Art in the Gulf

There is a burgeoning art market in Asia; that much is true, that much is evident. It was revealed as such earlier this year, when The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF) observed how China had finally overtaken the US as the world’s biggest market for art and antiques.
“People have been talking about China for a long time now and it’s particularly strong in the areas of contemporary and modern art,” Rachel Campbell-Johnston, chief art critic at the Times, told the BBC at the time. “The dominance of China is simply reflecting a shift in the global economy.”
It is where the money is, that much is an unavoidable fact, but it would be a mistake to single out China and Asia in general as the definitive country and region where serious exhibitions will be held and monumental auctions realised.
The Middle East, for one, is slowly establishing itself as an alternative to Asia, a competitor even. Again, money talks, and this region is, by virtue of being oil-rich, extremely prosperous, with ample opportunity for further growth and investment, as Dubai’s renewed activity in construction has highlighted.
The emergence of an art market in the Gulf region has not been easy, Robert Kluijver and Neil van der Linden explained in their detailed essay back in September. Informatively entitled Introduction to the Gulf Art World, they explained how Western commentators tend to look at things parochially, a consequence of “the emergence of immensely wealthy local rulers eager to convert oil revenues into cultural capital and to thus acquire some standing on the global scene”.
That doesn’t fit because it places art as being inextricably linked to oil, as if the region was bereft of any history of art. That is, of course, a ludicrous proposition, but certainly, there is a lot of misunderstanding. It hasn’t been helped by the region’s historical lack of cultivation in art either.
“In the Gulf itself, contemporary art production is generally ignored and, if acknowledged, it is seen as a by-product of the overall social and cultural development affecting the region,” the authors of the report observed.
Still, change is afoot. One country attempting to position itself as a legitimate place for art is Turkey, and, as a Eurasian country, it is suitably placed between Europe and Asia to appeal to an extremely wide base of collectors, investors, artists and influential figures.
One way of gauging success, or at least monitoring changing attitudes, is in the popularity, growth or development of contemporary art fairs. For example, Contemporary Istanbul, which finished last month, had a very good expo, the Financial Times recently reported.
Now in its seventh-year, the fair is fast becoming more global in its orientation, with 57 foreign galleries in attendance in the latest edition, which included preeminent establishments like Haunch of Venison and Marlborough. If these institutions are showcasing work in Turkey, then clearly there is a lot of untapped potential just waiting to be seized.
Furthermore, during Contemporary Istanbul, its chairman Ali Gureli announced that he is to add three more art fairs to the cultural calendar in Turkey. What is interesting is that the biggest one, provisionally dubbed All Arts, will be orientated around Islamic and Ottoman art. It’s not just about attracting foreign investment, but also geared towards exporting native art.
“There are a lot of new rich people in Turkey because of the development of the economy,” Mr Gureli was quoted by the newspaper as saying. “Our aim is to educate them in the culture of collecting art; we will also be exhibiting private Turkish collections, most of them not known to the public.”
Art offers much more than aesthetics and food for thought though. It can be massively transformative socially and politically. Hence the cautious approach to art in the Middle East, as a very important question asked by Robert Kluijver and Neil van der Linden highlights:
“In the West artists and other free thinkers spearheaded the transition from religious to secular societies and from class-based social hierarchies to pluralist open societies. Surely, this cannot be the intention of the Gulf’s ruling elites?”
For now that question is up in the air, that’s a future that is still some way off. What is true today is that the Middle East is indeed fast becoming known for its investment and commitment to art in a global context. Asia had better watch out.
Cadogan Tate has extensive experience in shipping fine art all over the world.