Jean-Paul Najar’s extensive collection of abstract and conceptual art aims to maintain the dialogue between America and Europe. Now the collection finds a new home in Dubai


From the 1960s onwards, Jean-Paul Najar excelled at collecting art, enriched by books and music. Featuring work by the greats, from Pierre Dunoyer, to James Bishop, to Suzanne Harris, the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, a non-profit private museum, is one of Alserkal Avenue’s new treasure troves. Selections visited director Deborah Najar, Jean-Paul’s daughter, to discuss the new venture.

Anya Stafford: You’re opening crates of artworks that have been in storage for over 25 years. Can you describe that experience?
Deborah Najar: It’s a mixture of excitement and a sense of responsibility — a sense of ours to take care of, and to show. The state of preservation has been incredible.

AS: What was Jean-Paul’s style of collecting?
DN: His was a very passionate and intellectual style. He was Paris-based. He never once set foot in the U.S., and he collected so many American artists. To see their works, he would literally call them and say, ‘Have you done anything new? Yes? I’m sending a truck over. I’ll take a look and send back what I don’t like.’

AS: Artist Lynn Umlauf said that Jean-Paul was like the New York art crowd’s Gertrude Stein. What are you memories of that time?
DN: They were very magical. When the incredible sculptor Jene Highstein was in Paris, he said he really wanted to do something very large in cement, and didn’t have a studio. My father knocked down two walls in his home to do it. He gave all these artists the freedom to do what they wanted, intellectually and materially.

AS: Jean-Paul said that ‘the collection is fundamentally anchored in maintaining the dialogue between America and Europe.’ Can you elaborate on that, and its extension to the Middle East?
DN: In 1968 there was a pivotal show in Paris called The Art of Real. The big American painters, like Morris Louis and Tony Smith, took part — all this new abstraction. That’s what got my father collecting. He started bridging with the French artists, he really became a platform. For example, he saw Linda Francis’ work and flew her over. My father specifically loved the context of Alserkal, a feel of Chelsea many decades ago. By moving to Dubai, we bring America and Europe into the Middle East, and it’s a continuation.

AS: Along with presenting its permanent collection and supporting its artists, the foundation’s third goal is to ‘converse with a new generation of collectors.’ What’s the plan?
DN: We host dinners, [email protected], reminiscent of art salons in the West. Then ESMoA, the American museum, will train our educators, to really make visiting a customer experience. The foundation is free for all. We want as many people as possible to visit and profit from it.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One – on – One Issue #35, on page 27.