Stock aerial Dubai skyline
Dubai skyline. Image Credit: AFP

With every new year we witness a renewal of hopes and ambitions and a revival of intentions filled with the spirit of positivity, opportunity and vitality. 2020 started with the prospect of exciting new opportunities for Dubai’s cultural community. While the city was getting ready for the Expo 2020 Dubai, little did we know at the time that 2020 would bring challenges, and opportunities of quite a different nature.

The Covid-19 pandemic changed the course of the next decade. Looking at creative communities globally, this meant struggling creatives, institutions losing revenue due to a dramatic decrease in footfall, and many smaller spaces having to close their doors for good.

However, Dubai, and its cultural scene, proved resilient in the face of hardships. Looking back at what has been accomplished over the course of the pandemic and ensuing lockdown, I believe we have faced 2020 in the best possible way — the cultural and creative community across the emirate rose to the occasion admirably, working together, developing and executing creative solutions that addressed business concerns, start-ups and grassroot projects. The spirit of the local creative community is that of collaboration and partnerships. The one thing that is clear from this crisis, is that it cannot be weathered alone and requires creatives, institutions, businesses and government, to work together.

Creative initiatives

There were many initiatives that came out to address the impact of the crisis. Some that really stood out were Art Jameel’s research and practice platform for independent practitioners from the Mena region, which aimed to alleviate the effects of Covid-19 on the wider region. Another was the ‘Pay It Forward Programme’ by Alserkal Avenue that in which over 50 institutions joined forces to support each other and the wider creative community. We saw the Emirates Literature Festival launching in a new format to ensure continuity of its programming amid the pandemic, with a hybrid of virtual and in-person sessions. Throughout the year, we witnessed how the movement of galleries and cultural organisations to the digital sphere proved to be a successful step, helping them broaden their reach, continue engaging with their audiences and reach a wider spectrum of new audiences.

Both Dubai Design Week and the Global Grad Show were beautiful examples of the resilient and ambitious nature of the design sector in Dubai. As the first physical design event in the world to take place after the lockdown, Dubai Design Week ran its most mature iteration to date, offering a coming-of-age edition during which the event positioned itself through its programming and the quality of the content on show, among the leading design events globally. It also provided an exceptional opportunity for Emirati and Middle Eastern talent, reaffirming Dubai’s role as a pioneering platform for local creatives in the region. In its last edition the fair introduced the first Mena Grad Show, which showcased 50 of the most exciting & innovative projects by talents from the region, as well as admitting 90 shortlisted projects to be part of its entrepreneurship programme; the highest ever number of shortlisted projects since the event’s establishment.

Virtual museum tours

As for the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, the pandemic compelled us to accelerate our efforts in responding to the sector’s needs. In April, we launched ‘Dubai Ideathon’ in collaboration with Art Dubai; a call to ideate solutions for the difficulties facing the creative community today and respond to their future needs. The initiative led to various campaigns to support the industry and has fed into our strategic planning. We also launched, only weeks into the pandemic, the Authority’s virtual guided museum tours through the Dubai 360 platform. Those tours were quickly integrated into Dubai schools’ remote-learning curriculums and benefited over 11,000 students from over 94 public and private schools.

We learnt from the teachings of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, that life doesn’t stop at any crisis, and that instead it must go on through hard work, perseverance, and the determination to achieve our goals without delay. Our main mission as the authority, is to support, empower and promote Dubai’s creative sector, and with our six-year strategic road map (announced in July 2020) we aim to support the city’s creative ecosystem by developing policies and facilitating processes to ensure its growth. Our main goal today is to find ‘the fastest route to recovery’ for Dubai’s cultural industry, and during the past year the authority launched and backed many quick response initiatives in collaboration with cultural entities across Dubai, one of the most significant of which was its collaboration with LinkedIn, aimed at supporting creative talents through multiple fronts. We started with the educational resource programme, which provided training and learning opportunities across different topics for creatives to upskill and gain business expertise across management and specialised skill development courses. The project continues to be a success to date, with over 2,000 creatives registered for more than 11,130 courses.

Future projects

For me it was important to hear directly from the industry and the creatives on the impact the crisis had on them, so I embarked on a series of meetings with professionals across the design, literary and art sectors where we had numerous conversations, allowing us to better understand the challenges and opportunities that have emerged from this pandemic. The collective feedback taken from these conversations is now at the heart of our future projects and initiatives.

In 2021, I’m looking forward to the activation of the Dubai Collection initiative; announced during Q4 of last year under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, it aims to redefine the notion of arts patronage. The project will introduce a new system for sourcing, managing, and governing the emirate’s art collection, with the long term ambition to support creative Emirati and local based artists, as well as creative talents from around the world, encouraging art exhibitions, and creating a legacy of artworks to be showcased in both local and international exhibitions.

The creative sector proved essential to our daily lives. It is where people have sought refuge in dark times, to battle solitude and the monotony of waiting while we were in isolation. Our efforts to find effective solutions and our ongoing conversations with the cultural sector will continue and I am proud to have been able to be a part of relieving at least some of the frustration the pandemic enforced on the city through culture. I am looking forward to our ambitious journey in 2021, a year of note, marking the 50th anniversary of our beloved UAE.

Sheikha Latifa Bint Mohammed Al Maktoum is the Chairperson of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and member of the Dubai Council.