The UAE's contemporary art scene has come a long way in 40 years, says Lisa Ball-Lechgar, of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation.
When Hassan Sharif, the father of modern Emirati art, first exhibited after returning from the West, the shock of his new work caused an outcry.
"There was a huge negative reaction," says Ball-Lechgar. "It's taken 40 years, but now his works are being collected by dealers, shipped around the region for exhibitions, and housed in museums."
This week, as major players in the art world converge on the capital for the Abu Dhabi Art fair, Admaf is stepping up its efforts to nurture home-grown talent.
Yesterday the foundation launched its Nationals' Gallery, a resource through which it hopes to archive the growing body of work by Emirati artists, and channel efforts to promote them abroad.
As the UAE assumes greater importance as a cultural centre, Admaf is seeking to build on its achievements, capitalising on the international links it has forged.
Mrs Hoda Kanoo, the founder of Admaf, says: "Fourteen years since the launch of Admaf, the UAE is now an international centre for the visual arts, and a hub for the art market of the Arab world."
The new archive will function both as a register of artists' achievements and a resource to boost their reputation abroad.
Kanoo continues: "Through professional guidance, mentoring, vocational development, grant-giving and publications, we shall ensure that the world realises the promise and potential of Emirati art."
"We're scouring the country to collate artists' work," she says. "Emirati art needs a boost, not because it is underachieving or lacking in talent, but to help promote contemporary Emirati art internationally.
"There is phenomenal talent out there. But in terms of helping it thrive, we must raise our game."
As Sharif's experience shows, established Emirati artists of today fought a bitter struggle to gain recognition in previous decades. Profoundly influenced by their encounters with contemporary art abroad, local artists' experiments in the art forms coming out of America and Europe first got going in the 1980s and 1990s.
But the new work often met with bewilderment and hostility back home, even for those acclaimed today as the nation's leading exponents.
Opprobrium was commonplace, says Jalal Luqman, the Emirates' first digital artist. "Art wasn't cool 20 years ago," he recalls. "I remember actually getting kicked out of people's offices. All work had to be realist. If a falcon didn't look like a falcon, or a camel like a camel, forget it. I remember one businessman showing me the door, saying 'thank you, you can leave now'."
Admaf's initiative aims to nurture the younger generation while promoting a more sensitive response. "It will help avoid the kind of trial and error we went through," he says. "It will ease the path. What is basic to other countries for us is breaking new ground. This will help guide younger artists, so what they do isn't just a shot in the dark."
Admaf is proud of the role it has played in Abu Dhabi's cultural life, providing a platform for international artists to show their work. Ball-Lechgar points to recent exhibitions by the Algerian artist Hamza Bounoua and the German photographer Andreas Gursky as examples of two international figures the foundation has brought to Abu Dhabi.
But she laments the relative underperformance of Emirati artists in the world market, noting an international perception of the UAE as an art trading and financial centre, rather than a centre for creative practice.
"The focus is on the UAE's market role, in terms of auctions and galleries. But that trading reputation has overshadowed contemporary arts practice.
"Do people know the Emirates as a place of art practice, or do they think it's simply a trading hub?" she asked. "Emirati art deserves to be collected by the art galleries of the world."
The Nationals Gallery will combine its links and financial clout to fund opportunities for postgraduate study, independent research and exhibitions abroad.
"This is good for me, good for art, and good for the UAE," says Khalil Abdulwahid, 35, an Emirati painter whose work was recently shown in Germany in an exhibition organised by the Sharjah Museums Department.
"It's not just about collecting data, but offering support to help artists improve," he said. "That's why this is exciting. The city is developing so fast, and change is so rapid."
Luqman likewise identified the relentless, sometimes overwhelming, speed of the UAE's development over the last half century as a source of bewilderment, saying culture sometimes got left behind. "Most Emiratis today are citizens of the world," he says. "We are surrounded by 86 per cent of people hailing from abroad. Artistically as well as business-wise, our doors are open."
Meanwhile, the UAE's contemporary art scene is still facing difficulties with issues such as exhibiting, pricing and marketing, and dealing with agents, collectors and media all presenting hurdles, he said.
"In other countries the scene is more developed. Here we are catching up. Emirati artists still live in prehistoric times. There is no structured art history. You are as valuable as your last painting. As Arabs, we are culturally very private, and don't like to share personal information. This resource will make it less daunting. We can benefit from the stories of artists' development. It's said that artists are the true historians of a nation. The archive will be as much the history of the nation as the history of our art."
Recent years have witnessed a blossoming of Emirati art, with Lamya Gargash showing at last year's Venice Biennale, and the Emirati Expressions show displayed at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2008.
"We saw the first generation of modern artists, such as Abdul Qader Raes and Najat Makki followed by a second generation including say, Jalal Luqman," says Ball-Lechgar. "Now we are seeing a third generation graduating out of the fine art colleges of Sharjah and Zayed University."
It was not always so, recalls Ebtisaam Abdel Aziz, a digital and performance artist whose work was recently shown at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, recounting the years of struggle she went through to gain recognition as she started out.
"I wanted art to be my career, not my hobby. I wanted to be a real artist, not just paint pictures to keep at home. But I'm a fighter. I fought to get where I am. Others may hesitate, give up and go into banking, say, because it is more acceptable."
Much work remains to be done, she says. "I'm still fighting, and still meet opposition. People struggle to understand my conceptual work. They don't know how to respond. It can be difficult for people here to understand an Emirati woman practising performance art."
The new initiative would help pave the way for greater acceptance of artists' role in society, and greater appreciation of what they do," she says. "It can be a bridge to the wider world.
"With these major projects coming to the region, sometimes it can have the effect of overwhelming local artists. They feel lost," she says.
Recent examples of Abdel Aziz's work drew heavily on her training in maths, exploring fields of systemic, mathematically inspired conceptual art. But its experimental nature often left her native audience confused, she says.
It is a phenomenon encountered not just in the UAE or indeed the wider region. New forms such as video art and installation have met with intense controversy, and often animosity, the world over. "Sometimes, there is an understanding gap, and a gap of respect. The mentality can be that I should not be exhibiting video, or that for instance, an installation should not be exhibited on the floor - people feel art should be on the wall."
And while funding initiatives could help, an injection of cash alone was not a panacea. "Often, it's not just about money, its about attitudes," she says. "That's where the foundation can help. Sometimes you don't just need money, you need support in gaining wider respect. The foundation can make it their mission to help inform perceptions of what art is, and what it can be."
Education remains the key pillar, says Ball-Lachgar. Admaf is sponsoring a course at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, whereby a select number of contemporary artists will participate in the prestigious summer school. Further links are being forged with Iniva, the UK visual arts organisation.
"As we bring international artists here, we create opportunities to develop achievements in schools and universities here. For students, Admaf will provide a learning opportunity. And for professionals, it will raise their profile internationally. We will explore every single nook and cranny to uncover the talent nascent in this land."
For Abdulwahid, prospects today are more exciting than ever. "This could feed a thirst," he says, and believes he speaks for a generation when he adds: "As artists get more involved, they find the limits that they come up against are just the start of something new. And then they find there is no limit to what they can achieve."