At 29, Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani is the art world’s most powerful woman. Is she using her money well?
THE starkly beautiful Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha, Qatar, is a fine setting for a dinner. Last month 200 dealers, collectors and curators gathered there for the opening of the first showing in the Middle East of work by Takashi Murakami. The hostess of the evening sat laughing with the pony-tailed Japanese artist on her right. On her left was Dakis Joannou, a Greek-Cypriot industrialist and avid collector of the work of Jeff Koons, an American sculptor. Larry Gagosian, whom many regard as the most powerful art dealer in the world, was placed at a table nearby, with the other art dealers.
Few people could get away with asking Mr Gagosian to dinner halfway around the globe, only to sit him with the rest of the class. Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani is one. The emir of Qatar’s daughter has become one of the most talked-about figures of the international art world: collector, patron, cultural advocate. Mr Gagosian is not the only one who would like to catch her eye.
Until the 1980s Qatar was little more than a sandy backwater. Even its native pearl industry was on its last legs. The discovery of oil and, later, of the third-largest gas reserves in the world have made the pear-shaped peninsula unusually rich. In 2010 its tiny population had the third highest per capita GDP in the world and its economy grew by 16.6%, faster than any other. But even Qatar’s oil and gas will one day run out. Transforming the country from a hydrocarbon economy to a knowledge economy in time for the post-oil afterlife is the local mantra.
The emir’s blueprint, “Qatar National Vision 2030”, is leading to new schools and universities (in an area of the capital known as Education City), as well as a post-production centre to service the international film industry, and even a paperless hospital. New museums to showcase Qatar’s collections of Islamic art, modernist Arab painting, photography, armour and natural history are all part of the plan.
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