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Interview: Tom Watson, president Counterculture and former UK Labour Deputy Leader

Interview: Tom Watson, president Counterculture and former UK Labour Deputy Leader

How the UK and UAE arts and culture sector can collaborate and spur creativity while weathering the pandemic

Tom Watson Counterculture

What is the Counterculture’s scope of work?
Counterculture helps cultural, educational and creative organisations to plan, manage and thrive. We work for governments, public bodies, businesses, not-for-profits and individuals – across the UK and internationally.

Our partners and staff provide clients with specialist professional services across capital projects, strategy, finance, law, management and governance. We are management consultants, governance professionals, accountants, lawyers, project managers, curators, arts managers, fundraisers and events organisers.

Our capital project and exhibition services are particularly transferrable to the international arena. For example, we are working to help open the new National Museum Oslo. Specialist curatorial and conservation areas, as well as the standards for display, storage and environments have been increasingly globalised over the last decade, and the UK has been at the forefront of these developments.

We regularly work with internationally renowned organisations like Tate, who spearhead this drive to new standards of excellence, and the UK curatorial and conservation traditions are ones we are proud to represent in international markets.

What are your thoughts on the arts and culture scene within the UAE and how does it compare to the UK?
Both the UK and UAE have an outward looking vision for the future based on tolerance and moderation. There are obvious parallels between the cultural lives of the UAE and the UK: both represent a diversity of different nations and regions, each with their own unique cultural identities, of historic global significance; and both of which now form important global hubs of worldwide cultural endeavour and expression.

The UAE’s Minister of Culture, Noura Al Kaabi, has been clear from the start of her tenure in 2017 that arts and culture must be at the centre of the nation’s future. She has recognised the potential to showcase the country’s culture through the sector, to become a creative industries hub for the wider Middle East and North Africa region, and is already working with other ministries to recognise the economic potential for the UAE.

As the 58th member state of UNESCO’s Executive Board, the UAE has embraced the role of preserving key historical and cultural sites including, most notably their $50m contribution to rebuilding Mosul’s iconic al-Nouri Mosque and al-Hadba Minaret.

However, just like in the UK the Covid-pandemic has created huge challenges for the creative industries. Both countries have recognized the need to support the sector and creatives in it – the UK through the Culture Recovery Fund grants and support for freelancers and the UAE through 140 financial support packages for artists across the creative industries.

The challenge for both countries going forward will be to maintain and build on their internal creative sector, international reputations and global position.

Sotheby’s recently showcased two paintings worth $100m in Dubai. Is the art auction market in the UAE maturing rapidly?
The arts market in the UAE has been developing over some time but the Covid pandemic has accelerated this development and really highlighted its huge potential.

Bucking the trend across the creative industries, the Dubai art scene saw art sales rocket during the first Covid peak, as people stayed at home and sought to buy works to refresh their living spaces. Artists also had more time to create and online platforms came into their own.

World Art Dubai has been instrumental in raising the profile of the UAE art scene. As the region’s largest affordable art fair, it showcases art from around the globe – in 2020 this meant showcasing 2,000 curated art works from 120 artists, from 20 countries.

Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai have world-class museums and art galleries. What are some of the areas where the UAE arts sector can learn from the UK, and vice versa?
One of the key developments amongst UK museums and galleries in recent years has been the growth of partnerships and collaborations. This has seen the sharing of skills and collections across the country focusing on the loans of objects, the development of public programming, and best practice collaboration.

These partnerships have been instrumental in giving the industry a louder voice locally, nationally and internationally and such a strategy would see similar benefits in the UAE. Just as Google Arts and Culture has facilitated more diverse interest in the arts through their online features, so partnerships that share collections across the UAE can help reach currently untapped audiences.

Museums and galleries in the UK have also recognised the potential of community support and showcasing local and regional work. This in turn has brought a wider scope of culture to the national and international arena. Encouraging such collaboration across the UAE will allow the nation to present the best and most diverse of its culture to the world.

How has Covid-19 impacted the arts within the both the UK and the UAE?
Arts organisations were already utilising digital initiatives to engage more diverse and younger audiences, but Covid has brought on an acceleration of this shift in audience engagement.

Collaboration across the different creative sectors is key and it is has been a positive development to see, for example, those in the gaming space such as Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox all holding virtual music concerts when venues were closed.

