Banking on art

Feature Showcasing 70 galleries from around the world, Art Dubai is finding a new audience beyond the big museums. The UAE's young, investment-minded collectors are proving a powerful force in shaping the country's rapidly growing art scene.

"I am beguiled," Charles Saatchi once said, "by the fact that rich folk everywhere now choose to collect contemporary art rather than racehorses, vintage cars, jewellery or yachts.

"Without them, the art world would be run by the state, in a utopian world of apparatchik-approved, culture ministry-sanctioned art." Saatchi was speaking on the 20th anniversary of his London gallery, but taken in the context of the burgeoning interest in art in the Emirates, his words seem particularly apt. We've done glamorous cars, superyachts and bling, so could art be the new Ferrari? The Abu Dhabi Government has its own ideas about what constitutes art, with a phalanx of world-class galleries on track, such as the Guggenheim and the Louvre. And its tourism and development arm has been snapping up the works of old masters as well as new, contemporary talent.

Inspired by these developments, an art scene is springing up, and the driving force behind it is young Emiratis. Some have been adding to their private collections for years, while others instigated the largely independent creative centres of Al Quoz in Dubai long before the idea for a Guggenheim and Louvre had been hatched. They have been inspired by an explosion in the number of art fairs in the country that draw galleries from around the world, whose primary purpose might have been to furnish the art museums with a diverse range of work but which have found a new audience. One thing is clear: as buyers, enthusiasts and purveyors of art prepare for millions of dirhams to change hands when Art Dubai kicks off this week, the collectors of the UAE are going to be a powerful voice in shaping the emerging art scene. Affluent, often freshly returned from art studies abroad and with a distinctive taste and style, they are already proving to be a potent influence.

"In this region there seem to be some very young people getting involved," says John Martin, a London-based gallery owner who has directed Art Dubai since it began in 2006. "It is really exciting that so many people in their 20s are seizing the opportunity." One of those young collectors is Rami Farook, who has found several pieces for his collection at Art Dubai. "I see a lot of interest from other locals in art. There are about 20 Emirati collectors I know of, but it is Middle East-wide; a lot of Iranians are collecting too, perhaps because they come from a culture with a long history of art."

Over the four days of Art Dubai, which will feature 70 galleries from more than 30 countries, thousands are expected to pour through the doors of the Madinat Jumeirah. Last year, of the 14,000 people who visited Art Dubai, 4,000 came from overseas. In the past, sales have topped more than Dh73 million, an astonishing amount considering the event is dwarfed by the likes of Frieze's 150-plus exhibitors in London or the crowds of 40,000 drawn by Paris Photo every year.

"The art market is often dominated by very high net-worth individuals," says Martin. "It always has been and last year, they may have been affected by the recession, but if they were collectors, they were still collecting, albeit at a lower price. The other important factor is that interest in art, particularly in the region, seems to be growing at an incredibly fast rate. Here in the UAE and the Gulf, I think it is growing faster than pretty much anywhere else."

Galleries might display artists' works, but it is buyers who put a value on them. Artists might have lofty ambitions to create art for art's sake, but without patrons to evaluate, appraise and even raise the profile of their work, very few can afford to make a living. "The art market and art production often go together. Usually it is the artists that come first and the art market follows. In this case, the art market started and while there have always been artists here, we are seeing more and more artists encouraged to come in from around the region. There has been an increase in art education, with younger artists becoming more interested and aware, with more opportunities for them to have an international impact."

Last year, Art Dubai's sales dropped by a quarter, but Martin remains optimistic that the market in the Middle East will bounce back, buoyed by the collectors whose pockets are deep enough to have escaped the brunt of the economic crisis. He should know better than most: he was 22 years old when he opened his own eponymous art gallery in London in 1992, when Britain was gripped by an earlier credit crunch. "I would never have had that opportunity if it had not been for a recession," he says. "I certainly felt there was a great opportunity and funded my gallery through a bank loan. You live a hand-to-mouth existence, but you cannot do that when you are older. Maybe that is why so many young people in the UAE are getting involved with art and taking the risk.

