News & Reports

The Emirates Gradually Reopen to Arts and Culture

Updated: 04 Aug 2020

DUBAI—Many of the United Arab Emirates have made it part of their global brand to showcase arts and cultural institutions, from comedy clubs to highbrow museums. As in other parts of the world, the novel coronavirus pandemic shut many of these institutions down. Now each emirate is going its own way in trying to reopen and reinvigorate these institutions.

Dubai has invested millions in its cultural offerings, from the grand Dubai Opera, to the multi-purpose Coca-Cola Arena, which opened last year. Guy Ngata, the arena’s chief executive officer, says getting the arts field back on its feet is critical for many reasons. 

In the United Kingdom, data have shown that for every £1 spent on ticket sales, an auxiliary £5 is spent in the economy elsewhere. 

“There is no doubt that a similar parallel exists globally for the live events industry,” says Ngata. “When fans purchase tickets to live events there is a natural flow on to complementary business activity such as transport, hospitality, merchandising, accommodation. … Ticket sales are the initial touch point to further expenditure in the economy.” 

Located in the heart of the City Walk area of Dubai, the arena opened to great fanfare last June and already has brought in international artists like John Legend and Maroon 5. It has also showcased a bevy of Arab acts, who will very much be part of the “new normal,” Ngata says. 

“This could well be a time we look even more closely at local Arab artists as well as locally based talent,” he says, as coronavirus precautions have made bringing international talent more challenging. “As we saw in our Be Live in Dubai campaign in the height of lockdown, the city does have a huge amount of great performers, so there are definitely avenues to look at locally too.”

Dubai’s Arts District Is ‘Kind of Open’

Alserkal Avenue, Dubai’s arts and culture district, was among the first areas to reopen after the emirate eased a strict lockdown imposed during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The district, which encompasses around 80 organizations and individuals from artists to musicians, coffee shops to galleries, is a pivotal part of the city’s arts scene. It recently reopened with the slogan “We are (kind of) open,” acknowledging that things aren’t quite back to normal, but almost.

Reopening fast was crucial, says Vilma Jurkute, the district’s director. “I think it was essential for the economic stability and livelihood of our businesses and our community.” 

For three months, all the spaces within Alserkal Avenue were given a rent reprieve, in return for their supporting the local community in some way under its Pay It Forward campaign. “We view ourselves as a living community so for us to recast our operational model is not that much of a complex task, because you have this innate ability and agility to adapt,” Jurkute explains.

“When fans purchase tickets to live events there is a natural flow on to complementary business activity such as transport, hospitality, merchandising, accommodation. … Ticket sales are the initial touch point to further expenditure in the economy.”

Guy Ngata  
Coca-Cola arena’s chief executive officer

The arts provide a space for the community to come together and heal collectively, she says, hence they remain a critical part of the social ecosystem. From more collaborations locally and internationally, to rethinking the sector’s relationship to the economy, there will be a lasting impact of this period, far beyond Covid-19.

Gail Clough, the founder of the region’s oldest comedy club, Laughter Factory, says this community healing is a major reason people have been eagerly attending since the club reopened this month. The business has made a fairly seamless shift from crowded theater-style performances in hotels to a cabaret format, to allow for social distancing, and ensure the show goes on. 

Comedy offers a sense of escape from the darker climate of the pandemic, she says. “The public are dying to laugh again.” 

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Ticket sales reflect that. This month’s run of shows has had to add extra dates to accommodate demand. “We could go on forever like this,” Clough says. “It’s not destructive for us. There’s a huge difference between us and music events. For jazz or opera, the same thing could work for them as it does for us, but not for all kinds of music or events.”

For humanity as a whole, arts and culture are “part of our being” says Jurkute, something that through the toughest of times, people look towards for inspiration. “Everyone couldn’t wait to enter galleries again,” she said. “People miss that togetherness. You still need that physical coming together, where you can experience that community feeling, and arts and culture is one of the key proxies that enables us to do that.”

