New options for Gulf art: a better way to collect GCC-based artists?

Engage101 founders Gaith Abdulla and Munira Al Sayegh

The UAE has been positioning itself as an international art hub for over a decade now. This has naturally meant a focus on major projects and big-name players, everything from Christie’s to Louvre Abu Dhabi via the art fairs and the Saadiyat museums (Guggenheim Abu Dhabi doesn’t look to be happening any time soon, but at least we’re getting the spectacular Zayed National Museum in the next couple of years alongside Louvre Abu Dhabi).

In terms of national policy, the aim is increased diplomatic soft power linked with an appeal to high net worth tourists. The UAE is increasingly being presented as a destination where visitors can expect to see great art in museums and buy it in galleries.

But the almost inevitable flipside is a lack of attention for the grassroots. Who will water the Gulf’s creative garden while the national arts budgets are devoted to chasing Da Vincis and Picassos? The short answer is that some institutions have taken up the slack – Alserkal and the Jameel in Dubai, for instance; and the official tourism-plus-culture bodies, Dubai Culture and DCT Abu Dhabi, do some pump-priming in the form of events like Sikka Art Fair and locally focused exhibitions at the Cultural Foundation.

But there’s always a danger the different motivations at play in these institutions will conflict. For instance, most artists starting on their career need a degree of freedom from commercial pressures; they need time and space – physical and psychological – rather than competitive exhibitions and dirigiste commissions. They need support without pressure, and most of the mainstream institutions aren’t geared to provide that (though residencies like those at Alserkal Foundation and the Cultural Foundation provide the honourable exceptions).

In the meantime, let’s hear it for Engage101. It describes itself somewhat self-consciously as “an art collecting and research platform” that developed from “countless discussions about the art ecosystem in the UAE and wider region” between Munira Al Sayegh, an independent curator with a great CV locally, and Gaith Abdulla, art critic, columnist, commentator, and a long-term collector of emerging Emirati art.

Art 101

The Engage101 founders regard their creation as addressing a gap in the local art collecting world. “We believe grassroots movements and collaborations are necessary to sustain, anchor and counterbalance the strong leaps the local art ecosystem has witnessed through government-led efforts”.

And there seems to be a desire to avoid some of the narcissism of the conventional art world: the aim is to create a digital (and eventually physical) space “where artists and collectors can engage in an environment free of pretence, tokenisation and fetishism”. (Good luck with that – Ed.)

In fact the early impetus came from the pandemic, and Munira El Sayegh and Gaith Abdulla refer to Engage101 as a ‘Covid baby’. Says Gaith: “the initial concept was to put on something ad hoc and to try to support artists’ practices in the early days of the pandemic when everything was getting put on hold and funds and grants were drying up.”

But that was the incentive to get something started. The principles had been marinating for a lot longer. Here’s Munira: “I left my nine to five job with art institutions with the realisation that the only way this region’s collective art scene would ever flourish and truly take centre stage globally would be if there were more of a counterbalance with the nascent art scene happening on the ground.

“Engage101 will help develop the platforms that emerging artists use to make themselves known to art lovers and collectors to grow the arts community and educate consumers understanding of art and how it’s produced and living within the current moment”.

In practice Engage101 is an online sales and promotional space for GCC-based visual artists who don’t currently have gallery representation, and it runs regular online selling exhibitions for individuals or groups – one of which opens this week, a “Ramadan showcase” featuring works by Bahraini artist Salman Al Najem.

The other arm is a research platform, publishing selected papers on topics of relevance to the regional art and craft ecosystem – like Zuhoor AlSayegh’s essay on Sadu weaving as a signpost to decolonised feminism, and Aliyah Alawadi’s discussion of the role of nostalgia in contemporary art practice in the UAE. The kind of intellectual rigour has long been one of Gaith Abdulla’s interest: back in 2012 he was writing that “the growth of the [UAE] art scene is something to be commended, but the lacking culture of critique is its Achilles’ heel”.

There’s also a good reading list compiled by the Engage101 team; hopefully this can be maintained with updates. (Actually, any dates would be good: neither the research papers not the reading list carry datelines.)

More fundamentally, Munira and Gaith also want to eliminate the tokenism that characterises many transactions in the art world – some people just want to acquire the aura or the idea of owning an artwork rather than taking the work for what it is. Collectors will need to be guided into the understanding that they are buying the work of an actual artist with something to say visually – not the work of an Emirati artist, say, with the implication that the artist’s own provenance matters more than the work itself.

A better deal for artists …

Emerging artists are frequently exploited and underpaid, and in terms of connecting artists with buyers, Engage101’s business model is notable for its fairness and simplicity. Most galleries take 50 percent or more of the sale, pointing to the overheads of running a physical space and the development effort that hopefully maintains and increases the value of the artist’s work.

Engage101 has a different model. There are fewer overheads in running a web-based operation, of course, but Engage101’s motivation is also rather different – less commercial, more concerned with the development of the art ecosystem locally. So it runs with a 70/30 split, which obviously gives the artist a better return but also keeps them generally happier with the arrangement and therefore more engaged.  

Here’s the view of Salman Al Najem, whose Engage101 show opened this week: “The art market institution has been run in one specific way for a very long time, and times are changing. Younger artists, art lovers and curators have had to take matters into our own hands – we had to create a new platform that better represents our ethos and one that is more representative of us, as opposed to us having to constantly fit ourselves into an existing and often restrictive current mode of operation.

“I have been following Engage101 from its inception. I am proud to be able to be of service to their vision and mission of expanding the collector society in the Khaleej and beyond.

“Engage101 adds a new flavour in the art world and market that is as an alternative to the established gallery system … [it] is a space where artists can be free to concentrate more on making art rather than marketing and selling”.

… a better deal for collectors?

The other side of the gallery operation is Engage101’s mission to influence the development of art collecting habits in the region, a target co-founder Munira refers to as “ethical collecting”. The principal is that buying art is more than simply a financial transaction – “there’s a lot of social, political, art historical significance that goes into the act of buying art. And getting back to the grassroots, that’s one of the elements of an arts ecosystem that you cannot just make happen. “Collectors have to want to collect and they have to know what collecting means, which you can’t force on people; it has to happen organically.”

So how do you create a group of art collectors who are more knowledgeable, more aware, and more conscientious? Munira sees a symbiotic relationship between artists and buyers. “Because the commercial space isn’t engaging emerging artists enough, we want to help artists to find their truth and develop their depth and mastery of material techniques and concepts. And for the collector, an artist’s ability to tap in to this at an early stage is valuable. We noticed that there was a gap which we could fill, and basically use that to promote a kind of ethical art based on the ideals that we want to see in the art ecosystems of the Gulf”.

Gaith chips in: “Collecting and being a good collector isn’t about how much money you have, or how many pieces you can buy from certain artists. It’s also about relationships and their longevity. We want to establish connections that nourish both the artist and the collector.

“We aspire to build an accessible digital space for the world’s largest and most significant collection of emerging UAE- and GCC-based art and artists. But engagement and education will always be at the heart of our platform.”

There’s more about Engage101 on the website.

Words: Liz Totton

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