The usual hum of people exploring the streets of Alserkal Avenue has gone quiet. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the contemporary art galleries and creative businesses housed inside the Al Quoz neighbourhood have closed their doors indefinitely.
As business owners deal with the fallout of the closures, a moment of relief has come in the form of a three-month rent waiver from Alserkal, the arts organisation that heads up avenue.
The decision comes with the launch of a "Pay It Forward" programme, under which business owners can apply for a subsidy by proposing initiatives to help other tenants or members of the community. This can come in the form of a barter of services, knowledge sharing, charitable donations or commissioning freelancers. According to Alserkal director Vilma Jurkute, the subsidies have been granted to all businesses within the avenue as they have already contributed in their own way, though more initiatives are in discussion.
The programme was determined with the Alserkal Avenue’s founder, art patron Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal, who set up the arts district in 2007 and eventually the non-profit Alserkal Arts Foundation in 2019.
“This was a collective agreement. We understand the importance of sharing success and sharing the loss, too. We are looking at this from a community aspect,” Jurkute says. She say it is also part of the reason why the founder and the organisation opted for a quarterly waiver as opposed to a rent freeze.
For Mohamed Somji, founder of Gulf Photo Plus (GPP) and production studio Seeing Things, the subsidy could be a saving grace, particularly for GPP. The photography centre primarily makes its income through workshops, which have now been put on hold. Somji reveals that salaries and rental payments are the top two costs for his businesses. "It's crucial [to have the waiver] in these three months that we will not be able to get any revenue," he says.
One of GPP’s latest initiatives, he says, is “loosely tied” to the Pay It Forward programme. The photography centre held an open call, which closed on Saturday, April 11, for freelance photographers to submit their work, and selected images will be available to purchase on GPP’s website. GPP will be responsible for printing and shipping the prints to customers.
The selection process is under way, with GPP giving priority to freelancers or individuals who rely on photography for at least 60 per cent of their income. Of the sales, 70 per cent will go to the photographer – it is typically a 50-50 split – while GPP will use the rest to cover costs, such as packaging and delivery. “We want to give the artist as much as we can,” Somji says.
Speaking of the pandemic’s effect on business, he says: “This kind of impact could be a fatal one." Over the years, GPP has weathered changes within the industry, specifically the rise of smartphone photography, which has decimated digital camera sales and, consequently, workshops.
“We were just about coming over the hill, and then this happened. For the past couple of years, we have just been surviving. So now it’s a challenge,” he says.
March would have been a busy time for the UAE art scene, with Art Dubai in full swing and night gatherings at galleries in Alserkal Avenue and DIFC scheduled. This year, all those events were cancelled.
In response, Alserkal launched Alserkal.Online, a website with virtual walkthroughs of its gallery spaces. It helped galleries such as 1x1 Art Gallery secure a few sales, according to founder Malini Gulrajani. Still, she says, there are challenges ahead: "We don't know how things will pan out, how six months from now looks."
She says slow economic growth over the past two years has had a detrimental effect on art sales. Last month, the gallery had planned to exhibit two major group shows, which were scaled down due to the outbreak. So the subsidy has come at a critical time.
“It’s like somebody gave you a gift,” Gulrajani says. “It’s a huge help … It takes the pressure off. If I know that I can get away with paying [rent] for the next quarter, it’s a relief,” she says.
While shipping and transportation of artworks remains the gallery’s biggest expense, Gulrajani says that without the rent relief, she would likely have had to halt operations, or at least stop hiring freelancers. Now, she will push forward with commissioning art writers for projects.
“It’s good for everyone that the machinery continues. If it comes to standstill, that is bad,” she says. “We are ensuring that we continue to work with our extended network so the cycle continues. If I’m not going to spend any more money, then down the line, everybody suffers.
“In the same way that it was a relief for me … If I can make someone else feel relief, even in a small way, that is what we want ... to alleviate the suffering a little bit,” she adds. Plans are also afoot to donate a percentage of the gallery’s art sales to those in need.
According to Jurkute, the “ripple effects” of the Pay It Forward programme will continue in the coming months, highlighting that galleries and creative businesses have developed their own ecosystems and networks in the arts community and beyond.
In addition, these initiatives can also help in the fight against the coronavirus in their own way. She gives an example of luxury concept restaurant Inked, which has converted its space into a community kitchen where meals will be prepared for hospital workers in Dubai. Inked is working together with Nightjar Coffee and Appetite, other food and beverage businesses in Alserkal Avenue, to source ingredients and make meals.
"The question here is what we can do to help each other," Jurkute says. "We chose Dubai as a city and home for our businesses and ourselves. If we are going to survive this, we're going to do it as a community. Dubai will remain our home for the artistic ecosystem that we have collectively built for years."