"I had been to art school, done art history and I was always getting involved. I loved the art world, liked selling work and working with artists from that field from a very early age. I think I had enough of an eye to realise I was not good enough as an artist. Great art dealers are the force behind the art world." Starting an art collection at a young age, as many Emiratis are now doing, gives the opportunity to make mistakes, Martin argues. "When you are young, you have got a lot less to lose. You do not have a family or mortgages and all the other stuff that slows people down as they get older: it is a huge advantage. Often young people will be more involved with younger artists, they will hang out with that crowd and form part of the art scene, as has happened in New York and Paris. It is an inspirational network, and we are following the same pattern in Dubai and the UAE.

"Then there are the people who get involved in the business side of art, people who set up galleries, who publish magazines or books and people who make their living working with artists. In the West, getting jobs in the art world is extremely difficult. Here it is different. In the last four years, there has been incredible growth in the number of galleries in Dubai, which have increased by four or five times.

"The people behind them come from all different walks of life and backgrounds, but they have all got a passion for art. It is a cross-section of Dubai's population. There are some from monied backgrounds and some who simply think it is a good idea and make a punt of it. Not in all cases [are they good quality], but besides the standard of art they show, an important factor is the seriousness with which galleries promote their artists. Those sorts of galleries have been a really pioneering spirit for UAE art."

The Dubai event represents the best platform for galleries and artists to meet both established collectors and those who are just setting off on that path. "If they are not here, they cannot meet and sell to those collectors. It may not translate into big sales immediately, but it will start the ball rolling." With some long-distance patrons deterred from coming, and with only half the participating galleries from last year returning, Art Dubai's organisers have worked hard at stoking interest in the region. The result has been the formation of a group called Young Associates of Art Dubai, made up of former interns and art students who are being encouraged to start their own collections.

Elsewhere, Ayyam Gallery in Al Quoz has started hosting a biannual auction specifically targeted at young collectors. "It is for those who are thinking about buying their first piece and is priced accordingly," says operations manager, Fadi Mamlouk, who is planning his next event in May. "I started doing the auctions last year because no one was focusing on that young audience. We see new faces each time and have different types of art for varying tastes."

Martin says the knock-on effect of a burgeoning art scene is that the West is now taking note of what is happening in the Middle East. "Both the British Museum and the Tate now have acquisition programmes for Middle Eastern art and both bought at Art Dubai last year," he says. "International museums are waking up to the fact not only is there more going on here in terms of contemporary art, but there is also an audience here.

"On another level, European collectors are looking for tax-free places to buy. When you are dealing with million-dollar pictures, that makes a big difference and will help Dubai establish itself as an eminent art market." Will the credit crunch continue to be felt this year? As a precaution, art fair organisers have lowered their prices for booths from US$700 (Dh2,570) per square metre to $550 (Dh2,020), with extra discounts for galleries who focus on one artist or share their stands. It is telling that one third of the participating galleries have chosen to do just that.

Still, Martin is undeterred. "The crisis had a definite impact on us and everyone in the art world, but recessions and downturns in the economy are things that galleries have to face. It is like forest fires if you are a tree. Everyone has to go through them sooner or later. It is tough and not everyone is going to survive, but we have got through it. It shows the resilience of the art market and the determination of people driving the scene here." Art Dubai takes place March 17-20. For more information, visit

Rami Farook, 29, founder of Traffic, a concept furniture store, gallery and design studio in Dubai. It began when a $20 painting by a street artist stopped him in his tracks 11 years ago. At last count, Rami Farook's collection topped 150 pieces of artwork, including one which cost him Dh1.8 million. "It is said the way you define a collector is when you don't have enough wall space and have to start storage space," he says. "I think I have passed that point."

His extraordinary eye for art has already garnered him global acclaim. Despite having no formal training or art background, he won the British Council's international young creative entrepreneur award last year for the innovative concept behind Traffic. Judges described him as "outstanding". Farook, a married father of two, says what motivates him is a passion for the visual and the sublime. "Collecting is a habit we all have," he says. "For some, it is cars. My habit used to be white sneakers. Now it is art."

