Art's New Oasis - Museum of Islamic Art

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Thanks to tallg for pointing this out.

Next week, the art world will descend on the tiny Gulf country of Qatar to see the museum that oil and gas built.

Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, has given only a few people a peek into his country's first major art institution, the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art. Now, with the financial crisis and falling art sales dampening the global mood, the $300 million-plus museum's Nov. 22 opening party is turning into a major event of the art season. Some 1,000 major collectors and museum directors, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Philippe de Montebello, are flying in for the occasion. Many are also getting booked into the city's fleet of new hotels for free.

The museum is hard to miss, sprouting from an artificial island in the Persian Gulf located just off the sandy shore of Doha, the capital city. The architect Mr. Pei, inspired by the geometric forms of a 13th-century fountain at a mosque in Cairo, shaped the five-story museum like a staggered set of creamy building blocks, each cube adjusted just enough to catch a triangle of harsh light or deep shadow. Visitors can reach it by boat -- there is a dock for dhows, an Arabian-style fishing vessel made of wood -- or by traveling a palm-lined path and crossing a small bridge.

Inside, the dimly lit atrium feels like a futuristic temple. A pair of crescent-shaped staircases rises to a mezzanine level, while smooth stone walls shoot even higher to a dome whose metallic interior is crowned by an oculus.

Islamic art, the museum's focus, is traditionally defined as decorative or sacred items made in Muslim-ruled territories from the rise of the faith in the early 600s through the collapse of the Ottoman empire in the early 1900s. Its iconic objects and buildings, such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, feature a riot of geometric patterns, interwoven botanical shapes, or carefully wrought calligraphy. Portraits were not incorporated into religious artworks since the Islamic faith feared their use as idols, but faces and animals popped up in books, jewelry, ceramics and carpets in Muslim homes from Spain to India.

The strength of this museum collection lies largely in its metalwork and carpets, including a thousand-year-old astrolabe -- an astronomical device -- that likely helped its owner face the direction of the holy city of Mecca. There's also a red, silk carpet from the 14th or 15th century called the Timurid Chessboard Garden Carpet, a rare nod to the favorite board game of the era's Islamic ruler, Timur. Another gem: a 1696 emerald amulet from the Mughal court in India.

The emir needs to impress the global art establishment if he's going to transform Qatar into a cultural hub. It's a tall order, given the lavish museum plans and Las-Vegas-style tourist attractions already lighting up the nearby sheikhdoms of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. At first glance, Qatar's scholarly minded Islamic art may not seem as provocative as Dubai's indoor ski run, but art experts say the quality of MIA's Pan-Arabian collection could make it the Met of the Middle East. (Sotheby's has also decided to put down roots in Doha and plans to hold its first auction there March 18.)

To pump up the anticipation leading up to the museum's launch, the emir recently asked his family not to give interviews until the opening party. The museum's Web site, meanwhile, reads only "Coming Soon." When guests finally arrive, they will be asked to mill on the front lawn outside the museum while the royal family takes the first official tour. "I can't wait to get in," says Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie's Europe and Middle East. (No word yet on whether guests will also be able to arrange a glance at the family's private art collection, which includes a $19 million medicine-cabinet sculpture by Damien Hirst and a $72 million abstract by Mark Rothko.)

The museum's debut comes on the heels of an art-collecting frenzy across the Gulf, ignited a generation ago by several sovereign families and recently embraced by the region's oil-enriched masses, many of whom have sought out contemporary Middle Eastern art. Overall, the number of collectors from the Middle East participating in Christie's auctions has quintupled since 2004 -- enough to rival the art-buying clout of the Russians. European collectors like Charles Saatchi have joined in, pushing up prices for Iranian art stars. For example, Farhad Moshiri's crystal-studded neo-Pop paintings have sold at auction for over $1 million. And while no art category is immune from the current market slowdown, state funding is expected to buoy the Gulf's new galleries, art fairs and public art projects, at least for a few years.

Even with royal backing, the creation of Qatar's first museum has been a struggle. The MIA's debut is at least a year behind schedule, thanks in part to high staff turnover and a scandal three years ago over allegations that the emir's cousin, a cultural official, used state funds to buy art for his own collection. Other key details still need to be finalized, from the museum's operational budget to operating hours. Head conservator Lisa Usman says the mood behind closed doors is "excitement tinged with panic."

In many ways, the museum is emblematic of this young country's harried chase for social standing, locals say. Ruled by the Al-Thani family since the mid-1800s, Qatar was a sleepy British protectorate known mainly for its camel breeders and pearl divers until the 1950s, when it discovered the world's third-largest deposit of natural gas just off its shores. The nation, which is about as big as Connecticut, won its independence in 1971 and more recently has undergone a dizzying modernization campaign that has increased freedoms for women and spurred a development boom in its capital city. Today, Qatar's 824,000 citizens boast the highest per-capita income in the world, around $87,600 and double that of the U.S., according to the CIA World Factbook. Even so, people outside the Arabian Peninsula often have trouble pronouncing its name. (It sounds like CUT-ar.)

Qatar wants art-loving tourists to help diversify its economy so that it isn't as heavily dependent on oil and gas in the future. Museum officials say they expect to draw at least 300,000 visitors a year. (Spain's iconic Guggenheim Bilbao Museum gets 700,000 out-of-town visitors each year, by comparison.) Charles Pocock, a longtime dealer of Islamic art now based in Dubai, says 100,000 may be a more "realistic" crowd, given the small numbers of Islamic-art devotees and the region's "unbearable" summer temperatures.