Online Exhibits in Other Emirates

Abu Dhabi, Dubai’s richer neighbor which is less dependent on tourism, has taken a more conservative approach to letting outsiders in, including those who reside in other emirates.

The United Arab Emirates’ capital, Abu Dhabi is home to an array of cultural attractions, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi. But with people outside the emirate needing Covid-19 tests to enter and long queues at the border, it is still all but closed. As a result, Abu Dhabi’s residents essentially have a private viewing of some of the world’s greatest artworks.

Manuel Rabate, director of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, says Covid-19 has in fact offered the arts world a chance to transform. The museum of the future will continue to move beyond gallery walls, he says, offering a balance of physical and virtual experiences. 

“We believe in arts and culture as a powerful means of connection and crucial to our overall well-being, especially during times of crisis.”

Manal Ataya  
director general of Sharjah Museums

The iconic space, designed by architect Jean Nouvel, used the 100 days it was closed to accelerate its digital programs and examine how it can provide more access to visitors online, through collaborations with artists and brands. 

“Online collections are key for museums around the world and are now even more important in ensuring that our cultural treasures continue to be accessible,” says Rabate. “Louvre Abu Dhabi will continue to connect with art lovers around the globe through its many digital programs that offer free access to more content through virtual tours, video, audio and downloadable activities.” 

“Digital experiences are here to stay and will continue to be crucial in how museums connect with audiences,” he says.

In the emirate of Sharjah, the visual arts are at the heart of the city’s soul. The Sharjah Museums Authority has been doing a phased reopening of its museums, eager to get things back to a semblance of normality as soon as possible, albeit under new methods.  

“We believe in arts and culture as a powerful means of connection and crucial to our overall well-being, especially during times of crisis,” says Manal Ataya, director general of Sharjah Museums. “The power of art to uplift our spirits and thus unite us proves the need for supporting all forms of art, whether visual, musical, or literary.” 

While virtual exhibitions that were rolled out during the coronavirus shutdowns offered unprecedented public access to collections and exhibitions, the unique experience of physically being present and seeing artworks won’t be replaced, says Ataya. However, both experiences can complement one another.

In the spirit of this hybrid approach, the museums authority has started more online projects and enhanced its virtual tours, including A Century in Flux, an exhibition launched in cooperation with Barjeel Art Foundation, and Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh’s Homebound: A Journey in Photography exhibition, in addition to the Sharjah Art Museum’s permanent collection of modern and contemporary Arab art

“We have additionally posted some of our Islamic collections on the Museum With No Frontiers website,” Ataya adds.

Advantages of the Online Approach

Khalil Abdulwahid Hassan, director of fine arts at Dubai Culture, agrees that there have been advantages of the more online approach to the arts, including reaching wider audiences. 

As events from exhibitions to workshops went online over recent months, Hassan says many people participated in events that, before Covid-19, they might have considered inconvenient to visit. “Through the digital platform, it was much easier for people to attend from home,” he says.  

Other positive outcomes, he says, include a greater degree of collaboration between organizations, a greater focus on locally based artists and performers, and a stronger appreciation for arts in the long term. Collaboration between the private and public sectors has been a major boost, he says, including work alongside Art Jameel, one of the biggest art groups in Dubai, as well as the Ministry of Culture, which is now working with various entities across the emirates to ensure the sector survives beyond Covid-19.

As museums across the emirates open up, albeit with social distancing measures, Hassan says the real-life experience is the essence of the sector. The emotional and the social aspects are the continuing legacy of the arts.

“Definitely with art it has a different feeling in real life,” he says. There is “nothing like going to an exhibition and meeting the artist himself to know what he’s talking about and then seeing his artwork completely differently.” 

One thing uniting the industry today is the belief that arts and culture are at the core of the human experience. “We can’t forget how important live experiences are for the population and how sharing a live experience with your friends and family is vitally important to our way of life,” says Ngata, the Coca-Cola Arena’s chief. “So when we talk about how important keeping the sector alive is, it works for both the economy but also providing experiences and memories for fans.”

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