Art museum to open in Dubai to counter dearth of cultural knowledge

The Iranian businessman Ramin Salsali was so concerned at the non-availability of high-end culture in the UAE that he set up a museum to display his own art collection.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ð July 21: Ramin Salsali, Art Collector at his villa on Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) For Arts & Life. Story by Colin
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Dubai's rapidly developing cultural landscape will gain another important landmark in September when a new art museum throws open its doors in the city.

The Salsali Private Museum will showcase contemporary pieces owned by Ramin Salsali, an Iranian collector who divides his time between Dubai and Germany, along with exhibitions of other work.

The museum will be located at Al Serkal Avenue, Al Quoz, close to many of the contemporary art galleries that have helped to give Dubai its distinctive cultural identity.

Yet it was the lack of knowledge about the Middle Eastern art world among visitors that was one of the factors that made Salsali decide the UAE needed a museum.

"Dubai became my second home and I developed patriotic feelings for it," he says. "So I suffered very much when I heard comments from my European friends who came here for a holiday. All of them complained about one issue - they said, 'What can you do in Dubai except go to the beach or shopping, where is the culture here?' "

Recognising that there was this dearth of knowledge about Middle Eastern art, especially contemporary work, made Salsali consider how it might be addressed.

"I came to a point where I had to decide what I should do with my collection," he says. "Should I keep it for myself or show it to a wider public? And then it was a question that I wanted to show it, but there wasn't space for me to show it."

Before deciding to go ahead with the Dubai project he considered opening a museum in Germany that would promote Middle Eastern art, but this plan became bogged down in bureaucracy.

"In Europe you have to go through bureaucratic issues," he says. "Not that you are not going through that in Dubai, but it's less, it's smaller. You have better communication with the authorities and when they listen to your ideas they support you and are not creating another obstacle on top, as sometimes you face in Europe."

Salsali started to look at spaces in Dubai and settled on a warehouse in Al Quoz. It is currently being converted for use as a museum, and he expects to take delivery of the building within two weeks and will then start installing some of the 500 pieces he owns, half of them by Iranian artists.

He plans to stage up to three exhibitions a year of selections from his collection. There will also be space for shows of work owned by other collectors or by art groups. The first booking has already been taken, from a UK group called Magic of Persia, which will mount an exhibition next March. There will be no admission charge for visitors to the museum.

Salsali hopes his venture will inspire other collectors and art lovers to follow his example and open more display spaces.

"If even one person does that, it will be a big success for us," he says. "We would like to create a space where when any person comes in they say, 'Oh, this is so easy to do, why haven't I done it before?' The next step is to come to us and say, 'How did you do it?' We can advise them and show them, free of charge, how they can set up spaces, and Dubai can become a centre for collections."

Salsali, 45, was born in Tehran and, after attending school in the UK and Iran, went on to study economics and management in Germany. He became a consultant in the petrochemical industry, advising on the use of new and environment-friendly technology. He began collecting while still in his 20s, and art soon became a passion as he found it provided an escape from the pressures of his work.

"I am interested in any type of art, I have not limited myself or focused myself," he says. "I've bought what I liked to buy, I never had a strategy. It mostly happens that I get to know the artists. At the beginning art did not speak to me, I didn't have any connection to the art. But by knowing the artist, knowing the personality of the artist, I developed a relation to the work of the artist at the same time."

A particular favourite is the Iranian Sara Rahbar, and his collection includes several pieces in which she combines the US flag with strips of patterned eastern fabrics.

"They show the unification of the orient with America," he says. "I like Sara very much. She's now very well-known worldwide, she's in big collections. Another Iranian is Reza Derakhshani, I have five of his works and he's one of my favourite artists. When I met him I found him an amazing personality."

Major European names in the collection include Daniel Richter, Niki de Saint Phalle, Philip Mueller, Gil Heitor Cortesão and Jonathan Meese, while the list of Arab artists includes Majida Khattari, Shawki Youssef, Jeffar Khaldi, Halim Al Karim and Chaza Charafeddine. Emirati artists include Hazem Mahdy and Fatima Al Mazroui.

Salsali has twice been honoured in the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Patrons of the Arts Awards, and the museum project has won praise from the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority.

"Patrons of the arts are the building blocks that spark the creativity of artists, strengthening the cultural and artistic infrastructure of a city," says the director of projects, Salem Belyouha. "The inauguration of Mr Salsali's art museum signifies how creative ventures play an instrumental role in energising the arts scene. We are confident that he will continue to contribute significantly to shape the cultural dynamic of Dubai."

Salsali adds: "This museum should be understood as a place for showing art, and that's it, not more than that. We're not claiming fame, we're not trying to make a point. It is a very simple place, a place where you lose your barriers and fears."