Art witnessed a revival during the pandemic. Artists found the time and muse, investors began to treat art as gold, crypto or even real estate, and visitors realised the comfort that art can provide in troubled times. And in the midst of all this, galleries set shop in the UAE. Was it a risky decision, or a well-informed one? What drew them to the UAE, and how’s the scene looking right now? We speak to four such brains behind the galleries that took the big step.
‘Optimism, calculated risk and hard work are key to any business’ success’
Masterpiece Art Dubai, April 2021
Wafi City, Dubai
Masterpiece Art London had held ambitions to expand into new regions, such as the UAE and the GCC, for some time. The realisation of these dreams was hastened by the difficulties posed in the UK owing to Covid-19, where continued lockdowns limited the possibility of holding public exhibition and active business. “The UAE’s call for culture, cosmopolitan population, burgeoning economy and continued dedication to an open and active market, further supported by a strong vaccination programme, provided strong reasoning for opening in Dubai,” shares Alex Cousens, executive gallery manager and sales director, Masterpiece Fine Art.
With an eclectic and alternative portfolio of artwork and artists, covering traditional fields of Old Master painting, Nineteenth Century, Modern and Post-War movements, the gallery decided to settle in for the more traditional location, Wafi City, with its architectural homage to Pharaonic Egyptian civilisation. “The decision to expand to the UAE happened in late 2020/early 2021 and its implementation was a speedy process for the gallery to be open and operational within two months of arriving in the region,” shares Cousens. Masterpiece Art currently consists of its flagship gallery in Holland Park, London, two gallery spaces open in Wafi City, with a third gallery that opened in September 2021 in the same location.
So then, can one call it a risky-yet-informed decision? “Risk and reward need to be weighed up and understood. Certainly there was a risk in expanding at a time when a majority of businesses were contracting.However, this also gave new found opportunity in available and low-cost locations for the physical galleries,” adds Cousens. Across locations, they offer art lovers access to a busy exhibition schedule in over 500 sqm of exhibiting space, encompassing secondary and primary markets with a diverse number of artists (over fifty and constantly growing).
‘The country is eager and hungry for art’
Volte Art Projects, September 2021
Alserkal Avenue, Dubai
“When I opened the gallery (Volte) in Mumbai in 2009, it was right in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. It turned out to be a wise decision, as it took us a couple of years to establish and by then the market had turned. This is not too different, as already the UAE is bouncing back on its feet,” shares Tushar Jiwarajka, founder and director, Volte Art Projects. Jiwarajka relocated to Dubai in March 2019 and felt there was a huge opportunity in the UAE to showcase major international artists who had never been seen in the Middle East. “There is a lot of interest in art and culture in the whole region and the market is hungry and eager to be educated and learn more about our artists, who are widely considered to be among the most important and celebrated global artists,” adds Jiwarajka.
The gallery, 8,000 sqft, is now focusing on large scale immersive projects with iconic international artists, who have never been seen in the Middle East or seen sparingly. They aim to foster and evoke an experiential and creative milieu within the contemporary art scene here, by showing works that often blur the boundaries between art, design, science and technology. In addition, their curatorial programme will help introduce and realise large-scale and monumental projects by artists celebrated for their pioneering spirit of innovation, pushing boundaries, and harnessing latest technologies. Jiwarajka shares that Alserkal Avenue was a natural choice for them, for its fantastic spaces and how everyone interested in art in the region visits the galleries there.
‘If not now, when?’
Firetti Contemporary, March 2021
Alserkal Avenue, Dubai
Mara Firetti, CEO and managing partner, Firetti Contemporary, started taking steps in setting up an art gallery in 2018. She was first considering London and Texas as the possible venues. “I’d travel to London for viewings, and even visited Texas multiple times to grasp the art scene there, as they’d just launched the Dallas Art Fair. There were many promising galleries that were opening there at the time, which intrigued me,” shares Firetti. Unfortunately, the project hit a halt when Firetti’s friend, an Italian curator, with whom she was hunting for a place to open the gallery, passed away in January 2019. “It had a terrible impact on me personally and so the project froze for some time,” she recalls.
Later, she began to consider Dubai as an option “as it was also my home and the development of art here was in the right direction”. Whilst the first attempt (here) failed, it made Firetti’s vision clearer. “It was during the lockdown that I realised that if I wanted to open a gallery that was to be meaningful and fulfilled my vision, I had to do it with like-minded individuals. I wanted to create something constructive and significant, even though it would take many years to build.” That’s when she came across an opportunity to open the space in Alserkal Avenue, which she’d always considered to be the most vibrant art hub in the region. “I immediately took it and never looked back!”
Today, Firetti represent 20 artists, from all corners of the world, and has purposeful and expressive shows every two months. So, what was it that pushed Firetti to open a gallery in the midst of the pandemic? “I believe that it was due to the pandemic that the production of artworks was brought to another level,” she says. “Artists were able to focus on their art, as well as have more time to refine their techniques and concepts.”
‘We were confident UAE would bounce back’
Galloire, August 2021
City Walk, Dubai
Galloire ‘virtually’ opened at the start of July 2021 with the Nick Veasey exhibition. “We believe in the ability of art to connect with a wider audience when exhibited online as well as in a physical gallery space,” shares Edward Gallagher, founder and CEO, Galloire. They were the first regional gallery to deploy both photo-realistic VR (environment and artwork) and augmented reality [AR], allowing visitors to view full 3D models of the artwork (not flat images) with real textured and reflective surfaces, so it is almost like seeing the artwork in person in the gallery. “We absolutely believe in seeing art in person — that is the peak experience, of course, we believe in an omni-channel approach to best serve our artists but also to broaden the audience for contemporary art,” adds Gallagher.
Overall, the journey took around six months from start to finish with quite a lot of time invested in technology and making all components talk to each other properly (website to store to VR to AR). Now, they are ready with their physical space, nearly 2,500 sqft, opening in January 2022 with the exhibition I’m Not A Robot.
How did they wave past the risk? “Across the world, art businesses and many other sectors too, were deeply affected by the pandemic. We were/are, however, blessed in the UAE to live and work in a nation which mobilised so quickly and effectively in response to the situation. This gave us the confidence that business and life would bounce back quickly and indeed, thanks to that swift action from the UAE’s leaders, that is what has happened,” adds Gallagher.
The gallery works within the world of modern and contemporary art to bring the best international talent to the Middle East and make their works available locally. Alongside its exhibition programme, Galloire offers a curated selection of sought-after unique and limited-edition artworks via its online store.
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