The state of the art scene in Dubai: a look into how things are going

The quality of art coming from the emirate is improving, but the UAE still lacks collectors

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 8, 2014:     General view of the Quoz Arts Festival at Alserkal Avenue in the Al Quoz area of Dubai on November 8, 2014. Christopher Pike / The National

Reporter: Anna Seaman
Section: Arts & Life
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The global art market has been up and down lately, both as a factor of international economic insecurity and because of changes to the art landscape itself, in which mid-level galleries are finding it tougher to survive. Top tier galleries and art fairs, meanwhile, are continually expanding, in an unquenchable search for new collector relationships. The highly international art scene in Dubai is no exception, where galleries increasingly depend on overseas sales and partnership strategies.

Ten years on from the heady days of 2008, the scene has also settled into a new routine: Alserkal Avenue has emerged as the most important site for contemporary art activity; fewer new galleries are opening; and the overall quality of work shown is rising.

A shift from DIFC to Alserkal Avenue
Dubai International Financial Centre, where many galleries set up shop in the past decade, has this year lost two galleries: Art Sawa, which opened in 2008 and focused mostly on regional artists, and Ayyam Gallery, which also has a space in Alserkal Avenue. Ayyam will now solely be based in Alserkal Avenue, where they were the first gallery to open in 2008. "You don't need two locations to sell the same painting," says Hisham Samawi, Ayyam's co-director. "It's better for us to focus on our space in Alserkal Avenue, which is the real heart and soul of art in Dubai. DIFC is also going through a big transformation. There was a time when that was the centre and core of the art scene, but that shifted to Alserkal Avenue a while ago."

Kourosh Nouri, of Carbon 12, a gallery in Alserkal Avenue, put it more bluntly: “If you’re hoping that people, before they go to Zuma, just see something in your window and are going to come in and buy it – this is not a sustainable strategy for a contemporary art gallery.”

DIFC remains home to Christie’s, Cuadro Gallery, the Farjam Foundation, and Tabari Art Space, which has a strong stable of artists, as well as top-flight restaurants including Zuma and La Petite Maison. But international art-world attention now concentrates on Alserkal Avenue, which has complemented its galleries’ commercial activity with commissioning, talks, and residency programmes. The galleries there, such as The Third Line, Grey Noise, Green Art Gallery, Lawrie Shabibi, 1x1, Carbon 12, and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, are likewise the most successful internationally.

Gallery work is becoming more mobile
Across the board, galleries are now more reliant than ever on selling at art fairs and when they travel abroad. William Lawrie, one-half of Lawrie Shabibi, recently moved to London, and says he is just as able to conduct gallery business there as in Dubai. "We do five shows a year and the rest of the time we're out on the move. It's the same for everyone everywhere. This is not a Dubai thing, but a global thing for small and medium-sized galleries."


Artworks by Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey, at Lawrie Shabibi in Alserkal Avenue.

Serge Attukwei Clottey shows a wall-based sculptures created from yellow gallon containers.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: Melissa
Section: AC
Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey’s work on display at Lawrie Shabibi as a result of a partnership with Gallery 1957, based in Accra, Ghana T

The programmes of art spaces are reflecting this new itinerancy through swaps and partnerships. In 2016, the London gallerist Vanessa Carlos initiated the highly acclaimed Condo programme, in response, as she said in a 2017 Art Business Conference, to the fact that half of galleries lose money every year. Condo is a kind of house-swapping for invited exhibition spaces, which set up pop-up shows in galleries in other cities. This allows them to take advantage of new collector bases, while not being creatively limited by the need to recoup the large financial outlay involved in art fairs. (The cost of attending art fairs is so high that galleries often only bring their most saleable work.) The project has now spread to New York, with plans for Shanghai, Mexico City and Sao Paulo instalments.

Grey Noise took part in the New York event this spring, having been invited by the Lower East Side gallery Van Doren Waxter to show work by Fahd Burki and Joana Escoval.

The practice has also moved to Dubai. In February, Lawrie Shabibi partnered with Gallery 1957, based in Accra, Ghana, and showed one of its artists, Serge Attukwei Clottey, in their Alserkal Avenue site. In June, Lawrie Shabibi did a pop-up group show in London, from which it says several further offers of collaborations have been extended.

Lack of a collector base
But though galleries internationally do most of their sales abroad, this need is especially acute in Dubai, which still lacks local collectors. The institutional collecting bodies are only two: Sharjah Art Foundation and Art Jameel. Other major collectors of the past, such as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, some international collaborators, and the Abraaj Group, which previously sponsored the art prize at Art Dubai, are no longer regularly buying. 

"We don't have a proper collector base," says Yasmin Atassi of Green Art Gallery. "80 per cent of my business is exported, and I'm not the only one. Where are the collectors here? Why aren't people buying?"

“A lot of galleries have to go around the globe – it’s a global phenomenon. But there is a weakness in the region for any form of art above a certain price,” says Nouri. “The wealth is channelled into bags and shoes and watches – all perishable goods.”

"The nature of Dubai being transient doesn't help," he continues. "I still know people who arrived here in 2008 saying, yeah, I'm only here for three years, so I wouldn't know what to do with art. These guys are still here 10 years later and they still haven't collected anything, versus those who started collecting art with us and went back to their homes in the United States or Europe and have built up extraordinary collections."

Khaled Zaki’s ‘Finding a Path’ at Tabari Art Space in DIFC
Khaled Zaki’s ‘Finding a Path’ at Tabari Art Space in DIFC

Long-term impact
There are fears that Dubai is missing out on the chance to acquire works at an affordable rate. In the United Kingdom, for example, Tate, Arts Council England, and the British Council regularly buy works from young artists at art fairs and galleries in order to build up a patrimony before these works get too expensive. No such equivalent collecting body exists in the UAE, beyond the Sharjah Art Foundation.

"There is so much great art being presented and exhibited in Dubai, and in some cases 100 per cent of it is leaving the country on the next plane," says Nouri. "It's a real shame."

Growing the collector base has been one of the initiatives behind Abu Dhabi Art, which last year, under the new leadership of Dyala Nusseibeh, included a more diverse range of prices. Art Dubai, which has traditionally been well-known for its diversity of work, also included a new section this year, the Residents exhibition, mostly at a lower price.

These are strategies that can take years to pay off, and it’s worth taking a sober view. Contemporary art is still very new to the Gulf, both in terms of production and of a culture of collecting and art appreciation. Comparable art scenes are not London or New York, but rather Kuwait or Jeddah, cities where there is also a concentration of high-net-worth individuals, but no entrenched collecting culture.

“To build up collectors and to keep them engaged is a long-term approach to the industry,” says Mohammed Hafiz of the Jeddah-based Athr Gallery. “It’s not a fashion trend. In this part of the world it will take time to become part of the social norms and dynamics. People might want it to move faster, but it will never move faster. Even though the number of collectors are a minority in any society, in this part of the world it’s infinitesimally small. And growing that is very important.”

And in general, galleries remain upbeat. Because Dubai is such a young scene, the successes of the galleries are not just in sales, but in the artists they’ve introduced to Dubai and been able to support.

“You don’t get into art to make money,” says Atassi. “At the end of 2019 it’ll be twenty-five years that Green Art existed. My mother set it up in 1995 in Jumeirah. She wasn’t selling anything – in order to stay afloat she would sell prints to hotels. But she did some amazing shows and the gallery has contributed to the city’s cultural scene.” 


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