As the World Cup Looms, Qatar Unveils an Array of Public Art

Since winning its bid for the FIFA World Cup over a decade ago, Qatar has been eager to bolster its cultural clout with substantial investments leading up to the marquee event in November. The Persian Gulf country has debuted numerous world-class museums and now a massive public art program showcasing 40 new pieces by international heavyweights.

“Milestones” (2022) by Shia’a Ali at Grand Hamad Street. All photography by Iwan Baan, courtesy Qatar Museums

Ever since Qatar won the bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup back in 2010, the Middle Eastern country has been on a building tear. Home to nearly three million people, Qatar expects around 1.5 million visitors to head to the Persian Gulf to attend the quadrennial soccer event, which officially kicks off in November. For more than a decade, Qatar has been racing against the clock to realize zealous plans for new development that include eight state-of-the-art soccer stadiums designed by a roster of acclaimed architects, several high-profile cultural institutions, a 47-mile long rail system, dozens of luxury hotels, and an expansion to Hamad International Airport, which recently usurped Singapore Changi Airport’s eight-year reign as the world’s best. 

Qatar is delivering on those plans—proof of the diminutive country’s astronomical oil-driven wealth and aspirations to prove its cultural credentials on the world stage. The construction boom hasn’t been without controversy: The country has been embroiled in numerous scandals stemming from anti-LGBTQ laws, poor living conditions causing the deaths of thousands of migrant workers, a dubious human rights history, and allegations of bribery and corruption within FIFA. The Guardian estimates that an average of 12 migrant workers, many from South Asian countries, have died every week since Qatar landed the World Cup.

“The Miraculous Journey” (2013) by Damien Hirst at Sidra Medical Centre

Controversy aside, Qatar’s cultural program is quickly establishing its capital, Doha, as a formidable arts destination. The organization Qatar Museums’ latest initiative is an expansive public art program that will bring sculptures and installations from blue-chip names to parks, shopping centers, train stations, Hamad International Airport, and the handful of stadiums. Among the highlights are Jeff Koons’s Dugong (2022), a colossal mirror-polished steel sculpture portraying the marine mammal found swimming in the Persian Gulf; Clay Court sculptural benches by Faye Toogood scattered around the Qatar National Theatre, and Katharina Fritsch’s giant blue cockerel, Hahn (2013), at the Sheraton. Other commissioned artists include Olafur Eliasson, Yayoi Kusama, KAWS, Ernesto Neto, and Rashid Johnson. 

“The addition of 40 new major works of public art this fall is a significant milestone for Qatar’s public art program,” Al-Mayassa said in a statement. “Public art is one of our most prominent demonstrations of cultural exchange, where we present works from artists of all nationalities and backgrounds. From the arrivals at the best airport in the world to every neighborhood in our nation, public art is there to make your experience unique.”

“Gates to the Sea” (2019) by Simone Fattal at the National Museum of Qatar

The country is one of the first Gulf states to establish a public art program, which Qatar Museums has expanded to comprise more than 100 artworks by the likes of Richard Serra, Louise Bourgeois, and Urs Fischer. The organization is chaired by Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, sister of the ruling emir and one of the world’s most prolific art collectors whose annual acquisitions budget is estimated to exceed $1 billion. In a 2012 TED Talk about art’s social impact, she shared a vision of creating a wide-ranging public art collection to help shape the Qatari national identity.

The news follows the announcement of three additional cultural institutions planned for Doha: a contemporary art campus by Alejandro Aravena, the OMA-designed Qatar Auto Museum, and an Orientalist art hub by Herzog & de Meuron. They will join the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum, which Spanish architect Joan Sibina encircled in giant Olympic-colored rings, and the National Museum of Qatar, whose series of petal-like pavilions by Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel form an unmistakable landmark at the southern tip of the Doha Corniche waterfront promenade. 

“Clay Court” (2022) by Faye Toogood at Qatar National Theatre
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