As Bait Muzna approaches its fifteenth anniversary, Oman's first established private art gallery has exciting plans for the next phase in its development. International Consultant, Christine O'Donnell, is in town to suggest a new look for the Gallery and provide fresh impetus for its programs and activities. Christine began her work by considering the character and history of Bait Muzna, a traditional Omani house that was once a royal residence and made its début as an art gallery in the year 2000.
Bait Muzna's strategic location in what is now a cultural hub forms part of its special appeal. The Gallery occupies a privileged place near the centre of the centuries-old harbour city of Muscat, just a few blocks from Al Alam Palace and the shimmering waters of Muscat Bay. Bait Muzna was built earlier last century in the traditional Omani style centred in an open courtyard with an inner balcony on the first floor. When, at the dawn of the new millennium, the house became a gallery, the courtyard had been roofed in, but the interior architecture was little altered.
Sayyida Susan Al Said, the visionary owner and creator of the Gallery, expanded Bait Muzna's reach by renting a nearby traditional house to serve as a space for workshops and a residence for visiting artists.
With the two authentic traditional houses in atmospheric old Muscat, Bait Muzna offered the city something very special and helped generate an exciting new era in the history of art in Muscat. The Gallery was incredibly active with exhibitions, events and workshops by international artists that attracted a great deal of public interest and sparked creativity as well as camaraderie among the artists of Muscat.
Right from its inception, Bait Muzna supported Omani artists, dedicating a large gallery room for exhibiting their work. Bait Muzna also had an impact on young & emerging international artists who were invited to give workshops and exhibit. For instance, Stephen Stapleton who is now famous in the global art world for his immensely successful art initiative, Edge of Arabia, was encouraged and supported in an exhibition at Bait Muzna Gallery in 2001 when his career was just beginning.
As the city's first private art gallery, Bait Muzna, along with the Omani Society for Fine Arts, the Cultural Club, and later, Bait Al Zubair, pioneered what we now know as "The Art Scene' in Muscat. With the arrival of the new Gallery and the spirit of excitement that it created, art aficionados, art lovers and the interested public came out of the woodwork and Bait Muzna was the catalyst for new stream of energy in cultural participation.
Breaking new ground
As Bait Muzna began to focus on contemporary Arab art in the latter part of its first decade in operation, the time came to renovate the space and give the Gallery a contemporary identity, while preserving the essence of its traditional character. The change was nothing short of spectacular - the interior courtyard area and its balconies were transformed into soaring spaces crowned with a ceiling of glass. Filled with light, the Gallery could then accommodate many large canvasses on expansive white walls.
Bait Muzna has always moved ahead with visionary strategies and it broke new ground, as no other Muscat gallery has, by exhibiting Muscat artists at important international fairs - ArtParis AbuDhabi, Art Abu Dhabi and Art Dubai. The Gallery now has a strong regional presence and is known internationally. The international dimension is a special interest of HH Sayyida Muzna Kais Al Said, co-owner of the Gallery, who travels abroad and is linked in with global trends in art. HH Sayyida Muzna adds an outside perspective with fresh and inventive ideas.
Over the past several years, the Gallery has developed expertise in selecting and hanging artwork in the corporate and industrial domains. A particularly stunning example is the metallic sculpture that is suspended in the lobby of the new building for the Ministry of Legal Affairs. Created by Bait Muzna artist, Essa Mafraji, this artwork beautifies the name of the Ministry by rendering it in rhythmic calligraphy.
Participation in the enhancement of corporate interiors remains an important objective in Bait Muzna's on-going community development activities.
Crystalising new ideas
Sayyida Susan believes it is a good time for the Gallery now to build on its strengths in charting new strategic directions - and she is working with Christine O'Donnell in this regard. Christine is not a stranger to Oman:
"I first became acquainted with Oman through its heritage costumes and classic silver jewellery when I organised Silver Speaks, Traditional Jewellery from the Middle East, a travelling museum exhibition the aim of which was to give voice to the women who wore the jewellery and to explain the meanings and customs associated with jewellery in Arab cultures."
Christine emphasizes the importance of community development in partnership with the commercial friends and through the mutually beneficial relationships that Bait Muzna has nurtured over the years. A crucial objective is to raise public awareness of the role of art in cultural advancement.
"One of the key aims is to bolster the tourist experience of Muscat with new ideas and expressions in the retail gallery – hopefully in partnership with other cultural venues in Muscat to create a common aesthetic for tourism, with, for instance, an arts logo that we would all share, but each institution would have its own identity marker such as a different colour".
Christine would also like to see Bait Muzna embark on partnerships with performing arts groups in Muscat, including for instance, musicians or dancers. Education outreach is also a significant dimension in the Gallery's new departures; for example, students in Graphic Arts and Communications can be involved in internships and activities such as branding competitions.
The Gallery will continue to participate in art fairs – and, for the first time, Bait Muzna will partner with select international galleries. Christine admires what Bait Muzna has achieved through its evolution into an institution that represents an ideal combination of the local and international realms, as well as fine balance of the traditional and contemporary - and she aims to carry this forward.
Robin's egg blue
Christine's ideas have already made an impact on the interior of the Gallery with the innovative introduction of colour. What was once an ordinary white partition in the prints display room has become a striking diagonal 'island' painted a beautiful blue, like a robin's egg or an early summer sky.
The colour of the diagonal partition will change seasonally to express the personality of the Gallery.
Christine also has creative ideas for using the roof of the Gallery as a space for video art installations that can be seen from afar.
Fresh from Washington DC with lots of energy and enthusiasm for art in Oman, Christine's association with Bait Muzna has only just begun.
Of all the places in the region that Christine came to know with her Speaking Silver travelling museum, it was Oman that made the greatest impression and won her heart.