Vilma Jurkute on How Alserkal in Dubai is Reimagining Cultural Spaces for Urban Sustainability

Vilma Jurkute in this interview reflects on the role of culture and the arts in urban development, sustainability and city branding, and shares key insights she’s gained through her work as Director of Dubai’s premier cultural institution, Alserkal.

Vilma, having spent the last decade developing creative industries across New York, Chicago, London and Dubai – what fascinates you about culture and its role in sustainable urban development?

I believe that art in its many forms does not only inspire but challenges our critical thinking. It can engender a sense of belonging, purpose, and meaning for diverse communities within urban environments and beyond. Through their work and research, artists are able to challenge our thinking paralysis by encouraging moral valuation in numerous subjects. This can contribute to the constitution of social identities, ideological codings in social commentary, and even a rearrangement of desires — especially in the Anthropogenic world we live in today.

Culture is not mappable, as it permeates all aspects of our lives and neighbourhoods, reassuring us of its statute — yet, it is given little attention within urban peripheries. Many authors and researchers have argued for its place as a fourth pillar for sustainability, amongst economic, social, and environmental dimensions. An undifferentiated approach with inclusion and access for all can enable community formation. As Alserkal, we’ve produced more than 3,000 cultural events, free and open to all publics, leading to 600,000 visitors annually.

At the same time, I’m cautious of how the arts and culture are now used as a proxy for real estate development, to build short-term projects and ‘sanitised-heritage’ tourism packages, a trend that’s occurring globally. Neo-liberal short-termism cannot rewrite history or shape a cohesive society. Subsequently, culture production comes with societal responsibility. Memories and a sense of place produce social capital, which is difficult to amass but easy to destroy.

You are currently the Director of Alserkal. Briefly, what is this organization about, and what does your role entail?

Dubai’s art ecosystem, which started with just a few commercial art galleries, has grown into a holistic art scene. We’ve witnessed the development of robust education programmes, not-for-profit spaces with active community programming, and the emergence of new collectives and homegrown concepts within the creative industries. Locally based talent is more eager and able than ever to develop artistic practices in the region, since there’s an infrastructure to support it. You can see this in the rosters of our homegrown galleries, which have signed up both local and international talent.

Alserkal played an important role, as we grew together with the city. As Director of Alserkal, I oversee the creation of cultural destinations such as Alserkal Avenue and Concrete, as well as cultural production that manifests through cultural ideation, exhibitions, arts festivals, and other.

Furthermore, as a socially engaged enterprise, Alserkal Arts Foundation forms an important pillar of our public promise as Alserkal. As a non-collecting foundation, we are committed to artistic production, residency programmes, research grants, and alternative learning through colloquia and other forms.

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.

Which initiatives at Alserkal are you particularly excited about right now, or proud of in terms of what they have achieved?

I am inspired daily by the risk-takers and thought leaders that form the Alserkal community and Alserkal Avenue district. The most passionate entrepreneurs, thinkers, and makers are continuously generating change and disruption in art, design, architecture, theatre, fashion, culinary, and other industries. I’ve always been fascinated by their tenacity and the commitment to their work and to those around them — it takes a lot of courage and strength to become an entrepreneur, and I hold much respect for all of them.

What role does the creative economy play for the success of place branding initiatives?

I am cautious of reductive associations attached to terms such as “place branding” or “creative economy” as we already live in very hegemonic, commodified, and marketised environments built on extractive processes. Economic determinism as a measure of success is no longer able to contribute to the sustainable relevance of places.

We are the crossroads of uncertainty and the Anthropocene, calling for new definitions, models, and ways in which we think about cities and creative discourse within those environments.

I am very cautious about culture being utilised as a proxy for short-term gains. Therefore, as Alserkal, intent defines everything we do.

To date, we have collectively represented almost 300 artists and built a strong global network of art institutions. We continue to closely engage with artists, designers and multi-disciplinary practitioners to be part of our artistic programme.

For example, a recent Alserkal Arts Foundation commission was by Metasitu, an architecture collective who was formerly part of our Alserkal Residency programme. This particular work fully deconstructed one of our built environments within Alserkal Avenue, formerly a community/café space, to become a 21st-century ruin. This challenged our ways of thinking around commodification of space, which in ways we’ve contributed to in the Avenue.

We strongly believe that it is critical for any rigorous programme to allow for artists to critique the institution and almost de-institutionalise it, so it continuously evolves. Allowing artists and researchers to make such attempts and question our way of doing things can help organisations seek for more sustainable and innovative paradigms and processes.

How important are the creative industries for the social development and identity of Dubai, the UAE, and the wider MENASA region?

