A Sheika’s Gamble on Art: Growing Reform in Qatar

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Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani

Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (photo by TEDxPhotos)

Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani

Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (photo by TEDxPhotos)

The name Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani will be known to future Qataris and maybe to Arabs everywhere in the Middle East as a paradigm changer, someone who changed the very fabric of her culture for the better in radical ways. Or her reputation will be one far more common in that unsettled region – failed reformer. This is because the Sheika, the sister of Qatar’s new emir, is risking billions of dollars on a grand scheme to reform Qatar through art acquisition.

This is a difficult situation to appreciate. The Sheika would certainly not define the new art collection that she oversees as the chairwoman of the Qatar Museum Authority as reforming in purpose. And Qatar is busy with other schemes to increase its influence far beyond its tiny Persian Gulf emirate through massive spending and displays of wealth. We have only to think of Al Jazeera, effectively an extension of the Qatari foreign ministry.

But Al Jazeera’s job is to influence hearts and minds on political issues in a slick packaging. Reform is just the coating on the propaganda pill, since real freedom of the press is not exactly what’s blowing through Qatar.

The art collection is a different story. The Sheika is on tear, spending approximately a billion dollars a year to amass a world class art collection. By the way, that’s contemporary art as in not Islamic or indigenous. For instance, she set auction records for Mark Rothko ($70 million) and was responsible for the wildly expensive “Card Players” by Cezanne purchased in 2011 for $250 million.

How does art actually go about reforming? Art doesn’t promise freedom, but with a virbant cultural scene and institutions, democracy is better protected. It also crucially affects perception. And when you’re viewed differently, your behavior can change and shape itself to the new image. So, is the Sheika planting real seeds of change with all those billions in art money? Only time will tell, like the passing of sand through an hourglass.