Get to know the driving force behind the city’s dynamic art and cultural hub

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For Faisal Al Hassan, it’s all about balance.

As the public programmes manager at art hub Warehouse421, he’s behind the on-going exhibitions, pop-up events and hands-on summer workshops that have kept art lovers yearning for more ever since the warehouse opened two years ago.

Having moved to Abu Dhabi in 2011 to head the events section of the Tourism Development and Investment Company’s (TDIC) cultural department, the art lover has witnessed a huge growth in the scene.

“The first programme that I did [with TDIC], there weren’t many people at the talk,” Faisal reflects.

“I felt deflated that I’d put in so much effort and time. But my boss told me; ‘You don’t expect people to just immediately respond to what you’re doing, it’ll take time.’ “What I saw six years ago is completely different to now. Today, our programmes are at capacity almost all the time, and people want more.”

It’s safe to say that Faisal’s path to his current role was not a traditional one. But it’s also true that he has been influencing culture in a broader sense all of his career, since graduating in 2003 from the American University in Cairo with a degree in Political Science.

Starting off in the Royal Hashemite Court in Amman, Jordan, he was a protocol officer before climbing to the rank of manager of Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein’s Office. Here he had a hand in planning conferences and projects such as the World Economic Forum, the Petra Conference of Nobel Laureates and the Royal Film Commission.

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“A lot of people think to work in culture you just need to be an artist but there’s so much more: there’s curation, conservation, programming and even law.

“I don’t have an arts background but I’m very passionate about the arts.”

While Louvre Abu Dhabi’s imminent arrival may be the talk of the town when it comes to the arts world, it’s people like Faisal who are making sure art becomes embedded in the cultural network of the city, offering an accessible way for members of the community, whether an artist or art lover, to interact with each other throughout the year on a more comprehensible and informal level.

“Abu Dhabi is a very rich and multi-cultural city; it’s evolving as a cultural and artistic hub and we’re trying to be part of that and bring people along with us,” Faisal explains, speaking about Warehouse421’s vision.

“You see amazing projects being built on Saadiyat Island – the Louvre coming up at the end of this year, Manarat Al Saadiyat’s programmes, all the cultural activities that the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA) puts on in music and fine arts. We’re trying to be part of that ecosystem and cater to the community on a yearlong basis; we’re trying to fill in any gaps. Our programme is a much simpler programme: we’re not a museum and we’re not trying to be, we’re an arts community centre that caters to everyone.”

Like any ecosystem, creating a balance means developing partnerships at different levels and supporting other parts of the network, according to Faisal. “You cannot rely on TCA to be able to carry the entire city,” he stresses.

“Initiatives like Warehouse421 should be able to fill in and support that ecosystem… And I think in the next few years you’ll start to see more of these initiatives coming up.

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“We’re of course still part of the bigger picture that is the UAE – we don’t just look at Abu Dhabi in a vacuum. We’re an active part of the community, we keep close contact with our partners with TCA, NYUAD, Al Serkal Avenue, Sharjah Art Foundation, Art Dubai, Abu Dhabi Art…”

And while many people may think that Louvre Abu Dhabi will kickstart the city’s cultural scene, Faisal says it’s already blossoming.

“People always say there’s no cultural ecosystem here but I think they’re just not looking for it,” he says.

“They want it to be in their face. But it exists; we have solid recurring participants and it’s always great to see familiar faces. You start to develop these relationships with the people that are coming as well.”

As part of his position at Warehouse421, Faisal is often on the ground to get feedback from visitors, watch them interact with the venue’s exhibitions and events, and react to what the community wants.

“It’s a young city with a young population that’s eager to learn and know more,” he notes.

“People don’t want to know just what that piece of art is about but how it’s made and get an in-depth look at what the artist was thinking and how he reached that outcome; they want to see materials and processes to help them understand and appreciate it.”

Being a young scene also means opportunities are growing in tandem with the industry, and Faisal is already noticing more talented students coming out of local institutes who could help grow the scene.

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“There’s a lot more happening and the city and the country needs to respond to that with a more educated workforce that will be able to fill this demand. That’s why you have programmes like the one at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi: it’s a fantastic curation and critique Master’s programme helping to bring more people into the workforce. Zayed University has a BA programme. Generally, there’s a push for more cultural practitioners in the city to fill those opportunities that are coming up.”

Faisal is feeding off this buzz.

“For me it’s very important to wake up in the morning and be excited about going to the office. So far a day hasn’t passed that I’ve felt like I don’t want to. “It drives you to see this kind of work being done here and the change that you’re making to the artistic ecosystem of the city, to see how people are responding to what you’re trying to achieve and how appreciative they are. It pushes you to try to do more.”

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