Dubai has discovered there really are some things money can’t buy.
After a decade of petrodollar-driven success that has established it rapidly as a regional financial, trade, tourism and retail centre, the emirate has hit a speed bump in an unexpected arena – art.
Burgeoning enthusiasm for collecting art convinced many that Dubai was about to become an overnight sensation in the international market, putting a gloss of sophistication on the cultural life of the emirate.
But becoming a true global art centre, one that would potentially alter the cultural fabric of the entire Middle East, is a bit more complicated – and time-consuming.
“There are many wealthy people in Dubai and certainly there is a rise in the disposable income, but that doesn’t suddenly make Dubai the hub of the regional art market,” said Matthew Girling, chief executive for UK and Europe at Bonhams, one of the world’s biggest fine art auction houses.
“There is a network of people around you in places like London or New York – museums, galleries, dealers. This is what helps you weather a downturn. All that is very much in its infancy in Dubai,” Girling said.
Such a wide and deep network can only emerge over time, experts said, and no amount of wealth can rush the maturing process.
Words like ‘booming’ and ‘blossoming’ were used to describe Dubai’s nascent contemporary art market five years ago as auctions racked up one record-setting sale after the other.
But then the global financial crisis hit in 2008, and the revenues of both Christie’s and Bonhams took sharp dives, eventually prompting Bonhams to halt auctions in the city.
“It was a false dawn, if you like to call it that,” Girling recalled.
Christie’s, which continues to have a presence in Dubai, held its 12th auction in April but revenues are nowhere near the $20m seen in 2008. The highest since then for a regular auction was $7.9m in April last year.
For Bonhams, shrinking revenues paved the way for an exit.
“I realised if we stayed in Dubai we’d be hit more than we would in London,” said Girling, who took the decision to shrink operations to a liaison office last year. “We’ve got clients all around the world and a lot of them travel. You don’t necessarily have to put the auction in Dubai to reach out to them.”
What is exciting to art experts is the steady growth in numbers and influence of collectors from the Middle East, and the increasing participation of younger buyers.
Figures show that Middle Eastern collectors are increasingly becoming more influential players in the global art market, no matter where they are based, however.
Middle Eastern clients accounted for 8 percent of Christie’s global auction turnover in 2011, the auction house said, up from 5 percent in 2010.
“Half the time I’m here and half the time I’m in London,” one Middle Eastern art collector who takes part in Christie’s auctions told Reuters in Dubai.
“But I see more and more young people here, starting with more affordable pieces, educating themselves and trying to be a part of this thing,” he said.
“I do find it exciting.”
A Christie’s auction in April in the ballroom of Jumeirah Emirates Towers in downtown Dubai featured works by contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish artists and attracted a young, fashionable crowd, some of them emerging collectors.
Michael Jeha, Christie’s Middle East director, who describes the boom in 2007 and early 2008 as overheating and unsustainable, said this new league of collectors was instrumental to the foundation of a stronger market.
“Where we are today is you have a truly sustainable market with a far deeper base of buyers and far more younger collectors participating,” he said. “Collectors want to buy art from their own region as they relate to it.”
The status of women in society, social and civil rights and certainly the effects of the Arab Spring revolutions in several countries in the Middle East are what stimulates this younger art crowd. Some say they’re looking for pieces that, as collector Shaz Sheibani put it, “reflect the pains of the society and are full of powerful statements”.
“Iranian art for example is very topical,” said Sheibani, a Canadian national of Iranian origin who grew up in Dubai. “I like those kinds of things that I can relate to and the messages are more about the reflections on the society.”
Sheibani, 34, who has been collecting art for the past four to five years, talks about a generation of people who spent their childhood in Dubai and then went abroad to study. Many came back with a fresh and broad world vision and are determined to be a part of the artistic transformation of the city.
“What happens when your walls are full?” asked Bashar Al-Shrooqi, a private collector and the director of Dubai’s Cuadro Fine Art Gallery.
“Then you actually develop this passion and instead of going to the movies you go to a gallery opening and at that point it becomes not just collecting to fill your walls anymore … This is what we’ve been seeing here.”
One positive indicator for the Dubai art scene is the popularity of Art Dubai, which covers the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia region. For its sixth edition this year, featuring 75 galleries from 32 countries, visitor numbers have nearly quadrupled from its first year in 2007 to more than 22,000.
Fair director Antonia Carver predicted a bright future for Dubai’s art market.
“The recognition of Arab and Iranian artists by the global market has been absolutely phenomenal,” she said.
“I don’t think anyone in the art market here is hoping for a big boom. They’re hoping for a steady growth and I can say we’re in a much better position than before.”