The UAE's collectors: 'an addiction' to contemporary art and design

Elie Khouri has spent the past 15 years putting together one of the region’s foremost collections of contemporary works

Jakob Jorgensen’s ‘Faba’ steel and wood bench. Antonie Robertson / The National
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A career in advertising combined with a passion for real estate laid the foundations for Elie Khouri’s collecting journey. Storytelling, the language of communication and the impact of ideas on human behaviour are all concepts that have shaped his work, as well as the works he acquires.

Khouri has spent the past 15 years putting together one of the region’s foremost collections of contemporary international art and design, which, he says, “are essential elements in the beautification of life and in making life much more engaging and refined”.

His diverse collection of art, which includes hundreds of works, can be divided into four major themes: figuration; subverting geometry or geometric abstraction; new technologies and media; and language and communication.

Elie Khouri, art and design collector. Photo: Elie Khouri

The first serious work that he acquired was by Lebanese-American artist Nabil Nahas. “What attracted me to that piece of work was the bright colours and the craftsmanship of the work. But more importantly, the title, which is So Happy To See You. I thought it was very inviting, very fresh, very positive. It gave a very positive outlook on life, and I was immediately attracted to it and bought it.”

For Khouri, who is the chairman of Omnicom Media Group and chief executive of Vivium Holding, the process of acquiring rare works is an “addiction” rather than an investment. “You don’t think of it as an investment, you first think of it as something you love. When you love something and you want to have it and you want to live with it, ideally you hope it becomes an investment. If it does, then great. If it doesn’t, then you are living with it and you’re enjoying it. So the love for the work has to be the driving element.”

Khouri buys, on average, 30 to 35 works every year, and while he cannot pick an overall favourite, he can share what is currently up there. “You love every piece of work. You have favourites that keep changing with the times and as your tastes evolve. My current favourite is a portrait by Nicolas Party that I acquired last year. I was very proud to acquire it — it wasn’t easy. And my favourite piece of design is a brass sushi buffet by the Campana Brothers.”

‘Ragle’ by Carol Bove. Photo: Elie Khouri

Khouri is in constant contact with gallery owners and dedicated advisers as he continues to develop his collection.

“When you want to be in this world, it is really important to keep training your eye,” he says. “And training your eye means being exposed to the best work and going to museums, art fairs, galleries, every show in the world that you can think of, whether for art or design.”

But, he notes, you do not need to be rich to buy art or design. “You can buy at any budget,” he advises.

“There is something for everyone. For art, you can buy a poster or a print, or something that is under $1,000. There are a lot of emerging artists. So it’s not about the size of the budget, it’s about the intention. You can buy a vase that is beautifully designed for a few hundred dollars. So never be daunted by the budget.”

By default, a collection that is so personal and so emotionally driven becomes a reflection of its owner. So what does Khouri’s haul say about him?

“It says that I am quite eclectic, that I like vibrancy, I like boldness, I like ideas that are challenging and thoughtful, and I like things that are engaging. Those are common threads through the collection, whether art or design."

Updated: November 16, 2022, 4:25 AM