The Emirati designer has snapped up several purchases at previous Art Dubai events. This year he will be exhibiting for the first time with a stand solely dedicated to the work of James Clar, a New York-based installation artist. John Martin, the director of Art Dubai, says Farook's contribution will be one of the most exciting at the fair. Farook defines the moment he started collecting art as a day in 1999 when, as a student, he bought a mixed media piece from a street artist in New York. But it was not until seven years - and several pieces of street art - later that he began seriously adding to his collection.

At a 2006 show at the Meem Gallery of Middle Eastern art in Al Quoz, he splashed out on a sculpture for himself and an artwork for his parents. Both were under Dh10,000 and he had no idea of their value: he was simply entranced by them. "That was when I started to really feel it," he says. "I had never heard of the artist and one of the pieces, well, I don't even know what it was. The way I view art, I try to find a personal link to it. I love looking at it before the artist has explained it.

"Some people buy art as an investment but for me, that makes it lose its value. I never buy a piece of art unless I love it. I usually don't know if it is a good investment or not, but that does not matter as I have never sold anything that I bought." Farook's career path started a long way from the galleries in Tokyo, Paris and London which, he now frequents, scouring their walls for new, inspiring artists.

He was destined to go into the family printing business and dutifully stepped up to the breach after studying marketing, management and psychology. But while holding the fort, he realised he was more interested in the design aspect of the company. Three years ago, he broke away to set up Traffic and found an outlet for his emotional turmoil in art, buying up to five pieces a month. As with most collectors, he started spending small amounts, gradually breaking his own self-imposed Dh10,000, Dh50,000 and Dh100,000 barriers. Finally, when he eclipsed the Dh400,000 mark, he resigned himself to joining the league of "blue chip super-collectors".

Trickier still was persuading his parents to part with their hard-earned cash on art, still viewed by some of the older generation as a frivolous indulgence. "I was in charge of the family's real estate stocks and portfolio," says Farook. "As a family, we have a lot of investments but there was nothing good to invest in, particularly when the recession hit. Rather than buying land, I thought, why not invest it in art? My father said he would loan me as much as I wanted, but I would have to pay it back.

"My parents come from a background of hardship and do not understand art as much as they understand business. For them, luxury is having a nice car or a nice house. Perhaps they will never get it, but people like me are looking beyond those things." Farook has a monthly budget, which he is too coy to reveal, and is active in attending art auctions across the world. He took a break from buying during the crisis from late 2008 to mid-2009 - but more than made up for it in January this year when he bought about 30 pieces.

An unwitting side effect of his passion has been an increase in the value of his investments, with some doubling should he choose to sell them - something he vows not to do. Unfortunately for him, aside from a few select pieces on display in Traffic, most are sitting in storage in the galleries he bought them from because of a lack of space. That will change when the designer moves to a bigger venue later this year with room for exhibitions of his favourite pieces.

It will mean he can display the likes of a knuckle-duster spelling out the word "Allah" in diamonds by the British-born Pakistani artist Shezad Dawood and an installation by the Indian artist Shilpa Gupta, a train station announcement board which broadcasts poetry in a 20-minute dialogue with the viewer. "I do not buy along themes, but I am going to have to become more selective in what I buy once I start curating shows," he says. "It breaks my heart that I cannot see my collection every day. It is like not seeing someone you love for a long time."

Lateefa bint Maktoum, 25, founder of Dubai-based Tashkeel, a community space for UAE artists. The name of the first painting Lateefa bint Maktoum bought escapes her. What she can remember is how the semi-abstract painting by the British artist Sacha Jafri made her feel. "You can see mountains and feel the wind on your skin," she says. "I bought it for Dh70,000 seven years ago from the Majlis Gallery in Dubai and every time I come back to it, I see something different. I kept going back to the gallery time and again to look at it, and finally I had to buy it.

"If I look at a painting and it makes my heart skip a beat, I know it is right. Sometimes I cannot leave a gallery unless I have it. If there is a special quality to the work and it speaks to you and you don't know why, you have to have it." Some collectors seek out emerging artists they think will become more popular, she acknowledges, but her single motivation in buying artwork is whether it moves her. "If it is an investment, that is a bonus. I love the stories behind artwork."

