Can A Museum Build An Art Scene? Marrakech Gives It A Try.

Can a museum make an art scene?

More and more, that seems to be the expectation – or at least, the hope – of the Middle East, and most recently of Marrakech, where plans were announced this summer to build a new Museum for Photography and Visual Arts.

The MMP+, as it will be known, will be “dedicated to exhibiting the best Moroccan, North African, and international lens-based and traditional fine art,” according to Morocco Tomorrow, a private Moroccan newsletter.   Billed as a “transformative project for the arts in Morocco and indeed all of Africa,”the 6,000 square-meter building, to be designed by Sir David Chipperfield,will offer more than just gallery space, expanding to include a theater, bookshop, and the requisite “educational facilities” and café.

The project promises to be significant for the “red city,” currently home to three museums that celebrate its ancient and traditional art – including the extraordinary Museum of Islamic Art, created by Yves St Laurent and Pierre Bergé, who owned the surrounding Majorelle Gardens.    As more and more Middle Eastern cities begin building major museums and collections,  the extension of the trend to North African Islamic countries as perhaps inevitable – and certainly to e hoped for.  Yet it comes as something of a surprise that so contemporary a museum would be planned for this particular city, whose art scene, while oft-described as “vibrant,” remains small. (A Marrakech art fair failed after just a few efforts, and galleries almost exclusively show local art.)

Still, much about the MMP+ indicates a determination to change all that, and to join the ongoing competition for “art center of the Middle East “ —   a title being currently battled over by Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Turkey, and Qatar, whose Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) seems to have inspired the Marrakech endeavor; indeed, MMP+ looks, to me, anyway, to be a clear response to the founding of museums, film and music festivals, and other major cultural projects that have popped up under the QMA umbrella.

But Morocco, with its GDP of $96.7 billion, scarcely has the resources of its Qatari competition (nearly $180 billion);  and even yet Qatar, with its investments of billions of dollars into building a cultural hub, has had little success to date: despite several major exhibitions in Doha, Qatar’s capital, the city is nowhere near becoming – if you’ll pardon the term – a mecca for contemporary art.  Visitors to the museums and galleries are almost exclusively expats and tourists, who have come for other reasons (unlike, say, Amsterdam, where tourists frequently flock specifically to see Rembrandt and Van Gogh).  Whether, then, an art scene can be “created” at all – by the building of a museum, the founding of an art fair, the arrival of an auction house – or simply develops organically is increasingly raising questions about the universality of culture – in every sense of both words.  In Morocco, however, it seems they are counting on the old adage to prove true: If they build it, everyone will come.

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