Alison Collins, founder of The Majlis Gallery, has died aged 73.
Her death was confirmed to The National by Cheeni Shah, who was a partner at Majlis Gallery for more than three decades before the venue closed in October 2020.
Collins died in Sicily, Italy, on December 11. Details of her cause of death have not been revealed.
Originally from Cornwall, England, she moved to the UAE in 1976 and worked as an interior designer. She and her husband bought a villa in the Bastakia district in 1978, though the family home would soon transform into an art space, too.
In 1979, British painter Julian Barrow approached Collins and asked her if he could exhibit his works in the space. Collins agreed and the idea for the Majlis Gallery was born. It was an informal concept at first, with visitors coming to the Collins family to socialise and see art.
The success of Barrow’s exhibition led Collins to stage more shows, mostly from artists within the communities. The gallerist referred to them as “Friday painters”, those who maintained jobs in various industries and fields throughout the week and focused on their artistic endeavours on the weekends.
Speaking to The National before the gallery shut its doors, Collins recalled the openings as opportunities for people in the community to gather. “We just opened the doors and had a soiree. People came because it was a very sociable thing,” she said.
The gallery’s popularity grew with time. “We didn’t have to do much marketing in those days … Word got out on the professional circuit, and we started to get full-time painters,” she recalled.
When the neighbourhood of Al Fahidi underwent redevelopment in 1988, Collins’ family was evicted. They were eventually brought back within a year, which led to the establishment of The Majlis Gallery as a commercial endeavour in 1989. It was around this time that Shah, who then worked with a textile company, met Collins and the two decided to run the gallery as a business venture.
Shah recalls her working relationship with Collins as “perfect”. “We worked in the same little office for all those years without a problem,” she said.
She described Collins as a “great inspiration and great supporter of upcoming artists”, particularly with the gallery’s focus on supporting travelling artists who made works in response to the neighbourhood and the larger environment of Dubai and the UAE.
For Shah, the gallery was “a meeting place for creative minds. It had an open-door policy, so anybody and everybody could walk in”. However, in recent years – with a changing art market and the cost of rent and trade licenses – Shah and Collins felt it was time to end the gallery’s run.
“We also wanted to spend more time with our families,” she says. The two decided to sell their shares of the business. “We went into it together and were out of it together."
The owner of the space has decided to keep the gallery “functional”, as Shah describes it, but the Majlis Gallery as the arts community has once known it now belongs to Dubai’s past.
Nevertheless, Shah says that she and Collins felt proud of what they had achieved in the gallery’s four-decade run. “As Alison said, it was a ‘job well done’ in the end”, she says. Collins’ departure from the UAE was also hopeful, as she had intended to be with her family.
“She had closure and she was very happy to spend time with her children, her grandchildren and her partner,” Shah says.
Though its fate is now uncertain, the Majlis Gallery, when it was overseen by Collins and Shah, had become a hub for many artists in the city. It established an Artists in Residence programme that welcomed a total of 30 artists during its time and exhibited many more, including the likes of Emirati artist Abdul Qader Al Rais and the Syrian painter Abdul Latif Al Smoudi.