INCONVERSATION

DEBORAH NAJAR with Joachim Pissarro and David Carrier

From the start of our Brooklyn Rail interviews with museum directors five years ago we wanted to look beyond the United States and Western Europe, and we planned to interview women and men of various nationalities, representative of the unparalleled diversity that defines the art museum world today. Gender, ethnic, and geographic diversity are a few factors that have led to a radical transformation of the leadership of the museum institution. Thanks to the essential aid of Sara Roffino we were excited to interview Deborah Najar, who runs the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation (JPNF) housed in Dubai. Najar directs a young museum institution in the Arabian Gulf, a place that recently has witnessed the creation of ambitious new museums and art galleries—the Louvre Abu Dhabi being a prime example. Nevertheless, museums are far from being a frequent occurrence—in this, the Gulf differs notably from China. Moreover, a museum founded by a woman is, in this part of the world, a great rarity.

Portrait of Deborah Najar, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Our prime interest in this interview has been to inquire on the origins of the JPNF and how this museum came to be established in this location. As most of our readers will have not (yet) visited Dubai—indeed, thus far only one of us has made the journey—we wanted to get some essential background information about Dubai’s art scene. As it turns out, serendipitously, a good number of Najar’s chosen artists have had close connections with the Brooklyn Rail. Fourteen hours away by flight from New York, the JPNF stands to offer a warm cultural welcome to the Brooklyn Rail readers and indeed, to all New Yorkers. The tenth in our series of interviews, this builds upon our earlier accounts. As we went from Los Angeles and New York to Saint Petersburg, Munich, and Naples we are pursuing the same order of questions, by focusing on Deborah Najar’s role in creating a new museum, and contributing to refining and transforming this particular profession, central to the art world: the museum director.

Rail (Pissarro): Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai are blossoming with new museums. How do you explain this sudden outburst of cultural entities and institutions in this relatively confined part of the world?

Deborah Najar: What we see now is the coming of age of a decade of collective work, initiated by different actors. It started eleven years ago with Art Dubai, which was then called the Gulf Art Fair; then came Abu Dhabi Art, and there is Alserkal Avenue, an art hub, where we are located, which is home to the leading galleries in the region. There is also a concerted effort to work towards a real cultural ecosystem in Sharjah (one of the seven Emirates), which saw the creation of the extraordinary Sharjah Art Foundation and the Sharjah Biennial, considered amongst the best in the world. Art Dubai has now also reached prominence on the global stage, and with the arrival of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, suddenly we are completely on the map, and there is no going back from there. So, when we opened JPNF two years ago we were doing something different by creating an institution focused on Western art. We were doing something different by opening a non-profit institution. Today we are definitely not alone: it is now close to becoming a mature cultural scene.

Rail (Carrier): Where do your visitors come from?

Najar: We benefit from being located in Alserkal Avenue, which receives around 600,000 visitors a year. About fifteen thousand of those come through the JPNF. Fifteen percent are United Arab Emirates nationals. We work a lot with schools and universities to attract our local population. Then we receive expatriates, and, to our surprise and joy, we have seen a sharp increase in tourists visiting. There is no question that culture today is part of the touristic attractions of Dubai. Different kinds of tourists are no longer coming for five days to the malls or going to the beach—they want more than that. They dedicate three to four hours to Alserkal Avenue to come look at the galleries, and our museum.

Rail (Pissarro): You are next to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa [almost three times the height of the Eiffel Tower]. To be at the base of this beautiful building is so daunting, so dwarfing in a way. Then there is the art district, which I know a little bit about having worked on a project there. Can you mentally walk us through Dubai and tell us where you are located?

Najar:  Dubai is an ever-changing city and if you go away for the summer, or even for three or four weeks, you will find on your way home that the urban landscape you left is not the same. With the latest developments in Dubai, the Dubai Creek has now been completely integrated into the city, and in fact extended. It comes around from where the airport was. Also, you now find many more new waterfront properties. In order to reach JPNF from the airport, you will be crossing this beautiful creek and straight ahead; you suddenly discover this majestic tower which turns into a pillar of light at night and reigns as the uncontested architectural landmark of the region during the day: it really is our own compass.

Luckily for us, Abdelmonem Alserkal and his family had the vision of converting a former marble factory, a part of their businesses, into a cluster of warehouses, which became a sort of edgy, creative hub that now welcomes different homegrown creative industries. But, unlike Chelsea, there are still car garages on the avenue and we wouldn’t want it to be any different. Suddenly you have gorgeous, gleaning, brand new galleries, non-profit, and alternative spaces, as well as restaurants. Alserkal is a destination where you can spend the day, and hence the city’s art community and tourists come here. What’s marvelous is that even tourists who may not be interested in the arts come because Alserkal has become such a destination. No matter what exhibition and rotation is taking place in our space, there are now sixteen galleries in Alserkal, and you will definitely get a good understanding of Middle Eastern and contemporary art.

