Why Here?

United Arab Emirates
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Any reader of lifestyle-oriented art magazines is familiar with the topos of the collector interview. Proudly posed amid a smattering of treasures, the collector tells tales of provenance and pedigree, impulse and addiction, sudden chance and shrewd pursuit through art world haunts dotted with cameos by complicit dealers, affable advisors and artists who have become fast friends. The collector by nature spins an international yarn, scooping up young talents here or being outbid on old masters there. The photogenic artistic trophies are beauty-shot under their owner’s gaze, the multipage spread contributing at once to current visibility and future significance of collection and collector alike.

This third and final essay in this series on the arts ecosystem in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) upends that customary take. For all the clichés of the Emirates as a site of conspicuous consumption, many collectors here represent a relatively silent, at times  even invisible, force. While the country’s general collector pool is growing, at the top sit the most commanding buyers of all—the UAE’s royal families. Motors of ambitious visions to make the Emirates a cultural touchstone, members of Abu Dhabi’s ruling Nahyan family are the leading patrons of Abu Dhabi Art, the yearly art fair in the capital, while their peers in Dubai and Sharjah are deeply implicated not only in shaping and supporting burgeoning arts infrastructures, but also in sustained, high-profile collecting.

For this article, five Dubai-based collectors consented to discuss their engagement with the UAE arts ecosystem—from their early interactions with an emerging scene, to their prognostications for sustaining a fast-maturing arts ecology. What emerges from our conversations is a portrait of a human-scale ecosystem buoyed by both integrity and conviction—an unusual sensitivity to “giving back” on behalf of the collectors themselves, and a surprising staying power rooted in the charismatic determination of individuals at the helm of commercial entities. 

A typology of UAE collectors can be articulated along dynamic lines. The “power collector” has acquired major, widely sought-after works, both locally and internationally, set within a collection of considerable breadth, displayed with some degree of public visibility, either institutionally or semi-institutionally. In the UAE, writer and political commentator Sultan al-Qassemi, founder of the Sharjah-based Barjeel Collection, is perhaps emblematic of this type of collector, accompanied by Iran-born Ramin Salsali, who houses his collection in his eponymous private museum in Dubai. The “continuity collector” is a seasoned, well-traveled arts enthusiast, a fixture on the local (and regional) gallery, fair and auction circuit, along with regular forays into the international scene. This type of collector is the lifeblood of hometown commercial galleries in Dubai, and earmarks substantial time and financial resources for collecting pursuits, yet they do not lend their collections, nor are these collections necessarily displayed publicly. Finally, the “future collector” is an emerging figure who has acquired a handful of reputable pieces with a desire to grow this base, yet whose current restricted budget tempers acquisitions.

The lone “future collector” interviewed for this article, Wael Hattar is a self-described “expat brat”—born and bred in Dubai of Jordanian/Lebanese parents—who has built his collection entirely through UAE galleries and fairs. “I wasn’t aware I was a collector until the galleries told me,” he confides. With his identity established, Hattar founded and leads a group of aspiring art owners called the Young Collectors Collective (YCC). Currently comprising 45 members, the YCC organizes monthly “art situations” to put potential collectors in touch with galleries, each of which presents a 20-minute talk on an artist, a school, a process, etcetera, before displaying works at a sub-10,000 AED (USD 2,725) price point.

The other four interviewees are all at varying echelons of the “continuity” type, which, by the estimate of Art Dubai’s head of VIP Relations, Lela Csáky, numbers in the hundreds. Emirati writer and commentator Mishaal al-Gergawi, managing director of the Delma Institute think tank, had what he calls a “perpendicular,” or disinterested involvement in the arts during his former financial-consultant career in the 2000s. An early supporter of Dubai gallery the Third Line at its inception in 2004, al-Gergawi’s collecting has matured away from acquisitions solely by artists with whom he could “connect,” to purchasing pieces that, like his think tank, fill the “abyss of [his] curiosity.”

A fellow “continuity collector” is Beirut-born, Bahrain-bred Tarek Miknas, CEO of advertising group FP7, the Middle East outpost of the McCann global empire. Miknas scours the MENA region and beyond for his personal collection, including works by Banksy and Michael Rakowitz, but also collects noncommercial artists for his regional string of ad agencies. “I look for new voices to inspire people,” he boasts, “To show that they can be bold.” Another collector of this type, Dubai-based Lebanese businessman Charles al-Sidawi came to focus on Arab and Iranian art only after having collected internationally for many years, whereas Sarah Takesh, Dubai-based founder of the fair-trade, high-end apparel business Tarsian & Blinkley, exclusively collects young, emerging artists, from within MENA and elsewhere, citing a deep appreciation of new Pakistani art. Like her Kabul-based business, which provides its Afghan seamstresses with a living wage, buying art for Takesh must be more meaningful than investment. “Collecting,” she insists, “is something I do from a very sincere place.” 

