Last year news broke that the Qatari royal family paid a reported $250 million for one of Cézanne’s famed Card Players paintings (recently the subject of a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). The purchaser wasn’t all that surprising—the royal Al Thanis have been buying art voraciously over the past few years, and their holdings are said to include masterworks by Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons—but the price was. At over $100 million more than the highest-known figure ever paid for a work of art, it demonstrated just how far the tiny, oil-rich nation is willing to go to acquire the best pieces possible for its budding collection. And now that the monetary stakes have been raised, what’s next? The answer lies with the ever-evolving Qatar Museums Authority.
The royal family established the QMA in 2005 to function as a Smithsonian-like organization, housing several institutions, with more, purportedly, on the way. Its first new venue, the stunning I.M. Pei–designed Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), opened in 2008 to showcase one facet of the QMA’s remarkable collection (in addition to seeking Western masterpieces, the Al Thanis have been leading the charge for Islamic art and artifacts). The Mathaf Museum of Modern Arab Art opened in 2010, and the QMA recently broke ground on its third major endeavor, the Jean Nouvel–designed National Museum of Qatar, which is expected to be completed by 2015. All three buildings are located in the capital city of Doha, where the QMA has installed a new Richard Serra sculpture in MIA Park.
But what’s to become of the higher-profile acquisitions, the modern and contemporary masterpieces? When, if ever, will they go on view? “We’re building different museums that, at a certain stage, will come alive when the collection is substantial enough for that type of institution,” says Jean-Paul Engelen, the QMA’s director of public art programs. “At that point, it will be displayed.”
Still, the QMA remains mum on specific plans. “We don’t want to overpromise and under-deliver,” Engelen adds. “We want to take the time we need to create these things and do it step by step. We’re a young organization, and we’re still learning.”
The QMA is, in this regard, very different from other cultural ventures in the region, particularly in Abu Dhabi, where construction of Louvre and Guggenheim satellite museums has been repeatedly delayed. That said, the QMA has attracted some bad press.
The New York Times recently took the organization to task for not supporting the work of local artists. And while it’s true that the QMA has focused on the likes of Damien Hirst (by underwriting his current Tate Modern show) and Takashi Murakami (whose ambitious Murakami—Ego is on view at the QMA’s Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall through June 24), an effort is underway to engage the local community as well. An artist-residency program in the works will cater to local as well as regional and international artists, and one element of the next major show at Al Riwaq (scheduled to open in the fall) will be a juried display of pieces by artists living and working in Qatar. “Can we do better? I’m sure we can,” Engelen says. “But it needs to develop. Contemporary Qatari art is a new thing—people forget that.”
The art establishment appears to be on board, with such institutions as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum having already collaborated with the QMA on loans and exhibitions. But behind closed doors, some in the art world have raised concerns about the instability that persists throughout the region, especially in light of the Arab Spring. As one museum professional puts it, “The bigger question in the long term is: Will these institutions survive? And if they don’t, what happens to all those great works of art?”