Rail (Carrier): Putting this in an historical perspective, I was fascinated by how JPNF, like many American museums today, is focusing predominantly on contemporary art. You chose to show contemporary American and European artists, not historical figures and not figures from the Islamic world. Can you tell us what led to these programmatic choices?

Najar: I chose based on what had been transmitted to me, David, because I am the custodian of the art and the artists that my father befriended and collected over the years. I read a wonderful article once in the New York Times, about growing up with Richard Nonas, an artist in the collection. When you’ve grown up with [art], I think it just sticks to your skin and you just become devoted to it. In Dubai, it was a very conscious choice for many, many reasons, and I think that this was the right place to do it. I do like a challenge and I thought we needed to bring a little of what was done in the West (America and Europe), and build up conversations across continents, by going one continent further every time—I don’t know where the collection will end up next. [Laughs]

Rail (Pissarro): You mention your father, a foundational figure in the history of JPNF. Who was he? And how did he start his collection?

Najar: My father was half-Colombian, half-Egyptian, born in Argentina, so from a very mixed background. He spent part of his childhood in France and part in Spain. In ’68 he experienced a groundbreaking moment. Do you remember The Art of the Real, an exhibition in ’68 in Paris?  It was the first time American abstract painting was shown in Paris. This allegedly CIA-funded show included Barnett Newman and Morris Louis; all these artists were brought over, and the exhibition took place at the Grand Palais and it was always empty. My father walked in and this became a life-changing moment because the show was called The Art of the Real and for him it truly was. As he put it, “This is what we are talking about, it’s not about representation, it’s the art of nothing but real!” He became obsessed with abstraction, and then started looking at younger artists of his own generation. Paula Cooper, Leo Castelli, and Ileana Sonnabend started coming to Paris and my father found himself in the middle of this perfect storm and soon became friends with them. Because of his health he could not travel. I don’t know if you are familiar with Linda Francis, she is an extraordinary artist. My father was speaking to Linda on the phone and after two hours he said to her, “Your work is phenomenal, if I send a ticket will you come to Paris?” She got on a plane, and this was the beginning of one among many friendships my father established with artists. This was in the seventies: it wasn’t something you did every day, crossing continents on airplanes. But this is how his relationships were built.   

My father was also deeply interested in philosophy, literature, and psychology, and shared these interests with many post-minimalist artists: they did as much thinking as they did painting, and this is where everyone connected. He enabled some of the Americans to come to France, some of the French to go America, and worked with wonderful gallerists and museum directors and visionaries and other collectors to create a dialogue. His criteria for selection were ideas and thought processes, and this was very much what his life was about—having interesting conversations and exchanges and making the real—as in The Art of the Real.

Rail (Pissarro): That exhibition, L’art du reél, I am sure I saw it. I was as a teenager, or just about a teenager at that time. My father who was also a conceptual artist going through different names also took that exhibition as a landmark.  

Najar: That’s incredible! I will tell you of a third person whose life changed with this exhibition: a person I have great respect for and am honored to call a friend. When we opened JPNF, we always have big archival tables, because my meticulous father kept everything. So, whilst the artists don’t always keep their archives, we have them. I was taking this friend through our archives and was showing him “The Art of the Real” catalogue—and he said: “I was in Paris studying and I walked into the Grand Palais and saw the ‘The Art of the Real’ and then I changed my whole life path to go into the arts.” This was Richard Armstrong.

Rail (Pissarro): That was the moment when everything that was happening in New York after World War II was suddenly showcased in Paris, and you are right it was tragically unattended and unpopular. The French still thought about Matisse and Picasso and not quite realizing what happened after. It’s fascinating, this web of connections, it also makes me think that the reception of the art must be so complicated—American art in Paris, post-minimalism in Dubai—it must be very interesting for you to take a look at these changes as they take place.

Rail (Carrier): How do you attract visitors for a form of art that even in Paris or New York to this day is not the most popular kind of art? 

