Last November, Qatar Museums announced Zeina Arida as the next director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. Passionate about art, photography and cultural heritage, with more than 25 years of working with cultural bodies in the Arab world, Arida has managed large-scale projects and not-for profit organizations that aim to preserve and disseminate culture and art, and support education and public outreach.

Here, she speaks to Pulse about her new path.

How were you approached to direct Mathaf? What was your reaction?

I was first invited to be part of the scientific committee of a museum planned for the end of the 2020s in Doha. I participated in a couple of meetings, which allowed me to understand the scope of the vision we have here for the development of the museum sector, but also of art and its place in Qatari society. I had been wondering about staying or leaving Lebanon for a while, the prospects were starting to look very limited. In the end, things happened naturally. There was this vacancy in Mathaf, I shared my CV and my profile was found interesting, which made me very excited.

What did you know and think of Mathaf before being asked to take over as director?

When Mathaf opened in 2010, I remember it was a very exciting time, especially for the Lebanese art scene, since the very large inaugural exhibition, Told-Untold-Retold, curated by Sam Bardawil and Till Fellrath, brought together a large number of artists of my generation whom I respect, and who are my friends, and who have had the opportunity and the means to produce important works. It made a lot of noise and created a buzz. At the same time, there was Sheikh Hassan’s ambitious vision of a museum of modern art covering the whole region. He had himself made large seminal acquisitions for the core collection of Mathaf. There was also this research and resource center around the history of modern artistic practices in the Arab world and the launch of this very ambitious project called “Encyclopedia” which had already brought together a lot of researchers and academics around documenting the history of modern art in the Arab world, writing of artists’ biographies, online resources and more.

It was this image that I had of the museum, with its exciting projects, despite the fact that it subsequently found itself, for various reasons, a little withdrawn from the scene. In eleven years, the art scene has evolved a lot, and this museum, which was the first to open its doors in Qatar after the National Museum, has great potential, and for me there’s good momentum and a chance to be able to rethink Mathaf, its position and its role in the light of recent changes.

What are you going to change, keep, or enhance?

I would like to promote the collection, its history, the study and knowledge of the works and their conservation, so that the collection can radiate locally and internationally, because it is one of the most important modern Arab art collections in the world. I would like to push the dissemination and study of the collection further, supporting and pushing projects that can contribute to a better appreciation and recognition of Arab artists of the modern and contemporary period, through resources and projects already in progress, such as “Encyclopedia”.

I want to work in a much more collaborative way, in conversation with other projects, collections, and research centers that have similar objectives. Research should, in my opinion, be an integral part of the life of the museum.

I want to produce more group exhibitions, which often allow the public to comprehend the works and artists presented in a more engaging way. I also want to tackle contemporary themes and issues, again to engage the audience further.

What are your plans for Mathaf, in the short and long terms?

A new direction is often the opportunity to take a step back to assess and improve internal procedures if necessary, so that the institution itself has solid bases and working tools. The best way is to spend a lot of time with the teams and the various interlocutors and partners of the Museum, and, quite simply, to get the machine underway, since in any case a museum never stops, even less so during such an important year as 2022 for Qatar, with the World Cup.

How would you describe Mathaf?

Mathaf is housed in a former school converted into a museum and, symbolically, I find that this represents the potential of this institution well: a collection and a museum both for study and research, but also a place of activity, teeming with life, a place to learn, discuss, reflect and have fun.

Mathaf has a special status, because it is the only museum that is located in Education City, at Qatar Foundation, surrounded by universities and schools, and is part of both Qatar Foundation and Qatar Museum. Symbolically, this means that it has this role of making a link between art and education, in every sense of the word.

Mathaf may have a lack of visibility due to its geographical location, but, above all it is necessary to take advantage of its potential appeal to students, and get out from behind the walls, to reach out to them, using their natural meeting spaces, to make them want to come to the Museum.

The priority this year will also be to re-open the café, by enlarging its outdoor space, and by extending it towards the park surrounding the building, so as to create movement and also to be able to welcome the public arriving for the World Cup, since one of the eight stadiums is located very close to Mathaf. I’m working on a vision and strategy for the coming years, and could tell you a lot more in a few months…

What do you bring to Mathaf from your past experience?

I bring with me the generosity and the strength that I have always had for the projects and missions in which I believed and for which I fought. After the Arab Image Foundation, that I supported from day one, and with which I “grew up” (17 years!), my experience at the Sursock Museum was a concentration of challenges and successes, stress and happiness. I was lucky to join an institution that had a great history, but everything had to be redone, and above all there was an audience and an institution to recreate, and I can say without bragging that I got there, with the help of incredible people that I knew and was able to surround myself with.

I bring with me the dreams that I continue to have, despite the last two “destructive” years that I have lived, in every sense of the word, since the double explosion of August 4 at the port of Beirut destroyed the museum we had built. Even if I did not hesitate to re-launch myself into its reconstruction, and to fight to find the courage to start again, today I want to fight while being supported from the inside, and that support I have found at Mathaf and Qatar Museum. I bring with me the vision of a living museum, generous towards its collections, artists, collaborators, and its public.

Coming from Beirut, what is your impression of Doha?

There’s an impression of normality and serenity, above all! Kindness and benevolence, a well-being that we have forgotten in Beirut, where everything has become so difficult…

How is your life in Doha?

I came with Karl, my husband and life partner, and Lucie, one of my two daughters, who joined school during the year. For the moment we are still at a hotel, so a little in transition, but should move soon to settle in our new home. I work a lot, and spend time with my family. We’ve been here just over a month, but we already have some good friends, and have made some great acquaintances, and I can’t wait to finally feel anchored. After which, the first thing I will do will be to spend a few days in Beirut to see my family and friends!