According to Edward Gibbs, chairman of Sotheby’s Middle East and India, “what you’ve got here is the perfect constellation of channels feeding into the mainstream, creating an environment that is very conducive to creative activity — whether it’s museums, private families and individuals, or auction houses, everyone is riding the wave. The timing was right for us as a company too, as we look to explore opportunities in new geographies.”
And, he admitted, “there was a compelling financial case for raising our footprint here in the region.”
Over the past five years, Sotheby’s has reported a 76 percent increase in the number of Middle East participants in its global sales, along with a 30 percent growth in the number of buyers from the region. The increase in the number of UAE-based buyers is even more impressive, at 84 percent.
With the recent uptick in mainstream activity in the UAE, whether in the growing indie arts scene supported by warehouse galleries including Al Serkal Avenue in Dubai; the global headline-making opening of museums including Louvre Abu Dhabi; or the increasingly prestigious art fairs, one can be forgiven for thinking that the emphasis on art is just the latest in a long line of cultural fads to hit the Emirates.
But the real pioneers of the regional art world have been active for a long time. Royals or prominent business families in Kuwait and Sharjah, as well as Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, have been building private and national collections since the 1970s, sowing the seeds for the gradual development of a flourishing art community.
“The art market is a complex ecosystem, and it has a number of prerequisites, from artists to patrons,” said Gibbs. “While there’s clear evidence that the appetite for art is increasing in the non-commercial world — which has a knock-on effect on the collection side of art too — now that attention and activity has been brought to a new level in the region, this will create a new seed bed of collectors.”
In fact, with the changing demographics of collectors globally, the very nature of art patronage is altering, becoming more about establishing relationships, supporting cultural exchange, setting up platforms, and facilitating dialogue, rather than just purchasing.
According to Myrna Ayad, director of Art Dubai, a new generation of collectors is emerging.
“There is a younger crop of collectors that we’ve seen transition into patrons, many sitting on the boards and committees of institutions focused on regional art, and also establishing their own foundations,” she said. “These patrons also fund monographs, residencies, major exhibitions and initiatives, all in the name of promoting regional art to local and international audiences.
“There is a maturity too, as far as collecting habits are concerned; where once collectors may have focused on a specific style or medium, there is now a greater openness and curiosity; their tastes are diversifying,” Ayad continued.
This sort of support for the arts scene is also beneficial to the patrons, giving them the opportunity to raise their profile, Gibbs pointed out.
“An excellent example of prominent Gulf businesses using investment in art as a means to enhance reputation is the Abraaj group’s annual Art Prize,” he said, adding that the Jameel family of Saudi Arabia are also “important” for their involvement in multiple projects through Art Jameel, including their support for Edge of Arabia, a consortium of young artists from Saudi Arabia.
But Gibbs believes art can be leveraged not only to build a family’s or a business’s reputation, but even an entire city’s or nation’s.
“Institutions such as the Guggenheim, for example, are a tried and tested model of how a prestigious public project can impact the profile of a city, and that model is now being applied to this region,” he said. “Part of it is creating a positive storyline, a counter-narrative — a message of tolerance and cross-culturalism. As we see the political temperature rising, there seems to be a renewed urgency in soft power, and focusing on how art and culture can contribute to a positive dialogue.”
The turbulence isn’t just geo-political of course. It has been a period of global financial volatility too. Does that have much of an impact?
“The art market is part of the global economy, and of course it reacts to the wider situations as they happen,” Gibbs explained. “However, as we are dealing in tangible assets, in times such as these, the art market can benefit as investors look to stable investments. I can tell you we had a very successful year in 2017, and the Middle East market outperformed our expectations.”
Sotheby’s buyers from the Middle East purchased almost 50 percent more art and collectibles — jewelry is one of the most popular sectors for this region, particularly in Saudi Arabia — in 2017 than in the year before.
Sotheby’s Dubai looks set to build on that positive trend with a raft of activities planned for the next year and beyond, including exhibitions, jewelry-handling sessions, interactions with their international specialists, and charity outreach programs, as well as plans to introduce education initiatives aimed at younger collectors (Sotheby’s runs various courses from their other global offices).
“Education is absolutely key to growing the next generation of collectors,” Gibbs said. “It’s the cornerstone.”