Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with Alserkal Avenue’s Vilma Jurkute

This article appeared in The Artistic Unity Issue #67 which was dedicated to the art scene in the UAE in which we unravel the threads of unity by exploring the perspectives of various stakeholders within the UAE’s art community. Through insightful interviews with galleries, art institutions, and auction houses, a vivid mosaic emerged, depicting how unity has been woven into the fabric of the art scene.

You’ve been a key figure in the development of creative industries in several global cities. How has your work specifically contributed to the growth of the art scene in the UAE since you joined Alserkal in 2012?

Alserkal Art Advisory, Histories of Emirati Cuisine. Courtesy of Alserkal Avenue.

I’ve been fortunate to work and study in many geographies, contexts and disciplines throughout my adult life, taking me to New York, Chicago, London, France and finally Dubai. During the early stages of my career, my work mostly utilised my background in international business, allowing me to develop a clear understanding of entrepreneurship modelling within creative fields, later shifting my practice closer to the arts during my days at the Institute of Arts and Ideas in London. Throughout my professional career and academic research at Oxford my intent was always to create connections between arts and culture, urbanism, the making of cities and communities.
Today, I am the Executive Director of Alserkal and its initiatives, overseeing Alserkal Avenue, Alserkal Advisory and Alserkal Arts Foundation, alongside our growth. A journey that began more than a decade ago allowed us to grow and mature into a plural organisation that lives in a form of neighbourhood and cultural production, a civic network of pioneering thinkers and disruptors, as well as a repository of interdisciplinary practices and research. This allows for a very dynamic, forward-thinking environment and modular work.

Under Alserkal Initiatives, Alserkal Avenue, under your leadership, has become a cultural destination for the MENASA region. Could you share some examples of how it has nurtured local and regional artistic talent and helped establish a thriving arts community in the UAE?

Alserkal was never synonymous with the built environment; on the contrary, as a polyphonic multidisciplinary community, we have always been a platform where diverse voices and stories are presented and represented. This now continues to evolve and grow through our global collaborations and projects. Supporting the new generation of thinkers to challenge the conventional – leading to new forms of knowledge – is what lies at the heart of our mandate.

In 2017, you oversaw the construction of Concrete, a groundbreaking architectural project by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA. How has Concrete enriched Dubai’s artistic and architectural landscape, and what role has it played in showcasing innovative design in the UAE?

It was with the growing grassroots culture that Alserkal Avenue developed Concrete, a multidisciplinary space dedicated to hosting exhibitions and conceptual events of international standing. As a platform, it enables us to support more cultural producers and develop the city’s art programme at large. Concrete is the first building designed by Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in the UAE. What used to be four warehouses were reimagined to become a space for museum-grade exhibitions and alternative programming. On its own, Concrete challenges existing norms and shapes new conversations around the notion of preservation in the context of modern architecture.
From the start, the idea was always to create a space for international and regional exchange, enabling more collaboration on a global scale while providing opportunities for local and regional artists to show their work in a museum-grade exhibition space. Concrete might be difficult to define, but it resonates with our audiences here. Perhaps it’s something between a Kunsthalle and a multidisciplinary alternative events space.

Your role in the Alserkal Arts Foundation is integral to supporting artistic production, scholarship and research. How have these initiatives impacted the local art community, and what milestones have they achieved in terms of artistic development?

Cooperative, dialogue-based, participatory art can help re-appraise current issues and invite critical engagement, which creates an empowering space that can lead to social transformation. Responsibility is not arbitrary, and it is particularly important when shaping a cultural discourse. We introduced our programming arm, Alserkal Programming, in 2015, with the aim of supporting artists living and practising in the region. The purpose was to engage with new audiences while supporting homegrown artists to produce work within our public space that was collaborative, participatory, and ephemeral.
We also conceptualised and executed a year-round homegrown programme, featuring talks, film screenings, and artist commissions, engaging with numerous emerging and mid-career artists. As our programme matured, we felt the need to support emerging artists in a more meaningful way, and in 2017 the Alserkal Residency felt like the next step; a not-for-profit initiative that encouraged artistic experimentation and discursive exchange. In 2019, our not-for-profit, with the support of our founder Abdelmonem Alserkal and the Alserkal family, continued to evolve into what today has become Alserkal Arts Foundation.
As a research-driven platform, today Alserkal Arts Foundation commissions artistic projects, awards research grants and supports multidisciplinary scholarship and alternative learning. We host residencies and facilitate research at our studios and study spaces at Alserkal Avenue, nurturing critical and intellectually curious projects that impact the cultural sphere in our proximity. We think expansively about our networks, privileging relevance and connectivity over geographic limits or disciplinary boundaries.

Dubai and the UAE have witnessed significant growth in the arts and cultural sectors. In your view, how have Alserkal’s vision and your contributions shaped the development of a dynamic and diverse art scene in the country?
The UAE’s cultural scene has grown to become holistic and mature. The Emirates has formed a strong marketplace for the arts, has built foundations for a creative economy and has developed a social infrastructure for multicultural talent to contribute and steer the artistic trajectory globally.

Alserkal Avenue has a unique character and is recognised for its contemporary art galleries and creative spaces. How does this blend of commercial and cultural elements contribute to the identity and vibrancy of the UAE’s art scene?

