This article is part of our special report on the Art for Tomorrow conference in the Italian cities of Florence and Solomeo.
DOHA, Qatar — The world of tomorrow feels very much alive today in the glittering, post-World Cup ambience of Qatar.
But for Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the past also defines Qatar. As chairwoman of the Qatar Museums board, she is a speaker at this year’s Art for Tomorrow conference in Italy, organized by the Democracy & Culture Foundation, in association with The New York Times. Sheikha Al Mayassa said she would specifically address the importance of heritage across the planet, the shared sense of how the past can inform the future and the ways different cultures can coexist in mutual respect to determine what defines art for the present and future.
In a recent interview in her sunlit office at the top of the newly refurbished Museum of Islamic Art, Sheikha Al Mayassa spoke about her interest in cultural heritage and the future of art in the Middle East and around the world.
She is a member of the Qatari royal family. (Her brother, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is the country’s current emir, and her father, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, ruled the country from 1995 until he abdicated in 2013.)
The family has reportedly purchased some of the most expensive artwork in the world, including Cezanne’s “Card Players” in 2011 for $250 million. She is at the forefront of Qatar’s high-profile place on the arts world stage and helped start Art for Tomorrow in 2015.
“When Art for Tomorrow began here in Qatar, we had two museums in our 25-year plan as we were just beginning our mandate,” she said. “We combined not just artists and creative people, but we brought in policymakers, planners and decision makers.”
This cohesive approach is at the core of Qatar’s vision for the future, most obviously in two huge museums slated to open in 2030. The Lusail Museum, at 560,000 square feet and designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, will hold one of the world’s most extensive collections of paintings, drawings, photography, sculptures, rare texts and applied arts, much of it from Qatar Museums’ so-called Orientalist collection by European painters who depicted the Muslim world.
“Lusail Museum: Tales of a Connected World,” an exhibition through Saturday at the Al Riwaq Gallery near the Museum of Islamic Art, was a preview of the planned museum, with hundreds of pieces of art, many of them from the royal family’s collection, as well as a model of the Lusail Museum, which will be the centerpiece of the ongoing development of the Lusail area, anchored by one of the several stadiums that were built for the World Cup last year.
Also in 2030, the country plans to open the Art Mill Museum, housed in a former flour mill and designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. The museum and arts complex, which will sit along the Doha waterfront, is going to incorporate the facade of the mill, with its soaring silos.
“We’re keeping the silos as part of our identity,” Sheikha Al Mayassa said. “I think buildings create an identity of place. Qatar is not a very big country geographically, so we want to preserve as much as we can.”
Coming from a country that is not widely associated with a rich history, given its searing climate on a peninsula that was for centuries largely uninhabitable year-round, Sheikha Al Mayassa said Qatar nevertheless had a rich heritage.
“If you go to the north of Qatar, we have a UNESCO site with ruins where you can walk and explore and see how people lived,” she explained. “If you visit the National Museum, you can see how old the country is. I think preserving heritage is not just about buildings but also sites, and showing the tribes that we know we’re descended from.”
The natural history of the country is also celebrated at the National Museum of Qatar, whose design was inspired by the desert rose, which is a formation of sand, seawater and the gypsum or barite crystals whose shape can resemble a rose and is found in the numerous salt basins that dot this peninsula. The swirling and multilayered facade has made the museum one of the country’s most recognizable landmarks.
“My father’s vision for Jean Nouvel, the architect, was to go to the desert and find something from the geology of the country and find something that we could expand into the design of the museum,” she said. “He chose the desert rose, which at that time was almost impossible to build, but with technology it became possible.”
In honoring the past — even in a country commonly represented by its gleaming new skyscrapers that rose after the discovery of significant oil and natural gas deposits — Sheikha Al Mayassa feels that the future will follow.
“I think that incubation of young talent is what we do, and I think it’s an investment in tomorrow,” she said. “We do it for film, art and fashion. In the end, artists need inspiration. I really believe that culture is a bridge that brings everyone together.”
That is where Art for Tomorrow seems vital, she said, because in a world of people feeling more and more separated, togetherness is even more important.
“I think Art for Tomorrow becomes a platform for people to meet, to listen to different people and ideas,” she said. “Art in all its forms, whether it’s film, fashion, visual arts, dance or music, brings people together.”
She pointed out that this did not necessarily mean that art in any form would be accepted in every culture. She recalled an incident at the Art for Tomorrow conference in Athens last year when someone asked if Qatar would ever consider hosting a specific photography exhibition, known to have provocative images, uncensored.
“I told the woman that she was not a partner for us because we have a curatorial conversation with the people who come here because we have to respect our own norms and cultural traditions,” Sheikha Al Mayassa said. “I think culture brings people from different backgrounds and norms together and allows for constructive dialogue in terms of respect. But one person’s freedom ends as soon as he or she infringes on another.”
That sense of differences — and similarities — is rooted in the focus on the past, present and future converging in an evolving global arts culture in an ever-volatile world.
“I think there’s a need for a place for discourse and tolerance because today I feel there is a lot of intolerance around the world because people think you ought to behave in a certain way,” she said. “I think culture can help diffuse that.”