For Nasser D. Khalili, the measure of an art collector goes deeper than the number of objects one can acquire. That’s coming from a collector who has built a renowned collection of Islamic art as well as collections of Japanese art, Swedish textiles, Spanish damascened metalwork and enamels of the world. The Khalili Family Trust holdings total 25,000 pieces from all the collections. Khalili has exhibited the artwork around the world, including at the British Museum in London, and loaned items to institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
He began buying art while studying computer science at Queens College in New York in the late 1960s. Later he moved to London, where he married and had three sons, eventually becoming governor of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London for 17 years. Money he made in a real estate startup financed his expanding ventures into the arts. He has brought funding and festivals for Islamic art, poured money to endow professorships and established a center for Islamic art at Oxford University.
Throughout, Khalili says he’s maintained a passion to show his treasures — not merely amass them — because of the power art has to connect and educate people. In an interview with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton, at the recent Festival of Thinkers conference in Abu Dhabi, Khalili shares his insight into the art of art collecting and the development of arts and culture in the Middle East and North Africa.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What space does Islamic art occupy today in terms of interest?
Khalili: I think it’s very universal. (That’s) the reason that most of the major museums, institutions and product collectors all of a sudden have woken up to the fact that Islamic art and culture is massively important to humanity. I started giving lectures around the world for almost 30 years and…I realized that each time I give a lecture about Islamic art people come to me and say, "You know I’m a Muslim. I never thought that these objects belong to my culture. Where can I get more information? How could I make myself more aware of this subject?" And I realized that there is a gap. There was not a single book that would really explain the history and culture of Islam in one place. So I wrote A Vision of Splendor, which is a timeline of Islamic art and culture, in English and in Arabic, and it was later translated in Dutch and other languages, too. I decided to do 40,000 copies, 20,000 in English and 20,000 in Arabic, and give it to colleges and universities free. So this momentum has been created, and now other universities, other museums, other private collections have rehashed their galleries because there was an incredible demand, an outcry from the public and they were asking the question: How come there is no more for us to see? So I played this small role and I hope it will continue in that role.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What is the role of the collector? What makes someone a collector?
Khalili: I think it’s incredibly important, [if you are] calling yourself a collector, to make sure that you fulfill five criteria. You have collect, you have to conserve, you have to research, you have to publish and you have to exhibit… Don’t be a holder; be a collector. Only then could you consider yourself a collector, because you have contributed to the betterment of humanity and life. You have done something. If you are buying a few objects or roof of objects and taking them home only for your own enjoyment, don’t call yourself a collector, call yourself a selector for your own enjoyment.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What can aspiring collectors learn from your experience and how would you describe the playing field of the current collecting world?
Khalili: You can only become successful in what you do if you follow your passion and follow your heart — don’t follow your head. Because the minute you start following your head, you talk about numbers and about monetary (matters). Never in my life, I started to think if I bought something, what the value was at the time or what the value is today. For me, it was irrelevant. Unfortunately, contemporary art is not true anymore because contemporary art is becoming like buying shares in a stock. People are buying it not necessarily because they love it. They’re buying it because they think it’s fashionable, because they say, "I bought this art six months ago and it was £10 and now it’s £25." They talk only numbers. It’s being purchased by hedge funds; it’s being purchased by people who really don’t have the passion for collecting. And they are diluting that vision of old collectors who corner the area of culture, spend a lifetime enhancing, promoting the love that they had for it. Now there are very few people who fall into that category.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How would you describe the arts and culture landscape in the Arab world?
Khalili: Except Qatar in the region — I’m talking about the Gulf — there’s no major museums that could speak out and show the culture of the Islamic world the way that we are doing at the Metropolitan or the way I’m doing it as an individual institution or [the Victoria & Albert museum in London, or the Louvre in Paris, or other collections]. The momentum is here now, and the people have realized that you need to give yourself proper advisors if you don’t know the field, and make sure that you do it systematically. Not through committees, but through individuals. But I don’t think historically there has ever been a major museum in the world that has been formed by committee.
(Within the Middle East and North Africa) I think that the idea has been born and being nurtured now. But what is important, that I don’t think many people tackle in this region is if you want to become a collector, you have to educate yourself first. Once you learn about your passion, once you educate yourself in the field, then you follow your eyes and your passion without relying on somebody else’s taste, and somebody else’s passion. Then you won’t be misled and disappointed.
I always compare it to when you want to build a home. The architect and interior designer come and they say, "Let us do it for you." They think they are building the house for themselves, the architect thinks he’s building the house for himself, and the interior design person thinks he’s designing it for himself. What’s important is the inputs, so if you are collecting, make sure that the collection represents your character, your taste, through your own knowledge. At the end of the day, it bears your name. So it’s incredibly important, that’s what I did, in every single field that I collect, I make sure that I become as knowledgeable as the academics in that field. That doesn’t say that I didn’t seek advice afterward. But in the five areas that I collected, and 25,000 pieces that exist, and all the books that we have written, I stayed as the front line soldier in the battle.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So it’s about knowing your material.
Khalili: You have to educate yourself. You have to know your material. And buy intelligently, even though it’s becoming incredibly difficult to find important Islamic objects in any field.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What do you mean by ‘buy intelligently’?
Khalili: There are not important things around anymore like in the old days. Institutions, universities, the museums, private collectors have purchased them; it’s all disappearing fast. So if somebody wants to do this same thing that the Met or I have done, or Louvre has done or any other museum, with all the money in the universe and all the time in the universe, you won’t be able to do it. It’s impossible, it’s virtually impossible; so you have to go two or three levels down, but that doesn’t have the same message. That doesn’t have the same meaning. I’m talking about Islamic art, it doesn’t have the same message because [the object you’d acquire] is not important enough.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do you feel like there’s sufficient effort to support the arts or to preserve objects in the MENA region?
