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Dec / Jan 2010
Winning Hearts and Minds

WRITER: Nicolas Shammas

This year’s winner of Bespoke’s Ultimate Connoisseur Award is Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo, the founder of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, an organisation that aims to advance classical music, the arts, culture and creativity amongst the nationals and residents of the United Arab Emirates.


The story goes that in the early 1970s Roberta Flack was so moved by Don Mclean’s American Pie, his tribute song to Buddy Holly, that she characterised the feeling as Mclean ‘killing her softly with his song’ and as a result a new billboard chart-topping hit was born.

The reason I bring it up is that should you ever have the chance to interact with Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo, the founder of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF), that is exactly how you will feel. She’s an elegant figure who automatically commands respect yet she’s so gentle, enthusiastic, full of positive energy, and, for lack of a better word, sweetness that it is almost impossible not to be bowled over by her. And it’ll all happen so softly. You see, what’s so unique is not that she’s utterly devoted to what she does; rather it’s her complete and utter selflessness and generosity in that pursuit. “When we share, the gain is larger, we are richer,” she reveals. “I strongly believe that each and every person should have the right to further him or herself with a high level of cultural and artistic education. This is why I must invest myself fully in others.”

Born to a Saudi Arabian father and a Syrian mother, her upbringing was not all plain sailing. Her father passed away when she was young and though her dream was to gain a degree in Europe or the U.S., it was an age in which very few young Saudis, especially women, were permitted to study abroad alone. Nevertheless, in the end and to her great delight, she was allowed to move to Paris where she would live with her sister and her sister’s husband, the U.A.E.’s ambassador to France at that time. It was here that her personal cultural awakening began. 

Her experience of the City of Light was to be short lived however as in 1984, midway through her B.A. in French Literature and Art History at the American University of Paris, her sister’s husband was tragically assassinated. She described her relationship with her brother-in-law as being “very close. He was in fact like a father figure to me.” 

Before the dust could settle, she was hauled back from the city she describes as the ‘Queen of the World’. Even so, the experience helped forge her love of the arts, music and culture and it became a driving force for what she continues to feel she must expose others to today.

The foundation she would later go on to establish is a non-profit organisation established to advance classical music, the arts, education, culture, and creativity among Emirati nationals and residents. Something that would fit perfectly within the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, which aims to achieve effective transformation of the Emirate’s economic base and bring about global integration and enduring benefits to all. 

After leaving Paris, where did you go?
My sister asked for me to return to Abu Dhabi with her. But I knew that without culture and art I would die, so I asked that she at least find me somewhere I could grow and try to do something. It turned out that there was an Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation that had been founded in 1981. 

What exactly is the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation and how does it differ to ADMAF that you would later found?
The Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation belongs to the government while ADMAF was founded as an independent non-profit organisation to enrich the movement of culture and art in Abu Dhabi.

When did you set up ADMAF?
In 1996, five years after I got married, I told my husband that I wished to start something that can bring Emirati people together through culture and art, for the benefit of knowledge. He said, “Why not, try.” And so we started with just one sponsor, Mohammed Kanoo – my husband, as well as the support of the Cultural Foundation who provided us with an umbrella within which to operate. We also had one part-time secretary, my husband’s secretary, who worked for the foundation for free.

What was the reason behind approaching just one sponsor?
It was easier to have one sponsor, as I wasn’t sure that ADMAF would work for it was a monumental challenge. Later on, once we had witnessed the demand for our work, I spoke to His Highness Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the Minister of Higher Education, and I told him our other objectives of arts and culture education and the seeking of this knowledge. You see, art was not taught at that time, whether at a university level or even at public schools, it was something you’d drop after the 7th grade. 

So education was something important for ADMAF from the get go?
ADMAF was established to promote creative thinking. If we want innovation, if we want people to come up with new ideas and move forward then without the arts they will not have the tools. This is why we moved to the schools with the program of education in culture, starting with music, so that they might have the tools to move forward.

Did you go to the schools themselves or the board of education?
In the U.A.E. you pretty much always need the permission of the government. The public schools were very difficult to access at that time. The universities on the other hand came under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Higher Education and till now we have a very wise minister, His Highness Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, and it was with his help that I was able to set up ADMAF as you see it today.

What help do you provide in the field of education?
ADMAF comes with a full program funded from A to Z. These include setting up curricula, sourcing teachers, hosting lectures, workshops, live performances, grants and internships. It all comes from ADMAF.

What came first for ADMAF the art or the music?
The music. It’s amazing how people can relate to music; it transcends language, which is very important so it was easier to start with. We started with music, then moved into performing arts and ballet, then dance and into theatre, and then into visual arts.

