Sharjah Art Museum doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, so it’s a pleasure to mark its 25th birthday this month.
The museum as an institution has actually been going since 1995, housed originally in Bait Al Serkal (currently an exhibition area for the Sharjah Biennial and other Sharjah Art Foundation exhibitions and events). But a new building, the first purpose-designed art museum in the UAE – indeed, the first in the Gulf, we think – was opened in April 1997 during the third Sharjah Biennial as a new centre for the Al Shuwaiheen arts/heritage area.
It’s quite large, with a total area of around 11,000m2; more than 60 exhibition rooms of varying sizes are organised as two wings connected by an interior street. Externally it’s fairly undistinguished, with slab facades topped with (apparently non-operative) barjeels; but that format does at least allow for large poster spaces to promote the content.
And that content is very good, majoring on works by Arab artists and others who have explored the history and culture of the region. There’s a strong permanent collection, especially for modern and contemporary Arab art (see the virtual tour here). That’s boosted until 2023 by a long-term loan from the Barjeel Art Foundation, a large selection of key modernist works that reflect Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi’s interest in the ways that Arab artists have responded to historical events over the course of a tumultuous century. There’s also a gallery with highlights from the noted orientalist collection of HH Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah.
Then there’s a well-curated programme of temporary exhibitions – currently a major retrospective for the prolific Lebanese artist Aref El Rayess, including several little-seen works (to 7 August). That’s in addition to the Lasting Impressions series, launched by Sharjah Museums Authority back in 2011 as a more or less annual exhibition highlighting the Arab region’s most distinguished artists and always impressive – last year’s Baya Mahieddine shown was particularly good. Also each year the museum hosts the Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival and the Emirates Fine Arts Society’s annual exhibition; and it has always been part of the Sharjah Biennial too.
On top of that the Fine Art Library located at Sharjah Art Museum has more than 4,000 titles in Arabic, English, and other languages, alongside an archive of visual and audio materials.
Setting up Sharjah Art Museum was an important marker for artists across the region, said Manal Ataya, DG of Sharjah Museums Authority. It provided them with a showcase at a time when they had little access to dedicated exhibition spaces locally. At the same time it has built a reputation for demonstrating the vitality and character of art across the wider Arabic region, especially over the last 200 years or so; and it’s outreach activities are undoubtedly contributing to the next generation’s appreciation of art. Not bad for a 25 year old.