Najar: Well, we are working on that. Now you are being part of this process [Laughs] When we opened JPNF, we understood very quickly that there are very few art programs: art is not widely taught in schools here; it’s not even part of the common curriculum. There were at the time only a handful of museums; so, kids didn’t grow up going to museums. When we opened, this was a shock—you know some people considered a monochrome confusing— how could this work be worth thousands of dollars? At first there was definitely a lot of surprise. We quickly realized that if we wanted to connect with our visitors, which we can do because we are a small institution, we needed an exhibition guide. Two years down the line we now have a regular audience who connects entirely by themselves with all our shows. They appreciate the fact that, if we give them a little bit of time and help them develop an understanding of the art on the walls, the rewards are endless. Art is universal; abstraction is universal.  

Rail (Pissarro): My first trip to Dubai was purely done for touristic reasons, my eldest son who is now twenty-seven years old, was then sixteen. He decided that he wanted to go to Dubai on vacation and of course we did stuff that kids do, not things that us cultural adults necessarily do. Now, David and Deborah, please don’t laugh: I was asked to rent a Hummer and drive through the desert. [Laughter] I was a little resistant as well, it turned out to be an absolutely fascinating experience, very bumpy, sometimes rather dangerous, because you can find yourself driving up very steep slopes, but it was absolutely fascinating. The red sand made it a unique sensation, and the vast dunes created a daunting sense of infinity. We were of course with a guide, otherwise I doubt I would be here with you today [Laughter], but it was riveting. Now back to the sensibilities that JPNF represents: post-minimal abstraction, next to nothingness, this sense of infinity that draws from the landscape within which you are, seems to me to be resonating with that sensibility that is generated by the surrounding desert. 

Najar: I’ve learned so much in this part of the world, I lived five years in Saudi Arabia as a young child, so I was not unfamiliar with it, but as an adult I have learnt so much from the Emirati tradition and their ways, the softness of their speech, their generosity—so many wonderful characteristics. Emiratis are a contemplative people, and I am sure that it’s linked to the desert, because when you are facing this infinity, you have to put yourself into perspective, as one becomes so little, one is pushed to reflection. In addition, do not forget that Islamic art and architecture are mostly non-figurative, connections that allow for dialogue, that’s in fact something that I wanted to start focusing more on. Now I am interested in bringing in a little bit of the art of the Middle East, too and have an actual creative dialogue.

Rail (Carrier): Do you think your exhibitions influence the local artists? People see this body of art and they see it in a context that is different from the context in which it was created?

Najar:  I think it’s too early to tell. We have a handful of artists here, it’s not such a large community yet, we do see them coming back, though, and repeatedly. The greatest honor is having people come back to see the show, absolutely. I will give you a specific example: the artist-run NY show that we did about the ‘70s, curated by Jessamyn Fiore: this was about artist-run spaces and artist groups of the time. The most obvious one was 112 Greene Street. It was so interesting to see locally-based artists seeing this and thinking about their own artist collectives. I think at this stage they’re realizing that artistic events and formations that are part of who they are today, also similarly occurred half a century ago in New York. And they are sort of assimilating that historical new consciousness. But I don’t know if we have an influence, at least not a conscious one, not one that has yet been verbalized by them. 

Rail(Pissarro): Who are the people who come to your museum? Are they school groups, are they collectors, where do they come from?  

Najar: It’s very diverse, we’re open six days a week, we don’t charge for entry, which was very important to us in order to guarantee maximum accessibility. This is not easy for us, and as a non-profit institution, we’re constantly looking for sources of revenue and sustainability. We work very actively with schools and universities to bring in large groups. This creates wonderful exchanges due to the younger population who comes in. We’ve developed a few really great programs for kids, we get them very involved, very engaged, we can hold them for an hour, quite easily, on just one work, which is a thrilling result of our initiatives. University students and academics also come in as well and give us a lot. We frequently work with NYU Abu Dhabi, they have a spectacular campus, and an incredible faculty. Next week I’m going out there because we’ve made a long-term agreement to place our art book collection with them, so they now have a rare book library with our books which I miss every day. [Laughs.] But it was important to have them accessible for the students and the professors, so you know that’s a lovely partnership between our museum and an internationally renowned American university. We actively seek out such partnerships.

In terms of the daily traffic it really is a mixture of our local residents, and tourists. Then twice a year, the UAE turns into a kind of center of the art world for a few days during Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art. This is a moment of high excitement for us because many of the people that we so admire—artists, museum directors, writers, curators—come through and we have the honor of taking them through our shows: that’s very special.

Rail (Pissarro): Marcia Hafif just passed away. There was an interview, in the Brooklyn Rail done by Phong Bui. You were mentioning Linda Francis, and she was interviewed by Ben La Rocco, another editor at the Rail. Also, Richard Nonas wrote the obituary for an artist, Jene Highstein, whose works you are exhibiting right now. These are totally serendipitous affinities between the Brooklyn Rail and your program—at least three artists.

