Room to grow: How The Third Line raised the bar for art in the Middle East

One of the most important galleries for Middle Eastern art in the region, The Third Line is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a move to a grand new home in Alserkal Avenue and a fresh vision for the future.

Co-founder Sunny Rahbar says The Third Line has grown with the artists who have exhibited at the gallery. Anna Maria Nielsen / The Third Line
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When Sunny Rahbar, Claudia Cellini and Omar Ghobash decided to open an art gallery in Al Quoz in 2005, they had no intention of gingerly dipping a toe into the market. They dived in head first.

Among the first artists on the books of The Third Line were Youssef Nabil and Monir Farmanfarmaian. Nabil is a bold Egyptian who found international fame with photographic work that is tightly woven with his sense of displacement and with strong female characters.

Farmanfarmaian is an Iranian who was a 1950s New York socialite, and a friend of Frank Stella and the late Andy Warhol. Her stunning mirrored geometric artworks are some of the most valuable pieces from the region.

Then there is Farhad Moshiri, whose work was the focus of one of the gallery’s first solo exhibitions, in January, 2006. Two years later, he broke the auction record for a painting by an Iranian artist. The work, featuring the Farsi word for love embroidered in Swarovski crystals and gold sequins, sold for more than US$1million (Dh3,672,750).

All three of these artists are regional heavyweights, and can hold their own across major institutions around the world.

Of the other 24 artists on The Third Line’s books, most are already well-established.

Hassan Hajjaj, for example, is a London-based Moroccan artist whose kitsch colours and striking photography mix ­popular culture with high art. Sahand Hesamiyan, an Iranian, is shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Jameel Prize. Slavs and Tatars enjoyed a stratospheric rise in popularity and appreciation for their deeply intellectual brand of installation art after showing at The Third Line for the first time in 2014.

But as we catch up with Rahbar at The Third Line’s vast new gallery, which opened last month with a stunning show of works, old and new, by Farmanfarmaian, she modestly deflects any credit offered for the gallery’s success. “It sounds clichéd, but we were the right people, in the right place at the right time,” she says. “We didn’t know what would happen when we opened but the rapid changes in Dubai and the growth of the art world, all of that led to our survival.

“We have grown alongside our artists, who are really like family to us.”

Despite her protestations, at 38, Rahbar is still relatively young to be leading one of the Middle East’s most important galleries, and its success is clearly down to her shrewd eye for art, as well as her determination.

“I had a really strong belief and passion for contemporary art, and I was lucky that, from the age of 19, I found the thing to which I wanted to devote my life,” she says.

Rahbar, who is Iranian, grew up in Dubai but travelled to London to study, and then New York, where she graduated from Parsons School of Design. Interning at various institutions, including the Guggenheim, she was struck by the lack of Arab and Iranian artists on show. The Third Line’s inaugural exhibition was a group photography show by five artists including Shirin ­Aliabadi and Ramin Haerizadeh in ­November 2005.

“I kept wondering where they were,” she says. “It started to bother me that they were not being represented and so when I came back, I decided to support them.

“I was young and I was fearless – I didn’t even think about what could go wrong.”

The gallery also put strong emphasis on connecting with local people. “We saw the space as a way of reaching out to the community,” says Rahbar. “In order to get people interested, and ­really in the know, we needed to do more educational ­programming.” These educational events included regular talks by artists, a monthly book club featuring books in Arabic and English, film screenings and pop-up shops.

With Art Dubai, Christie’s Middle East and the Alserkal Avenue development also all helping to change the face of the art scene in Dubai, The Third Line flourished.

As well as providing more space for the artists to shine, Rahbar says she is keen to use The Third Line’s new home to return to the non-profit communal events that were so important in the early days.

“What we used to enjoy the most was the programming, so when we were looking at the future, we wanted to bring that back,” she says. “We want to look at exploratory things, such as the way art meets music, fashion, and even science and technology.

“We also want to reach out to young and emerging talent. When we opened up, there was a lack of that, but now the new generation is super-interesting, smart and full of ideas.”

Inside look

The visual experience at The Third Line’s new Alserkal Avenue premises starts before you even glimpse any art. At 8,300 square feet, the warehouse is three times the size of the old one. It is a cavernous industrial space, with a wonderfully jagged staircase in the reception area. The two-level building has been cleverly developed to house two galleries, an audio-­video room, a library and office. In comparison, the previous location was simply one gallery and a room upstairs – so this really is an ambitious new look for The Third Line’s second decade and beyond. The new space are less than a kilometre from the old, yet the difference in the atmosphere is incredible: people walk in and out all day, as they do with the other galleries on Alserkal, and there is an exciting energy and buzz to the gallery already, with many top-­quality exhibitions on the books for the next few seasons.

The Third Line is in Warehouse H78 and H80 (Exit 43 off Sheikh Zayed Road), Street 8 in Al Quoz 1, Alserkal Avenue. Open Saturday to Thursday from 10am to 7pm. Closed Fridays. Call 04 341 1367 for more information or visit