Cathy Hernandez, AADM Online ‘09, shares her recent experience exploring and learning about arts administration in the United Arab Emirates.
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to travel for a one-week study on London's presenting industry, where I studied three major presenters: The Royal Opera House, The Mayor's Office and The Royal Albert Hall where I met its CEO, Jasper Hope. In my conversation with Jasper, he informed me he was leaving The Albert Hall to become the new CEO of the Dubai Opera. He was so excited about the project, since he was beginning at the Opera's formative stages with plenty of planning to do before ground was broken for construction. He could essentially plan and build the hall of his dreams with the huge resources being afforded this new venue, which was meant to be the jewel of Dubai's growing arts district. From there, Andrew Zitcer was kind enough to introduce me to Bill Bragan at NYU Abu Dhabi who invited me to study their growing arts venue. A Fulbright Specialist project consisting of a two-week (November 6 – 19) study on the cultural sector of the United Arab Emirates grew from these initial contacts / venues, so I applied and was subsequently awarded the grant.
I had a few immediate thoughts when my flight landed in Abu Dhabi: 1. Everyone was very, very kind, generous and friendly (and seemed to particularly like Americans), 2. I was so lucky that virtually everyone spoke English, and 3. Everything looked clean and new - from the buildings to the expensive cars everyone seemed to be driving. From there, my days consisted of meetings with local organizations including multiple departments within the NYU Abu Dhabi campus, Emirates Youth Symphony Orchestra, Dubai Opera, Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, and even the U.S. Embassy! From these conversations, I learned that their arts audiences consist of a wonderful combination of expats and the local Emiratis. The Emiratis don’t have a long history of seeing Western art forms in conventional Western performing arts venues, but once exposed, they came back time and again to enjoy performances. Many of the organizations I spoke to emphasized exposure over ticket sales, so the arts events as a rule were generally free (the exception being the Dubai Opera). Many were concerned about sustainability, and were beginning to consider models for both ticket sales and fundraising. Fundraising was a particular challenge for them, since there are no federal income taxes in the UAE. The American non-profit model with tax-free donations simply didn’t exist, and the existing arts organizations there were heavily patronized and supported by the Shekhs or royal families, generally. As an example, the Dubai Opera’s multi-million dollar building was completely funded by the Shekh, but there was no funding to support operations. Jasper made it clear that every performance needed to turn a profit to support its operations, and they simply didn’t spend any more than they earned annually.
I met so many amazing people in the UAE, and had a truly remarkable learning opportunity through them! I can't begin to thank my Arts Administration colleagues at Drexel enough, since it was through their hard work (multiple reference letters, approval signatures, etc.) and professional contacts that made it possible for me to apply for the Fulbright Specialist Program for one of the most memorable experiences of my life.