Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2021: Vilma Jurkute, Executive Director, Alserkal
"It is imperative we have a space to comprehend the urgencies that concern us all and allow ourselves the time to reflect, as we begin to recalibrate and recast new patterns through experimentation, ultimately shaping our new discourse."
This article is a part of the 2021 installment of Entrepreneur Middle East's annual Achieving Women series, in which we profile female leaders of note in the MENA region. The full series can be seen in our October 2021 issue here.
In her role as the Executive Director of Alserkal, a Dubai-based arts and culture enterprise that has Alserkal Avenue, Alserkal Advisory, and Alserkal Arts Foundation under its purview, Vilma Jurkute is easily one of the most recognizable faces on the UAE's art scene today. While Alserkal Avenue has -since its inception in 2008 by founder Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal- grown into becoming Dubai's premier creative district featuring everything from contemporary art galleries to homegrown designer businesses, Alserkal Arts Foundation is a non-profit that was founded in 2019 to support practitioners and researchers working on themes relevant to the regional artistic community.
Meanwhile, Alserkal Advisory came into being in 2020 as a guide for public and private sector entities wanting to develop their own cultural programming or spaces, and overseeing all three organizations is Jurkute, who is making sure that that each of these entities are leaving an indelible mark in shaping the creative sector of the UAE. "Our work is grounded in an ethic of care, shared authority, and collective learning, where open dialogue and long-term cooperation are foregrounded in our partnerships," Jurkute says.
"Both the epistemic process as much as the final product are part of our practice when delivering our public promise. Alserkal was never synonymous with the built environment; on the contrary, as a polyphonic, multidisciplinary community, we have always been a platform where diverse voices and stories are presented and represented. This now continues to evolve and grow through our global collaborations and projects. Supporting the new generation of thinkers to challenge the conventional –leading to new forms of knowledge– is what lies at the heart of our mandate."
Vilma Jurkute, Executive Director, Alserkal
At this point, there may be a contention made that Alserkal's goals are lofty or perhaps even overtly ambitious, but Jurkute makes it clear that they are integral and important aspirations for the entity in a world that has been forever transformed by the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. "In the face of this current situation, we cannot act like nothing has happened; everything has changed," she explains. "We will continue to change. Our cities will be different."
"And Alserkal will be different. It is imperative we have a space to comprehend the urgencies that concern us all and allow ourselves the time to reflect, as we begin to recalibrate and recast new patterns through experimentation, ultimately shaping our new discourse. This historic moment posits us with the opportunity to rethink our role as a community, and the new possibilities for generating value today, and in the future." And Alserkal has wasted no time in ensuring that such discussions are taking place- indeed, Jurkute reveals that ideas like these form the basis of the programming it has built for its recently announced commission from Expo 2020 Dubai, aptly titled Cultures in Conversation.
"With Alserkal's extensive experience developing cultural content, we have taken a research-based approach to the development of programs for the ten theme weeks during Expo 2020," Jurkute reveals. "The themes are Climate and Biodiversity, Space, Urban and Rural Development, Tolerance and Inclusivity, Knowledge and Learning, Travel and Connectivity, Global Goals, Health and Wellness, Food, Agriculture and Livelihoods, and Water."
H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, visiting Quoz Arts Fest
Cultures in Conversation will thus see Alserkal stage a series of multidisciplinary interventions and artistic commissions that will be showcased over the six months of the Expo. "Through partnering with Expo 2020 Dubai to conceptualize Cultures in Conversation, we have thoughtfully brought some of the world's leading thinkers from multiple disciplines together to address and reimagine critical contemporary issues in a world of the Anthropocene," Jurkute says. "Cultures in Conversation allows for a meta-narrative that offers reflection, awareness, and re-envisioned approaches, as a result engendering new forms of knowledge, activating social discourse, and shaping borderless communities on a collaborative Expo stage."
It's worth noting here that Alserkal's efforts with this initiative are in line with the ethos it showcased in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, during which it was seen doing everything from offering rent waivers to its tenants, to initiating the Alserkal Pay It Forward program that supported vulnerable communities around it. "The erosion of boundaries through shared compassion is something I will carry with me from this pandemic," Jurkute adds. "Over the past year, the aspects of collectivity, togetherness, and giving back, which are an intrinsic part of our community, ensured that we never felt alone. As a collective of creatives, cultural thinkers, and makers, we have always been driven by challenging the conventional, and seeing boundless possibilities through the work we do."
It should be pretty apparent by now that Alserkal has embraced a forward-thinking approach to building itself as an enterprise, and a large part of the credit for this needs to go to Jurkute, who joined the family-run business in 2012, and has been instrumental in its evolution since then. "It is never easy to be the "first' or a pioneer, because there is no model or playbook you can follow," Jurkute says. "I take comfort in the advice someone once gave me: "Don't be afraid of uncertainty; it means you are innovating.' To be honest, when we started, I feel like the West didn't know what to do with us, because we didn't fit any of their "boxes,' in terms of art paradigms. We began as an arts neighborhood in the Al Quoz industrial area, then through Alserkal Avenue's expansion in 2015, we extended our platform to welcome a curated community of entrepreneurs across various industries, acting as building block for the creative economy locally."
Vilma Jurkute, Executive Director, Alserkal, and H.E. Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth
"And through our commitment to artistic production, residency programs, scholarship, and research we evolved further as an institution, forming the Alserkal Arts Foundation. It created for a context-specific and organic model that responds to our city, our history, and our publics. Alserkal and its initiatives are everyone's community commons: collaborative, open, experimental, and flexible by nature. Furthermore, tenacity, hard work, a solution-focused attitude, and long-term thinking are all part of the formula."
These principles aren't descriptive of only Alserkal though- these are traits that can be seen in Jurkute herself, who proudly claims to have dedicated her career to developing creative communities in New York, Chicago, London, and now in Dubai. When asked if being a woman has had an impact on her career in any manner, Jurkute replies, "Equality and equity are still key challenges for many geographies today. We still have a lot to achieve, but I am proud that the arts scene in the UAE is predominantly driven by fellow women leaders." And to make sure she stays at the top of her game, Jurkute has steadfastly refused to rest on her laurels. "I learned long ago that there are no shortcuts to success, and that education has an expiry date," she says.
"It is with that intent that despite my full-time career, I challenged myself to pursue my master's degree at Oxford University in sustainable urban development. It allowed me to continue learning and take distance, in order to reevaluate and recalibrate our trajectory at Alserkal, while being better informed about today's challenges, and how we can collectively begin tackle them." This also offers a perspective into how Jurkute goes about being a leader, with her strategy centered on the ideas of collaboration and cooperation. "Humility, collective work, and authorship of ideas with people you work with is key," she says. "Many leaders still cling onto old, hierarchical methods of management. I certainly hope this dated logic and approach to leadership is now dated!" After all, the times we live in call for a new breed of leaders, Jurkute says. "Failures, challenges, changing dynamics, and uncertainty are part of doing business today," she explains. "What is demanded of leaders today is the ability to mitigate, adapt, deconstruct, and plan in the age of uncertainty, through resilience, and a humanized approach."