Profile: Roger Mandle

You aren’t alone if you’ve never heard of Qatar’s small capital.Nevertheless, some are already proclaiming it the “future culturalcenter of the Middle East.” Should Doha fulfill that prophecy, it willbe largely thanks to the inspiration and efforts of two people: thedaughter of Qatar’s emir, Khalifa al-Thani, the 25-year-old Duke Universityeducated Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who has conceived and established an entire suite of museums across the Gulf city; and Roger Mandle,the man she selected to oversee them. “She may only be in her 20s,”observes Mandle, “but the emira runs on a very sophisticated level—andshe moves very quickly.”

Mandle, a self-described “dedicated globalist,” is no slouch,either. He has organized cross-cultural programs throughout a long anddistinguished career, as deputy director and chief curator at theNational Gallery in Washington, D.C., from 1988 to 1993 and aspresident of the Rhode Island School of Designfrom 1993 through July 2008. “I am interested in the impact of oneculture on another,” he says, “and right now the Middle East is themost fertile place for that.” Contributing to that “fertility” inQatar, Mandle adds, is population growth powered almost entirely byforeigners and a cultural renaissance made possible, in part, byartistic and technological advances imported from abroad.

Mandle now directs the Qatar Museum Authority (QMA), under whose umbrella the museums will be managed. The crown jewel is the newly opened Museum of Islamic Art, a shining $1.6 billion, 337,000-square-foot white limestone edifice designed by I. M. Peion a 64-acre island that was built specifically for the purpose and isreachable via a 200-foot bridge. Highlights of the collection, whichrepresents 1,200 years of Muslim art, include a 9th-century whiteearthenware bowl from Iraq and a silk carpet from Timur dating frommore than 500 years ago. Next on Mandle’s agenda: a redesign, by the2008 Pritzker-winner, Jean Nouvel, of the National Museum, which will house historical artifacts.

Unlike the Louvre and the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi,which borrow or rent their offerings, Doha’s museums exhibit mainlytheir own holdings, culled from the emir’s family collection. The QMAprojects are further distinguished by their commitment to educationalprograms—some planned in coordination with the international Arabicbroadcasting network Al-Jazeera, which is headquartered in Doha—and tothe latest technology, aimed at maximizing visitor engagement with thedisplays.

Tiny Qatar, only slightly larger than Connecticut, seems an unlikelylocation for such a grand project, which Mandle frequently describes as“building a Smithsonianfrom the sand up.” But though small in area, the country is large inresources: Qatar’s substantial natural-gas reserves have made itpossible for the royal family to purchase just about everything itwants for its personal collection, frequently outbidding institutionslike the Metropolitan for both Islamic and Western art. It was the al-Thanis—perhaps influenced by Mayassa—who bought Damien Hirsts Lullaby Spring last May for the record price of $19.2 million, and rumor has it they were also responsible for the $72.8 million purchase of Mark Rothkos White Center, consigned by David Rockefeller, the year before.

Such riches, especially combined with expertise and determination, maywell allow Mandle and the emira to achieve the goal they’ve setthemselves: to, as Mandle puts it, “reinvent museums for the 21stcentury.”

"Roger Mandle" originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's December 2008 Table of Contents.