Art for Tomorrow event closes in Doha

by  — 17 March 2015

The first ever International New York Times Art for Tomorrow conference took place in Doha this week. Based on the premise that there is a defined intersection between art, economics and commerce, architecture and tourism and more, the Art for Tomorrow conference sought to explore these overlapping areas and how they could be better integrated for the future benefit of all.

In particular speakers and discussions covered how investment by government and the private sector in various kinds of artistic endeavours can enrich communities, cities and countries both culturally and economically. More than once, Qatar’s focus on art was heralded as a great example of what can be done to integrate art into a society as whole.

Indeed, this was the message from the outset in the introductory speech from HE Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad Al Thani, chairperson of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), who offered that “Investing in culture is no longer a choice, it is a necessity” and referenced the great equalising force that art represents across the world, despite the attempts of destructive organisations such as ISIS to obliterate it, by adding that “art has no religion”.

“Art, creativity and heritage play an important role in Qatar and support the realisation of our National Vision 2030,” added Sheikha Al Mayassa. “Hosting Art for Tomorrow 2015 reflects our country’s progress in bridging cultures, encouraging cultural exchange and nurturing creative talent. It is a privilege to host such a diverse and renowned group of experts, cultural figures and institutions from around the world.”

These distinguished invites included architects Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, celebrated artist Jeff Koons, Jack Lang, former French minister of culture under François Mitterrand, and HE Majed Al Sabah, creator of Kuwaiti fashion retail brand Villa Moda, among many others.

Culture is crucial

A notable opening keynote speech, ‘Culture, Creativity and the City’, was made by Kate D. Levin, head of the arts programme at Bloomberg Philanthropies and who was commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs from 2002 to 2013 and was involved in the creation of several cultural districts in the city during that time.

It is estimated, she explained, that the arts sector contributes around US$500 billion to the gross domestic product of the United States. Levin emphasised the contribution of artists as workers who contribute to society and the economic benefit of small and medium size organisations and locations, both of which are continually undervalued, she said. 

Levin gave an example of the Lincoln Centre in New York, which she said, added US$250 million to the local economy and had reinvigorated a previously run down area and created new social focus in the city and what she called “desire lines” – for example staff and visitors walking down a previously derelict and deserted street to buy a particularly good brew at a nearby coffee shop and utilising installed benches along the way.

This theme was followed in a discussion shortly afterwards, ‘Cultural Districts — The City Redefines Itself’, in which Adrian Ellis, AEA Consulting and co-founder of the Global Cultural Districts Network discussed how this organisation is facilitating urban renewal and the growth of cultural spaces in cities all around the world. Ellis said that more than US$250 billion is being invested in these spaces, primarily to promote arts and culture and embed them in societies for their cultural and economic benefit.

This a lofty and important ambition Ellis conveyed, nevertheless including a caveat of realism. “But it is difficult, as it requires a coalition of private and public sector and other organisations with a single long term goal,” said Ellis, adding ” the change in speed of creating such places from more than 100 years to five or six, chances of getting it wrong increase exponentially.”

The next speaker, Justine Simons, head of culture, City Hall, London and Chair, World Cities Culture Forum echoed Ellis’s comments. Instrumental in showcasing London as an artistic world capital on the back of the 2012 Olympics (an endeavour which undoubtedly contributed to the subsequent increase in cultural tourism to the United Kingdom’s capital, she said), Simons emphasised the need to support authenticity and art and artists “in cities lest they lose their soul”.

“Culture must be at heart of city strategy,” Simons explained, “as it can have a profound and positive effect on all aspects of city life. It is an essential ingredient.”

The Art of the Digital

Another interesting session at the Art for Tomorrow conference focused on the commercial side of art in relation to the digital realm. Scott Reyburn, art reporter, International New York Times, offered some interesting figures to start the debate. The global art market is worth more than US$50 billion, he said, but only six percent bought online (versus music at 90 percent). The reason, Reyburn argued, is that art is unique and expensive and not a replicable and cheap commodity like music files.

This trend is however is changing, according to Sotheby’s chief marketing officer, Alfredo Gangotena, who said the art auctioneers have seen a “25 percent increase in in online purchases last year and four times as many people perusing catalogues online versus hard copy.”

Gangotena then revealed that Sotheby’s will be launching a new online art auctioneering website in conjunction with Ebay on April 1, 2015. it is expected this will reach up to 145 million people daily and, it is hoped, Gangotena said, this new platform would introduce many more people to the concept of buying art, especially online.

The next speakers in the digital discussion further backed up the idea that technology and physical art colliding can only improve the status quo. Jacob Pabst, CEO, Artnet Online Auctions, echoed Gangotena’s positive sentiment, adding that their platform had seen strong growth recently and a rise of 37 percent in the value of online transactions in 2014.

Overall, further take outs from the discussion included the addition of digital displays to conventional art spaces (such as a digital screen of an image of Lady Gaga in the Louvre in France) and the other digital technology and use of mobile devices and smartphones in the future of interaction between visitors and locations such as museums etc. “If the future is the Internet of things,” added Pabst, “well, artworks are things.” 

Art and Business

But where do art and business intersect? Well for one, said Art for Tomorrow speaker Friedhelm Hütte, Gobal Head of Art, Deutsche Bank, “corporates can contribute as corporate citizens to cultural life of a city by art programmes and creating access for people who might not otherwise see art works.”

Deutsche Bank, explained Hütte, is the largest corporate investor in art in the world, with more than 60,000 pieces displayed across 900 international branches, (managed by a digital database, of course). The purpose therefore, Hütte underlined, is not to collect the art for investment, but to share and promote it.

The purpose of Hütte’s presentation was to advise and encourage other corporate entities to embrace art, and he cited further examples of how his organisation is doing so beyond purchasing and displaying their pieces. Deutsche Bank host public art spaces at their headquarters in Berlin, including areas for private collectors and sponsor projects such as the Frieze Art Fairs.

Sponsoring grants and awards is another way business can promote art, said Hütte, whose organisation also publish an art-related print and digital magazine three times a year showcasing Deutsche Bank’s involvement in the arts. “My advice to other corporates is to have external advisers, who can help to find new talent and develop programmes,” closed Hütte.

Bringing it back to the Arabian Gulf, Majed Al Sabah, creator of Kuwaiti fashion retail brand Villa Moda and perfume brand The Fragrance Kitchen gave an enlightening video presentation on how he battled sceptics at home and in the West in the early 1990s and how art has always been a fundamental inspiration in and aspect of his business ventures.

This sentiment was also a component of second day keynote speaker Akbar Al Baker, chief executive officer of Qatar Airways, who said that the collection and display of art was also a key strategy of the airline and in line with the general promotion of Qatar as an art destination, no more exemplified than Hamad International Airport (HIA) itself, where many pieces are on permanent display. “The concept of HIA as part of QMA and a source of pride in Qatar at HIA, is that the art is there and that it is accessible to all visitors to the airport,” said Al Baker.

There was of course far more to the two-day conference, inspiring and informative speeches by Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid on where architecture fits into the art-business-culture-tourism matrix, and a host other interesting presentations and debates. It is hoped conversations begun at the 2015 Art for Tomorrow conference in Doha will endure, at least until hopefully the next one in 2016 as Qatar can only benefit from such stimulating global discourse in the heart of its capital city.

For more information on the event please click here.

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