Dubai was always synonymous with potential; it is the city where everything is possible. Dubai has grown to become a conduit for some of the most innovative homegrown entrepreneurship stories and social innovation.

A city as diverse as Dubai, that is home to more than 200 nationalities, has also embraced the importance of sustainability as we revise our behaviour and patterns of consumption. With new measures and ambitions in place, it is clear that Dubai’s focus now is shifting from physical ecology to social structures and sustainable practices that will further the city’s global relevance for generations to come.

Furthermore, it will continue to expand its promise for artistic and creative entrepreneurs to be part of Dubai’s story in a celebration of homegrown talent.

Your key insights from your time at Alserkal so far?

So many! We’ve made quite a few mistakes along the way, but the most important lesson would be to forge your own model.

I remember when we began, the West did not know what to do with us… We didn’t fit any of the boxes for a district, or a foundation, or an arts community. And so, being difficult to define and responding to situational and context-specific environment is what enabled Alserkal to form over the past 8 years, and in some ways, radically challenge dated understandings of cultural clusters and their impact.

Last year, as part of my research at Oxford, I examined social structures and impacts associated with cultural spaces and belonging in young people. It was remarkable to learn the importance of arts and culture in today’s urban spaces and how it enables a sense of belonging amongst members of our society.

I believe we’re at a crossroads: old models just don’t work anymore, which means there’s an opportunity for us to deconstruct, depoliticise, and dislocate the status quo. Unfortunately, modernity today is still a synonym for the West.

Being part of an emerging art scene, I always say that our possibilities are vast. We can create our own definitions and models that are locally relevant and resonate with our local networks of talent. For us, integrity, and commitment to artists and homegrown collectives is what drives us to always challenge the conventional, leading to disruptive practices and ways of thinking.

Being based in Dubai – which cities or regions do you find particularly innovative in their approach to using place branding for attracting talent, visitors or investors? 

Dubai remains the magnet of opportunities for the most talented young minds. I cannot think of any other city that was able to achieve as much in such a short period of time.

Cities that foster experimentation, consider inclusion and access to opportunity with sustainable objectives in mind will continue to forge new ways of thinking and doing business.

Moral valuation is important, and young populations today are more versed and educated than ever before and aware of the current anthropogenic crisis we are facing.

Cities and organisations that put the attempt to resolve those issues at the forefront of their ambitions and goals will stay relevant for the publics it engages.

Dubai will be in the headlines next year as host of the Expo 2020. How useful are such events, especially in terms of influencing the host city’s image and appeal as place to live and work?

Mega-events, just as other initiatives today, must seek for alternative ways of production by revisiting their impact on local socio-economic structures, and I strongly believe Dubai has taken up this challenge.

By exploring themes around mobility, sustainability, and opportunities Expo 2020 seeks to examine and spur innovative ways for future experimentation and formation of new alternatives. It also acts as a platform for nations from the Global South to share their views, with many taking part for the first time, fully funded by the Expo.

I feel that such platforms enable broader conversations and knowledge exchange amongst diverse stakeholders to take place by remapping geographies of knowledge and enabling us to slow down and rethink our relevance as cultural institutions in this context.

Among other positions you are a member of the advisory board of the Global Cultural District Network. What characterizes a “cultural district” – how can neighborhoods become one?

In light of the uncertainty and fragmented discourses that characterise the Anthropocene today, our current values and economic success drivers are being challenged. Organisations that deliver public promise with integrity and sustainability in mind will further challenge short-termism and reductive thinking at times attached to the value cultural precincts produce.

By envisioning cultural clusters as social synergies, rather than built environments driven by economic logic and Western subjectivities, we have a unique opportunity for experimental and context-specific models similar to that of Alserkal’s to emerge in the region within the next decade. Therefore, sustainable homegrown ecosystems driven by multi-localism will become of great importance to the region’s maturing arts infrastructure and local community development.

Furthermore, the youth will play a fundamental role in shaping this future discourse within the creative realm, therefore access to opportunity is essential to consider. By enabling attempts for homegrown cultural producers to further innovate, new histories and meanings within context specific situations will shape new structures for belonging, enhancing social, environmental and economic sustainability.

In my advisory role with GCDN, I have been an active advocate on new models that emerged and continue to emerge from the Global South as new tools of agency and alternative learning. I believe it is imperative to include these new precincts as part of the global conversation, as it can only be global when all nations and models are met at an equal measure.

I think this is very important, we must continuously challenge our perceptions and preconceptions attached to geography and empower little-known initiatives to share their learnings and knowledge making for a more transparent and critical exchange.

Thank you, Vilma.

Connect with Vilma Jurkute on LinkedIn or follow what’s happening at Alserkal on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or LinkedIn.

Picture credit: Sueraya Shaheen

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