x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

From camel trader to cultural envoy

Kurt Blum, the founder of Swiss Art Gate UAE, talks about his latest assignment building cultural ties between the UAE and Switzerland.

Kurt Blum is the founder of Swiss Art Gate UAE, which aims to build on the cultural relationship between the UAE and Switzerland.
Kurt Blum is the founder of Swiss Art Gate UAE, which aims to build on the cultural relationship between the UAE and Switzerland.

ABU DHABI // Kneeling on the floor, Kurt Blum reads a list of jobs off a makeshift CV, scribbled down on a scrap of paper.

For the 49-year-old Swiss, who emigrated to Abu Dhabi in 2007, there has been little time to rest since he completed his degrees in teaching and music several decades ago.

"Once I was a sound engineer, then I bought camels in Burkina Faso, in West Africa. I also opened an internet cafe in [Burkina Faso's capital] Ouagadougou."

It is a "really interesting story", he adds, before losing his train of thought.

"When I was 18 or 19, I worked for Swiss National Railways, where I cleaned trains."

He takes a breath before continuing.

"Then I was a director of a choir, then I sold Porsches, VWs and Audis for one year, and I was also a DJ of classical music at a hotel. I wrote a kids' book, I was a primary school teacher - at the same time I managed a now-defunct urban-dance crew - and I directed a dance festival in Switzerland."

"I was also a waiter, once, I think, and organised a sports day for over 1,000 children back in Switzerland," he adds, as an afterthought.

Despite a colourful career, there are no boasts from Mr Blum, who rattles through the list matter-of-factly, saving his best job for last.

The founder and general manager of Swiss Art Gate UAE, an operation that aims to build on the cultural relationship between Switzerland and the UAE, his latest role, he says, was made just for him.

"Actually, I am the cultural ambassador between the Swiss and the UAE on a private basis. It's a unique one in the world."

Just as unique is the organisation itself, which has continued to expand over the years since its creation in 2008.

The former camel trader set up the operation after a discussion with Wolfgang-Amadeus Bruelhart, the Swiss ambassador to the Emirates.

Swiss Art Gate UAE organises educational and cultural exhibitions and the inaugural event, on Formula 1 around the world, took place in 2009.

Since then, Mr Blum's work has taken him to Ras al Khaimah hospital, to various upmarket hotels around the country and most recently to the Swiss city, Lausanne.

"He works seven days a week, 26 hours a day," adds 35-year-old May Karam, from Egypt, who doubled the company's pool of employees after being recruited several weeks ago as a consultant. Up until Ms Karam was brought on board, everything from the "press releases, to the marketing, to the accounts, to a lot more", was left up to Mr Blum.

His aim to create a bridge between the two countries provides a fantastic opportunity, Ms Karam adds.

Mr Bruelhart, the ambassador, says Mr Blum has done a "great job" to improve relations between the two countries.

"In a way, Kurt Blum is the informal cultural attaché of Switzerland in the UAE and of the UAE in Switzerland," he said.

There are more plans in the works to deepen those links, including the creation of three-month residencies for Swiss and Emirati artists in both countries.

The artists Mr Blum chooses to work with are similarly impressed by his passion.

"He's not like any ordinary onlooker, but someone who has a vision and also a mind with which to see the picture.

In other words, he looks at the painting and also reflects on it," says Abdul Aziz Al Fadli, an Emirati calligrapher whose most recent exhibit, Symphony of Letters and Colours, was organised by the Swiss Art Gate UAE founder.

Mr Blum also serves on the executive committee for the Swiss-Emirati Friendship Forum. It was created two years ago to unite the two countries across a spectrum of fields. He also started up the Middle Eastern version of the Swiss educational film club, The Magic Lantern UAE, in Sharjah last year.

There are plans to expand the club, which shows films from all over the world in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, and Dubai, later this summer.

It won't be easy, adds Ms Karam, but there is no other way her employer would have it.

"I like to work," Mr Blum adds, "otherwise I wouldn't do it."