The Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival

The Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival
Various venues
March 29–April 13, 2012

In 2002, the economist Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class, an over-the-counter prescription for urban planning inspired by trends of the nineties dot-com boom. Florida’s pop manifesto called for cultivating a previously undervalued (if not unlikely) demographic — artists, intellectuals, and “knowledge workers” — to bring about the economic renewal of post-industrial cities. Using census and economic data, Florida laid out a blueprint for a prosperous city in the age of cognitive labor, where street life would be marked by a “teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros, where it is hard to draw the line between participant and observer, or between creativity and its creator.” Florida’s cheerfully accessible theses, also disseminated in follow-ups like The Flight of the Creative Class and the more recent Who’s Your City?, along with speaking engagements priced upwards of $35,000, have been embraced by cities from Pittsburgh to Auckland to Nairobi. Ten years have passed since The Rise of the Creative Class was published, and while it has inspired a bounty of criticism (not least that Florida’s data has been shown to be deeply flawed), it continues to exercise a magical power over cities struggling to renew their urban core.

In Cairo, at least one real-estate consortium seems to point to the lasting appeal of Florida’s model. Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investments was founded in 2008 by entrepreneur Karim el-Shafei, a company called Beltone Private Equity, and a group of Egyptian and Saudi investors. Since then, Ismaelia has been purchasing Belle Époque and Modernist buildings in downtown Cairo — from the 1924 Kodak building, where the company is headquartered, across from the historic Adly Street synagogue, to the 1916 Art Deco Gharib-Morcos building on Abdel Khalek Tharwat Street — with a long-term plan of converting them into high-priced apartments, offices, and luxury stores. Within one year of its founding, Ismaelia owned twenty buildings downtown, with an as-yet-unfulfilled plan to acquire a total of fifty strategically located properties covering one million square meters.

With its central location right on the Nile, broad Haussmannian boulevards, and picturesque colonial architecture, the neighborhood is a developer’s dream. And yet, there are obstacles. The phenomenon of rent-controlled apartments (a leftover from the Nasser era) has made it difficult to turn profits on rent. Meanwhile, the influx of car mechanics, hardware shops, and sidewalk vendors over the past three decades has been a turnoff for Ismaelia’s well-heeled target demographic, which has increasingly fled to the gated perimeters of the city. It’s this flight of the upper end of the tax bracket that Shafei hopes to address and, ultimately, reverse.

Ismaelia, in the meantime, is well aware that it could become a magnet for accusations of violent gentrification. Since the beginning, the company has stressed that its revitalization efforts are an example of “good” gentrifying forces, making downtown friendlier to wealthier tenants, but not unfriendly to lower-rent consumers. “Creating a space for A and B doesn’t mean we don’t want C,” Shafei told Al-Masry Al-Youm back in 2010; they simply don’t want C to “harass the girls coming out of cinemas.” Although Ismaelia hopes to remove the neighborhood’s sidewalk-clogging informal industries, in a company profile in the April 2012 Business Egypt, Shafei claimed that the group would invite inexpensive retailers of a more law-abiding, “sanitary” type to move in — Walmart being an example of that kind of retailer, Shafei said (that multimillion-dollar bribery scandal notwithstanding). Through measures like these, Ismaelia explains in its corporate literature, it hopes to restore some of the fabled Parisian charm of Farouq-era Cairo to the neighborhood.

This is where Florida’s model comes in. Culture has been central to Ismaelia’s campaign, which follows not only Florida’s maxims, but three decades’ worth of lessons from urban planners who have plotted to use the arts (however nebulously defined) as a magic gentrifying wand — from the European Capitals of Culture’s initiative targeting post-industrial cities, to the McGuggenheim effect in cities like Bilbao. Ismaelia is landlord to downtown’s major art and culture spaces, including the Townhouse Gallery, the Contemporary Image Collective, and Studio Emad Eddin, and the group also regularly donates its unused buildings to host temporary exhibitions. One property in particular, the beautifully creepy Viennoise Hotel, has become a regular home for arts events throughout the year.

Young artists and collectives looking for cheap temporary spaces know that Ismaelia is a good place to start looking. While new commercial galleries have been popping up in wealthy neighborhoods like Zamalek and Maadi (from the traditional white cube model of Mohammed Talat’s Gallery Misr to bland concept stores like Anthropologie), downtown has long been considered a wellspring of critical, experimental cultural production, and holds a strong romantic lure for those with more nonprofit ambitions. Given that at least half of all buildings downtown are owned by the Egyptian government, Ismaelia is the easiest landlord to approach when looking for a space. The company, in turn, has received good press for these partnerships, not just for the ways they support the arts community, but for how they creatively reappropriate abandoned spaces that would otherwise become derelict.

The Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, held from March 29 to April 14, is Ismaelia’s most ambitious cultural gesture to date. D-CAF (an unfortunate acronym that also stands for the Dalmatian Club of America Foundation, as many of us discovered when we typed it into our web browsers) was conceived of back in 2010. The festival was initially billed as a revival of Nitaq, the storied downtown festival of independent contemporary art held in 2000 and 2001 that first brought Shafei to the neighborhood to begin with. Postponed due to the revolution, D-CAF was stealthily repackaged with obligatory “new Egypt” buzzwords (like “freedom” and “openness”) for the spring of 2012. The curatorial team behind the project ended up being Ismaelia’s own tenants: Ahmed El Attar from Studio Emad Eddin was brought in as the festival’s artistic director, and head of the performing arts section. Mahmoud Refaat, of the independent electronic music label 100 Copies, curated the music portion, and Mia Jankowicz, director of the Contemporary Image Collective, was responsible for the visual arts.

