Art Souq: a home for Qatar’s artists

In pursuit of developing a vision for an artists’ community in Qatar, VCUQatar was granted funding by the National Priorities Research Program (NPRP) to research and develop a design for a multi-artist studio complex, or ‘Art Souq,’ in Doha. This research culminated in a comprehensive plan for construction and management of such a complex and thereby provides a sustainable and critical contribution to the future of a thriving artists’ community within Qatar.

This research builds on expertise found within the VCUQatar academic community, synthesizing critical thought in art, design and the liberal arts and sciences. Our team consists of Rhys Himsworth, director of Painting and Printmaking, Dr. Byrad Yyelland, director of Liberal Arts and Sciences,Assistant Professor Dr. Johan Granberg of Interior Design, as well as Interior Design alumna, Rana Rwaished. The project is also supplemented by additional support from private consultants.

The research has been focused in four main phases: international field studies; data from local stakeholders; the physical design of a studio complex; and a business plan for the complex’s implementation. All were completed with the view to present the findings to interested parties within Qatar. In just over 12 months, we have conducted more than 150 interviews and focus groups and completed approximately 100 site visits in 22 locations across 13 countries including China, Japan, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Columbia, the U.S. and Canada, as well as visits to the U.A.E, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Qatar itself.

What links this collection of locations, each with its own unique cultural and political context, is the importance of the act of ‘making’ within the artist’s studio practice. Contemporary artists work in a wide variety of materials and their ability to create is dependent upon proximity to materials and to the accompanying expertise of those familiar with these materials. In Beijing, we met with a number of emerging American artists who had settled there in order to realize their practice. Many of these artists were working with sculpture, glass or ceramics and had relocated to China, not only because the cost of setting up a studio was much more manageable there than in the United States, but also because they sought access to knowledge and skill sets found in many of the small industrial fabrication shops within Beijing. The importance of proximity to materials and supplementary skill sets was also clearly evident in Pietrasanta, Italy, one of the oldest artists’ communities and art production centers in the world, well known for supplying Michelangelo with marble for his works. Pietrasanta had begun as a location associated with a particular material, and this material became a catalyst that generated a new energy behind its continuous success. The cumulation of high quality marble and skilled craftsmen gave the region an unmatched global reputation; stones from all over the world were imported to Pietrasanta, from Swedish granite to Spanish slate. Subsequently, artists began to visit Pietrasanta not simply for its marble, but also for the opportunity to do work in a multitude of materials and to utilize the skills of those working in the town’s foundries and ceramics studios.

In Portland and Philadelphia, we found a number of artist-run studio complexes and galleries such as the Crane Building, Disjecta and Yale Union. These spaces were initiated by artists with few monetary resources, but a great deal of ambition. When asked about the success these towns have had in developing artist communities, many of our subjects commented on the pioneering culture of their city, or their city’s industrial heritage, again highlighting the importance of proximity to tools and infrastructure for making. Many artists also commented on the absence of a defined art market in these locations and the lack of a substantive collector base. Thus, a predominant theme to emerge in this research is that artists do not gravitate to where they can sell work, or even exhibit it, rather they move to where they can produce their work.

Our objective is to seek and understand the nature of artists’ studio spaces; examine models of successfully functioning artist communities; and to ask broader questions regarding the attraction and retention of artists in these communities. We draw upon this bank of culturally and geographically diverse data to inform the design and business plan for an artist studio complex in Qatar. We have combined this research with data collection in the local region, including more than 40 focus groups with Qatari artists, artists of the MENA region, expatriate artists, VCUQatar faculty, VCUQatar students and the many curators, gallery directors and art professionals that make up Qatar’s fine art community. The analysis of data collected from international and data sites provide the basis of the proposed ‘Art Souq.’

This research has shown us that in order for artists in Qatar to thrive in the coming years, the country must provide facilities and infrastructure that will allow them to sustain their practice and further, to develop and maintain dialogue with other practicing artists. This dialogue must reach beyond the sort experienced within the confines of an art college or university. Artists need time for their practices to mature—an incubation period during which they can grow within creative communities, both local and remote; and physical spaces where they can conduct research. This project therefore proposes the physical structure for artists, but also organizational strategies for developing a thriving and interactive artist community.

Informed by the traditional ‘souq’ as a model for artists’ complex, we conducted extensive research into issues such as the provision of natural lighting, pedestrian and vehicle access systems, flexible design structures, and a didactic design methodology that enables and fosters the leveraging of skills and knowledge amongst artists, artisans and other members of the studio complex community. The research concludes with a set of architectural drawings and renderings, in addition to a 10-year business plan.

The studio complex includes a range of studio sizes that can expand or contract, depending on artists' needs, as well as a flexible studio design that can accommodate a range of different practices, from photography to sculpture, painting to new media. This ensures that, as the complex evolves, it can accommodate the needs of tomorrow, knowing that the artist’s practice changes as new technologies and processes become available. With this in mind, the design includes state-of-the-art production facilities in digital fabrication, metal work, woodshop, printmaking, as well as photography and video. Its design is also flexible enough to be determined by the artists who occupy the complex in the initial phases, with space provisions for facilities such as a cafeteria, gallery, library, and art supply store. Such responsiveness is both novel and forward-thinking as it allows the community itself to determine the evolution of the complex based on its own evolving needs.

The departure point for this research acknowledges that a comprehensive proposal is far more complex than merely creating a physical structure. Sustainable strategies have to be seen as holistic solutions, as a socio-technical network built around art. The proposed design is therefore offered as a construct not only of physical space but also of community.

Informed by the successful model of artist communities such as Pietrasanta, the Art Souq is designed to enhance sustainability through leveraging skills and knowledge of community members so that this knowledge is retained within the complex even when individual members leave. To support this leveraging we researched the tools and equipment required to run such a complex, as well as investigated the skills required to staff those facilities, which could be leveraged and retained throughout the life of the complex. Some of this research was informed by identifying tried and tested methodologies, understanding the design of studios, and collecting policies, procedures and methods of best practice at international sites. Other research was done through identifying local expertise within VCUQatar regarding best practices for running such facilities.

In addition to the research described above, the business plan was developed through consultation with outside parties including business plan experts and quantity surveyors, as well as experts within VCUQatar. A 10-year plan has been developed, which details estimated costs for a nine-phase building program as well as program operation. It also includes equipment costs and specifications, staffing requirements, programming and management structures.

The solutions we have formed over the course of the last 18 months are informed by a combination of best practices observed internationally as well as our informed effort to make recommendations
appropriate to the cultural, social, and economic conditions of Qatar. We see this as the first stage of a much greater project whereby a number of artists, curators, gallerists, policy makers, patrons and various institutions come together to make it a reality. The Art Souq’s design is flexible, didactic and organic, enabling it to serve as a research center within which the experience of artists and craftsmen is fed back into the complex’s future development.

We see this research as an invitation to Qatar’s art community and its supporters of fine art to engage in a conversation about the development of Qatar’s community of artists. We hope the Art Souq will act as a catalyst that will enable this community to expand and thrive through the coming years.