Does this teacher have the perfect equation for artistic awareness?

Former teacher and cultural promoter Kurt Blum believes education is the crux of artistic awareness

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Art is all around us: in the architecture of a building, the decoration of a hotel or restaurant, the design on advertisements. And yet, there are still many barriers facing those who wish to be an artist, study art and have a career in the field, and even for those who are just curious to know more or have access to good quality art.

As a former teacher, Kurt Blum believes education and awareness lie at the heart
of it all.

In 2008, Kurt established Swiss Art Gate UAE, a group that organises arts and cultural projects throughout the country, with an aim of representing international artists and promoting Switzerland in arts and culture, after realising the European country was severely underrepresented in the UAE. But over time, as Kurt curated exhibitions in hotels like Yas Viceroy and Le Royal Méridien, and restaurants like Mezzaluna in Emirates Palace and Roberto’s, he began to fill a different void, one that meant the public could have access to the arts without even realising it.

“I like to see art in public places, whether it’s art integrated in a building, like the lighting or decoration elements, or it’s a part of a building so everybody has access to it.

“If you have a barrier people might not go to art galleries, but if you go to a restaurant you can’t avoid seeing the artwork; it’s for free and you don’t have to think about it, you just say you like it or don’t like it, maybe that you’d like to have such a piece in your home. In a gallery, a lot of the people have something linked to art, but here, it’s free to go to the exhibition; it’s a very soft approach.”

It’s a logical approach too, and given Kurt’s years of experience in both education and culture, it comes as no surprise.

In his native Switzerland, Kurt was a music and primary school teacher by day, also finding time to be a board trustee for a cultural foundation, an organist at a church and director of a choir. After dipping in and out of teaching and even moving to the UAE in 2007 to be a music teacher, he eventually gave it all up to start Swiss Art Gate UAE.

“Switzerland wasn’t represented in arts and culture like the British with the British Council, Goethe-Institut with the Germans or the French with Alliance Française. Even Italy had some cultural and culinary events,”
Kurt recalls.

“In 2009, Formula 1 started for the first time in Abu Dhabi and everyone was writing about it, it was so exciting. So I thought, ‘What can we do from Switzerland with the Formula 1?’

“In my village in Switzerland, we had a Formula 1 photographer and I asked him if he’d do a Formula 1 exhibition, so we approached Emirates Palace [in Mezzaluna]. We had a big exhibition and it was all about Italy because the restaurant serves Italian food. After the exhibition, I sold some photographs and the management here offered me an opportunity to do more exhibitions and it just continued.”

It seemed to be a winning formula: exhibit art in public places and give people a choice of looking at it or not. By bringing the gallery to the people instead of the other way around, it meant reaching people who wouldn’t actively seek out galleries and sparking curiosity and conversation.

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“When it comes to visiting galleries here, usually you don’t see Emiratis unless they’re already into art; you see artists or someone who’s in art and culture visiting the exhibition.

“You need to educate people: maybe we have some Arabs who come here to see our exhibition and they spend an hour and a half sitting in front of an artwork; maybe they’ll discuss it, maybe they’ll appreciate it – it’s about raising awareness.”

It’s an awareness, Kurt says, that goes right down to educating children and offering support for those that want to enter the industry.

“It’s like throwing paper, cigarettes or cans out of your car – it’s all about starting education early,” he states.

“In Europe, when I was a teacher, we would take the children at least once a year to attend a concert or art exhibition or invite an artist to speak, or a writer to talk. The children are confronted with someone or something real, and that’s what they need here as well so they can attend an exhibition at, say, Louvre Abu Dhabi or Manarat Al Saadiyat.

“Art is another language; some people go to work as a waiter or some may be a mechanic or aeroplane engineer, but some express themselves through art. We should give them the chance to express themselves through painting, drawing, writing…

“When I told my parents 50-something years ago that I wanted to go into the arts, they said, ‘First train to be a teacher, then you can do music’, and here it’s the same, but a bit later. You say, maybe you study graphic design, but not that you study art. This needs to be changed.”

As just one part of the arts and culture ecosystem in the UAE, Kurt knows that Swiss Art Gate UAE can’t create this awareness on its own, but admits that other groups are also doing their part. With Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation, which hosts the annual Abu Dhabi Festival, taking an integrated approach by offering everything from music classes to film screenings, venues like Louvre Abu Dhabi and Manarat Al Saadiyat offering children’s workshops and five-star hotels clearing their walls for his exhibitions, it’s clear that change is underway. And for Kurt, it’s a positive step in building awareness and creating a community that cares about art.

WORDS Rachael Perrett

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