More than $70 million for Rothko’s “White Center” in 2007, a high-water mark for that artist.
More than $20 million later that year for a Damien Hirst pill cabinet, then a record for a living artist.
And $250 million for Cézanne’s “Card Players” in 2011, the highest known price ever paid for a painting.
Given the secrecy of the art market, few knew at the time who had laid out such unprecedented sums.
But it has become increasingly clear that those masterpieces and many more have been purchased by Qatar, a tiny Persian Gulf country with enormous wealth and cultural ambitions to match: it is buying art at a level never seen before.
“They’re the most important buyers of art in the market today,” said Patricia G. Hambrecht, the chief business development officer for Phillips auction house. “The amount of money being spent is mind-boggling.”
The purchasing is directed through intermediaries by Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority and a sister to Qatar’s new emir. At age 30 she has become one of the most influential players in the art world.
No one knows exactly how much Sheika al Mayassa has spent on behalf of her family or the museum authority since she was named chairwoman by her father, the former emir, in 2006. But experts estimate the acquisition budget reaches $1 billion a year and say the Qataris have used it to secure a host of undisputed modern and contemporary masterpieces by Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.
Where all this art will eventually end up remains something of a mystery. But it seems clear that, just as Qatar has used its oil riches to boost its influence in the Middle East with ventures like arming Syrian rebels, its wealth is also being deployed to help the country become a force in the world of culture.
This effort to create a first-class contemporary art collection, essentially from scratch, has buoyed the international art market, experts say, and contributed to some of the escalation in prices.
Until Qatar’s 2007 purchase, for example, the most expensive Rothko ever sold at auction (“Homage to Matisse”) had drawn $22 million in 2005, less than one-third of the price Qatar paid. In 2011 the $250 million spent for “Card Players” was four times the highest public price ever paid for a work by that artist.
“When they finish their buying program and withdraw from the market,” said David Nash, a New York dealer who spent 35 years as a top executive with Sotheby’s, “they will leave a big hole which I don’t see anyone else ready to fill at their level.”
In recent years the Qatar Museums Authority has created three high-profile museums in the capital, Doha, by the architects Jean Nouvel, I. M. Pei and Jean-François Bodin. But each of these projects — a new home for the National Museum of Qatar now under construction; the Museum of Islamic Art; and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art — is focused on regional art and artists. So experts expect that a good portion of the Western collection being amassed will become part of a new contemporary art institution in the country, though officials have yet to announce that.
The annual acquisition budgets of major museums typically amount to just a small fraction of what Qatar is spending. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, spent $32 million to acquire art for the fiscal year that ended in June 2012; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, $39 million.
While other gulf states like Abu Dhabi and Dubai are also trying to become cultural capitals, those two members of the United Arab Emirates have teamed up with existing institutions — namely the Louvre and the Guggenheim — to establish themselves. Qatar, meanwhile, is going it alone.
“They see themselves as an international center for many cultures,” said Allen L. Keiswetter, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “It establishes them as another reason to be a destination for travel, for business. If you want to attract people, you need to have a reason to go there.”
Sheika al Mayassa declined to be interviewed for this article, but she has made limited remarks about the role art will play in Qatar’s future.
“We are revising ourselves through our cultural institutions and cultural development,” she said in a 2010 TED Talk. “Art becomes a very important part of our national identity.”
In an interview that year with The New York Times, the sheika suggested that establishing art institutions might challenge Western preconceptions about Muslim societies.
At 29, Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani is the art world’s most powerful woman. Is she using her money well?
THE starkly beautiful Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha, Qatar, is a fine setting for a dinner. Last month 200 dealers, collectors and curators gathered there for the opening of the first showing in the Middle East of work by Takashi Murakami. The hostess of the evening sat laughing with the pony-tailed Japanese artist on her right. On her left was Dakis Joannou, a Greek-Cypriot industrialist and avid collector of the work of Jeff Koons, an American sculptor. Larry Gagosian, whom many regard as the most powerful art dealer in the world, was placed at a table nearby, with the other art dealers.
Few people could get away with asking Mr Gagosian to dinner halfway around the globe, only to sit him with the rest of the class. Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani is one. The emir of Qatar's daughter has become one of the most talked-about figures of the international art world: collector, patron, cultural advocate. Mr Gagosian is not the only one who would like to catch her eye.
