May 7, 2018

Big Space/Small Space: Art and the Gulf City

Dubai mural
A collaborative mural painting in Jumeirah Beach Park, Dubai (Jay Galvin via Flickr)

Over the last few years many cities have attempted to integrate cultural developments within their overall planning strategy. This involves the utilization of spectacular architecture and conversion of formerly industrial areas into art districts. As a result, many of these newly developed areas have witnessed an influx of upscale retail and housing catering to a wealthy and highly educated clientele. The Gulf Arab states have been at the forefront of such developments within the wider Arab region. Seen as a way to diversify their economic output, these gleaming museums and cultural centers primarily aim to attract tourists. At the same time, through such initiatives the region is setting its sights at claiming the mantle of the Arab world’s cultural leaders. Furthermore, the presence of these large-scale institutions, as well as the smaller spaces of art districts, is seen as a way to modernize the Gulf states’ local populations and integrate them within a wider cultural context. Yet such approaches have their drawbacks, as they inevitably result in gentrification and a potential marginalization of a larger part of the population who may see themselves excluded from these cultural spaces.

This paper aims to unpack these issues by situating the development of spectacular museums (big spaces) and art districts (small spaces) in the Gulf region within a wider global context. To that end, the paper is structured in three parts. First, a theoretical exploration looks at the changing nature of museums in the 21st century and the proliferation of art districts as a way to attract creatives to the city and in turn spur economic and urban development. The paper highlights a series of related problems such as the “ghettoization of culture” and presents the case of the Bilbao museum as a potential solution for avoiding such issues. Another suggestion pertains to the involvement of local stakeholders and the broader community as a way to minimize exclusionary tendencies, noting the case of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District. Second, the paper briefly reviews the global proliferation of creative districts highlighting the distinction between planned and organic developments. The third and main part of the paper shifts the discussion to the Gulf Arab states, where the proliferation of museums and art districts is presented in detail, setting their development within a larger critical framework and situating them within a wider global context. The paper concludes by arguing that Gulf cities could be at the forefront of a cultural renaissance.

The AGSIW Gulf Arts and Culture Series

The past five years have witnessed tremendous growth in the creative fields in the Gulf Arab states. This paper is part of AGSIW’s Gulf Arts and Culture series, covering these advances and evaluating their impact: on social change, and on the global perception and representation of the Gulf Arab states.