When it came to the programming itself, there were some admirable moments in those two and a half weeks, though admittedly nothing that isn’t normally attainable in Cairo. Refaat’s electronic music program at Radio Theater was particularly noteworthy, with deservedly hyped performances by Hassan Khan (who played a retrospective set of his electro-shaabi music) and Kareem Lotfy (in only his third time on stage in Cairo, for which he mixed his own “astropical dub” with a DJ set). Meanwhile, a few blocks away at the cushy Falaki Theater in the American University of Cairo’s old Tahrir campus was the Cairo debut of Omar Ghayat’s abstracted multimedia theater piece If I Weren’t Egyptian, a highlight of the performance art programming, which also included experimental interactive theater pieces by Ant Hampton and contemporary dance choreographed by Mohamed Shafiq.

In stark contradistinction to those events, Jankowicz’s exhibition I am Not There in the Townhouse Factory Space was boldly unspectacular, defying the inherent imperative of the festival format to give people something flashy to look at. The catalog-like show consisted of a maze of wall texts narrating different instances in which a mixture of censorship and logistics complicated, prevented, or compromised showing work by regional artists, including Huda Lutfi, Ayman Ramadan, and Magdi Mostafa.

The festival was received enthusiastically (timing, of course, was key — D-CAF offered an appealingly packed program after months of events being postponed or cancelled due to violent clashes). But there was also some grumbling; audiences complained about ticket prices that were as high as 40 LE, while those who had been around for the Nitaq festival made unfavorable comparisons to D-CAF, suggesting that this semi-corporate, pre-fab festival lacked the experimental spirit of the earlier initiative.

At the same time, some cultural workers were exasperated by D-CAF’s consumption of a too-small pool of resources. Ismaelia provided a couple of its spaces to host various events, but otherwise stepped back from the project in terms of material support. The festival instead raised money from the same foundations (the EU, the British Council, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture) that small spaces depend on to support their activities.

Ismaelia’s real-estate activities have engendered no shortage of unfounded suspicion and scandalous rumor (including a favored scapegoat for anything out of the ordinary: Israel is behind it), but its relationship to the arts remains a real cause for concern. Although arts workers are mostly happy to partner with the company, they are also, for the most part, aware of a trade-off. Ismaelia typically offers space for free or dramatically reduced rent on a short-term basis. The tenant is responsible for rehabilitating the property with his or her own resources, therefore turning what would have been an abandoned, unusable space into a spiffed-up, ready-to-rent one, with no effort required by the consortium. Once the hard work has been done, those artists or groups most likely won’t be able to afford the rent when it’s raised back up to market prices.

It’s a risk for Ismaelia, too; their alliances with cultural initiatives may never translate into attracting the high-rent tenants they seek. Case studies on the cooperation between arts initiatives and urban regeneration tell an uneven story. The multimillion dollar “cool cities” campaign in Michigan presents one particularly notorious flop; the creative industries campaign in Liverpool, following that city’s stint as a European Capital of Culture, is another. By banking on these speculative theories, Ismaelia may just end up driving out these arts initiatives from the neighborhood, without attracting tenants to replace them.

Ismaelia has often been compared to Solidere, the Lebanese government’s private partner in the rehabilitation of downtown Beirut in the aftermath of the civil war. As we’ve since come to know, Solidere swiftly and radically altered the character of the neighborhood, turning it into a soulless center of high-end retailers and Disneyfied souks. Their urban revitalization efforts included building a waterfront exhibition space, designating a special arts quarter, forging a so-called “Heritage Trail,” and most recently, subsidizing the launch of a new arts magazine called Portal 9.

Ismaelia denies that it even aspires to become a Cairo version of Solidere, and it’s unlikely that this model could be reproduced here anyway. Ismaelia is not partnering with the state, and it simply can’t afford to buy any more buildings at the moment. The global market crisis and over a year of violent clashes just down the road from many of their buildings has made the project less profitable than hoped. Instead, Ismaelia is invested in a speculative waiting game, sitting tight on its properties until the market improves, counting on events like D-CAF to provide downtown with the cultural cache needed to drive up market values.

But even if the company isn’t poised to radically alter downtown Cairo any time in the foreseeable future, its mission and tactics should be scrutinized. Critiques of the abundant public-private development in the desert, and of the government’s power over urban-planning decisions within the city limits (and its abuse and misuse thereof) abound in the cultural sector. The blog Cairobserver, run by Mohamed Elshahed, has become an especially animated mouthpiece for this criticism, while the architectural hub Megawra, founded by conservationist May al-Ibrashy, has ignited interest in small-scale, grassroots urban interventions that address state policies. But at least in public discourse, we, as in culture workers, have largely kept silent on the neoliberal reshaping of the city’s core by private groups like Ismaelia. Arts workers seem to have settled into an uneasy complicity with these gentrification efforts. It might be worth it in the short term. But like most things in Egypt right now, the long-term viability of this peculiar relationship is anyone’s guess.