x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

In Sharjah, a passion for art that benefits the nation

Since there is a lack of art infrastructure in the UAE there is a need for physical space to display art and for critics and curators to discuss it.

To love art includes sharing and safekeeping it for those yet to come. For three collectors in the United Arab Emirates, the duty to ethically acquire, preserve and educate people on the value of art was the topic of conversation at a recent gallery talk in Sharjah.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Kito de Boer and Farhad Farjam were on hand to speak at Promise of a Generation, a modern majlis three friends and I created a few years ago. This particular talk took place at Mr Al Qassemi's Barjeel Art Foundation, where the businessman and curator took the time to discuss his passion for collecting art and the need to be socially responsible as a buyer. "Artists like selling art to us because they know we'll preserve and share the art - we'll make it available," Mr Al Qassemi told an avid audience of nearly 100. He added that preservation of art involves the Arabic concept of amanah, or guardianship for the future.

Mr Farjam, the well-known Iranian industrialist and chairman of the Farbro Group, voiced a similar opinion. "We must protect and preserve art for future generations," Mr Farjam said. As a young boy growing up in Iran, he developed a passion for collecting stones from the riverbeds of Shiraz. Today, he collects Islamic and European art, including works by Picasso, Renoir, Fereydoon Moshiri and Mohammed Ehsai. With pieces more than 2,000 years old, Mr Farjam places a special emphasis on preservation. The Farjam Collection, which is housed in the Dubai International Financial Centre, places a special emphasis on educating students on how to take care of art, with the hope that he can "raise the bar among peers in the region" to do the same.

But sharing art can also be a difficult task. Putting a collection on display - which includes transporting, insuring, and safe-guarding pieces - is no easy task. There are also intangible barriers. Mr Farjam confessed that when he contemplated sharing his collection in a public space, he worried that some would misinterpret this decision as an opportunity to flaunt wealth. Meanwhile, Mr de Boer, a senior management consultant, recalled having to resist temptation when he was offered Mayan gold while travelling in Peru years back. Such a purchase would be equivalent to pillaging, he reasoned, and would lead to a tragic environment where precious items remain hidden away rather than shared with the public.

Mr de Boer drew laughs from the audience when he described collecting as akin to an addiction. At one point, he and his wife had run out of wall space and had to step back and ask themselves: "Why are we doing this?" After all, the couple has amassed over 600 South Asian pieces throughout their lifetime.

Their conclusion was anything but selfish. Because there is a lack of art infrastructure in the UAE, they reasoned, there is a need for physical space to display art, and to increase access for curators and critics.

Private collections are one solution. Mr Al Qassemi offered another: governments could consider the arts as a source of tourism revenue - which will hold true for Abu Dhabi as the Guggenheim and The Louvre come online within the next decade.

As the UAE continues to build its cultural architecture, such dialogues will be all the more important to maintain, and the generosity of collectors willing to share their works will become all the more significant in attracting the interest of an increasingly diverse audience.

At our recent gallery talk, the crowd spanned the spectrum in terms of age (the youngest, Aayisha, was seven), nationality, opinion and expertise. Some had never considered the connection between art collectors and the wider community; others were academic experts curious in picking apart niche topics. All seemed to agree, however, that the role of art was significant in exploring means of expression and discovering individual sensibilities. "A society should want to explore and learn who they are," Mr de Boer said, explaining that this can be done through a variety of institutions like symphony halls, art galleries and sports stadiums.

Through such talks, I hope that we can contribute in our small way to the process.

Adela Acevedo is a co-founder of Promise of a Generation