Last week, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” sold for $119.7 million, a record-breaking price for artwork sold at an auction sale. The bidder remains anonymous, but rumors hint that it may be the royal family of Qatar. This would not be the first time that the monarchy broke a selling price record: The royal Al Thani family, which has ruled the oil-rich peninsula of Qatar since the mid-19th century, purchased the last privately held version of Paul Cezanne’s “Card Players” last year for over $250 million — the highest price ever paid for a work of art.
Over the past seven years, Qatar has become the world’s biggest buyer of modern art. The royal family has built new museums, promoted architecture, and invited contemporary artists from around the world to expand the country's cultural influence on the international stage. Some say, however, that the big money spent on high-profile Western art has not catered to the Qatari people’s interests and has crowded out local artists, who also express frustration about the lack of free speech under an absolute monarchy.
Qatar, a small peninsula with a population of 300,000 on the Persian Gulf, has reaped riches from oil and from their position as the third-largest gas reserves in the world. To transition to a post-oil economy, the royal family has invested in art and higher education as commodities for its future “knowledge economy.”
The eldest daughter, Sheikha Mayassa, has led Doha’s transformation to a cultural metropolis rivaling New York and Paris. As head of the Qatar Museum Authority (QMA), the 28-year old has recruited high-profile experts in the art world, such as Christie’s chairman Edward Dolman and Jean-Paul Englestein, both Dutchmen. While the West cuts funding for the arts, Mayassa has imported famous artists; the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art has commissioned original exhibits by Takahashi Murakami, Richard Serra, and Damien Hirst.
The goal is to generate dialogue among Qataris about the role of Islamic art within the region and around the world. The Arab Museum of Modern Art located in Doha, for example, has highlighted the historical relationship between Qatar and China as trading partners on the Silk Road. The exhibit, called “Saraab” (Mirage), featured 17 commissioned works by Cai Guo-Qiang, who collaborated with local Qataris to engage the Doha community. The biggest project, however, will be Qatar’s national museum. Set to open in 2014, the galleries will tell the national story of Qatar — from prehistoric times, to the pearl industry, to the oil and gas industries — through artistic representations of local practices surrounding food, fishing, folklore, and the desert.
The royal family plans not only to reinvigorate the Qatari local art scene, but also to expand the nation’s influence around the world. An interactive sports and Olympics museum will be fully running in time for the 2022 World Cup, which will be held in Qatar. Qatar is also bidding to be the host for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Sheika Mayassa has hinted at the implications beyond the art world, saying that the goal is “laying the ground for Qatar to become a leader in making, showing and debating the visual arts … Art – even controversial art – can unlock communication between diverse nations.”
Indeed, Qatar has positioned itself uniquely as a diplomatic powerhouse in the Middle East. The Qatari Emir has brokered a peace deal between Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, and facilitated American negotiations with the Taliban. Most notably the Emir armed Libyan rebels and led the international effort to drive out Syria’s regime during the Arab Spring, also encouraging the state-owned Arab news network Al Jazeera to portray the revolutionaries positively. The Emir employs a pragmatic strategy, allowing the nation to host not only the World Cup and an American military base, but also maintain a Taliban liaison office and friendly relations with Iran and Hezbollah.
Still, some criticize the royal family for courting the international art scene rather than allowing local artists to express themselves freely. Engelstein, as public arts director of the QMA, says the monarchy has chosen less controversial art to prevent shocking its conservative population. Local artists say the monarchy picks only politically neutral art and censors radicals, adding that it fails to guarantee basic freedom of speech for artists. Moreover, the government-sponsored museums see mostly expatriates and tourists, while small galleries tend to attract local Qataris.
Indeed, it’s puzzling that the Al Thani family has spent over $1 billion on Western contemporary art. While works by Mark Rothko or Paul Cezanne have grabbed the world’s attention, the monarchy has not explained how these jewels of Western culture will benefit the local Qataris. It seems that the royal ambition is to use artistic and athletic opportunities to increase their global power, rather than to genuinely support the local culture.
These record-breaking purchases have signaled Qatar’s ambition to be an artistic, and consequently, a political force. Its pragmatic diplomatic moves suggest as much. For what purpose beyond the family’s power, however, remains unclear. The monarchy must go beyond arts education and liberalize political rights to support an organic growth of culture.