captured it perfectly with an image of a drawing showing an artist asking a guy in a suit for a grant to finish a portrait that read “Fucking Assho . . . ” underneath.

Two boisterous sessions unleashed a stampede of elephants—censorship, patronage for social prestige, no money is innocent—and introduced a dozen worthy artistic and curatorial projects, from Khaled Hourani’s Picasso in Palestine (as heartbreakingly simple as it was tortuously complex) to Vali Mahlouji’s probing work on the archive of photographer Kaveh Golestan. Even the patrons entered the fray, with everyone from the Delfina Foundation’s pint-size, silver-haired eponym, Delfina Entrecanales, to Maya Rasamny and Maria Sukkar of the Tate’s Middle East and North Africa Acquisitions Committee (who, along with Maryam Eisler, were recently anointed “The Middle East’s New Medicis”) grabbing the mic and pumping their fists. It wasn’t always pretty, but by peeling back the gloss of how art should be funded to the raw nerve of what art is for, it also felt just about right.

Left: Dealer Saleh Barakat of the Agial Art Gallery in Beirut with Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan. Right: Critic and curator Murtaza Vali.

Left: Patrons and executive committee members Maria Sukkar and Maryam Eisler. Right: Curator Bassam El Baroni of the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum.