Curating Creative Societies: A conversation with Vilma Jurkutė, the director of Alserkal Avenue

Vilma Jurkutė. Photo: Celia Peterson

Vilma Jurkutė. Photo: Celia Peterson

Vilma Jurkutė has a degree in International Business from Grenoble Graduate School of Business, and is currently pursuing her Executive Master’s in Sustainable Urban Development at Oxford University.

Born in Klaipėda in Lithuania, Vilma has lived and worked in New York, Chicago and London, and has now settled in Dubai. She has been instrumental since 2011 in the development of Alserkal Avenue, an arts and culture district established in 2007 to encourage and support the contemporary art scene in the United Arab Emirates and the region.

Over the last decade, Alserkal Avenue has become an essential platform for the development of artistic and cultural initiatives, nurturing a vibrant community of more than 70 creative organisations, including internationally renowned contemporary art galleries, alternative art spaces, and the Alserkal Residency.

We met with Vilma to discuss her outstanding experience in the development of the creative industries, her recent practice, and the importance of arts and culture in an urban context.

Vitalija Jasaitė: When did you start working at Alserkal Avenue? What exactly is your role there?

Vilma Jurkutė: I joined Alserkal Avenue almost seven years ago, when I was brought on board to create a cultural destination in Al Quoz, Dubai’s industrial area. Back then, the art scene had just begun to take root, and a few galleries had just set up their white cube spaces inside industrial warehouses in the area. Our founder, Abdelmonem Alserkal, who comes from a long line of art patrons, proved his commitment to the arts and to culture by investing 15 million dollars in building and expanding the Avenue, and transforming the site of his old marble factory into a hub for home-grown talent to thrive.

Today, I am director of Alserkal Avenue and its initiatives, including Concrete, Alserkal Residency, A4 Space, and Nadi Al Quoz community spaces. It’s been a journey full of major milestones, as we pioneered projects in the fine arts, film, literature, theatre, and other creative fields. We’ve grown in the past decade to become the region’s most influential arts and culture destination, and for that we owe a debt of gratitude to the art galleries and new home-grown spaces that have chosen Alserkal Avenue as their home.

Alserkal Residency

Alserkal Residency

You are studying for an MSc at Oxford University. How are your studies related to your current position at Alserkal Avenue?

Art has always been a part of my life, although my background is in international business. Alserkal Avenue combines both passions, and it’s an incredible opportunity to see it evolve from a neighbourhood into a curated arts community, which has embraced a new role as an arts organisation, with the support of the Alserkal family.

In a way, Alserkal Avenue was an urban intervention, a neighbourhood of risk-takers, innovators, and makers that became a stepping stone for the city’s creative economy. It became a magnet for creative talent to come to Dubai, which has a relatively new cultural scene. It also helped to produce a newly skilled workforce, to animate public and private spaces, to create close-knit communities, and to contribute to the image of Dubai as a cultural space, which were not all our anticipated aims.

This is partly why I decided to pursue the Executive Masters Programme. It felt vital to connect the arts and culture in the context of urbanism, especially 21st-century urbanism. Nowadays, the five lives of a city (from agrarian to early industrial and mercantile, and ending with capital and digital) has been realised in the space of 20 or 30 years, instead of 200 years. Dubai is a great example of this. I wanted to connect the theory and the history of city-making with my current practices. Part of my work now is to explore the relationship between the arts and culture and the creation of future spaces and environments.

At the same time, I’m very cautious of how the arts and culture are now used as a proxy for real estate development, to build short-term projects and ‘sanitised-heritage’ tourism packages, a trend that’s occurring globally. Neo-liberal short-termism cannot rewrite history or shape a cohesive society.

Heritage creation and preservation come with societal responsibility. Memories and a sense of place produce social capital, which is difficult to amass but easy to destroy. Subsequently, how we imagine and plan our environments is very important, and it was imperative for me to widen my knowledge and my interest in this field through the lens of culture and the arts.

Aerial view of Alserkal Avenue. Photo: Alserkal Avenue

Aerial view of Alserkal Avenue. Photo: Alserkal Avenue

Photo: Alserkal Avenue

Photo: Alserkal Avenue

You started talking about responsibility in the process of forming new environments, and I think that’s a very important and broad theme to discuss. How would you describe the influence of private institutions on the formation of the art scene in the city and the region? How can Alserkal Avenue contribute to the image of the city and its artistic society?

Throughout history, private philanthropic commitments have been essential in shaping the history of art. When you study the lives of artists, you discover the influential families that supported them along the way and believed in their talent by commissioning work. It’s the same in the emerging and young art scenes of today, including the UAE, where the contemporary art scene is only a decade old.

Dubai’s art ecosystem, which started with just a few commercial art galleries, has grown to become a holistic art scene. We’ve witnessed the development of robust education programmes, not-for-profit spaces with active community programming, and the emergence of new collectives and home-grown concepts within the creative industries. Locally based talent is more eager and able than ever to develop artistic practices in the region, since there’s an infrastructure to support it. You can see this in the artistic rosters of our home-grown galleries, which have signed up both local and international talent.

Viewing the arts ecosystem as a whole, with artists at the epicentre, you’ll find educational and non-profit institutions alongside commercial and public sector initiatives, all of which play a key role in the development and growth of artistic careers.

There are several ways to talk about art institutions, and depending on the speaker’s position, we can talk about institutional possibilities and institutional critique. Usually, the second grows out of the first. When it comes to Alserkal Avenue, is institutional critique a matter for concern for you as director of the organisation? What is your strategy for keeping Alserkal Avenue relevant?

This is a question that keeps me up at night: ‘How do we stay relevant?’

We live in a region that is constantly evolving, with new landmarks and institutions springing up. It’s essential to submit to a cultural audit, to look at our own identity, and ask ourselves how we can continue to contribute locally, regionally and internationally.

Despite Dubai’s rapid commercial boom, our arts and cultural scene is still nascent, and the potential it offers to young artists is immense. This momentum will continue to pick up: we only need to look at the growth over the last decade as proof of this. I see this much more closely working at Alserkal Avenue, where we introduced our programming arm, Alserkal Programming, in 2015, with the aim of supporting artists living and practising in the region. The purpose was to engage with new audiences and the public at large, ensuring that the work is collaborative, participatory and ephemeral.

Hosting a year-round home-grown programme, featuring talks, film screenings and artist commissions, our programming arm has worked with 18 emerging and mid-career artists to date. As our programme matured, we felt the need to support emerging artists in a more meaningful way, in addition to expanding the platform for mentoring and critique, a point you mentioned earlier.

After that, the Alserkal Residency felt like the next step. The Residency is a not-for-profit initiative that encourages artistic experimentation and discursive exchange. It’s a research-driven platform that supports cultural producers, and it also helps further establish Dubai as a centre for cultural production in the region.

Installation image of Under by Hale Tenger. Photo: Alserkal Avenue

Installation image of Under by Hale Tenger. Photo: Alserkal Avenue

Under by Hale Tenger. Photo: Ali Erdemci

Under by Hale Tenger. Photo: Ali Erdemci

Do you see the influence of international artists on the local art scene in Dubai? How do they cooperate?

By design, the Residency supports cultural practitioners in the processes of experimentation and research, while also giving them the opportunity to experience the vibrant discourse happening on the ground.

Eliminating the requirement to produce work allows them to focus on having these discussions and collaborations, which we hope will carry on even after the residents leave the programme.

Eliminating the requirement to produce should allow for a situation where interesting conversations and collaborations can take place, and we hope that these will carry on long after the residents leave the programme.

Last year, at the New York Times conference ‘Art of Tomorrow’, you mentioned that ‘a decade ago we would place an artist at the epicentre of the art institutions’ (galleries, museums, cultural centres, etc). What, in your opinion, is the epicentre now? Would you agree that the audience is equally important? Art institutions all over the world direct attention towards different audiences. What is your experience in developing an audience around Alserkal Avenue?

For organisations with true integrity and purpose, artists will always be at the centre. It’s the same for us at Alserkal Avenue.

I believe we’re at a crossroads: old models just don’t work any more, which means there’s an opportunity for us to deconstruct, depoliticise, and dislocate the status quo. Unfortunately, modernity today is still a synonym for the West. Being part of an emerging art scene, I always say that our possibilities are vast. We can create our own definitions and models that are locally relevant, and resonate with our local networks of talent. For us, integrity, and commitment to artists and homegrown collectives, are the most important part of our mandate.

With regard to our audiences, we were never about meeting quotas. Our primary focus was building an inclusive and sustainable community that offers its members a sense of belonging. Alserkal Avenue is everyone’s project: collaborative, open, experimental and flexible by nature.