Najar: It goes further: in 2014 you both interviewed Alanna Heiss for this series.  Alanna (Heiss) and Richard (Nonas) were very close to my father and now to me. Coincidentally, Alanna and Richard had an interview together, and had a great discussion about Jene Highstein. It’s a beautiful text. But you know, Joachim, you’re French, and so am I: we have a lot of pudeur, you know what I mean; sometimes we get a little shy, and don’t dare bring ourselves up. Ten days ago, I wanted to send Marcia the beautiful paragraph they wrote about her and my father. And I didn’t dare send it because I thought I should ask Alanna first. Now it’s too late. Marcia’s passing was a complete shock because as you know, she was in great health although 89. She was actively working for her show coming up in Pomona. I have been playing around for the last nine months with scheduling an exhibition around Marcia’s 1978 Artforum essay “Beginning Again.” It’s on her website and it’s about the future of monochromatic painting. And I didn’t get around to do it:  with Marcia’s passing, I resolutely know that shows of this generation of artists need to be produced and seen. Now is the time to do it.

Rail (Carrier): Besides the artists we mentioned who else is represented in the JPNF?

Najar: Among many great artists, a fantastic colorist, Douglas Sanderson is well represented in the collection. Also, Lynn Umlauf, and Marcia of course, as well as French artists, such as Christian Bonnefoi, Pierre Dunoyer, and Alain Kirili. And James Bishop, an American living in France, whose work my father met very early on.

I am highly sensitive to gender balance in our programs. Linda Francis, Suzanne Harris, Susanna Tanger, Lynn Umlauf—wonderful, wonderful painters from that group of artists—and these are all artists who, when we exhibited them in group shows here, have generated incredible responses. I should also mention the incredible Judy Rifka. Judy is just spectacular! She still paints every day. To my surprise, she came here, and she painted, she performed, she collaborated with us in all kinds of ways. She generated tremendous excitement among our local public.  A just reward for this important artist who made her way through pop, was very close to Haring and Basquiat, and is today in our collective memory.

Also, have you heard of the Ja Na Pa group? Ja Na Pa was formed by Christian Bonnefoi, Pierre Dunoyer, and Antonio Semeraro in the late ’70s and lasted a very short time. “Ja na pa” was taken from a poem by Antonin Artaud where the poet declares having no belief in mother and father. This became these three artists’ motto: do away with the past and start off a wholly new beginning. The grouping lasted only a few months, but it’s still referenced in art historical contexts, and each artist maintained his own practice afterwards, and, these continue to stand out in France.

The collection is relatively vast and consists of paintings, works on paper, and an important archival collection.

Rail (Carrier): The Artforum review by Rahel Aima praised your show “Artist Run New York: The Seventies,” for transcending the usual focus. Could you say something about what kind of reception you had in Dubai?

Najar: There are some really great art writers here. They are very careful about doing their research and digging deeper, and for that we are very, very grateful. We haven’t had a bad article yet, and yes it’s going to have to come at some point [laughs.]

The JPNF director, Wafa Jadallah, counts ten years of experience in various institutions linked to the Middle East. Both she and I greatly value writing and art criticism as this is the best form of support we can give to our artists. Nothing can make me happier than an exhibition of one of our artists leading to another museum show.

Rail (Carrier): Can you tell us about the architect you chose: Mario Jossa?

Najar: Mario became known as Marcel Breuer’s partner: his first gig with MBA was to design the windows of the Whitney (now the Met Breuer). He also designed the Hans Hartung Foundation, originally the home of Hans Hartung and Anna Eva-Bergman.

He was long in retirement when I went to see him, and asked, “Look, we’re opening a museum. This might sound crazy, but you should be a part of it. Would you?” And he flew over to Dubai immediately, and it was incredible to work with this architect who’s seen everything. He may not have entered in the star system, but he continued to be the principal architect throughout in his firm, carrying through his beautiful vision. When he came in, he immediately knew what to do with our space, and knowing the collection very well, he was able to create an architecture that would enhance the works, without overwhelming them, while always optimizing the space. After long discussions with my father, and with me, and layers of drawings, we ended up with this quite striking building. So now, we have an art house built in the middle of Dubai, by one of the original Bauhaus pupils. When Rem Koolhaas visited the Foundation—OMA has designed a building here in Alserkal Avenue, called Concrete—he made the most beautiful compliment, he said to me: “I cannot believe you have this here.” And that’s all he said. [Laughs.] When we opened the JPNF in March 2016, I saw a group in suits, and they really looked like a museum group. They spent five minutes staring at my window, so I made my way down and introduced myself, and I said, “I see you’re looking at the architecture, where are you from?” “The Met Breuer.” [Laughs]

Rail (Carrier):  You relocated here fourteen years ago. Could you imagine then what Dubai would be like now?  