Given that you started with just one sponsor, how did you gain the traction to get others on board too?
Credibility. If you are honest with people, they will follow. For the first year or two I had only my husband’s support. Then we had the private sector’s participation. And in this regard, we found it easier to get sponsorship from multinational companies, because of their corporate social responsibility outreach.

Did your funding come from the private sector first?
Yes. Then the government joined later; in fact it was three years ago.

So it took almost twelve years for the government to join rank?
Yes. Before that we had the help of the Cultural Foundation who would provide halls and so on, but their participation was very limited. Then three years ago His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and the patron of our Abu Dhabi Festival, took the leap in supporting ADMAF. After that we received funds from the government and I can tell you it has made a huge difference. As a consequence, we now have the backing of both the government and the private sector. Let me add something else: I was fortunate to be in Abu Dhabi as there is a leadership here that cares for their citizens and their country, and they have a vision. In my experience I have never seen anything akin to what is happening here in Abu Dhabi.

What is the total audience of ADMAF now?
It’s heading close to 50,000 people - 26,000 people attended the Abu Dhabi Festival, 15,000 students in year round education and 7,550 people in our community outreach program.

And how have these numbers grown over recent years?
Well we started with five members, of which two were students.

Does it surprise you then to see how it has grown?
I am overwhelmed with joy. ADMAF may be a success story but we must now surpass the expectations that come with that success.

What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the fact that young Emiratis now have arts and music within their curricula. 

What was a particularly pleasant surprise?
The level of trust we have built. We really built confidence in people and to be honest with you I never supposed this would come so fast.

How many actual employees are there in ADMAF now?
We are 26.

So you manage all these activities with just 26 employees?
Yes it is 26 staff but they stretch across the UAE working with 90 schools, up to 10 national universities, and we also have many partners whether through UNICEF or the Ajman Women’s Association etc.

ADMAF now handles such a large scope of activities that it makes me wonder how you keep up with everything you set out to do.
You know the Beatle’s song ‘Don’t let me down’? That’s how it is. I think it’s a gift, Alhamdulillah. But I have been lucky, for two reasons: the first is that Abu Dhabi recognises the value of investing in society and in its people and secondly I have been lucky with my people in ADMAF. Now the most important thing is that the foundation maintains its effectiveness. Sustaining what you have built is always the challenge.

Has the Foundation’s vision changed since its inception?
Our vision has not changed but now with Abu Dhabi’s 2030 plan we are part of a bigger jigsaw. I’m very proud of everything that’s taking place within Abu Dhabi. The Tourism Development & Investment Company is developing five museums on Saadiyat Island, the Sorbonne has opened here, New York University also opened . There is so much happening.

Speaking of which can you tell us about the Nationals Gallery that ADMAF is creating?
Since the 1960s Emirati artists have had something to show for themselves, yet it has always been difficult to attract necessary sponsors and gain international exposure. We decided now was the time to invest in this local talent. So the Nationals Gallery is a place where any contemporary Emirati artist can come and find help.

So it’s more than a gallery?
It’s a concept: it’s a virtual gallery. It’s a platform for local artists to flourish. How? Firstly it’s a nationwide register for Emirati visual artists. We’ll then work with these artists in order to get them exhibited internationally. We’ll get them published. We’ll provide grants. We’ll find them mentors. The idea is that if Emirati artists unite under one voice then they will gain the recognition they deserve, both regionally and internationally.

What are your plans for the future with the Nationals Gallery, do you wish to build an actual exhibition centre?
That’s not important. We have many galleries we’re already working with. The real value of the gallery is to provide a platform. 

The Abu Dhabi Festival is perhaps the jewel in the crown of ADMAF. Can you tell us about it?
The Abu Dhabi Festival is presented annually by ADMAF. It seeks to contribute to Abu Dhabi’s vision as a global destination of cultural enlightenment, respect and tolerance. It was established in 2004 and held under the patronage of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

Do you personally choose the acts?
Yes, although we are now in a privileged position. In the old days we had to travel and select everyone ourselves. Now, we know who we want before we even start putting together the program. The media has helped us greatly in this endeavour and it means that we can seek the acts ahead of time and without the need to travel out to them.

So the artists themselves actually solicit their participation in the festival?
Absolutely. When you have an event it has to have a mission, an objective. So this is the purpose of the festival and the role of ADMAF. It’s a festival of partnership. Every year we have a guest of honour and in 2011 it’s Belgium with their music and art. And the U.A.E will also showcase its music and art. This interaction does not end with the festival, it moves on throughout the year with education and memoranda of understandings, and with future commissioning work. It is truly what’s needed in this day and age, we need to share more, we need to reach out to each other more and only then will understanding come.

