DUBAI (Reuters) - Long derided as a cultural desert, the Gulf art scene is beginning to blossom.
Wealthy nationals and homesick expatriates are looking to add “soul” to their shopping lists and the world’s major auction houses are upping their presence to meet that demand.
From graceful Arabic calligraphy to “Dollar Sign” by American icon Andy Warhol, 190 works of contemporary art went under the hammer at a Christie’s auction held this month in Dubai, the commercial hub better known for its glass skyscrapers and sprawling malls than its arts scene.
Christie’s held the Middle East’s first contemporary art auction in Dubai last year. Its second auction of contemporary Arab, Iranian, Indian and Western art drew collectors from India, the Arab world and beyond, and topped the house’s own expectations with $9.4 million in sales.
“There is very much a sense that Dubai is trying to position itself as a third art market in the world after London and New York. As an international brand, Sotheby’s wants to be here,” said Roxane Zand, Sotheby’s Middle East and Gulf director.
“When there is a critical mass in an economy, inevitably it grows by-products and the art market is one of them. Art is a form of investment. With so much property going up here, people want to put art in the property.”
With oil prices soaring over the past few years, cash and potential art investors are plentiful in the Gulf. The UAE has world’s sixth largest oil reserves and Dubai is in the midst of a construction boom that has transformed the city.
Christie’s is opening an office in Dubai and Zand’s position was created last year to focus on the growing market — not only for Middle East art, but also for contemporary art in general.
In March, Dubai hosts the Gulf Art Fair, the region’s first major international contemporary art show, with galleries and artists showing up from cities as far-flung as Beirut and Tokyo.
The Russian art market has soared over the past five years with a new super-wealthy class seeking to reverse the flood of valuable art works going to private collections overseas.
Wealth created by rapid economic growth in China and India has also driven demand on the booming international art market.
Some believe a similar pattern is emerging the Middle East.
“There are some quite serious collectors emerging now and a lot of good contemporary art has a lot of roots in Islamic art. There is a fit,” said Gulf Art Fair director, John Martin.
“It is the same as 20 years ago, when Japanese collectors began buying impressionist art because it borrowed from their own. There is also a desire to reclaim some of the best Middle East artists who disappeared to London or New York.”
A desert-backwater-turned-trade-hub might appear a strange choice of cultural center, but art experts say war, bureaucracy and censorship rule out many of the region’s older cities as the prime venue.
Dubai’s location near Africa, Iran and South Asia, and its multi-cultural population — over 80 percent of residents are expatriates — makes it convenient, they say.
“I don’t think we are anywhere near tapping the potential,” said Will Lawrie, Middle Eastern art expert at Christie’s.
The neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE and home to most of its oil, has also identified art as a potentially profitable sector and is investing on a big scale.
On a sunbaked island 500 metres (yards) off Abu Dhabi, plans are afoot to develop a $27-$29 billion resort with a “cultural district” to include five iconic art centres.
Frank Gehry has designed the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which will be the largest Guggenheim museum when it opens in 2012. It will form its own contemporary art collection and show work from the U.S.-based Guggenheim Foundation’s global collections.
Also, Jean Nouvel has designed a museum that may become a spinoff of France’s Louvre, which is home to works such as the Mona Lisa.
Plans to export the Louvre name to the resort have sparked accusations in France that the government is selling out a center of scholarship which is home to treasures of Western art.
Indeed, Saadiyat Island (Island of Happiness) is primarily a commercial venture that will also include golf courses, marinas shopping centres and residential areas. Abu Dhabi hopes it will help triple tourist numbers to 3 million a year by 2015.
“Culture was ... identified as a prime medium for attracting an upscale audience with a high propensity for repeat visits,” said Mubarak Al Muhairi, managing director of Tourism Investment and Development Company, which is developing the island.
“This led to the determination to create a cultural hub between East and West on a scale never seen before.”
Yet while Muhairi said he hoped the museums project would spur increased appreciation of both regional and international art there will, for instance, be no nudes at the Guggenheim.
And the sheer novelty of these major projects is a testament to the current dearth of the arts.
Dubai hopes to lure more residents with the promise of tax-free jobs and investment, but a common complaint among existing residents is that the city lacks soul.
Patricia and Kenneth Palmer have lived in the Gulf for some 20 years and set up ArtWorks in 2003 — when there were few galleries in Dubai — to bring art to the street instead.
They asked artists to paint life-sized models of camels, Arabian horses, and now falcons for display around Dubai.
“Dubai wants to grow its population to 8 million. If it wants to keep the knowledge workers then the city has to have a soul,” Kenneth Palmer said.