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Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy

Interview with Salwa Mikdadi, Head of Arts & Culture, on the program and her advise to applicants.
By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Jan 2011

The Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy is one of the UAE’s foremost philanthropic organizations. It offers financial and technical support to innovative projects in the areas of youth development, knowledge creation and society and culture throughout the UAE. The Arts and Culture Program enhances the status, quality and practice of Emirati visual, performing, and literary arts through education, production, and dissemination. The Program offers financial and technical support to non-profit organizations and Emiratis in the fields of visual arts, film, literature, performing arts, and museum studies. It supports qualified individuals, organizations, and community projects in all regions of the United Arab Emirates in order to nurture creativity, sustain knowledge creation and instill art appreciation throughout life.

(From introductory texts about the Foundation)

Interview with Salwa Mikdadi,
Head of Arts and Culture.
Haupt & Binder: Back in 2007, in a conversation with Omar Ghobash while he was Deputy CEO of the Emirates Foundation, he told us that the foundation’s strategy focuses on individuals, listening to people and finding out what moves them "to understand things from the ground up and working back from that to develop policies." He stressed the fact that the Emirates Foundation works on a more "human scale" [1]. Is this focus on the individual still one of the major concerns of the Emirates Foundation?

Salwa Mikdadi: Emirates Foundation continues to focus on empowering youth through individual grants to achieve their full personal and intellectual potential in the fields of arts and culture, science, education and social and cultural development. I agree that only by reaching out to individuals and to community organizations through dialog and research can we identify their needs and respond accordingly. On taking over as the Head of the Arts and Culture Program I did not come in with preconceived ideas on the direction of the program, rather I spent most of the first year meeting with Emiratis and leaders in the art and culture field, attending events to insure an open dialog with concerned parties. The grants program is a work in progress which continuously responds to the needs of the community.

H. & B.: For many years you have been working as curator, researcher, and editor, both institution-based and independently mainly in the USA. How do you apply this experience in your position on the other side, that means, now deciding about funding, and doing this work in the UAE?

S. M.: While I was based in the US for the past three decades, I continued to work in the Arab world, traveling frequently to the region and conducting research on modern and contemporary art of the Arab world which kept me up to date on art practices in the region. Also, the research on Arab art institutions helped in understanding the UAE art and culture scene within the context of non-profit institutional work in the Arab world. My association with museums in the US and affiliation with professional associations such as the American Association of Museums benefits my current work, connecting Emiratis and assisting in placing them at museum internships, artists residencies and organizing the Museum Studies Course. As one of the founders of AMCA: the Association of Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab world, Iran and Turkey, I am engaged in advancing scholarship in the field which clearly reflects on the research program offered this year as part of the Arts and Culture Program. Past experience helps me in developing the art and culture program, gives me the confidence to be flexible and to better evaluate the potential outcomes of projects in my field.

H. & B.: How is the Emirates Foundation involved in cultural exchange activities?

S. M.: The International Internships and Residencies program awarded grants to Emiratis for residencies and internships at museums and art institutions in the US, Brazil, France and England. Currently the program is expanding to other countries. For example, in response to the need for regional cultural exchange, we introduced two new grants Neighbor to Neighbor and Mentorship. The former offers opportunities for Emiratis to work alongside Arab artists and cultural workers in the region including GCC countries and the latter to work with established Arab artists on one-to-one basis reviving the tradition of apprenticeship, once an established method of learning in craft and arts. We also collaborate with international cultural agencies. For example, recently the Foundation in collaboration with the French Embassy in UAE supported a French visiting artist residency at Zayed University art department for two months.

H. & B.: In the EF's information about the research grants program it says that "It is essential for UAE national cultural development that strategic planning is grounded in research and critical analysis. Currently, there is a dearth of research in the field of arts and culture." Has this research increased since the setup of this program? Does the Foundation just wait for proposals or are there particular research propositions actively commissioned by the institution?