Most of her 40-strong collection, of which the most expensive was Dh1 million, is displayed either in her home or in the gallery and office space of Tashkeel, a creative centre she opened two years ago. Lateefa, the niece of Sheikh Mohammed, the Ruler of Dubai and Vice-President of the UAE, began simply by buying pieces she liked, but her role at Tashkeel has opened her eyes to a groundswell of Emirati artists and she is now focusing on UAE and Middle Eastern artists, such as Emirati Maitha Demaithan and Tala Moala from Palestine.

While she has not bought at Art Dubai previously, Tashkeel will have a presence this year, with its artists creating a graffiti wall and holding workshops with Start, the charity arm of the event. "I know a lot of people are now looking to buy Emirati artists," says Lateefa, a fine arts graduate from Zayed University. "Anyone asked to think of a good contemporary artist automatically comes up with the name Lamya Gargash [the photographer]. She is good, but we need more like her. Some collectors seek out work from the artists they think will be big later.

"It is not a factor for me whether it will sell well later. It is hard for me to think I could ever sell the stuff I collect. "I do not have any in storage as I like to see them. Nor do I have a monthly budget, but I will try to go to all the galleries in Dubai once a month, pick up catalogues and get a feel for what is available." With the focus of her daytime job and her own passion for collecting, being surrounded by art can be overwhelming and she occasionally takes travelling breaks when she chooses not to look at or buy art. She has also come up against cultural barriers that previously prevented art from being taken seriously.

"It used to be that art was considered a hobby rather than a job," she says. "It is hard to persuade the older generation that art can be a lucrative career. Luckily my mother said she trusted me on my decision to pursue this avenue. I think it is an advantage being female. It is women driving the art scene here. There is not a long tradition of buying, but that is changing now." Her favourite piece is a Sacha Jafri painting called Albert Memorial, a eulogy to the love between Queen Victoria and her husband.

"I could not let it go," she says. "I bought it directly from him and have had a lot of interaction with him because of projects we have worked on." The relationship between collector and artist is an interesting one. In the cases of both Jafri and Demaithan - the latter she knew as a toddler and gave guidance to as a budding artist - Lateefa has had direct dealings. But she prefers not to commission specific works or intervene in the creative process.

"Sometimes the market influences artists. If something sells, they might think, I will keep doing this. Since the recession began, artists who were not selling have been re-evaluating what they were doing and may, through experimenting, come up with new, original ideas." Tashkeel now has 105 members, and enthusiasm in the region is growing. "Dubai is very business-minded and if you can show people the business side of art, it will take off," she says. "People who own hotels and businesses could see how to incorporate art in their workplaces. Ultimately, artists simply cannot survive without collectors."

Art Dubai this year will host a range of world-class galleries at Madinat Jumeirah, in Exhibition Halls A and B, on Thursday, March 18 through to Saturday, March 20. An ArtBus will take passengers around Dubai's art galleries and studios, ending at the exhibition halls, where special guided tours will be led by Daniel Bozhkov, an award-winning artist based in New York City; Sophia al Maria, a Qatari-American writer and artist; and Khalil Rabah, the Ramallah-based founder of the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind.

The veteran Indian painter MF Husain will show his life's work at the artist-focused stands, and from within the UAE, Ebtisam Abdul Aziz, a multidisciplinary artist and writer, will exhibit a piece she has custom-made for this year's event, in which she has re-imagined the Arab map according to a set of numerical codes and statistics. Madinat Jumeirah's car park will be a showcase for performances, screenings and discussions organised by Bidoun Projects, Art Dubai's curatorial partner. Bidoun Projects was set up in 2003 to support contemporary artists from the Middle East and is managed by a group of artists, writers and curators based in Beirut, Cairo, Dubai and New York. Ola Mohamed Salem

Hours are 4pm to 10pm on Thursday, 12pm to 8pm on Friday and 12pm to 6pm on Saturday. Tickets are Dh50 per person for Art Dubai and are available at the door or online at ArtBus tickets are Dh50 (not including Art Dubai admission) and are available online at or by calling ArtintheCity at 04 341 7303.

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