Artist Kristel Bechara moved to Dubai at the height of the global financial crisis in 2008. The 35-year-old Lebanese expatriate worked as a corporate designer before taking the leap to set up her own practice several years later. Her multi-layered fantasy paintings, which are sold both online and through galleries, adorn fine-dining restaurants in the UAE, as well as homes and offices around the world.
Ms Bechara lives on Palm Jumeirah with her husband, civil engineer Ayman Mattar, and their two children, Yves, 6, and Amy, 3.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
I was born in 1984 in Lebanon and was the middle child among three girls. My father, who was a schoolteacher, painter and sculptor, passed away during my first year of university and over the next four years, I juggled studying to maintain a scholarship with working for pocket money. It’s fair to say that I had an early crash course in money management.
What was your first job?
I worked at a wedding venue as a guest relations officer in Byblos at the age of 18. I earned the equivalent of $500 (Dh1,836) per month.
What brought you to the UAE?
After graduation, I worked for a short period in Beirut and then I married and moved to Dubai at the height of the financial crisis. After months of interviewing, I landed my first real job as a corporate designer. I did it for several years before taking the leap to being a full-time artist.
When did you realise you wanted to pursue art as a career?
I’ve always wanted to be an artist but was waiting for the right moment to give up the guaranteed salary. My first objective was to become somewhat financially stable while developing my own style, experimenting with different mediums and creating work that would appeal to collectors. By 2015, I felt these had come together well enough for me to quit the corporate job and focus on my art. I started with limited-edition acrylic prints on canvas.
How did that feel?
Immediately, I knew it was the right thing to do. I’d begun to publish the work on social media and started selling right away, even while I was still figuring out suppliers.
What sort of volume were you able to do?
In one year, I was able to sell 250 to 300 paintings. I was lucky that two galleries in Japan became regular clients, buying 10 to 20 pieces a month. They resold my work, sometimes up to four times the amount. So, it was successful for both of us. I now ship worldwide, including to Italy and Belgium. Being in Dubai I was able to do several shows, and I now have a lot of regular clients in the Middle East. The volume of work has allowed me to hire administrative help, freeing up my time to create more art.
Do you see yourself as an entrepreneur?
Absolutely. I see myself as a start-up and a business on the growth path. My time is divided between the creative process and making the art, which I enjoy the most, and what I call work – which involves managing the print production at the workshop, sales, marketing, collectors’ relations, galleries management, sourcing supplies, events management, shipments, invoices, etc.
How has the coronavirus crisis impacted your business?
During the lockdown, I’ve only had a few new orders – a significant drop from my normal volume. I had some commissions before the crisis and under lockdown, I was able to finish all that, as well as focus on my new collection. I’ve also had a lot of enquiries. On the other hand, I was gearing up to have a very busy year in shows and exhibitions – but they’ve all either been cancelled or postponed. Overall, I’ve had less orders, but I’m looking at it positively. I’ve begun participating in international virtual exhibitions, which is something new. I recently changed my sales model, so my work is not everywhere on different websites, but people come directly to me. I hope to have a solo show at the end of the year with 20 to 25 new pieces – hopefully that’ll help recover all the losses as a result of the coronavirus.
Overall, what has been your weakest financial moment?
As a fresh graphic design graduate in 2008, I used to commute in my small car for two hours each day to Beirut. It was an agency I was keen on working with. The pay wasn’t very good, but they had big clients, and as a new graduate, you do anything to get the experience you want.
What do you invest in?
We try to diversify as much as we are capable of. We invested in property in Dubai and Lebanon and also maintain a family retirement portfolio, which has recently taken serious beating. Property is the largest chunk of my investment. But I am in it for the long term, so I am not alarmed when the trend is downwards. We have two properties in Dubai. We wanted to invest in the UAE, and property is the first place to start – paying a mortgage in lieu of rent. In Lebanon, we own our home and two chalets in the mountains. I bought the chalets and my Dubai studio; we have purchased our homes together.
What does your retirement portfolio comprise of?
Principally, shares in banks in Lebanon, stocks here in Dubai – even some in Facebook. These are long-term investments.
Are you a spender or a saver?
I would like to think that I am a rational spender and a reasonable saver.
What is your most cherished purchase?
My studio in Dubai. This is my happy place that I designed and furnished to my taste.
One luxury item you’re happiest owning?
The Rolex Submariner I received for Christmas in 2013. They only had four in Dubai, but my husband knows the sales agents, and they put it aside for us.
How often do you save?
Always. I heard someone say you should spend what you could not save, not save what you did not spend. So, my husband and I set aside money each month.
What is your biggest financial milestone?
I would love to have a holiday home in Bordeaux in France.
What investment failures have you suffered?
We’ve had a few. Several years ago, we bought a franchise for kids’ education and set up three branches in the UAE as well as in Lebanon. While it was promising to start with, it didn’t deliver the sort of returns we expected, possibly because we didn’t have the right managers. So, we sold the Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah ones and closed the Dubai branch.
What financial decision would you change?
I probably would have not gone into a corporate job and started my artist’s career straight out of university. I make more money and I enjoy my work much more.
How much do you have in your wallet right now?
About Dh200. I use my credit card most of the time.
What car do you drive?
A Nissan Patrol. It’s big enough to fit the family and my paintings.