Alserkal has always been situated between the built environment, culture, and community; through our polyphonic voice as an institution that exists by way of a foundation, civic network, digital platform ( and ultimately a cultural district. This allows us to continuously challenge the conventional through the diversity of the forums programmes and narratives we co-present. Alserkal transcends boundaries of knowledge and discipline through a rigorous programme, and the non-transactional nature of our public spaces creates opportunities for all members of the public to engage in non-ticketed exhibitions, film screenings, concerts, dance performances, and talks programmes, to mention a few. Our approach to cultural programming offers alternative learning that is open to everyone, bringing people together in a participatory manner to discuss, critique and debate the subjects that resonate today. As a result, it stimulates togetherness and a sense of belonging within the city of Dubai. I must emphasise the importance of collectivity, as we focus on and work closely with our community of artists, practitioners, gallerists, filmmakers, designers and youth-driven grassroots collectives.

Atassi Foundation at Concrete, 2017. Courtesy of Alserkal Avenue.

Your involvement in cultural consulting, content production and investments in creative businesses has diversified Alserkal’s offerings. Can you elaborate on how these initiatives have facilitated the growth of creative entrepreneurs and artists in the UAE?

A few years ago, we restructured due to our continuous growth by introducing Alserkal Advisory, as part of Alserkal Initiatives. As an independent and privately owned practice, proudly born in Dubai, at Alserkal Advisory we work differently than traditional consultancies and agencies. Our approach is conscious and grounded in an ethos of care and long-term cooperation with the artists, writers, practitioners, partners and clients we work with. While we seek to innovate and re-imagine artistic interventions, we are also mindful of the importance of developing strategies that ensure their longevity and sustenance. We select projects diligently, ensuring our expertise and clients’ expectations align to produce meaningful, history-making outcomes that reflect our thinking, values and ethos. Alserkal Advisory is a multidisciplinary practice comprised of Alserkal’s founding team, in addition to thinkers, researchers, and specialists in diverse fields from multiple geographies. To date, we have been engaged in building historic programmes and strategies in the region and working in monumental sites like Expo2020 and Etihad Museum, alongside shaping the iconic contemporary culture destinations and projects, such as Noor Riyadh and Al Quoz Creative Zone, to mention a few.

Serving on the advisory boards of global cultural organisations, you have a broad perspective. How have these affiliations benefited the UAE’s art community and its connections to the broader art world?
As a self-editing organisation, it was always important for us to reinvent ourselves. Our work is grounded in an ethics of care, shared authority and collective learning, where open dialogue and long-term cooperation are foregrounded in our partnerships. Both the epistemic process as much as the final product are part of our practice when delivering our public promise. Our civic network is a community of artistic diaspora connected to our purpose and ethos through collaborations and work we have done and continue to do together with artists, practitioners, researchers, fellow institutions and our very own community here. A global view while we resonate with our audiences locally has always been key to us. We are involved in various global institutions through acquisition committees and are on the Advisory Board of the Global Cultural Districts Network,
which is an important platform for cultural districts and communities globally and has been instrumental in forging our growth and connecting us to fellow communities.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations and goals for the continued development of the art scene in the UAE, and how do you envision Alserkal’s role in fostering further growth and innovation?
Today, more than ever, we need places for growth, meaning and community that are inclusive and accessible. The Global Co-commission project by Alserkal Advisory in partnership with the Global Cultural Districts Network, which re-localises our efforts for commissioning public art, will present multi-city public art interventions curated by Tairone Bastien across three continents, working with artists like Muhannad Shono for Alserkal Avenue in the UAE, Camille Chedda for Kingston Creative in Jamaica and Io Makandal for Victoria Yards in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Each project will stand alone as a site-specific exhibition and will be accompanied by a programme that engages with local communities to further explore the theme and questions. The inaugural initiative from Alserkal Advisory is developed in collaboration with GCDN, an international membership-based network that fosters cooperation and knowledge-sharing between 52 cultural districts and clusters with a significant cultural element. Supported by Urban Arts Project, A Feral Commons will self-audit the environmental impact of the project, attempting to create the public artworks across all continents in the most responsible and conscious method possible. Utilising UAP’s proprietary tools, specifically Artwork Ingredients List and Public Art 360, will guide the project team on sustainable practices as well as measure the quantitative and qualitative impact on the environment, and the value of public art.
The intent of the co-commission project is to harness the power of cultural districts to respond collectively to urgent global subjects, inviting participants to renew their current perspectives and learnings. This first cycle explores how cultural districts can engage in knowledge-sharing and collective action. It acts as an attempt to harmonise and repair our relations with our ecology, as well as recalibrate social and economic dimensions through collective thinking with peer art organisations globally in times of climate change. We hope this will not only lead to more sustainable practices and formulation of whole-thinking structures within the current global art ecosystem but that it will also shine a light on the imperative role cultural districts play in their communities globally.

Could you share some success stories or projects that stand out as significant achievements in your journey of contributing to the growth of the art scene in the UAE?
New ways of thinking seek different forms of knowledge production and dissemination, enabling the arts to utilise different modes of being. Arts and culture is not a straightforward up-and-down curve, it is a discourse and a trajectory of its own that continues to respond to our times through artistic thought and practice by thinkers, artists multidisciplinary practitioners, and key art contributors working in various locales. Therefore, this will only evoke more collaborative attempts to negotiate current knowledge through critical interventions and research, as well as an invention of new ways of working and engaging with our audiences. As an arts scene in the UAE, we’ve always been responsive and context-specific in nature, and I strongly believe that it is with the same mindset and agility that we will continue to evolve.

About Vilma Jurkute

Originally from Lithuania, Vilma Jurkute has dedicated her career to developing creative industries across New York, Chicago, London, and Dubai. As director of Alserkal Avenue,
she has contributed significantly since 2012 to its development, fostering a dynamic community of over 70 creative organisations and establishing it as a vital platform for contemporary art in the UAE and the region.

Vilma Jurkute, Executive Director Alserkal. Credit Sueraya Shaheen



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