S. M.: Research in the field of arts and culture is critical to identifying the needs in this area, in creating benchmarks for grant evaluation and in assessing outcomes of the grants. The Foundation encourages university faculty to apply for research grants and recommends priorities. We are currently commissioning research that studies the mounting engagement of Emiratis in the film industry; in experimental theater and its application in education; and on Emirati visual art within the context of new development in the local and regional art practices. Other research that we plan to focus on in 2011 relates to Emirati heritage. The research program was initiated in 2010 and is still in its early stages compared to the Foundation’s Science and Technology program which recently awarded 55 grants in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, IT, Food & Agriculture, Medicine and Health.

H. & B.: The Emirates Foundation has recently started to offer courses and workshops in Museum Studies. Is this a shift in the Foundation's programs from supporting to actively initiating and designing activities?

S. M.: I am glad you asked this question. In late 2009 we started offering Masters Degree Scholarships in Museum Studies, Museum Education, Conservation, Historic Preservation, Curatorial Studies, Cultural Management and Exhibition Design. Clearly out of a vital need for these professions in the UAE and to prepare the Emiratis to take a leading role in existing and planned museums in the UAE. We soon realized that applicants for this program could benefit from an introductory course to the field prior to embarking on graduate studies. The lack of university courses that prepare students for this field led us to this decision. It is a bridging course that was customized to the needs of the Emiratis applying for the Foundation’s scholarship and internship grants. It introduces the students to careers in the field, the most recent theories in museum studies, and advises them on graduate and internship programs. Out of the twelve students who graduated from the first course five were accepted for Masters Degree and one for a PhD in museum studies. Following the success of the course, we are offering the five-months course again starting 15 December 2010 with 15 participants.

The Arts and Culture Program aims at supporting civil society institutions’ projects and not initiating them, this is crucial to the success of the Foundation and its mission. As described, the course was meant to support an existing grant and the need of the applicants.

H. & B.: How restricted is the eligibility for the EF programs? Are these only for Emiratis or also for residents in the UAE from other countries?

S. M.: The Foundation's mandate is to strengthen the Emirati people and nation, so virtually all of the grants are awarded to Emiratis, particularly grants to individuals. For example, the Young Artists Grant Award (YAGA) provides opportunities to Emiratis under the age of 35 to produce their first short film, theater production, screen play, art installation, or exhibition. But the Foundation can and does provide grants to non-profit institutions in UAE or to individuals who directly enrich the lives of the community. Grants are awarded to universities and organizations that serve the whole UAE community and to researchers who train Emiratis.

The Arts and Culture Program also funds the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which has increased readership in the Arab world advancing the Arab novel and giving it prominence regionally and internationally as evidenced by the number of publications and translations of the selected novels into over 13 languages.

H. & B.: Is there any personal advice that you would give to applicants?

S. M.: We advise applicants to carefully identify their objectives, to include a detailed line item budget, to apply at least six weeks prior to the start of the project, and to be aware that the grant applications are reviewed by outside evaluators who are specialists in the respective field. We also encourage them to locate co-funding for their project. Foundations like to know that other parties also believe in the candidate's project. Finally, candidates who are not successful in our competitions should not be discouraged, but rather should integrate the reviewers' comments into new applications and keep pursuing their dream


  1. See comments by Omar Ghobash in: Culture Boom in Abu Dhabi - Visions, skepticism, chances. Protagonists of the culture in the UAE about the planned museums. By Haupt & Binder, November 2007

Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt

Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.

Emirates Foundation

PO Box 111445
Mezzanine Floor, Al Mamoura Building
4th & 15th Streets
United Arab Emirates

Salwa Mikdadi is a curator and art historian whose work spans over 25 years in the field of Arab art. She is the curator of the 1st Palestinian exhibition at the Venice Biennial '09. She was co-founder and director of Cultural & Visual Arts Resource / ICWA (1988-2006), and co-founder of AMCA, Association of Modern & Contemp. Art of the Arab World, Iran & Turkey.

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