Our ability to adapt, respond, connect and change is crucial to staying relevant. It’s through our content and programming that we create a natural discourse, and take risks that create more of the conditions that set us apart in the first place.

Film screening in The Yard at Alserkal Avenue. Photo: Angelo Aguilar

Film screening in The Yard at Alserkal Avenue. Photo: Angelo Aguilar

You have opened an exhibition space. How does it work in the context?

It was with this growing grassroots culture that Alserkal Avenue developed Concrete, a multidisciplinary space dedicated to hosting exhibitions and conceptual events of international standing. As a platform, it enables us to support more cultural producers and develop the city’s art programme at large.

Concrete is the first building designed by Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in the UAE. What used to be four warehouses were reimagined to become a space for museum-grade exhibitions and alternative programming. On its own, Concrete challenges existing norms, and shapes new conversations around the notion of preservation in the context of modern architecture.

From the start, the idea was always to create a space for international and regional exchange, enabling more collaboration on a global scale, while providing opportunities for local and regional artists to show their work in a museum-grade exhibition space. Concrete might be difficult to define, but it resonates with our audiences here. Perhaps it’s something between a kunsthalle and a multidisciplinary alternative events space.

Part of our approach to Concrete was to collaborate with the world’s leading institutions, in parallel with regional foundations. We inaugurated the space with an exhibition entitled ‘Syria: Into the Light’, showing work from the Atassi Foundation’s collection, followed by collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and UAE Unlimited. This November, we’ll collaborate with the Hayward Gallery in London to bring ‘Adapt to Survive: Notes from the Future’ to Concrete. The exhibition will bring to the UAE seven important contemporary artists from diverse backgrounds, showcasing compelling multimedia pieces that challenge our views about what the future will hold. It’s a show that would only otherwise be available in London.

Abdelmonem Alserkal, 2016

Abdelmonem Alserkal, 2016

Coming back to the very roots of Alserkal Avenue, the Alserkal family decided to create an art institution inside the commercial district. How much is the family involved in the institution? Do they just support ideas? Or do they also take decisions related to programming, like curators? What influence do they have?

Our founder Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal is a true patron and visionary. He spearheaded Alserkal Avenue and its initiatives to become what they are today. His commitment to supporting the local art scene has left an indelible mark on the cultural fabric of the city and beyond. But if you ask Abdelmonem, he will tell you that the true founders of Alserkal Avenue are the pioneers who set up their galleries and concepts back in 2008, when the neighbourhood was merely an industrial area. For our part, we simply took that energy and amplified it by welcoming entrepreneurs and experimental concepts from multiple industries as part of our expansion, galvanising the creative economy of the city.

In response to your question about the organisation’s creative direction … we work closely with our artistic partners and home-grown collectives. Alongside the 18 artists we’ve commissioned, we’ve organised more than 3,000 cultural events, which were free and open to the public, as well as partnered with numerous institutions in the country and around the world.

Artistic freedom is a primary condition for creating meaningful work, and the commissioning process is highly sensitive and personal. It requires understanding, research, time, and ultimately freedom, to bring to life what was imagined. On another level, this also frames the cultural integrity of the organisation. This year, for example, we invited a guest curator for the first time to work on Alserkal Programming’s March commission. Mari Spirito, the founder and curator of Protocinema, curated a public ephemeral intervention by Hale Tenger entitled Under.

I think the abstract nature of my last question was related to the responsibility that comes with different roles. Could you comment on this a little bit more?

Over the last decade, the UAE has become a cultural capital for the region and beyond. A visual arts infrastructure was able to exist and flourish through the commitment of various emirates.

Initiatives such as the Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah Biennial, Art Dubai, Abu Dhabi Art, Alserkal Avenue, and museums such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Art Jameel, which opens this November, have significantly strengthened the country’s maturing art scene. As a result, Dubai has seen the emergence of an infrastructure and systems that are centred on providing support for the local art scene. These entities encourage self-driven projects, including pop-ups, informal exhibitions, impromptu performances, collectives and so on.

As cultural initiatives, we bear an incredible responsibility for future generations, home-grown talent, and the city itself. We will continue to fulfil this by creating content and programmes that benefit our communities and drive social change for society at large.

Thank you for the interview.

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June 18, 2018
Published in Interview from Lithuania
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