On the UAE art map, Dubai sits at an interesting juncture between its neighbours: the museum-rich, non-profit, grassroots initiatives of Sharjah, and the big scale, affluent government-backed foundations of Abu Dhabi and Saadiyat Island. From the Sharjah Biennial to the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, non-profit projects have long been appreciated in the Emirates, yet, in the face of its commercial gallery scene, Dubai has been somewhat slower on the uptake. There have been forays, such as the Salsali Private Museum, as well as DUCTAC and Tashkeel, yet the reality is that non-profit entities remain few and far between in an arts scene bursting at the seams with galleries, auctions and a major art fair.
Having opened in March 2016 in Alserkal Avenue’s new expansion, the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation is a private museum that champions what founder Deborah Najar describes as “entrepreneurial philanthropy”, an approach where bigger does not necessarily mean better, and the focus is on programming and a tight curatorial vision. In its neat and airy Bauhaus-inspired space, designed by the famed Mario Jossa (coaxed out of retirement by Najar), it displays the expansive collection of Najar’s late father, Jean-Paul, and features works by trailblazing minimalist artists including James Bishop, Suzanne Harris and Linda Francis.
As with all non-profits, Najar’s challenge has been two-fold: to raise awareness as well as funds. “My late father and I had been in discussions with a number of cities to open a space, but with the economic crisis and the turmoil it caused, we never found the right place,” explains Najar. “When Alserkal announced its expansion, we very quickly realised this would be a brilliant match. Here, we’re able to stand out, as a permanent destination for Western art, plus there is a natural footfall in the Avenue and it really feels like we’re at the heart of where everything is happening.”
While Jean-Paul himself sadly passed away a few months before the Foundation’s official opening, Najar’s approach has been pragmatic from the start: to honour her father’s legacy through a comprehensive programme of educational and outreach programmes, as well as (selectively) adding to the existing collection. “We basically approached this as we would a business that would never make money,” she laughs. “You have to be very structured and organised and have a clear long-term plan. We have been lucky here in the UAE to exist within an environment in which the government supports private initiatives like ours.”
To raise funds, the Foundation operates across three axes: corporate sponsorships, rental of the space, and the opening of a museum store, which stocks products from MOMA, books by David Zwirner, and in-house merchandise from the collection. However, one of the main challenges for any non-profit is running costs. Ironically, the UAE’s tax free system means there are few fiscal incentives for corporations to donate, so the focus is very much on social responsibility. “I think we’re very much breaking ground,” muses Najar. “This can be frustrating sometimes, but it’s also exciting. To witness the moment somebody suddenly understands that there is value to supporting the arts is very rewarding.” To date, support has come from grants as well as two main corporate sponsors, AXA Art and G4S, alongside partnerships supporting individual events and programmes.
“Our collection is built systematically and methodically by a man who spent 40 years really thinking and supporting artists and having incredible conversations with them,” explains Najar. “Adding to such a collection is a huge responsibility, so to date we’ve focused on adding to the holdings of existing artists, perhaps filling in a period or a work that has been missing, or commissioning a piece from them if they are visiting Dubai.” Now the Foundation is turning its focus to supporting a second generation. “The discussion we always have is: ‘Would Jean-Paul Najar acquire this work?’” explains Najar. “It is exciting to be exploring the younger generation of artists who have been influenced by these post-Minimalists in our collection. It’s very delicate territory – this is a very well-thought out collection so one doesn’t want to disperse it too much.”
As ever, the more funding that is available, the more the Foundation is able to do. The only UAE museum to be registered with ICOM (the International Council of Museums), the Foundation is also part of the Global Private Museum Network, “which is just brilliant,” says Najar. “Last September we were able to do an exchange with ESMoA an LA-based member museum,” says Najar. This resulted in a two-week visit from an LA-based museum educator who helped them prepare their programming so that it would be firmly rooted in the collection. “This is where we are able to engage the community more and bring them back into the space,” says Najar.
As it nears its one-year anniversary, the Foundation is just getting started. “We’re putting together an artist-run New York Show of work from the 1970s,” explains Najar. “That time in New York really was a Renaissance period, during which sculptors, painters, dancers, composers – everybody worked together completely outside of the commercial arena and completely isolated from galleries and finances. I think it mirrors the current Dubai expansion in the arts in an interesting way – these two moments in time have a lot of parallels as moments when new ground was being broken.”