After more than 40 years in business, Dubai’s first fine art gallery is closing down.
The Majlis Gallery, founded in 1979 and situated in Bur Dubai’s Al Fahidi district, has weathered many changes in the emirate’s history and its art scene, but dwindling funds have made it impossible to keep running.
“We’ve been struggling for about 10 years,” says founder Alison Collins, who first came to the UAE in the mid-1970s as an interior designer. She says that gallery’s profits simply could not keep up with the costs of wages, trade licences and rent. “It just wasn’t stacking up. I couldn’t make it work any more.”
The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the situation, leading Collins to decide to shut the gallery doors permanently.
The Majlis Gallery in happier times:
Over its four-decade run, The Majlis Gallery has welcomed many artists and residents into its space. It was originally Collins’ residence, where she lived with her family for a decade, starting in 1978.
The gallery began as an informal concept a year later, when British painter Julian Barrow approached her to display and sell his paintings. She transformed her villa into an exhibition space and invited other residents to see the show, which quickly sold out.
Afterwards, Collins began staging more exhibitions, mostly with artists from the local community or what she calls “Friday painters”. On opening nights, the gallery would be filled with people who had heard of the venue through word of mouth. “We just opened the doors and had a soiree. People came because it was a very sociable thing,” she recalls.
Its popularity also helped bring in more established artists. “We didn’t have to do much marketing in those days,” she says. “Word got out on the professional circuit, and we started to get full-time painters.”
In 1988, she and her family received an eviction order as Al Fahidi was facing redevelopment. Within a year, however, the landlord asked them to return. Collins chose to dedicate the space to a commercial gallery, turning The Majlis Gallery into a fully fledged business.
The exhibitions continued, and the gallery created an Artists in Residence programme, in which artists were invited to stay at the villa, explore the UAE and create works relating to their experiences. Collins says that the gallery has worked with at least 30 artists its time.
Over the years, however, Dubai’s rapidly changing landscape has had an impact on her business. As Al Fahidi became a tourist spot, The Majlis Gallery’s role began to shift. “We turned into a tourist attraction, but you can’t make money out of tourism with art,” Collins says. “Physically, this area was the centre of Dubai. Our slogan was ‘art in the heart of Dubai’. While it was still the metaphorical heart, physically, we no longer were.”
Currently, The Majlis Gallery is holding a “swan song sale” that includes pieces from 50 artists and lasts until Friday, October 16. “It includes works from all our major artists, who have been really supportive,” Collins says, then adds she was determined to make the gallery’s final show impressive. “It has much to do with our relationships with the artists. We go back a long way with each one of them, so it needs to be done well.”