Waiting for change: the UAE’s art world

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The UAE’s art world has experienced a remarkable evolution in the past few years, with events like Art Dubai, Sikka Art Fair and World Art Dubai taking centrestage.

Quietly brewing within this rising of the arts, is a series of startups working to make art more accessible, affordable and representative of the regional community.

David Hammond, founder and CEO of Drawdeck, came from London to Dubai as a landscape architect in 2011. He launched Drawdeck in 2013 to develop a creative platform and eventually a marketplace for affordable artwork, while supporting local artists.

The Drawdeck website. 

“There still aren’t that many choices for buying affordable artwork in this region.” Hammond said. “You have the high end galleries, you have Ikea and a few others. There aren’t a ton of places where you can get something different.”

Hammond. (Image via Drawdeck)

Drawdeck began as a global online portfolio for artists and illustrators to showcase their work. The artists retain creative and content copyright of their work while also setting their own profit margins on each artwork. Holding no stock, each product - prints, lifestyle, fashion and stationery - is made to order.

“We all know enough examples in the startup scene in which the storage, the returns and the associated costs are a major drawback of the business model and the initial outlay cost involved with that,” Hammond told Wamda. “So it was our aim to set up a really intelligent model that easily scales.”


Keeping the experience real

Valerie Konde, cofounder and CEO of Collectionair, also looked to scalability, autonomy and creative flexibility when she rebranded Pavillion33 as Collectionair in 2016. Pavillion33, a Flat6labs alumni, started as an online marketplace to sell, rent and exchange art. The company partnered with galleries thereby relying on them for access to artists, artwork, selection and price points. Already dealing with the struggle of selling art online and with keen awareness of how to make a dent in the art world, Konde realized the value of her marketplace rested in it being a consciously curated art selection.

“When you go online it’s even harder to sell a piece of art,” Konde explained. “What you really want to have is that selection, that quality. The solution that we found is that we decided to shift what we were doing [from partnering with galleries] and give the power to the art curator.

A Gfeller + Hellsgard pigment available from Collectionair.

“We put together a network of curators led by a curator,” Konde said referring to her cofounder and international art curator Olivier Varenne.

For a flat fee, the curators select a set of artists and artworks that build the online Collectionair exhibition where each art piece is priced at, or below, $10,000. In the process, Collectionair began showing emerging artists who were represented in their own country but not by major galleries.

While before, galleries were willing to collaborate with Collectionair, they rarely “engaged with the cause” of making art accessible Konde said. 

Creating the collectors

If Collectionair matches curators, collectors and artists globally, Emergeast focuses on building the next generation of artists and art collectors regionally.

Mefta and Abdul Kader. (Image via Emergeast)

Nikki Mefta and Dima Abdul Kader met in London while they were students at SOAS, University of London. They remained friend as they pursued their art experiences at Magic of Persia and Contemporary Art Society of London respectively. The duo - Mefta is Iranian, born and bred in London, while Abdul Kader is Palestinian, born and raised in Qatar - would pick up art during their travels in the Middle East and return to London to sell them at affordable prices.

“[Emergeast began] for third culture kids who are ready to start their collection and have no place to go,” Abdul Kader said. “The USP for us is that we are online so that means the young generation doesn’t have to feel intimidated to walk into a gallery and feel they should already know things about art. We try and let them know it’s actually very comfortable and easy.”

Acknowledging art is still a largely offline experience. Mefta and Abdul Kader held an auction post launch in 2014 to display the quality of their art. The move also helped Emergeast push the educational aspect of their mission, one that focuses on nurturing the artist and the collector, and one that helps them retain their clients.

Incubated at Dubai’s In5, Emergeast is targeting the young, urban population.

New artists on the Emergeast site. 

Making art work online

For her part, Konde and her team attend art fairs and other related events to bridge the offline and online experience.  

“It’s very hard to actually select a piece of art online,” she said. “People have done it, but they need to trust the prints more than anything else. Which is why it’s important to have very strong ties and build a relationship with the art world itself, so we keep the quality and the trust of the artworld, and hence the trust of potential buyers.”

Drawdeck, Collectionair and Emergeast have plenty of examples artists who started with their platform and grew to international acceptance and, in some cases, international artist residencies. Work, regardless, still remains.

“What we really wanted to achieve is to have people for a small fee a month own art in their house, be able to exchange it with other people and to change the art they have on their walls. That is not something we have achieved yet,” Konde said. “What we have been able to achieve is we now have very good quality art on the platform that is pretty affordable.”  Boston-based Tekuma, meanwhile, has been on a similar path in the US, connecting emerging artists with real estate property owners through technology.

Hammond and his business partner Alex Dunn say they have seen a 400 percent growth since they launched the Drawdeck marketplace in 2016. Highlighting their B2B projects with Dubai’s Road Transport Authority and Jumeirah al Nassem hotel, Hammond said the team wants to continue bringing unique styles to each project.

As for competition in the scene? Mefta said that each player cater to a specific segment in the market, like Artscoops, which is an online art platform for MENA and international artists.

“You can say [we are] complementary,” Abdul Kader added. “It's not direct competition, everyone has their own focus…We all target very different audiences. As an art business environment, each one of us have a position and individual dimensions.”

Though, there are a few dimensions missing in the country’s business of art, namely the lack of artist management and art logistics companies. The gap is slowly being filled, but there needs to be a more robust ecosystem to help artists get their worth and reach their potential while benefitting collectors and galleries, Mefta said.

For Konde the last three years have seen significant change. “Before [the UAE art scene] was a very small scene that was trying to get visibility,” Konde said. “Now real auctions happen led by Christie’s, Sotheby’s and so on. It has become a huge of hub for showing artists from all around the emerging countries.”

Konde says though that while there has been a lot of replication of what has been done elsewhere that is not necessarily going to work for the region, and the art entrepreneurs need to work outside the norm.

“All the creative and cultural industries are all pretty up to speed when it comes to digital. The art world is the last to get on board of the digital world and for that reason there’s a lot of opportunities…to me it’s an industry that is waiting to be disrupted, and now is the right time.”

Feature image, Mouhammad Mouselli, via Collectionair.

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