Abu Dhabi’s Warehouse421 has a new name (farewell Warehouse421, hello 421) and a new brand identity. Originally it aimed to provide “a dynamic space that could be home to exhibitions and events that our community sorely needed at the time”; but the thinking is that “the contours of our cultural landscape have shifted” and “we have become so much more than just a warehouse …”
Warehouse421 was a real breath of fresh air when it opened its doors back in 2015. True, the physical space had been reworked at some cost by a big-name architectural studio (which actually was BIG); but it was a real warehouse in an industrial part of town, so the vibe was right for an alternative arts venue.
It took a year or two to find its feet, but then did start to justified its ambitions. The official line at the time was that Warehouse421 “is committed to showcasing the work of local and regional creative professionals and to being a place where creatives formally and informally convene”, which is a bit of a portmanteau description: but it started holding exhibitions that reflected the local arts community (for instance via an ongoing connection with the SEAF fellowships) and moved into commissioned shows like the impressive Architecture of Loneliness. The al fresco cinema screenings run by Cinema Akil, an early addition to the programme, have always been successful. And gradually W421 expanded to take a more active role in aspects of the creative process, offering more learning opportunities and workshops, running pop-up selling shows for locally made art, providing self-service studio spaces …
And now its management feels that it’s time for a “re-imagining”. So what is 421 doing now that it wasn’t doing (or wasn’t able to do) six or seven years ago? How have the needs evolved? We asked Faisal Al Hassan, manager of 421, who has been with the organisation from the start, and he said the new brand identity is the result of an assessment that started early in 2020 “when we decided to rethink and reassess our purpose as a platform that supports the work of emerging artists and creative practitioners”.
His conclusion: “Seven years ago, the cultural landscape in the UAE was quite different, and our purpose at the time was to serve as a community space that hosted exhibitions and workshops. Today, our programming is focused on offering emerging practitioners support through learning, research, and commissions, and on engaging the wider community in critical dialogue and exchange.”
These days many of the exhibitions are the result of the capacity building programmes that have been developed in the last couple of years, like the Curatorial Development Exhibition programme – a structured six-month exercise in developing a specific exhibition on a preset topic. This is highly practical, involving rigorous study, selecting artists and works, and producing a written analysis to accompany the final exhibition.
More publishing is another addition to the original mix. Says Al Hassan: “We publish literary and academic writing through a variety of our programmes, such as the Artistic Research Grant, which also offer artists the opportunity to present and pose questions that are relevant to our creative ecosystem and the region at large.
“We are a site for experimentation and a space where artists can expand the boundaries of their work, confronting new perspectives and ways of working as they explore and try new things.”
That broader view of the operation accounts for the dropping of ‘Warehouse’ from the name: “we’re no longer just an exhibition or events space – we see ourselves as catalysts for the UAE’s emerging creative community”.
So is 421 more like an arts centre, like The Arts Center at NYUAD or the Jameel? Faisal Al Hassan makes the point that he’s not in competition with other institutions: “in fact we see them as collaborators and partners”. But in any case 421 views itself as focussing on emergent creative practices locally – “our mandate is to support and help facilitate the work of young artists and creative practitioners who want to harness the arts as an agent for social inquiry.
“We see a real need for institutions, organisations and spaces dedicated specifically for them, and we also see a need for platforms that champion process over final or finished work. Many of our programs – our Homebound Residency for example – don’t require artists to produce a completed or polished project. Rather we see the process of learning, trial and error, experimentation as the priority.”
Another example: the Teen Studio, an educational programme that gives UAE students knowledge and skills required to pursue various creative disciplines at university level (applications for the first cycle have just closed). And this was developed as by two students on the annual Internship Program, which gives interns an insight into the running of an arts organisation.
So 421 is not an arts centre then, more a centre for developing people who will become part of the arts scene locally. That sounds like an important (and indeed necessary) addition to the UAE’s arts ecosystem.