Until the 1980s Qatar was little more than a sandy backwater. Even its native pearl industry was on its last legs. The discovery of oil and, later, of the third-largest gas reserves in the world have made the pear-shaped peninsula unusually rich. In 2010 its tiny population had the third highest per capita GDP in the world and its economy grew by 16.6%, faster than any other. But even Qatar's oil and gas will one day run out. Transforming the country from a hydrocarbon economy to a knowledge economy in time for the post-oil afterlife is the local mantra.
The emir's blueprint, “Qatar National Vision 2030”, is leading to new schools and universities (in an area of the capital known as Education City), as well as a post-production centre to service the international film industry, and even a paperless hospital. New museums to showcase Qatar's collections of Islamic art, modernist Arab painting, photography, armour and natural history are all part of the plan.
For the past 50 years the Qatari royal family has been avidly buying art. Well-advised, knowledgeable and said to possess an excellent eye, Sheikh Saud, a cousin of Sheikha Mayassa, sought the very best illuminated manuscripts, carpets, scientific instruments and Mughal jewellery that came on to the market. The extent of his acquisitions finally became clear when the Islamic museum opened in 2008. Designed by I.M. Pei, the MIA is now considered by many to be one of the half-dozen best museums in the world.
At the same time Sheikh Saud's older brother, Sheikh Hassan, was buying 20th-century Arabic painting. Many of the artists were trained in Europe and the 6,000-piece collection at Mathaf, a modern-art museum in Education City, has a derivative feel. For a fledgling nation the paintings are important as an historical record.
Now the call to culture has fallen to a new generation. Sheikha Mayassa was a tomboyish, competitive child, the result, she says, of having two older brothers. Encouraged by her mother, a middle-class Qatari educated in a mixed school in Cairo (who is now a force for education reform), she learned French, English and her native Arabic, and went on to study political science and literature at Duke University in North Carolina.
Two years ago she and her husband, who had both been doing postgraduate work at Columbia University, returned home. Sheikha Mayassa's job, as the head of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), was to turn Qatar into a cultural powerhouse—a wellspring for exploring what art is and what it means for human beings to create it. “Above all, we want the QMA to be a ‘cultural instigator', a catalyst of arts projects worldwide,” a trustee says.
Sheikha Mayassa works in a spacious office on the top floor of the MIA. Its walls are lined in pale beech wood, and behind her long desk stretches an array of framed family photographs. Dressed in a black abaya, her hair covered, she wears hardly any jewellery other than a childlike bracelet made of coloured thread with a single gold charm, a tiny Arabic coffeepot or dallah. It retails for $82 in the museum shop.
The QMA is a government body, but it remains wholly a family affair. In her first major interview, Sheikha Mayassa explains: “The QMA is very much my father's baby. He wanted to create something…to connect with the community, to create a culture dialogue within society. We report directly to him. The nice thing about my father is that he doesn't interfere in the day-to-day business. We present the strategy, and once he agrees with the strategy and the vision we are given the authority and freedom to go ahead and execute them in the way we think fit.”
The QMA is not part of the Culture Ministry, though they do co-operate. The museum agency works with local franchises of foreign universities, such as University College London, on arts administration and museum management. It recruits heavily from abroad, especially at a senior level. The director of the public-arts programme is a Dutchman, Jean-Paul Engelen, who came from Christie's. Edward Dolman, Christie's one-time British chief executive, runs Sheikha Mayassa's office. The director of the MIA is 32-year-old Aisha Al Khater, the first Qatari woman to gain a degree in music. But the four specialist curators below her are all foreign. Two more are about to join them, an expert on manuscripts and another on coins.
The QMA budget is not made public. Decisions on funding and acquisitions are taken by a small group at the top of the organisation. Although she did not say so in her interview, Sheikha Mayassa insists these remain secret for fear their ideas might be stolen by such states as Sharjah or Saudi Arabia. For those outside this inner circle decisions can seem arbitrary and confusing. Two MIA directors left after a relatively short time and earlier this month Wassan al-Khudairi announced that, after just a year as the head of Mathaf, she too was returning to academic life.