Khalili: I think they’re trying. One of the first things major museums and countries are doing is not only that…they’re trying to buy, but they’re trying to create conservation departments, research departments, and that is where my research center in Oxford is playing a role because we are working with other countries… The Qatar government has endowed a chair in my center for I.M. Pei, the architect who built the museum. So people are doing things, and we are doing a lot in our way of promoting Islamic art, through my chair, through my lectures, through my center in Oxford. So the effort has been tackled, and I think the message has been passed on to a new generation, a new group of people who are showing a lot of interest, a lot of passion, a lot of dedication in promoting Islamic art and culture.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What infrastructure or expertise is lacking in this region?
Khalili: Most of the infrastructure is in place, what is missing is human resources. There has never been a time more important than now for universities, colleges and institutions to teach and bring a group of new academics in the field of Islamic art, who are going to be instrumental in [the] future of opening of all these galleries, museums around the world. There is a lack of Muslims academics and Muslim scholars, so we have to encourage universities around the world to teach more, to create more interest, and for the governments to finance chairs and lectureships and studentships in different major institutions around the world, including Oxford, Harvard and Yale [and] other places and make sure that in five years, when we have all these museums and galleries, we have enough academics, enough researchers to back them.
I’m talking about all of these — educate curators, researchers, the directors, the academics — in the field of different medium in art, the expert in textile, the expert in (arms) and armors, the expert in science and tools, an expert in glass, an expert in coinage; you have to have a body of experts in the field. This is how I wrote my books. But I had 60 different academics for the last 40 years, but they’re all getting old… After that all you need a new generation of academics and scholars to carry the torch and write a new chapter.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think about massive investments into the arts, especially in the Gulf region, in the form of museums and other initiatives?
Khalili: It’s a fantastic investment, because at the end of the day, anybody who travels around the world today doesn’t travel only for the weather and the location and the food, they want to satisfy their brain, too. And culture is something that they look for. So if the country doesn’t have a culture, first of their own, and then representing culture of the rest of the world, then a country without a national museum, a country without a culture, cannot claim to be a member of the family of nations.
They are now cultivating, big time. Don’t forget, they are starting from scratch, so they have the technology behind them, they have the know-how behind them, they have the finances behind them, and they’re taking good advice to do it properly, so the museums of today are far more sophisticated, far more friendly than museums of the past. That is why most of the museums around the world are reshaping their Islamic galleries, because they’re making it more technology-friendly, so you give more information by having that information on a website, more information available so it’s much easier to get to the people, the question is doing it systematically and properly and sustaining the momentum.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Is there an audience in this region ready to consume the arts?
Khalili: [There’s] a huge audience. When I had the exhibition on the art of Islam [in Abu Dhabi in 2008] and it was packed every day. In two and a half, three months, we had close to 80,000 people coming to see the exhibition. And it was in Emirates Palace hotel, it wasn’t in a museum, if it was somewhere else, it probably would have been double of that number, because a lot of people couldn’t go to Emirates Palace to see it. But I met people, students that went to see the exhibition, four times, five times, so they took it to heart. Once you bring the culture to them, they appreciate it. There is a huge audience for that. In fact, a new generation in this area is craving for their own culture. This is something that has been touched upon many times; I’m not saying something that is new. There is a lot of appetite.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think artists are given a chance to develop here?
Khalili: I was the one who encouraged artists when I gave the first lecture here when I opened my exhibition. I said, I see no reason why there shouldn’t be, in 20 or 30 years, a Muslim Picasso or Muslim Renoir, so I gave the idea actually and a few of the major artists… they came to me and they said, "Do you mind very much if we copy some of your pieces?" So the momentum was created and I’m very happy to see that they’re inspired by their culture of the past. There is room, so long as it’s tackled intelligently for the artist to prosper. Because without the experience of the past there is no future. The rules are very simple.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Is there a market for local artists?
Khalili: It seems that there is a lot of market for their art, absolutely. Because there is a shortage of traditional art, most of them have ended up in major museums around the world, now there is a craving for new artists because people want to have a slice of history in their homes. If they’re inspired by what they see, they’ll buy it.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Does art need to be promoted? If I’m an artist and I want people to see my art, what should I do?
Khalili: The art itself will promote itself. If it is worthwhile art it promotes itself, because if people see the beauty and fall in love with it, you don’t need to promote it. Automatically they will buy it, or they would go for it, or they would collect it… I don’t know how many out of 1000s of artists that are now floating all over the world would stay on the top. I always say good art and bad art is like water and oil — you could mix oil with water and shake it for hours, let it rest for five minutes and oil will end up at the top. Only a few of these artists probably stay on the top.
Don’t ever look for recognition. If you want honor, run away from it. Then honor would run after you. So just follow your heart, do what you think is right and leave it to the people to judge you.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What type of impact do you think the Arab Spring will have on artistic expression in this region? What do you think about this moment?
Khalili: I don’t talk about politics, because as I said, politics and religion have their own language [and] I stay within the universality of art… I think it’s promising. I think out of it there will be some good outcome, hopefully, which could be helpful for art and culture.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Is there any piece that you still haven’t gotten that you’d like to acquire?
Khalili: In collecting, you always want something that you don’t have. If you are born a collector, you die as a collector.