Faculty visit Abu Dhabi

Researching further the challenges of building an arts institute in Abu Dhabi, a group of arts faculty and administrators traveled to the United Arab Emirates over spring break to meet with government and education officials and develop ideas about the institute’s potential curriculum.

Deputy Provost for the Arts Barbara Shailor and professors and deans from the schools of architecture, drama and music returned last Monday from a nine-day visit to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi’s emerging cultural community on Saadiyat Island has recently attracted commitments from major players in the arts world, and Yale may follow their lead. The Louvre — which signed a $1.3 billion deal with the emirate last month — and the Guggenheim will open branches of their museums on the island, in buildings designed by famed architects Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry. Zaha Hadid, who is currently teaching a seminar at the School of Architecture, is the architect for the district’s Performing Arts Centre, a building which will house five theaters.

While in the Emirates, the Yale delegation met with government tourism and education officials and visited Zayed University and the American University in Sharjah, Shailor said. She and other Yale officials traveled to Abu Dhabi on an exploratory visit last September, but Shailor said the purpose of this most recent trip was to give faculty a chance to look into the kinds of programs that would be most appropriate for their schools to facilitate there.

“The last visit was more of an administrative visit, and this was more of a faculty visit, to get a sense of faculty commitment to the project and what they see,” Shailor said. “Ultimately Yale could start something, but it’s going to be the faculty who are going to implement it, so we want to make sure that we have the right program.”

The University aims to make a final decision by June, Yale President Richard Levin said.

Drama School representatives were particularly interested in exploring local theatrical activity in order to see if Yale might potentially consult with artists or offer training opportunities, Deputy Dean of the Drama School Victoria Nolan said. She was pleased to find out about 17 local theater groups throughout the Emirates, she said.

Now that the delegation has returned to campus, the participants are meeting with members of the arts faculty to develop ideas for programs they might offer in the emirate.

“We are really actually now in the process of developing a framework of the questions and issues that need to be resolved in order for projects to be envisioned that are in keeping with the goals of the emirate,” said Drama School Dean James Bundy, who traveled to Abu Dhabi with the delegation.

Administrators stressed that plans are still preliminary at this point, but Nolan said the Drama School’s two main ideas currently under discussion with faculty are teaching actors and mounting productions in Abu Dhabi.

“[Abu Dhabi officials] have expressed interest in our advice and counsel on the kinds of work that they might pursue in the performing arts center,” Nolan said.

Shailor said ideas so far are focusing on programs Yale could run without a physical building.

“We’re really thinking hard about what you can do without a physical venue,” Shailor said. “And then the next step would be, as their cultural district develops, to better think about how Yale would fit into their cultural district in terms of actually having a site.”

Architecture professor Keller Easterling, who went on this most recent trip, said she enjoyed meeting with students and faculty in the Emirates and that she is optimistic about Yale’s involvement there.

“We feel strongly that the global community has already focused a spotlight on the United Arab Emirates, and there’s a real opportunity for Yale,” Easterling said. “But more importantly, making friends and academics’ creating networks is a really durable form of alternative statecraft, and it’s a very important thing to make these networks.”

The idea of an American school opening an art institute in the Middle East is not new. Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, runs a School of the Arts in Qatar.

John DeMao Jr., VCU associate dean for the university’s arts in Qatar, said the program in Qatar has engaged VCU in a rapidly developing part of the world.

“It exposes our faculty and students to another very different culture, and it demonstrates that the U.S. has something to export other than conflict,” DeMao said in an e-mail.

DeMao said VCU maintains the same nondiscrimination policies on its Qatar campus as it has in Virginia and that the only major difference in its activities abroad is that students in Qatar do not draw nude figures.

DeMao would not comment on the program’s funding. Yale officials have also declined to comment on how much a Yale arts institute in Abu Dhabi might cost and who would foot the bill.

Other universities have been wary of dealing with the United Arab Emirates. The University of Connecticut’s plans to open a satellite campus in Dubai were set aside recently because of concerns about discrimination against Israeli citizens.

Shailor said Yale is taking these concerns seriously, but that they have not stopped the University from moving forward with its talks with Abu Dhabi’s government.

“There are lots of issues,” Shailor said. “Certainly if you think about our interactions with China or with India, one could express some more concerns across the board. So what one would do is to look at all of these concerns, see exactly to what extent they seem to be justified, and then to weigh the positive aspects of having a relationship and building a relationship with not having a relationship.”

Shailor said she will probably be returning to Abu Dhabi within the next few weeks.

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