The Dubai art market and its future – Nation, Guardian

Farhad Moshiri

Farhad Moshiri

ART MARKET DUBAI

A spate of new gallery openings mostly in the city’s financial hub – the Dubai International Financial Centre – goes ahead despite the recent turmoil amongst financial institutions reports the Nation.

The global turmoil certainly hasn’t affected the number of art galleries in Dubai. Cuadro, Opera Gallery, Art Sawa and Art Space (which relocated), all opened their doors in the weeks directly following the liquidations, bail outs and nationalisations of some of the world’s most trusted financial institutions.

Each of the new galleries are attempting to carve out their own niche in the increasingly crowded Dubai scene. They flaunt their belief in art as an investment and all but Art Sawa are located within less than a minute’s walk from one another, in the heart of the Dubai International Financial Centre.

Being close to monied clientele is undoubtedly one of the biggest advantages of the DIFC location.

“Typically, the people who buy from us are the kind that can definitely afford it,” says Palestinian-born Maliha Tabari, the managing director of the Art Space gallery. “I have to admit, mostly they are people in the banking industry.”

In a little over half a decade, Tabari has witnessed a phenomenal growth in the Dubai market.

“I’ve been in Dubai for six years and I came when there was almost no art,” Tabari says.”At the time, if a painting was $3,000 (Dh11,000), it was like, ‘That’s so expensive’. Nothing could sell at that price. We were trying hard to sell pieces by Farhad Moshiri for about $2,000 (Dh7,500) or $3,000 (Dh11,000) – now his work is worth $200,000 (Dh740,000) or $300,000 (Dh1.1million),” she says. “We are talking about a five-year period, so it really happened fast.”

The last five years have seen a massive proliferation in commercial art galleries in the city.

From just two names to around 30, the list includes international sellers and high-end spaces showcasing masterpieces with million-dollar price tags.

Opera Gallery’s new space in Dubai is the company’s 10th global outlet and specialises in high-end works. Its walls currently host pieces by Picasso, Dali, Monet and Renoir, as well as other contemporary and Middle Eastern artists.

Auction houses have been catalysts in building the market for Middle Eastern art.

In April, Christie’s  set a record for the sale of an individual piece of Middle East art, the $2.8million (Dh10.3m) sale of Praviz Tanavoli’s sculpture, The Wall (Oh Persepolis). Will Lawrie, the head of sales for Arab and Iranian contemporary art at Christie’s Middle East, says the sale was “the single most flabbergasting figure” of the year.

“The Parviz Tanavoli sculpture was unique, really a one off thing from the 1970s. An unbelievable thing.” Standing almost two metres tall, the bronze monolith is covered with calligraphic engravings. Although the sculpture would look at home in ancient Babylon, the figures upon it resemble robotic, space age beings.

The commercial market activity has helped stimulate local artist production and the creation of non-profit space to support them.

“There has never been a recognition of being an artist as a profession [in the Emirates]. But there is now a glimmer that people are realising that they could do this for a living,” says Jill Hoyle, the manager of Tashkeel.

A hub for young artists and designers, Tashkeel opened in January 2008. It is supported by the avid artist and photographer Lateefa bint Maktoum, the daughter of the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid.

The non-profit organisation tries to encourage artists on the ground level by offering free studio space.

She says that the proliferation of galleries and growing investment market has made art much more high profile. “People are more aware of the role that art plays in life. I think now it is being taken more seriously.”

Still, the UAE is not a place for starving artists displaying in abandoned warehouses. The blurry-eyed, caffeine-addicted conceptualists of Paris and New York are probably in no rush to move here. For artists who are not selling in six figures, rent is a major obstacle and prohibitively expensive studio space make the UAE “scene” more of a marketplace than a breeding ground.

Parviz Tanavoli The Wall (Oh Persepolis)

Parviz Tanavoli The Wall (Oh Persepolis)

But confidence in the art market is waning alongside tumbling asset prices. Dubai’s stock market has lost close to 70% of its value since the summer. Two of the UAE’s largest mortgage firms, Amlak Finance and Tamweel, were nationalised last week. What is the future for the economy of Dubai? The Guardian reports that

“Dubai’s free zones, real estate and tourism are all highly susceptible to a global downturn. Real estate is the flagship and if confidence has been knocked, which it clearly has been, it’s in trouble. Now the confidence has gone, credit worthiness has taken a knock,” said Christopher Davidson, a Gulf expert at Durham University.

Nakheel, the developer of man-made palm tree-shaped islands on which celebrities such as David Beckham have bought homes, announced earlier this week that it had cut 500 jobs -15% of its workforce – and was scaling back projects.

Though thousands of expatriate professionals are expected to lose their jobs, Dubai’s optimism may not be entirely misplaced. A survey by a leading financial services firm this week predicted that the Gulf as a whole would escape recession, with a growth rate of 3.6% next year.

And this is not the only voice expressing optimisim for the longer term. Former HSBC chairman David Eldon who has  long term and continuing professional ties with Dubai notes in his blog Eldon-Online

The reality now is that any hopes of economic immunity from the global meltdown, and any talk of decoupling are now firmly consigned to the fantasy file. All economies are being affected by the global downturn, and that includes Dubai.

Of course, the other reality is that Dubai has some underlying strengths that have spawned its growth to date. Underlying strengths that remain intact despite the current economic environment. Underlying strengths such as an excellent, if still incomplete, infrastructure a well regulated financial sector and an inherent openness to people, companies and capital from elsewhere. All tied in to solid macroeconomic fundamentals.

He counters concerns about Dubai’s future growth due to tight credit arguing that the perception of some rating agencies that Dubai lacks the “financial muscle to cover its debt”  is misplaced and that some reporting has been “misleading”. 

The reality is Dubai has already publicly declared it can cover repayments for the next seven quarters. But the media have a hard time believing senior officials, and reports are grudging in the extreme.

I wouldn’t write-off Dubai’s resilience, or its future.

For more reports from Dubai, Middle Eastern art, market watch reports from around the world.

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