Attracting local audiences is a priority, the Sheikha says. The MIA, with its grand, forbidding approach (pictured), is not welcoming to the tens of thousands of migrant workers who flock to Qatar from Pakistan and other parts of South Asia. To help counter that, the QMA aims to open up its museums more to schoolchildren. It also wants to encourage local artists and to commission sculpture and photography by both Qatari and international artists for the new airport that opens in December and the vast new Sidra medical centre that will be finished probably next year.
In addition to the Islamic and modern Arabic art museums, which now fall under the QMA, a new interactive museum of sport and the Olympics is slowly taking shape to coincide with Qatar's hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022. The biggest project, though, is the construction of a national museum for Qatar, which will open in 2016. Its French architect, Jean Nouvel, has used the local desert rose as a motif for the exterior walls. Twelve interior galleries will tell the 300,000 Qataris their national story, from prehistoric times through to the development of their pearl industry and the discovery of oil and gas, exploring local traditions about the desert, food, fishing, falconry and folklore.
The QMA is very good at borrowing from other museums. The MIA version of the “Gifts of the Sultan” show that started last year in Los Angeles includes objects from Russia's Hermitage museum that the American exhibition did not have. A Qatari version of the British Museum's new “Haj” show will very likely have objects from the Topkapi Palace museum that were blocked by the Turkish authorities. In response to a British block on taking home two major art works that the QMA bought at auction in London, the Qataris have skilfully negotiated long-term loan agreements with two British museums that will also provide help in training Qatari staff.
Whereas nearby Abu Dhabi is franchising outlets of the Louvre and the Guggenheim, Qatar is growing its own museums. Sheikha Mayassa's use of its Islamic and Orientalist collections to explain the region's history makes sense. Less clear is why she has been buying Western art. Over the past seven years the Al Thani family is estimated to have spent at least $1 billion on Western painting, sculpture and installations, including the last privately held version of Paul Cezanne's “The Card Players” for over $250m—a record price for a work of art. That acquisition, which took place in early 2011 but was reported only last month, is just the latest in a series of purchases that includes some of the very best works made by Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst, a number of them bought for record prices. Speculation about the Al Thanis' art buying has been fuelled by the family's blank refusal to confirm or deny any of the rumours and its reluctance to clarify whether its acquisitions are private or on behalf of the state—or even to explain how they might benefit Qatar's citizens.
Sheikha Mayassa is keen to bring some big names to Doha. A Murakami show at the Palace of Versailles in 2010 led to the Japanese artist's Doha retrospective. Mr Hirst's show at Tate Modern in London, which opens on April 4th and which is costing the QMA more than £2m to sponsor, will give rise next year to a Hirst show in Qatar, another first for the region.
In order for the QMA to be more than a rich girl's plaything, Sheikha Mayassa will have to do better than put expensive foreign baubles on display in her homeland. She needs to be far more innovative and focused in choosing between the hundreds of exhibitions the QMA gets offered. Last year's showing at the MIA of German Baroque from Dresden made no sense. Cai Guo-Qiang's evocative exploration, now at Mathaf, of the ancient links between China and the Gulf is new and original.
An absolute monarchy like Qatar is a hard place in which to encourage the daring, irreverence and subversiveness that is the hallmark of a truly artistic nature. Not everyone in Qatar is persuaded of art's importance. The local blogosphere is full of suggestions that the country would do better with a Formula One racetrack or another football stadium. And the recent sudden announcement that Qatar University would switch to teaching in Arabic instead of English is a sign that conservative nationalists have real power here. In her introduction to the Tate's Hirst catalogue, Sheikha Mayassa writes that “Art—even controversial art—can unlock communication between diverse nations, peoples and histories.” The years ahead will test her resolve—Qatar's too
Qatar’s ruler Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani officially transferred power yesterday to his 33-year-old son, Shaikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani—his second son by his second wife, and one of the emir’s 24 children.
The Al-Thani family has ruled Qatar since its founding in 1850, and not all of the successions have been so smooth: The newly retired emir wrested control of the country from his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, when he was 43.
Below is a family tree of the dynasty’s current generation. Details of the Al-Thani lineage come from Royal Ark.