Installation view of MIRIAM SUHAIL’s exhibition “Accidental Excavations,” at Grey Noise, Dubai, 2014. Courtesy Grey Noise.    

Diverse collectors with distinctive worldviews, they operate in an ecosystem they each find appealing, most notably, for its scale. “What drew me in to Dubai,” Takesh explains, “was that the pool was smaller. It’s always better to limit your options, being able to really look at something.” In the love/hate relationship of some residents with Dubai (“It has become such an abundant place,” she bemoans), the intimacy of its artscape can be somewhat salutary. “The people and places I had first uncovered in the 2008 art world,” Takesh recalls, “saved me from what I disliked about Dubai at the time.” Galleries, so the consensus goes, get more involved at this human scale. “We have an advantage of accessibility,” claims al-Sidawi. “The galleries know your style; the owners call you up.”

Among Dubai’s collecting scene, small-scale, community-building initiatives are flourishing. Up a notch from Hattar’s YCC is Art Salon, which Art Dubai launched in 2014 as a program of gatherings among collector-members, currently numbering around 50, at their homes to discuss their works, habits and philosophies. Both Hattar and al-Sidawi have participated in the invitation-only club, and see it as a formative endeavor, vital to cultivating more enlightened, confident collectors, thus sustaining the market. “The usefulness of forums like this,” opines Hattar, “is that people question if it’s okay to like something. Then they have the backbone to go out and purchase.”

Yet another benefit of a maturing art scene is the contact with the gallery, less as a business and more as a personal affair. “When it comes to the galleries here,” remarks al-Gergawi, “I find that the passion of specific individuals, their self-respect and commitment is very important. I have tremendous respect for Umer Butt [of Dubai gallery Grey Noise.] He brought a very important, fresh voice to the discussion. He’s challenging our understanding of South Asian issues, especially in the Gulf context, where there are very clichéd views on that.”

Relationships with artists, too, benefit from the tightness of the community. “If artists from our part of the world feel that you really care about what they are producing,” Miknas says, “they reach out to you. They’re as curious about you as you are about them.” Yet the UAE remains largely a country without a substantial number of resident expatriate artists. While some contend that this is the result of the country’s immigration policy that grants visas only to jobholders, al-Gergawi counters this, saying, “It’s an economics issue. There isn’t enough density—of patrons, of funding. It’s in the DNA of Dubai: it’s not necessarily the best place to come when you are starting off; it’s definitely the place to come when you’ve arrived. This continues to demonstrate the missed opportunity” of having a stronger resident artist population.

From a collector’s vantage point, what seems urgent to bring to the ecosystem is awareness of the gallery scene and the visibility of existing collections. Some collectors believe that the pool will only grow if more people are aware of gallery goings-on, which means communicating more clearly, and to a wider audience. “So the local art world becomes less of a ‘best-kept secret,’” suggests Hattar, a proposal that was met with raised eyebrows from fellow collector interlocutors. “Dubai definitely needs a public space,” remarks al-Gergawi. “Not a museum, but a national gallery of sorts. All you need is a box, a U-shaped theater next to it, a library and a café. You could eventually start an art school. I know at least eight royals or government officials who would keep this space going for three years with their loans alone.”

In a country speedily blanketed by metastasizing sprawl, where pharaonic constructions sprout seemingly overnight, cultural development appears to inch along. While collectors are quick to remind one of how much has been achieved in so little time (“Ten years ago, there were only one or two real galleries,” recalls al-Sidawi), they also admit that much remains to be achieved—suitable economic models, a comprehensive cultural policy, a transition toward being a place of cultural export. Even in Abu Dhabi, where the upcoming outposts of the Louvre and the Guggenheim will fast-track the UAE to the status of cultural powerhouse, there is a sense that local foundations were somehow neglected in favor of an impressive endgame. “Abu Dhabi should have started with a powerful residency program,” suggests al-Gergawi. “Then slowly built a school, a public space, a collection and then, eventually, a museum.” But he is reassured by the policy makers who, like the gallerists and collectors, have grown. “They know they’ve committed to the end of the sentence,” he says. “But they will go back and fill in the beginning.” The cycle, then, will be complete.