Najar: One thing I have learned in living in the UAE: that is how we consistently achieve the unbelievable, the impossible. We built the world’s tallest tower, we built an international, financial center, we built no less than the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. What also seemed incredible fourteen years ago is to have the number of extraordinary private art collections we have here. Of course, we need to widen the base of collectors precisely in order to strengthen and solidify what we have set up.

Rail (Pissarro): I wanted to expand on the number of women represented in your program. Is this something you, as a woman, belonging as you said to the fifteen percent of women who have founded new museums, something that you have emphasized, or is it a legacy of your dad, or is it a little bit of both?  

Najar: A few years ago, the curator for our opening show, Brooklyn-based Jessamyn Fiore hosted a dinner for us. And most of the New York-based artists—female artists—in the collection were there—Lynn Umlauf, Linda Francis, Susanna Tanger, Judy Rifka, Marcia Hafif, and Jessamyn’s mother, Jane Crawford, who was married to Gordon Matta-Clark. Jane said to us: “You have to understand the pressure that these women were under in the ’70s, because they were making their art, but the men were very much at the forefront, and many of them were the other half of an art couple.” So yes, we are focusing on giving women their voice within the museum institution. In my experience, they are very generous—every time we’ve had a female artist show, she’s shown huge generosity not only with her art, but also with her knowledge and time. You know, Judy came for her show. Well, she gifted her sketchbook from the ’70s as she was reflecting on the first painting that we ever acquired.  

Rail (Pissarro): Olivier Mosset is another artist who you are very dear to and we did a show of his work at Hunter two or three years ago, when we recreated the BMPT moment of 1967. How does he fit in the collection?

Najar: So, Paris in 2016, my friend Hervé Mikaeloff invited me for a coffee with a terrible sense of urgency and said to me, “Deborah, it’s BMPT’s fiftieth anniversary, and nobody is doing an exhibition.” I said, “My God, you’re right, why don’t we curate a show and organize a whole program at JPNF, let’s do it.” And that’s the beauty of private museums, we have great flexibility. So, we both got terribly excited about doing a show around BMPT, and scheduled it for November 2017 at the time of Abu Dhabi Art. They very generously gave us a booth at their fair. We didn't do a BMPT show. But we did an Olivier Mosset show. He flew over from Arizona to Dubai. Meeting him for the first time, picking him up at the airport in Dubai, was a beautiful human experience; the show was composed of historic works starting with The Circle, working through his polygons, working through monochromatic work and the different textural works thanks to wonderful loans from private collections. And then here, upstairs, he wanted to show his latest works: huge panels (6×20 feet), which he had just finished painting in Arizona. He brought these and we installed them together. It was an unforgettable experience. We were very happy to give him his first show in the Middle East.

Rail(Pissarro): The last few years have seen prestigious private museums being founded by women: Crystal Bridges, founded by Alice Walton, in Bentonville, Arkansas in 2005, the Long Museum West Bund, founded by Wang Wei, in Shanghai in 2012, the new Garage Museum, founded by Dasha Zhukova, in Moscow in 2015. This recent phenomenon is a distinctive and encouraging feature of our present.

Najar: There are some extraordinary women who have opened private museums. Their institutions I would say are truly remarkable. Many of them are part of the Global Private Museum Network, a network created by Philip Dodd who then handed it over to me. Our goal is to plan and encourage exchanges among private museums. Being the founder of a private museum, one participates in a different genre of philanthropy and it is important to be surrounded with individuals who face similar challenges and think in similar directions. I see it as the mission of the network to give private museum founders and directors a collective voice and communicate to others what kind of cultural tool a private museum is, and what it is capable of achieving. So, it’s a very interesting network, it’s a very closely knit one, and includes institutions of all sizes. Ours is less than 5,000 square feet, some of them are 400,000. But we all share the same starting point: a passion for art and a desire to give back. To be part of such a remarkable group of people is most stimulating. Maintaining a dialogue on how to keep pushing the barriers of what private museums can do and how we can have our place at the same table as public institutions, is one of our main goals.

Contributors

David Carrier

DAVID CARRIER is co-author with Joachim Pissarro of Wild Art (Phaidon, 2013). His next books, with Joachim Pissarro, are Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of Aesthetics and Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll.

Joachim Pissarro

Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.

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