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“It’s our own little Chelsea.” That’s what the American-born, Dubai-based art collector and arts patron Dana Farouki calls Alserkal Avenue, Dubai’s privately developed arts community. There, with a new $14 million expansion, more than 40 new creative spaces join the extant 20 art spaces that have made a crisscross of dusty warehouses in the industrial Al Quoz neighborhood an unlikely destination for art lovers.
“In the art capitals of the world, the homes that creative communities have found have all grown organically in areas that have traditionally been considered ‘gritty’ or ‘unseemly,’” says Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, the real estate developer and a managing director of the Alserkal Group business conglomerate, which is funding the district that is named for him. “That was our vision for Alserkal Avenue.”
Among the newcomers that have begun opening are three important galleries and gallerists: New York–based Leila Heller, Dubai-based Third Line, and Stéphane Custot of the London gallery Waddington Custot. In addition, the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, a private collection, has opened a private museum on Alserkal. They will join galleries like Grey Noise (which represents emerging and established artists from South Asia, Middle East, and Europe) and Lawrie Shabibi (which was founded in Alserkal in 2011 when William Lawrie, former head of contemporary Middle Eastern art at Christie’s, left his job to partner with Asmaa Al-Shabibi, the former managing director of Art Dubai).
The expansion was announced last spring in a hot dusty courtyard where visitors to Alserkal from all over the world, mostly in town for Art Dubai, joined a smattering of local sheikhs.
Farouki, who earlier this year participated in an Alserkal-hosted panel on the future challenges and opportunities of the Middle East art scene, has spent nearly 10 years as a champion of arts organizations and initiatives in the region, including as curator for the long-awaited Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. (She’s also on the board of MoMA PS1 and co-chairs the public art nonprofit Creative Time, both in New York City.) She says Alserkal Avenue’s addition of new visual and performing arts spaces solidify its role as “The cultural destination in Dubai . . . It’s the first stop on my tour for guests visiting Dubai.” She adds, ”There’s so much good creative energy brewing at Alserkal.”
Leila Heller’s new gallery in Alserkal boasts 15,000 square feet, making it the biggest commercial art gallery in the United Arab Emirates, according to her son Alexander, who serves as director. (The Iranian-born Heller opened her first gallery in New York City in 1982.) Inaugurating the space are side-by-side solo shows of work by the Brooklyn-based, Cairo-born artist Ghada Amer, who is exhibiting her first foray into ceramics, and the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who is presenting new sculpture (through December 24).
Third Line, which had been nearby in Al Quoz, now is making the move to Alserkal to double its Dubai space in celebration of the gallery’s 10th anniversary this year, a big milestone in a relatively young market. With its move, the gallery will expand its representation of contemporary Middle Eastern artists. The gallery has been successful on the international scene: New York’s Guggenheim mounted an acclaimed retrospective of work by Third Line artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian earlier this year, and the gallery participated in Frieze New York and Art Basel last spring. Farouki says she is especially thrilled about this: “They have one of the most exceptional programs and since the beginning have been an anchor in development of the cultural landscape in the UAE.”
Stéphane Custot, going out on his for the first time, has ambitions to “create an innovative Western-Eastern cross-culture perspective” by juxtaposing regional and international artists and to “support the region’s next generation of artists and their education by introducing and showcasing works of influential and historical European and American artists.” His debut exhibition, slated for January 18, 2016, is “East Meets West,” which will present historically important modern and contemporary works by Frank Stella, Pierre Soulages, Robert Indiana, Marc Quinn, Jean Dubuffet, and others.
The Najar Foundation is a private museum that will showcase the holdings of the late Paris-based collector Jean-Paul Najar. His more than 600 pieces of European and American post-Minimalist art have been in storage for 25 years, including paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures by James Bishop, Gordon Matta-Clark, Martin Barré, Jene Highstein, Richard Nonas, Doug Sanderson, Marcia Hafif, and Linda Francis. Najar’s daughter Deborah, who lives in Dubai, has retained New York curator Jessamyn Fiore to organize the foundation’s first three shows, starting with “Vision & Legacy” (through January), which focuses on the relationships with and among the artists that Najar befriended during his lifetime. “Even if this were in New York or Paris, this would be a significant collection,” says Fiore. “It’s more so because this is the first nonprofit space dedicated to Western art in the area.” She adds, “I’m excited to see what the response will be because these less known artists and their often very conceptual works will be unfamiliar to most people in the region.”
Abdelmonem Alserkal stresses the importance of rounding out the commercial galleries into “an ecosystem . . . to support artists and art creation in Dubai,” he says. To that end, in early 2016, Alserkal will introduce studios and residencies for artists. “We want to make sure the talent here has opportunities to grow as well,” adds Vilma Jurkute, director of Alserkal Avenue. “We can’t neglect that.”
“Alserkal is very holistic,” Heller concurs, “It encompasses not just galleries but art nonprofits and architectural and design businesses. And that first wave of galleries did a great job with establishing an interactive and dynamic art scene. Now I’m here, too.” She adds, “I think other international galleries will follow.”
This article is published in Whitewall‘s winter 2016 Luxury Issue.