Should Government Support The Arts?

September 19, 2013

There are seven recognised requirements for a group of people to be considered a civilisation. 

They are: the existence of cities, written language, religious structure, political structure, materialistic values, economic structure and art. If the government is there to keep us civilised, then it should be supporting art. Without government funding, the arts in Oman could easily languish.

My September art agenda started with a kind invitation from Bait Muzna gallery to join them for meet-the-artists coffee morning. It was a wonderful initiative which gathered around 30 Omani artists and photographers at Bait Muzna gallery in old Muscat.

We all sat around in a brightly lit majlis surrounded by paintings and sculptures and immersed ourselves in the atmosphere of art and culture. Our friendly talk started with the welcome speech made by the owner of the gallery, H H Sayyida Susan al Said, which was followed by the self introduction of the artists. The artists exchanged ideas, shared some thoughts on the current art scene in Oman, and talked about the problems that they have to deal with.

We had different opinions on various subjects, but all agreed on one major problem: There is a very limited assistance for the arts and the artists through subsidies from the Omani government. Most artists struggle to sell their work or get any exposure and either hold full-time jobs or rely on their families for financial support.

The situation in the other GCC countries is quite the opposite. Middle East has been going through an Arab art uprising in recent years, and the support for modern and contemporary art has increased dramatically across the Gulf region.

The UAE is planning to open Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Museum in 2015 and 2017 respectively. The two museums will be located on Saadiyat Island which has become a cultural district of Abu Dhabi with the major annual event, Abu Dhabi Art, being held on the island in November. The other two region’s biggest art fairs, Art Dubai and Sharja Biennial are also held in the Emirates.

In 2011, the Iranian-born art collector Ramin Salsali opened the Salsali Private Museum in Dubai with the intention to develop a stronger international platform for regional artistic talent. Last May, in less than two years after the opening, he announced ambitious plans to launch the Dubai Museum of Contemporary Art in Abu Dhabi, which will be the first publicly-funded Emirati museum when it opens in 2014.

UAE’s neighbour, Qatar, has been going through the art and culture evolution where the museum experience has been built up in less than three years. Qatar is buying art at a level never seen before. In 2011, the country was revealed as the world’s biggest spender on contemporary art by The Art Newspaper.

More than US$70mn for Rothko’s White Center in 2007, more than US$20mn later that year for Damien Hirst’s Pill Cabinet, then a record for a living artist, and $250mn for Cézanne’s Card Players in 2011, the highest known price ever paid for a painting.

Qatar has funded exhibitions outside its borders as well, such as Takashi Murakami’s exhibition in Versailles in 2010 and Damien Hirst’s 2012 retrospective at the Tate Modern, expanding its presence on the global art stage. At the same time, the country has improved commercial and public art infrastructure internally giving it a cultural push and taking it to the international standards.

In 2006, art market history was made when Christie’s held its first auction of International Modern and Contemporary Art in the Middle East. Since then, Christie’s has gone on to sell over US$235mn worth of art in Dubai and firmly established itself as the leading auction house in the region.

In addition to the regular auctions, Christie’s is keen to encourage and support educational opportunities and holds exhibitions, educational seminars and charity auctions throughout the region. Recently these events have been held in Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait and Bahrain.

In my perspective, artists and art organisations deserve to receive full support from the government. Most civilised countries support the arts through government subsidies so that there can be a rich and diverse reflection of a nation in the culture. In challenging economic times such as these, the need for financial support to art programs becomes even more necessary.

As citizens struggle to cover their own bills, arts become a luxury. By providing government support, the nation will benefit from free art programs to the citizens and from maintaining a cultural identify by keeping artists at work.