In the world of museums and galleries, temporary exhibition models, like organisational business models, need to be transformed, recognising the limitations of the existing model. Already, new museum and gallery design has been significantly impacted by the Covid crisis – whilst existing institutions have had to make changes to their operations and estates. The question we must answer is how significantly do the current restrictions and limitations need to be incorporated into future design? Will we return to some semblance of the old normal, or must a future normal for museum and gallery design also be identified? These are not easy questions to answer but while the desire to see art and culture in person will never disappear it is clear that all businesses need to further embrace the digital world, supporting new platforms such as Degy World and Nowhere, as a way to future-proof their industries and build on the new and diverse audiences they reached during Covid.

The government within the UAE has always played a proactive role in promoting arts within the country. What should the role of governments ideally be when it comes to promoting arts?
As Covid has shown us, arts are not a luxury, they are a human need. They entertain; build understanding and social cohesion; and provide a much needed life-line to their communities and the wider world during periods of isolation.

The UAE and UK governments both recognise this power and that is why you have seen them supporting the institutions and arts creators during this difficult time. The UAE, for example, promoted “Culture in Isolation”, a range of initiatives during Covid that included a digital culinary programme during Ramadan and an e-learning platform for Islamic decorative arts. The arts literally brought the nation together.

Governments across the globe must also recognise, as the UK and UAE have done, the economic power of the arts. Prior to Covid, the creative and cultural industries contributed $250bn and nearly 30 million jobs worldwide. The potential of the arts to enrich all aspects of people’s lives and a nation’s fortunes means governments must sit up and listen to their creative industries.

Are there any art and culture concepts from abroad that you would like to introduce to the UAE?
The Creative Industries Council in the UK is a joint forum between the creative industries and government and was set up to focus on areas where there are barriers to growth such as access to finance, skills, export markets, regulation and IP. The UAE government works closely with the creative industries but developing these more formal bonds will help identify where to focus efforts.

The development of hubs is also a game changer in the industry. The emirates all have different areas of specialisation. For example, the new arts school Berklee Abu Dhabi will develop artists from across the UAE and wider region. The idea of global centres of excellence is not exclusive to Silicon Valley and high-tech innovation and the UAE can build its arts’ hubs to support a wider global identity.

What are your thoughts on the arts and culture sector within the broader region (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain) and are there specific key trends emerging within these markets?
Saudi Arabia’s blueprint for the future “Vision 2030” specifically refers to the “increasing participation in cultural and environment and sports activities” as part of the Quality of Life vision. This ties in with the wider message – Saudi Arabia is a modern, cutting edge, inclusive society, ready to take on the role of a global player in the creative space.

And the other nations want to highlight a similar theme. Kuwait has opened several cultural institutions in recent years; Oman has embraced festivals with the Muscat and Salalah Festivals showcasing both the historical and new creative arts; and Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture and Information has given a significant financial boost to the industry.

The race to be the Gulf’s cultural capital is pushing investment throughout the region.

The UAE and Israel recently signed a peace accord. How could that best extend into a cooperation within the cultural space as well?
The Abraham Accords offer a great opportunity for cultural collaboration in the Middle East. The UAE and Israel both have rich historical cultural depths and an abundance of modern creativity which they want to actively build on and promote.

Cultural collaboration will also develop a greater understanding of the cultures of the two nations, especially for the younger generations. The opportunity to share literature, specific texts and interpretations, is particularly exciting for the transfer of knowledge.

You were also appointed as the chair of UK Music last year. Tell us about that role and if there will be any synergies with the UAE on that front?
The role of Chair of UK Music is more important than ever during and post Covid. The music industry has been hit very hard with the closure of music venues, the cancelling of gigs and festivals and the secession of productions. The top priority has been, and will continue to be, fighting to secure the maximum support for the industry to combat the impact of the virus and help the sector return to growth as soon as possible.

All of these things are also, of course, challenges for the UAE music and wider creative economies. In ordinary times, the UK’s commercial music sector contributes GBP5.2bn to the UK economy and supports 190,000 jobs.

We need to make sure the industry gets back to such productivity as soon as possible. UK Music is also at the forefront of the campaign to protect the intellectual property rights of musicians. The growth of streaming services and online music platforms has allowed more audiences greater access to music than ever before and this is a great thing. But developing intellectual property protection and other policies to secure the original ideas of artists is a key priority for the UAE and UK governments.

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