Detail of ‘The 500 Arhats’ (2012) by Takashi Murakami
Detail of ‘The 500 Arhats’ (2012) by Takashi Murakami in Mathaf’s Al Riwaq space

The tiny, energy-rich state of Qatar is increasingly in the news. Politically, it has not hesitated to step into the thorniest conflicts – most recently sending troops to Libya and recommending the arming of Syrian rebels. It has attempted mediation in political hot-spots such as Yemen, Ethiopia, Indonesia and even Palestine. Its record on education is impressive: the emir’s second wife (of three), Sheikha Mozah, has been driving forward a programme of bringing US university branch campuses into the capital Doha’s Education City, as well as campaigning in many other fields.

Qatari money, through its $85bn investment fund, washes into all corners of enterprise, from Volkswagen and Harrods to Paris St Germain Football Club. And the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, funds the broadcasting network Al Jazeera.

Qatar is also making waves in the cultural field. It was the first Gulf state to open a “starchitect”-designed museum – the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) by I.M. Pei, which was inaugurated in 2008 – and holds a superb collection of Islamic art. While neighbouring Abu Dhabi has slowed down plans for museums in its Saadiyat Island Cultural District, Qatar has opened Mathaf, a museum of modern Arab and Middle-Eastern art, albeit in a temporary building. It has also sponsored significant exhibitions at home and abroad and is buying extensively in the modern and contemporary art field, as well as hiring outside specialists to drive forward the cultural programme.

A key figure in all this is the emir’s daughter, 28-year-old Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al-Thani, who now heads the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA). She is thought to be behind the ambitious cultural programme and much of the buying that is making the headlines. She has recruited Christie’s former chairman Ed Dolman as executive director of the QMA and Jean-Paul Engelen, formerly a contemporary art specialist at Christie’s, as director of public projects. Another former Christie’s specialist, Guy Bennett, is widely believed to buy for Qatar.

‘Black Ceremony’ explosion event (2011) by Cai Guo-Qiang
‘Black Ceremony’ explosion event (2011) by Cai Guo-Qiang, Arab Museum of Modern Art

Last month, Qatar was reported to have spent upwards of $250m to acquire the last Cézanne “Card Players” in private hands – the other four post-Impressionist masterpieces from this series are in prestigious institutions such as the Musée d’Orsay and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other art purchases last year are thought to include a group of 11 Rothkos; at least some of the $400m Sonnabend estate with works by Koons and Lichtenstein; and a $63.5m Warhol. The Economist has reported that Qatar is widely believed to be giving third-party guarantees at some auctions (meaning that it contracts to buy a work for an agreed price, and makes some money if the work sells over that price). But Qatar never comments on its art purchases, so all this is rumour and those who work with or for the QMA have to sign strict confidentiality agreements.

The support that Qatar is giving to exhibitions abroad and in Doha is, by contrast, completely public. Having funded the Murakami show in Versailles in 2010, Qatar recently unveiled a vast new Murakami exhibition in Mathaf’s purpose-built Al Riwaq space near the Museum of Islamic Art. To say this is a show-stopper is understatement. For a start, it is huge, with his largest painting to date: at 100m long, it wraps round three sides of the main gallery. Visitors are greeted by a vast blow-up of the artist himself – not for nothing is the show titled Ego. Seven-foot statues tower in one room, standing on flashing bases. Smiley-faced flower people in psychedelic colours, snaggle-toothed Kaikai Kikis and scowling Daruma gods complete the show.

Another big event is the Cai Guo Qiang exhibition, which runs until May 26. Daytime fireworks lit up the sky with multicoloured streamers in an “explosion event” at the opening, while inside the exhibition space three boats rock gently in water as fog swirls around them. Two are local Houris but the third, an eight-metre-long Chinese junk, was brought from China in a shipping container. Coming up is a Damien Hirst exhibition that Qatar will host in 2013, after sponsoring a Hirst show at Tate Modern that begins on April 4 this year.

View of Richard Serra’s 7 and the Museum of Islamic Art
View of Richard Serra’s 7 and the Museum of Islamic Art

Now installed on the Doha cornice is a 24-metre-high sculpture by Richard Serra titled “7”, the artist’s first public work in the Middle East, while Louise Bourgeois’ nine-metre-high spider stands in the Qatar Convention Centre. Next year will also see an exhibition on ancient Olympia and the history of the Olympic Games.

It is interesting to try to work out what links these cultural initiatives – between, for example, Murakami, a brash showman par excellence, and the far more subtle work of, say, Louise Bourgeois; between a show such as last year’s Told Untold Retold, an intellectual exploration through the eyes of contemporary Middle Eastern artists, and the more cynical commercialism of Damien Hirst.

The QMA and indeed the Qatari royal family are unforthcoming about the “why?” behind all this. Some clues could be gleaned from a speech made by Sheikha Mayassa at the opening of the Cai Guo Qiang exhibition: “Part of the mission of Mathaf, and of the entire QMA, is to expand people’s ideas about art and culture in this region – to show that the story is bigger, more exciting and more surprising than might be supposed.” Mathaf’s director, Wassan Al-Khudhairi, admits that: “We’re sort of learning as we go along, since this is the first modern contemporary art museum in Doha.

“We’re using the first years to try out different types of programming and events that can engage, to see what works and doesn’t work.” Certainly, the Murakami show has been a smash hit, and is packed with visitors.

“Qatar wants to be a cultural hub, and perhaps we should just judge it by what it is doing,” says Dr Venetia Porter, assistant keeper, department of the Middle East, at the British Museum: “It is taking fantastic initiatives in this field.” As for the perceived secrecy about its art purchases, she says: “This is the way in much of the Middle East. You don’t explain, you just wait until you are ready before revealing your hand.”

One question often asked is where Qatar will eventually show its treasure-chest of art purchases. Because of the intense secrecy surrounding this subject, it is not even clear whether works such as the Cézanne were bought privately by the royal family, or for the QMA. The new National Museum, designed by Jean Nouvel, will be an ethnographic and historical museum, and will not show art (except possibly works by Qatari artists).

For the moment no plans have been announced for other art museums, and even the expected new home for Mathaf remains unannounced. But hints have been dropped in the past about plans for other institutions, and Qatar already has rich holdings in some fields such as antiquities, photography and natural history. These were acquired by Sheikh Saud Al-Thani, a relative of the emir, who built much of the collection now in the MIA, and commissioned the building itself. He also had plans for a photography museum by Santiago Calatrava, which stalled but may now again go ahead.

What is certain is that the coming 2022 World Cup, which Qatar will host, will be focusing minds and it seems likely that between now and then some stunning new cultural initiatives will be revealed.

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