When and how long is the festival every year?
In March, it lasts two weeks.

Many of the region’s festivals cannot lure big name artists because they will cost them too much money. Therefore is the Abu Dhabi Festival working at a loss?
Look, there is no festival in the world that makes a profit. The festival of the city is the face of the city. It’s a door that opens to exchanges of culture, to tourism and to bring the city to life. The Salzburg Festival is one of the most famous ones in the entire world and it works under a deficit. Also, the Edinburgh Festival barely makes it. So, just like them we face problems. But after all the sponsors are taken into account, we just about break-even. You have to recognise that the value of the festival is that in the long-term it bestows rewards on a city and in the short-term it dynamises and mobilises it. 

The festival is an Emirati festival isn’t it? 
Yes we always bring the seven emirates together under one umbrella: culture and art. A year before each festival we meet and discuss with each culture centre in each emirate and we do it hand in hand so that they also benefit from it. The funds themselves come from ADMAF, so it is not from government to government but rather through a mutual initiative by the culture centres of the seven emirates. The festival is the United Arab Emirate’s mirror. It reflects them.

Is there any cooperation among the region’s festivals?
Nowadays we realise that we cannot survive alone. So we try to work together. Recently I was in Beirut at the request of the Arab League and its subsidiary the Arab Development Organisation (ARADO) to attend the first forum of festivals in the Arab countries.

Briefly going back to your educational initiatives: now that arts and culture are part of the curriculum, how has your role evolved?
There is a process. We have annual meetings with the Abu Dhabi Education Council and we see what their agenda is and what the priorities are. We then create a program specially made for them that works with what they are studying, and based on that we choose the teachers, the professors, and established artists that can provide hands on expertise and guidance. Let me give you a real example of a project we are doing with Carnegie Hall New York: for many years Carnegie Hall has had a music education program with famous artists who work with students and then perform a piece by the students. We will do the same here.

So students will be part of the festival?
Students are already part of the festival; it has been that way every year. 

In the long term what effect will such initiatives have on Abu Dhabi students?
When you provide the young with an open door to creativity, and you support them to go beyond the academic world that they are living in and become free creative-thinkers that is when the future will flourish.

Tell me about the International Cartoon and Comic Book Festival.
We did the first one three years ago. It was supposed to be every two years but with limited funds we are only doing the second one now. Animation and comic strips are an important element for the imagination of the young. It helps them to create their own personalities, write and draw.

So it’s an art initiative but with the aim of catching students who are even younger?
Absolutely, this is an art form that appeals to an even younger audience. Children guide you to places you would never imagine you could go.

But do people take cartoons seriously?
Oh they do! The first one was a pilot project but we were overwhelmed with the reception, from the families, the children, the government, even the public. Two of the students were even taken on by Sotheby’s for an experience in which they aided in the auctions of some old comics books. 

How do you decide who gets the awards, grants or even scholarships?
We have committees and we keep them very simple: there are four or maximum five people only, half of which come from ADMAF. 

What awards does ADMAF currently have?
There are three Abu Dhabi awards: the Creativity Award, the Festival Award and the Comic Strip Festival Award. The Creativity Award is for the creative work of a university student and the money is to start them off in their own career. The Festival Award goes to the person who produces the best poster, journal, newsletter or something related to the Abu Dhabi Festival. The Comic Strip Festival Award is for writing, creating the personalities and the animation.  We also will be announcing a fourth award this year and that will be the Young Art Critic Award.

How many people have benefitted from ADMAF grants?
Around 50, it is quality not quantity. 

Can you tell us about one award winner that was special to you?
Ahmed Zain was a filmmaker who we recognised was very special over five years ago. He won my personal award – the Mohammed and Hoda Kanoo Award – and then he won the Emirates Programme at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2010. To win such an award you need to find a patron of the arts and someone to recognise your potential. And we are very proud of him. Grant after grant has allowed him to now be a full time director. 

What are your plans for the future when it comes to the grants? Is it better to give more people less money, or less people more money?
It is important to not make a rule. There should not be one formula. Grants should be based on a case-by-case basis. 

Ideally, what would you like to see happen in the Emirates with regards to art and culture? 
I would love there to be more galleries, more festivals, more arts and culture foundations, and I would love Emirati decision-makers to be involved in arts and culture. My aim is for the U.A.E to flourish and move forward in this arena.

Will you still be as involved in the decades to come?
Of course, just try to stop me! [laughs]

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