Sheikha Al Mayassa, sister of the emir of Qatar, is by more than one account the most powerful person in the art world due to her position as head of the free-spending and ridiculously well-funded Qatar Museums Authority. Whenever the sheikha is in town, ”everyone from government ministers to mayors queue up to pay their respects,” said ArtReview, which ranked her at the top of its Power 100 list of the art world’s most influential people.
The New York Post, citing unidentified sources, claimed that she was the anonymous buyer behind last week’s record $142 million purchase of a Francis Bacon triptych—a report almost immediately refuted by the gallery that purchased the painting on behalf of an unnamed buyer. Still, it’s easy to see why the 30-year-old sheika, whose official title is Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, attracted such speculation. Snapping up the painting would be a characteristic move in her quest to turn tiny and fabulously wealthy Qatar into a global destination for fine art.
Quartz’s attempts to reach the sheika for comment via phone and email at the Qatar Museums Authority were unsuccessful. But here’s what we know about her background, her methods, and her biggest trophies to date.
She’s well-educated and worldly
Her mother is a middle-class Qatari who studied in Cairo, but the sheika attended primary and secondary school in Doha. In addition to her native Arabic, she speaks French and English, and double majored in Political Science and Literature at Duke University, then received a master’s in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. She is married to Sheik Jassim bin Abdulaziz al-Thani, a cousin.
Robert De Niro used to be her boss
The sheikha apparently enjoys movies as well as artwork. She interned at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions, which led her to launch the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in her homeland. That event ran from 2009 until 2012, with the partnership ending this year.
Her art budget is staggeringly large
Ultimately, her power derives from control of the world’s biggest art budget. The Qatar Museums Authority, which she heads, is said to spend a whopping $1 billion per year on artwork, dwarfing outlays from famous institutions like MoMA and the Tate Modern. The QMA administers Doha’s IM Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, the National Museum of Qatar, and several other institutions.
She gave a TED talk about bridging cultures through art
“Art becomes a very important part of our national identity,” she said in the December 2010 presentation, during which she wore a traditional black abaya. “Qatar is trying to grow its national museums through an organic process from within. Our mission is of culture, integration and independence.” She continued, “We don’t want to have what there is in the West. We don’t want their collections. We want to build our own identities, our own fabric, create an open dialogue so that we share our ideas and share yours with us.”
She’s paying huge sums for masterpieces
While the sheikha has said she wants to focus on Islamic art, her acquisitions send a different message. In recent years, Qatar has paid $70 million for a Rothko, $250 million for a Cézanne, and $20 million for a Damien Hirst pill cabinet—the most anyone’s ever shelled out for a work by a living artist. Qatar also has works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jeff Koons. ”They’re the most important buyers of art in the market today,” Patricia G. Hambrecht, the chief business development officer for Phillips auction house, told the New York Times. “The amount of money being spent is mind-boggling.”
That leads to a question: Are the purchases, details of which are closely held, made on behalf of the museums or Qatar’s royal family itself? Representatives do not comment on conjecture about acquisitions, or even ”explain how they might benefit Qatar’s citizens,” the Economist reported.
Not everyone in Qatar is open-minded about art
Some art projects installed in the capital, Doha, have been quite daring. The sheika commissioned Hirst to create 14 giant, bronze, anatomically correct sculptures depicting a child developing in a uterus. The project, called “The Miraculous Journey,” was successfully installed and unveiled outside a women’s and children’s health center.
But two ancient sculptures of young athletes to be displayed in Qatar’s National Archaeological Museum were recently sent back to Greece after objections over their nudity. And then there was the outdoor statue that depicted French soccer player Zinédine Zidane head-butting an Italian counterpart during the 2006 World Cup final. It was was removed last month after complaints that it violated Islamic principles of not depicting the human form.
She may have encouraged Syria’s first lady to seek refuge in Qatar
Last year The Guardian published a trove of emails purportedly taken from Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma. Among the correspondence was one in which the sheikha seemed to encourage the first lady and her husband to step down and seek refuge in Qatar.
In a message with the disarming subject line “hey!” the sheikha wrote, “i honestly think that this is a good opportunity to leave and re-start a normal life – it cant be easy on the children, it can’t be easy on you!” She continued, “i know at times i am too blunt – but its because i care and consider you and the family as part of our own,” and added, “the region needs to stabilize, but not more than you need peace of mind.”
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