Art's Desert Kingdom

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Byline: Blake Gopnik

Can Qatar purchase a place in the cultural big leagues?

It's going to take some getting used to: viewing Cezanne's The Card Players to the sound of a mosque's call to prayer; visiting a Rothko after a trip to the souk; scoping a Hirst beside women in abayas. And soon, maybe, admiring the Nordic vision of Munch's The Scream by the light of the desert.

On the evening of May 2, one of the four versions of Munch's painting is being auctioned at Sotheby's in New York. Insiders expect that the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, buyer of Cezanne and Rothko and Hirst, will be aiming to add Munch to that list. Flush with oil and gas, Qatar has the world's highest per capita income, so the world's second most famous painting--after the Mona Lisa--could yet become its most expensive.

For that to happen, The Scream would have to beat the quarter-billion dollars Qatar already spent on its Cezanne, according to reports in The Art Newspaper. That was almost twice what anyone had ever paid for a picture, while Qatar's Rothko seems to have cost it $70 million, and its Hirst was priced at $20 million. (The Qatar Museums Authority-or QMA-which is in charge of art in the country, does not comment on its purchases, but has also not denied any of these widely cited numbers.) The QMA helped finance the huge Hirst retrospective that just opened at Tate Modern in London, and which travels to the Gulf in 2013. It also put together the deluxe Takashi Murakami survey now hanging in Doha, Qatar's capital, in a building the size of an aircraft hanger. Ducking in for shelter from the Arabian sun, I felt culture shock, cubed: some of the most cryptic, most urban art there is--Japanese cartoons injected with a hint of horror--was being offered to a desert people who owned barely anything a generation or two back, when they started pumping oil.

"If you are a rich country, why wouldn't you create important cultural institutions?" asks Jean-Paul Engelen, as we walk through the Murakami show that he oversaw. Engelen is an auction-house veteran who recently took charge of the QMA's exhibitions and public projects. He says that the royal family--especially the emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his 29-year-old daughter, Sheikha Mayassa, who heads the QMA--sees art as "an important part of educating the people of Qatar." He denies the charge that it's about impressing the rest of the world: "I wouldn't be here if it were about bling-bling." Given how hard the royals clamp down on news of their spending--ask a money question, and Engelen might as well have his mouth duct-taped shut--ostentation can't be their principal fault.

Engelen opines that "lack of education, lack of communication, and fear of the unknown is the source of much of the evil in the world," and sees the QMA as lined up against all three. "To build a contemporary art culture in a region that had very little experience of that ... if it happens, it's pretty amazing--you're part of history," he says, explaining his willingness to remain in a place that's still raw. (A thousand skyscrapers bloom; sidewalks are in short supply, as is some nice cold beer.)

When the Smithsonian Institution was established in Washington in 1846, it was aimed at "the increase and diffusion of knowledge" across a crude and newly rich land. …