The Dubai gallery Grey Noise is celebrating its 10th anniversary – if "celebrating" is the right word. The art gallery is marking its commercial failure. It has called a halt to regular exhibitions for five months, moved its offices into the exhibitions space and changed its name to Losers Club.
“I think I am a loser because I have lost,” the gallery’s founder and co-director Umer Butt said when I spoke to him about the project in March, when it first began.
Now, midway through the hiatus, Butt counts even the project celebrating failure as a failure. “It’s been a torture. I confuse everyone I speak to. If people were confused early on about what I was exhibiting, this time I totally confused them again, and I also confused myself.”
The challenge of commercialising conceptual art
Butt's gallery has become well known in Alserkal Avenue for putting on serious, challenging shows of conceptual art, and he has developed a reputation for being as uncompromising as the work he shows.
Dressed always in black, white, or grey, with a close-shaven head and a carefully manicured beard, the Pakistan-born, Sharjah-bred dealer was trained as an artist. He studied at the National College of Arts in Lahore and earned a master’s degree at the Chelsea College of Art in London, and he has yet to relinquish his lofty ambitions for what art can be.
Butt set up the gallery in January 2008 in the mezzanine of a friend’s offices in Lahore, and brought it to Dubai in 2012 hoping to expand its programme.
There, he set up shop with Hetal Pawani, who had started the community arts space thejamjar in 2005 in a section of the industrial area of Al Quoz where other galleries had recently begun to settle. Shortly afterwards, the Emirati businessman who owned the warehouses – Abdelmonem Alserkal – realised what was happening on his land and founded the Alserkal Avenue organisation that began developing the arts complex.
"From the first day, I have been working against the grain," says Butt about his gallery's programme. "I'm not doing something stupendously radical, but I have been presenting conceptual art in a very awkward city for it. We have made money," he says. "But we have lost more."
How art fairs are causing issues for mid-size galleries
Mid-size galleries like Grey Noise, whether in New York, London, or Dubai, have had a tough time lately. A quick scan of headlines suggests the scale of the problem. In 2016 and 2017 Artnet reported: "A Fair Chance: Can Mid-Tier Galleries Really Survive by Moving Beyond Art Fairs?" and "The Middle Market Squeeze: An Art Gallery Reality Check". Artsy reported last year: "Recent London Gallery Closures Show Struggle at Art Market's Middle" and Sarah Douglas echoed in Art News: "A Recent History of Small and Mid-Size Galleries Closing" – and so on. Rising rents are an issue, but a major culprit is understood to be art fairs, which now account for a bigger portion of buying activity. These can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend – a large amount to lay out on spec. If a gallery fails to make sales, for whatever reason, it faces a huge loss on a mid-tier budget, potentially repeated four or five times a year. That's just part of the problem.
Many complain of the relentlessness of the cycle of art fairs, and a lack of a connoisseurship in an art world in which art is an ever more fashionable luxury item. Many gallerists who have closed their businesses say, like Butt, that it is because they didn’t like what the art world has become.
“I took the liberty to step back from the ritual of exhibition-making, which we do every two months,” Butt says. “The art world is so easy. You have a show and a dinner for your artists. This, for me, disrespects my artists’ work.”
Putting the business of art dealing front and centre
Losers Club is aimed at disrupting this pattern, offering a chance for different projects to emerge, and for Butt and Pawani to reflect on the art world's rules of engagement.
Butt reconfigured the gallery so that the office is now in the room where the exhibitions used to be, putting the business of art dealing front and centre.
He carved out a tiny window in the entrance, so that visitors could peer through to see himself, Pawani, and the gallery assistant Elaine Lubguban at their desks. Another window was made in the old storage area – which is now being used as a de facto exhibition site, although its walls bear the scuff marks of its former life.
This kind of intervention is fitting for the gallery, which has conspicuously used architecture in its exhibitions to create pacing between works or to help guide visitor response. Putting the commercial activity of a gallery, which is typically hidden behind white walls, into the foreground, is also a time-honoured move within the kind of art-making called institutional critique, which diverts focus on to the wider context of the art world – the institutions that show art, the biases and economic policies behind them, and the demographics of people who tend to view it. The office-gallery switcheroo here situates Losers Club within this tradition.
Losers Club has also hosted a few such projects throughout its tenure, including an audio work by the Australian sound artist Tim Bruniges, which altered the sounds of the gallery office and projected them into the exhibition space, so that one could never be free of the modified sounds of the art-dealing business; also a performance by Walid Al Wawi, in which the Jordanian-Palestinian artist drew his silhouette on the wall and, for four hours, tried to remain within its contours; and an exhibition curated by Saira Ansari – a publications editor at Sharjah Art Foundation who has worked with the gallery in the past – around celestial bodies, which is on show just now.
Measures beyond the commercial
In a sense, the project attempts to create a different, more ad-hoc temporality for exhibitions, unhinging them from the regular calendar. It also plays to the gallery’s strengths. By measures other than commercial, Grey Noise has been very successful: it has shepherded a group of talented artists towards critical accomplishment and international exposure.
The Dubai artist Lantian Xie, whose work Grey Noise began showing in 2011, represented the UAE at the Venice Biennale last year, and regularly features in biennials. (This month, his work graces the cover of the London art magazine frieze.) Lala Rukh, Butt's former teacher in Lahore and an artist whose work he has championed, had a highly acclaimed contribution to last year's Documenta, the art world's most important exhibition. The gallery artist Stephanie Saade, based in Beirut, participated in the last Sharjah Biennial.
So, what is success?
The experiment ends on July 31, and Butt – perhaps ironically – says he is already looking forward to the return to the regular rhythm of working with artists, with a show he will present with Xie in September. Losers Club, it seems, has not yielded him the freedom that it initially promised. "I am running a commercial gallery – why should I pretend I am doing something avant-garde?" he concedes.
With all the talk of failure, I ask him what he regards as success.
“My measure of success is that I become rich,” he says. “So I can support my very subtle, very beautiful artists who are extremely true to their work. They’re my support. They make me feel enlightened.”
Loser's Club is at Grey Noise in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai until July 31.