Tariq al-Jaideh, an advertising executive and lifelong Doha resident, says he knows there's more to Qatar than gas and crude but he wonders how his conservative city will react to the next round of cultural overhaul. "Things are changing so fast here and it's overwhelming," Mr. Al-Jaideh said recently, as he sat smoking a hookah in the local souq, a maze-like marketplace where cafes serve a Gulf fish called hammour and tailors offer dozens of white fabrics suited for Arabian clothing. "But if we are building a modern nation, we need all the elements. We have the oil and gas -- now we need the art."

But is Qatar getting the art it needs? The religious moniker "Islamic" is no longer commonly used in art circles to describe work made by artists living in the Middle East; artists prefer to emphasize their nationalities instead. New York collector Simin Allison, an Iranian expatriate, says the emir's decision to build his country's cultural reputation around Islamic art may be a letdown for Western art lovers who might be more tempted to travel to a museum in the Middle East geared toward the politically charged artworks of contemporary artists like Iranian native Shirin Neshat. Her searing photographs of women in chadors have angered Tehran's religious leaders.

Abdullah Al-Najjar, MIA's president and CEO, says the museum has a space for temporary exhibits, the first of which will include new art such as M.F. Husain's paintings inspired by the 99 names of Allah. Mr. Al-Najjar also says the country will benefit from an expansive view of its artistic past. "The children being brought up in this country are so focused on their iPods or the marketing plans of their companies that they don't understand our culture," he says. "They walk around the malls, seeing nothing."

The museum's walnut-colored permanent galleries will likely show around 800 artworks, but tweaks are still being made by the museum's core staff of around 15 curators and researchers. Some like Ms. Usman, the head conservator, have been working on the collection since it was housed at Al Wahabah, the emir's guard compound. But she drew a blank one recent afternoon when a colleague from the shipping dock asked her to come sign for some crates that had suddenly arrived with additional artworks. "Sometimes we hear new stuff is coming," she says, "but I'm not at the level where they inform me about their shopping."

Museum of Islamic Art
An astrolabe, or astronomical device, from 984-985 A.D.
The shoppers are the emir and his extended family. Few of the museum workers say they know their bosses well -- in water-cooler parlance, the staff simply refers to them as the "higher authorities" -- but the family's lore is large and growing. The emir, age 56, has three wives and at least seven children, and he rules from a tapioca-colored palace located minutes from the museum along the city's corniche. A graduate of Britain's Sandhurst Military Academy, he has a roughly $2 billion personal fortune, according to Forbes, yet he moves easily among his subjects, often eating in the souk without a bulky entourage, locals say. When presented with a decision, he likes to pepper his assistants with questions. "He has this quiet, thoughtful demeanor, but things just happen around him," says Roger Mandle, the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design who is now executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority.

The emir nevertheless was involved in a stir years ago when his second wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, starting going out in public without completely covering her hair; today, she oversees a swath of academic and philanthropic initiatives from her own office headquarters in Doha. Some credit her and their 26-year-old daughter, Sheikha Mayassa Bint Hamad Al-Thani, for pushing the emir to bring more cultural entities to Qatar. Ali Bagherzadeh, a London dealer in Iranian art, says that "both women are very enlightened and ambitious, and if they're not the engine, they are certainly the catalyst" for the museum in Qatar.

It is still taboo to talk about the family member largely responsible for the quality and quantity of the MIA's collection, the emir's cousin, Sheikh Saud Bin Mohammad Al-Thani. Dealers and auction specialists say the family's collection didn't grow in earnest until 1997, when the emir turned over the art-buying reins to Sheikh Saud Al-Thani, in his early thirties at the time and already an avid photography collector. In 2004 alone, Qatar imported $87 million worth of art from England, according to trade data from the British Customs and Excise department.

The spree ended on Feb. 16, 2005, when dozens of dealers and auction houses were faxed a letter from the Qatari culture ministry stating that the sheikh had been stripped of his chairman post and "no longer has the authority to engage or make commitments on [its] behalf," according to the Art Newspaper, a London-based trade publication. Although specific details were never given, the museum later confirmed that Qatari officials had investigated the sheikh for allegedly siphoning public funds to pay for works in his personal collection. Sheikh Al-Thani was briefly placed under house arrest but ultimately pardoned by the emir, the museum confirmed.

Sheikh Al-Thani did not respond to interview requests sent by the Journal to his offices in Doha and London.

The ordeal roiled the museum. Plans to open the institution in 2007 were put on hold and a number of staff departed, including the museum's chief curator, Oliver Watson. The museum lost a director, Sabiha Al Khemir, in January and didn't replace her until Dr. Watson agreed to return as director in June, leaving the museum staff without clear instructions on how to proceed in the interim.

Mr. Pei, the architect, had to adjust to building in Doha's desert temperatures and to coordinating dozens of construction crews, from seasoned workers to novices, according to Hiroshi Okamoto, Mr. Pei's site representative. "There was definitely a steep learning curve," Mr. Okamoto says, "but we knew we were a litmus test for museums in the region, and the fact that it's done is a testament to everyone's persistence."

The building itself may be complete, but there is still plenty to do before the big opening. Michelle Walton, the museum's head of research, recently noticed a 1,100-year-old green cup tucked into a crowded glassware display. The cup had been made in either Iraq or Egypt and had survived dozens of dynasties and wars, including the first Gulf War, where it sat intact even after the home of its former Kuwaiti owner was ransacked. Ms. Walton moved the piece to a more prominent spot: "It's had a long journey, too."

Write to Kelly Crow at