While many large-scale culture centres and foundations across the UAE encourage educational initiatives, the scene has largely been dominated by commercially oriented activities and an emphasis on nurturing local talent on a global platform. Yet critical to continued growth and increased artistic gravitas is knowledge – and a select group of independent arts galleries, foundations and initiatives in Dubai have actively taken it upon themselves to offer the still-closing gap in arts education, of which even local schools only gently pursue. While not limited to the district, Alserkal Avenue has seen the gathering of several such efforts. Aside from its own Quoz Fest, rife with hands-on arts activities for all ages, Jean-Paul Najar Foundation (JPNF), thejamjar and Gulf Photo Plus provide workshops and courses, while galleries such as Carbon 12 host school tours, or The Third Line and Ayyam Gallery offer temporary home to pop-up adult art school, ArtExperts+.
“JPNF has three exhibitions a year, and our public and education programmes are designed around each exhibition, whether it’s in process, material, concept or theme,” shares Wafa Jadallah, director of JPNF, a private contemporary art museum. Since making Dubai it’s base to showcasing abstract European and American art from the 1960s to present, it has openly reinforced its dedication to being an educational resource and institution. Citing a current example, Jadallah outlines how their ongoing Jene Highstein show – an artist from their permanent collection – may be a sculptor, but drawing is essential to his practice. “So for our children’s programme, we have three workshops lined up,” explains Jadallah. “A drawing and sculpture workshop; a theatre workshop because Highstein was also very interested in theatre and did several set designs for performances that often used abstract forms as part of his design; and an archival workshop, where we teach children the importance of an archive and help them build one of their own.” She adds that Jean-Paul Najar, the collector after whom the space is named, “kept in close contact with many of his artists and they often sent him letters, postcard, texts they had written or were a part of, essays, articles, photo documentation. We incorporate our archive material into each exhibition and wanted to incorporate it into our education programme as well.”
Appealing to a broad audience is key – a notion that thejamjar and GPP keep firmly in mind, with GPP director Mohamed Somji sharing that the photography centre’s efforts are geared towards supporting emerging and established photographers, as well as helping form the artists of the future. Their workshops, classes and studio spaces are useable for all ages, but catered for specific events. JPNF applies a similar methodology. “At the start of each workshop, we do an activity we call ‘Eyeballing’,” shares Jadallah. “I choose an artwork on exhibit and the children are given five minutes to draw what they see. We then spend about 15 minutes talking about the work – what they see in regard to material, shape, texture, what they think the work means. They learn basic – or not so basic – art historical terms, like abstract, minimal. We also look at other artworks in the exhibition and compare and contrast. We speak in very simple terms so that children can understand.” This applies equally to the adults who partake in their activities, which include screenings, performances and panel discussions. “We do the same exercise for adults but more intensive. The ‘Eyeballing’ session is basically a short lesson on how to look at contemporary art.” Kourosh Nouri, co-founding director of Carbon 12, likewise echoes the importance of speaking to all ages and knowing your audience. “The German school comes several times a year, and the kids are very interested, and look forward to what they will see and the explanation that comes with it,” he shares. “For kids at that age, 12, 14, 16, 18, it’s extremely important to visit because we’re still in an emerging market with limited museums and that age is when the art sensitivity begins. The world of contemporary art crosses so many borders – social, political, cultural – and provides so much discussion material that it is mind-opening for them.” Nouri doesn’t limit his efforts to school visits to the gallery however, which features a highly international artist roster, and has given lectures at schools. “The kids are so open-minded and are one of the most amazing contemporary art audiences because they’re very receptive. You get incredible feedback!” he says. “I remember doing a small talk at a school and the way the kids were reacting… incredible!”
Sharing a tangible understanding that art history and contemporary art need exist hand-in-hand, “It’s best when our audiences make connections with what happened then and what is happening now in the art world,” says Jadallah. But it needn’t always necessitate a strict alignment – playing with the diversity within the Avenue as well as the environment and regional cultural values is a way to reinforce the wide reach of the arts, and further pique individual interest. “We had a event called ‘Food’ last Ramadan, in connection with our Artist Run New York: The Seventies exhibition,” recounts Jadallah. “The event was based on a conceptual restaurant by the same name that was started in New York by artists, Gordon-Matta Clark, Suzanne Harris – both artists are in our collection – and Carol Goodden in 1971. The restaurant was a meeting ground for artists where they met and did events, food performances and different art projects. We recreated some of the food that was presented back in the 1970s, and after the iftar we screened a documentary on the restaurant. It was a fabulous evening!”