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How Dubai created an art industry.

Summary: This year's art Dubai fair pulled in record investment with 81 galleries from 34 countries and 20,000 visitors. so how did Dubai become an art hub? TExT By SaBah haIdEr

From the series 'Through The Looking Glass' by Syrian painter Mouteea Murad, exhibiting at the Ayyam Gallery in DIFC, Dubai, until June 17th.

For a city that has transformed its skyline and established a regional finance hub in only five years, how fitting that Dubai has also emerged as a global hub for contemporary Middle Eastern art - a growing market valued at hundreds of millions of dollars.

"What Dubai is doing for contemporary art is what it has done for every one of its business areas, because it acts as a focal point for South asia, iran, the arab world and East africa. Dubai's role is to be a meeting point for those cultures and trade between them," explains antonia carver, Director of art Dubai. "the whole system is almost relentlessly commercial."

in 2005, when times were good, Dubai's first two contemporary Middle Eastern art galleries, the third Line and B1, opened. an entire region brimming with talented yet-to-be-discovered contemporary artists was lacking a regional and international platform. collectors and investors had no real place to source new regional art.

Founded by two seasoned art professionals and Emirati businessman omar Sabbagh, third Line is often credited with single-handedly creating Dubai's art scene.

Aaround the same time, in april 2005, auctioneers christie's opened a regional office in Dubai, with the intention of catering to its regional client base of largely wealthy art collectors in Pakistan and india. However, christie's Middle East director, Michael Jeha, says within 18 months of opening the auction house noticed a thirst for more than just historical or islamic art.

Laila Brinbek, director at third Line, says there's no single factor driving art investment in the region. "Everything is about being at the right place at the right time. Sheikh Mohammed's decision about how Dubai is going to be marketed internationally... all of these things happening within a five-year space have been a catalyst."

Since 2006, christie's has sold over $200 million worth of art. in 2008, before the financial crisis hit, total sales of contemporary Middle Eastern art reached almost $28 million. in 2009, the total dipped to $12 million, but 2010 was a record year. "Last year we sold $31 million of contemporary Middle Eastern art alone, which is the highest total to date for that category," says Jeha.

"the market is expanding and there are many more players in the market. there are 50 galleries in Dubai today, art fairs throughout the region, and museums opening up throughout the Gulf," he adds, referring to abu Dhabi's Saadiyat island's planned museums and galleries, and the Madhaf in Doha.

Big fish, huge pond

the biggest step towards unifying a collective industry and market for Middle Eastern art was made in 2006, when art Dubai was co-founded by ex-banker Benedict Floyd and London dealer John Martin. the fair was introduced in 2007, and the rest is history.

"The growth of Dubai as a culture and business capital had a big role," says carver. "Before that you didn't have the term 'Mid-East art'

"Like so many other areas that were consolidated in Dubai, i think christie's and art Dubai caught a wave. the art was there. they just helped consolidate it," she says.

the Sharjah Biennale, which started in the early 90s, was re-invented in 2003 and is where the "internationalisation" of regional art began, says carver.

this year's art Dubai fair featured over 81 galleries and a total of 20,000 visitors to the event, with a 30 per cent increase in international visitors.

rami Farook, owner of traffic art gallery, which features multi-disciplinary art, says Dubai's success as an art hub extends to its resources: "Dubai is a logistics hub. this has been Dubai's success from day one."


Hisham Samawi runs the ayyam Gallery in DiFc's Gate Village, which opened its doors in 2009, three years after ayyam's Damascus gallery was opened by his older cousin Khalid, an ex-banker who'd recently sold his hedge fund to credit agricole. Neither Khalid nor Hisham had a background in art, but both were interested in exploring what could be achieved when working with artists.

"Back then, artists were at the mercy of collectors and there was no one really looking out for them," says Samawi. "artists should focus on

art, and business people should focus on business."

cuadro Fine art Gallery, which opened its doors in 2008, is the largest gallery in DiFc Gate Village. Bahraini founder, Bashar al Shroogi says: "compared to 2005's art market in Dubai, you're seeing a lot more sophistication now. in 2007, everything came into place. art Dubai

is the monster - it's the big beast in the room and is what made it all happen." Buyers have also become younger. thanks to healthy disposable incomes,

Dubai has witnessed a rise in younger collectors who are not predisposed to certain types of works and are very interested in contemporary art from the region.


traffic art's Farook says the art market has stabilised in Dubai, and people are no longer glossy-eyed. "the boom in art here is gone," says Farook. "the art market in the region, specifically in Dubai, directly mirrored the property market in relation to pricing and growth."

Jeha says the main challenge to creating future growth is developing long-term sustainability, "to deepen the base of buyers, develop new buyers and encouraging international participation at the buyer level in terms of collectors, and corporations. that's the next challenge to see more corporate participation, it's the next step: companies filling corporate collections."

But when it comes to investment on every level, there's one overriding factor. "it's clear art is benefitting from global uncertainty. People are seeing art as a tangible asset with a relatively good store of value," says Jeha.

top Five works cHristie's Dubai soLd between 2006 and 2010

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Publication:Gulf Business
Geographic Code:7UNIT
Date:May 30, 2011
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