A few days after the official close of ArtDubai 2012, after the packages had been shopped and the cocktail dresses were laid aside, a small group of representatives from the art community gathered at Shelter Dubai to discuss and reflect on the growth of art in Dubai and to speculate on what lies ahead.
Community and vision were to be themes of the evening, responsible not only for art in Dubai’s rise but also for its continued success and projected growth.
A Global Language
Fifteen years ago, many of Ramin Salsali’s friends were leaving Dubai. “Five years is enough, three years is enough,” they would tell him, “there are no cultural programs for us.”
Upset by the loss of community, Mr. Salsali became determined to bring art to the city in a big way.
“Art is the only global language. It is the only global instrument where people have no competition. On the contrary, it brings people together,” Mr. Salsali said.
After many years of campaigning for a public art museum, Mr. Salsali decided to take matters into his own hands by opening a museum of his own.
Within six months of meeting with Zubair Anjum, project manager of Al Serkal Avenue, Mr. Salsali opened the doors to Salsali Private Museum, the first private museum in the United Arab Emirates, in November 2011.
Building a Community
Al Serkal Avenue is a block of warehouses in Al Quoz that is home to a growing number of art galleries and creative spaces, nestled between auto-body shops and hardware suppliers.
“The vision behind Al Serkal is that everyone is welcome to come here and express themselves. We don’t tell the galleries what do. We support them as much as we can. This isn’t a business project for us,” Mr. Anjum said. “We give you a blank slate, and we will help you in whatever way we can.”
“We spend 95% of the time working behind the scenes,” Mr. Anjum said, “meeting with the Dubai Economic Department and the Dubai Municipality, trying to establish a framework, trying to get a license that says art gallery and actually allows you to sell art.”
The behind-the-scenes efforts have paid off as Al Serkal Avenue has grown into a vibrant, creative hub. It is this sense of community, says artist Noor Al Suwaidi, that makes art in Dubai special.
“There is so much sharing of knowledge. We can come together and discuss challenges, discuss work-arounds… Sharing knowledge helps everyone grow, and it helps you grow as well,” Ms. Al Suwaidi said.
A Community of Practice
Tashkeel is a community art center established in 2008 to serve as a gallery, an education space and a studio for local artists.
In addition to canvas and paints, members have access to graphic design labs, dark rooms, woodworking tools, typography sets and more.
Although Tashkeel is unique in offering a range of production services to its members, “we can’t facilitate big-budget productions,” explained Khalid Mezaina, a member and project coordinator at Tashkeel. “Budget is always the biggest issue.”
The absence of more facilities like Tashkeel is a challenge for local artists.
“Sharjah Fine Art College has a great print making lab, but spaces are not open to artists living in the country,” Ms. Al Suwaidi said. “There should be some sort of association of guild for artists so that you can access spaces at a lower cost when they are not busy.”
“Students would benefit from the arrangement as well,” Ms. Al Suwaidi added, “because they can watch professional artists at work.”
Still, Ms. Al Suwaidi believes that it is possible to foster an artistic career from Dubai. “Yes, you can do it,” Ms. Al Suwaidi said, pointing to the career of James Clar as an example.
“Artists have access to other artists here. They can go up to them at their exhibitions and ask them if they want to come to their studios,” Ms Al Suwaidi said. “That sharing of knowledge has a strength to it.”
A Melded Future
For over a decade, the art community in Dubai has maintained a strong independent streak, with private institutions serving dual purposes as education centers and advocacy groups, diverging from the standard business models into hybrids uniquely adapted to serving Dubai’s art scene.
But recently, support for public institutions has grown, and the world of art in Dubai will soon take on new dimensions.
Coinciding with the opening of ArtDubai 2012, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, announced a project to build a modern art museum and an opera house beside the iconic Burj Khalifa in downtown Dubai.
As more public art institutions emerge, the private galleries, art centers and fairs that have established themselves as anchor institutions over the years will be faced with a choice: to return to a standard business model, or to continue operating as hybrid organizations?
Some institutions, including Art Dubai, will continue to strike a balance between the two systems.
“What we do is absolutely necessary and I do not see that necessity going away, even if public institutions step in,” Ms. Carver said. “The demand for what we provide will not go away. The audience will continue to grow.”
Art in Dubai will Continue to Grow
A record of 22,500 visitors attended Art Dubai this year. One collection sold out within thirty minutes of the opening of the fair.
Dubai already boasts more than 50 art galleries, with more set to open this year.
Mr. Salsali is leading a campaign to ease the way for more private museums, including an ambitious fight to remove an import tax on art collections.
Al Serkal Avenue is set to double in size by 2014.
“Our opportunity is to do things differently,” Ms. Carver said. “Think differently, think in a very localized sort of way. The possibility to rethink is endless, and we can do that here.”
- Mary Ames
Mary is the Educational Programs Manager at Shelter Dubai. You may reach her at email@example.com
Antonio Carver, Fair Director of ArtDubai, Zubair Anjum, Project Manager of Al Serkal Avenue, Khalid Mezaina, Project Coordinator of Tashkeel, Noor Al Suwaidi, represented by Cuadro Fine Art Gallery and Ramin Salsali, Owner of Salsali Private Museum, participated in a panel discussion that was moderated by Bashar Al Shoogi, Director of Cuadro Fine Art Gallery, on March 29 2012 at Shelter Dubai.