For a long while the Manarat Al Saadiyat was a somewhat lonely beacon of culture in the development zone that is Saadiyat Island. It certainly looked the part; international architect/design firm Aedas, also responsible for many notable local projects including the Al Bahr Towers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s metro stations, gave us a low, elegant building with clever shading and versatile spaces.
When it opened in 2009, Abu Dhabi’s sole purpose-designed public exhibition space conveniently came with ample parking and a rather good Al Fanr bistro to support its sizable exhibition halls; its main role was always to host Abu Dhabi Art for three days in November, but there were exhibitions and talks at the Manarat for much of the year.
That holding action is over. NYU Abu Dhabi has arrived with its own gallery space and a fully equipped arts centre, and now the Louvre is up and running as well with its own facilities; it’s time for the Manarat to reinvent itself as a multi-disciplinary cultural space with a broader set of programmes designed to cater for a wider audience looking for more of a hands-on experience and less of the passive viewer-only mode.
Here’s Alia Khalid Al Qassimi, head of the Manarat, offering the official press-released summary: “Manarat Al Saadiyat now welcomes the public and art lovers to participate in creative and artistic workshops in its new and improved facilities, and will provide multi-disciplinary art spaces for multicultural audiences, offering a much more immersive, hands-on, creative environment.
“The variety of events, workshops and activities has been designed to ensure that there is a rich, creative experience that encourages learning and exploring, and we hope to establish ourselves as the go-to destination to nurture and promote creative skills with attractive programmes that suit all audiences.”
The original bistro has gone, though it’s been replaced by the LARTE restaurant (“not just a top-quality restaurant but a complete Italian hospitality experience with various in-house promotions”).
More significantly, the interior – always a versatile space – has been reconfigured slightly and repurposed considerably. The 250-seat auditorium has been spruced up, and the three large main galleries offering nearly 5,000 sq m of exhibition space have been retained as well. The major change is that the sizable area previously devoted to a permanent Saadiyat exhibition has been renovated to provide a small theatre and a new Arts Studio area.
The Arts Studio is now the centre of ongoing activity at the Manarat. It’s actually been running since 2010 but only in a small way and in a small space; now it gets a sizable working area that provides casual, drop-in spaces for the community (two hours for AED 50 – AED 30 for youngsters) with instructors on hand to provide inspiration and advice. There’s a well-equipped art supplies shop on site too.
There are also workshops and classes, running most days from 9am to 8pm, aimed at a range of age groups and artistic abilities. These cover an array of artistic disciplines, from the basics (Figure Drawing, Self Portraits) to the more advanced (Robotics, Alternative Practices). Prior booking is required for these; fees vary from AED 100-150 per session for adults, ED 50-75 for children and teens.
“The new programmes are designed for both children and adults to explore their creative talents at Manarat Al Saadiyat,” observed Ranya Nasser, who runs Education Programmes at the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi. ” We are excited to provide specialised and diverse learning methods to raise artistic awareness and help the wider audience understand and look more deeply at the world around us.”
In addition there’s the Teaching Artist Residency Programme, developed in 2013 to provide students and emerging artists with internship and mentorship opportunities designed to help participants turn their creativity into a profession and start teaching classes and workshops. The artists selected for the residency also get the chance to set up a dedicated, fully equipped studio in the Manarat.
We’re not sure about this: the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation already has the SEAF Emerging Artists Fellowship, a well-established and well-respected programme that supports 15 promising artists with year-long mentoring and studio space. The Manarat residency seems more geared for teaching and demonstrating rather than building a career as an artist, though, so the two should be able to coexist.
Anyhow, there seems to be a permanent Open Call for applications to the Manarat residency – information from [email protected].
The other significant addition is the Photography Studio, a space for specialised workshops and training sessions conducted by professional photographers. We’re also promised a year-round calendar of activities and “community-driven photography exhibitions”. Currently running is an exhibition with the best work from the ten years of the Emirates Photography Competition.
Now that the Manarat has a new life, attention should turn to the UAE Pavilion designed by Foster + Partners for the 2010 Shanghai Expo. Now that’s an elegant building, drawing inspiration from the UAE’s sand dunes and evoking the colours of the desert in a reflective skin of gold-coloured stainless steel. But it gets used for only a few days each year – basically as a VIP area during Abu Dhabi Art. Even if there are issues with its interior space (reportedly there’s too much of it, with unusable subdivisions and poor ventilation and cooling) it surely deserves a better fate than to act as a landmark for the Manarat.