Culture Summit Abu Dhabi returns in April: Google helps to set the agenda (sort of)

The Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi) is running the third edition of the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi on 7-11 April at Manarat Al Saadiyat.

The Summit is described in its own blurb as “a unique global platform that brings together leaders in arts, heritage, media, museums, public policy and technology to identify ways in which culture can play a pivotal role in raising awareness, building bridges and promoting positive change”. In practice it consists of panel discussions, performances and interactive workshops plus some dinners and tours for the participants.

This is a classic soft power event, though none the worse for that. The audience (400 delegates from 90 countries last year: sample above) is an invitation-only collection of “leaders from the worlds of the arts, museums, heritage, media, technology, education and public policy”; so if the Summit has value – and presumably it is judged to be sufficiently successful to merit continue funding – it will be in subtle promotion of attitudes and opinions among the attendees.

Some of those opinions will obviously relate to the status of Abu Dhabi itself; but then that’s not unreasonable – arguably Abu Dhabi is doing quite a lot to raise awareness, build bridges and promote positive change in its cultural policies and practice.

The actual content is being determined by DCT Abu Dhabi’s five big-name partners for the event.

The Economist Events will programme the media stream “and provide expertise in discussing issues related to information and its policies”. Kay Westmoreland from The Economist Middle East & Africa promises to “bring the rigour of informed analysis and intelligent debate that The Economist is known for to life on stage at the forum”.

She also said: “A selection of panel discussions chaired by our editors will discuss the changing face of journalism and the role it plays in influencing society”. It will be interesting to see how the local and regional sensitivities about ‘influencing society’ are handled, maybe with a comment or two on the rigid restrictions applied to journalism in the Middle East.

Ernesto Ottone-Ramirez, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture

UNESCO will cover the role of tangible and intangible heritage in societal change. “Access to and participation in cultural life is essential to our well-being,” said Ernesto Ottone-Ramirez, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture. “If development is to be fair, inclusive and truly sustainable, people and their cultures must be placed at its heart.”

This is very much in tune with policy and ambition in the Emirates, which has funded important local and regional initiatives intended to build bridges between economic and social development and the cultural traditions that underpin nation-building here. Ottone Ramírez should be a good contributor, too; his CV includes stints as President of the National Council of Culture and the Arts and then Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage in his native Chile.

The Royal Academy of Arts will lead on the arts stream. Tim Marlow, the RA’s Artistic Director, noted that “building cultural bridges seems more important now in a world increasingly threatened by conflict and division” and said “we are relishing the prospect of being able to stage and take part in a series of debates and discussions about the critical issues of our time”.

The Royal Academy has been responsible for some excellent exhibitions recently, runs an art school, and has always been good at organising talks and debates in its role as standard bearer for arts and the practising artist in Britain. As far as we know the RA doesn’t currently have much of a presence in the UAE, though that may change; Tim Marlow himself is a great point man, an articulate and engaging broadcaster (notably for the BBC) and art historian (his book on Egon Schiele is a personal favourite). It will be instructive to see what issues are regarded as “critical”, of course.

Coming soon (hopefully): Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation aims to explore how museums can shape the future of culture. Richard Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s Director, suggested the Culture Summit offered “a timely opportunity to shape and lead a series of vital conversations about museums as platforms for dialogue and understanding … We are actively considering how the role of museums as stewards, conveners, and seekers can evolve with the needs and pace of the 21st century”.

The Guggenheim obviously has an ongoing local interest in the shape of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project – currently stalled, though reportedly about to get under way again sometime in 2019. Abu Dhabi’s commitment to the principle of museums as a conduit between the past and the future is well known, even if only one of the three flagship examples has come to fruition.

And then there’s Google, perhaps the one partnership that is vulnerable to criticism. Google will provide insights on the technology stream and to lead the discussion related to tech, arts and expected changes in culture. Pierric Duthoit, Branding Sector Lead at Google MENA said this would involve “showing how technology celebrates diversity, and builds bridges between people”.

That all sounds a lot safer than the wider debate about Google-sized tech companies – notably about their size, international reach and the consequent effects, including for instance the resources they can put into tax avoidance, manipulation of search results, privacy concerns, the difficulty that a tech-driven globally active company might have in dealing with local laws (it was Google that published the name of Grace Millane’s alleged killer in New Zealand just a couple of days ago), the use of intellectual property that may belong to others, censorship of search results and content, and even the energy consumption of its servers.

Google isn’t suffering from scrutiny as much as Facebook, but maybe it’s no surprise that the front person put up for the Culture Summit is the regional head of branding rather than someone concerned more with strategic policy or governance; he’ll probably want to emphasise examples such as Google’s use of technology to partner with museums, an unalloyed plus for the culture scene.

You can find out more about the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi here.


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