Bringing art to the masses

Pioneering patron of the arts Abdulmonem Bin Eisa Al Serkal is using his family’s funds to transform the culture scene in Dubai.
Alserkal’s family was given a Patron of the Arts Award from HH Sheikh Mohammed. (Image courtesy of Alserkal Avenue/Photography by Sofia Dadourian)
By Daniel Shane
Sun 21 Jul 2013 04:18 PM

Weaving in and around the car showrooms and warehouses in Deira we eventually turn a corner and in front of us is a distinctive and ornate building, with an eastern European style. Standing out from the blandness of the surrounding areas, it is only the first jaw-dropping surprise that awaits us as we arrive to meet Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, a Dubai entrepreneur, visionary and award-winning patron of the arts.

Stepping inside the beautiful building, we are met by a varied collection of over 70 cars, trucks and assorted colourful vehicles, from Rolls-Royces to Filipino public buses. We soon learn that these are part of the Alserkal family collection, which was started by his grandfather, and also includes a replica of the first wooden car ever brought to the UAE.

Alserkal’s personal office is also a veritable Aladdin’s cave, adorned with wooden etchings, paintings and sculptures, large globes, statues, a giant crystal chandelier and Arabic calligraphy. But no sooner have we sipped our Arabic tea than Alserkal is opening a secret door and urging us to follow him down a flight of stairs, eager to show us the workshops in the basement of the building.

Room after room is filled with workers making Arabic-style tiles, calligraphy, mosaics and gold-plated designs for personal clients. Some of these will end up adorning the real estate projects the family owns and manages. Each worker is keen to demonstrate their work and fill us in on the process behind the handmade pieces.

A few hours in Alserkal’s company and it is soon obvious why the family was recently awarded by Dubai Arts and Culture Authority with a Patron of the Arts Award from HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai. It’s not just a token award either; it is the second time the family has been highlighted for their contribution to the development of arts and culture in Dubai.

In 2007, during the boom years, when almost everyone was developing hotels, skyscrapers and manmade islands, Alserkal decided to go down another route and try to bring some much-needed arts and culture to the emirate’s commercial areas. In the midst of the industrial heartland of Al Quoz he decided to develop Alserkal Avenue, which would be a mix of art galleries and creative elements, all nestled amongst industrial manufacturers, warehouses and garages.

“Alserkal Avenue is an organic development, an ongoing progress that took time. Back in 2007 when we built the warehouse spaces, we had a mix of businesses, from industrial to creative designers. The very first art gallery to pave the way for others was Ayyam Art Centre, which opened back in 2008.

“Gradually the growth continued as more art galleries and creative spaces developed interest. It took us about five years to become an arts district and today, we house an eclectic coexistence of different businesses within the industrial area of Dubai.”

Designed as the UAE’s answer to New York’s West Chelsea and London’s Hoxton, the total number of warehouses is 39 and ‘the creatives’, as Alserkal calls them, make up about 25 of the spaces.

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“Art is a part of any city in any part of the world and always has been. Dubai has changed and evolved to become a cosmopolitan city within a very short period of time and today has become the centre for business and arts. From the art galleries that pioneered the way for Middle East artists, to initiatives such as Art Dubai, we were able to reach and attract the audiences from abroad and grow to become an international arts hub,” he says.

“We are no longer just growing, the arts scene is becoming strong and it is starting to develop its own infrastructure,” he adds. The family is certainly putting its money behind its enthusiasm as it is currently in the process of expanding Alserkal Avenue to more than double its current size.

A nearby marble factory and warehouse is being demolished and 62 more creative units are being added, ranging in size from 93 sq m to more than 650 sq m. There will also be an events centre large enough to hold 1,000 people, and the project will increase the avenue’s total area to 92,000 sq m.

“We have a variety of people who need different-sized spaces. We want to attract local talent and local businesses which have creativity, design or arts as their focus. People in the area believed in the area and believed there could be an art area in an industrial area,” he says.

“We want to become a destination not just a space. We need to attract restaurants and food and beverage outlets to make it a destination feel and give more reasons to come visit,” he adds.

The family is pumping AED50m of its own money into funding the construction of the new facility.

While it may seem like a risk, the galleries that are already part of the space have already proven themselves on the global arts scene when two of them were picked to exhibit at the notoriously selective industry showcase Art Basel last year.

“Two contemporary art galleries were accepted to Art Basel last year, the top fair in the world, and the first time in the history of the GCC. Green Art Gallery and Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde- both from Alserkal Avenue — they made history. It was the beginning for international acclaim within the art world,” Alserkal says proudly.

“As an arts scene we are becoming stronger and now are starting to better assess what can further enable the growth of the cultural landscape in Dubai. Last year we announced Alserkal Avenue’s expansion and that too was a natural response to the ever-growing art scene. I believe that, with time, we will be one of the main art capitals, just like New York, London or Berlin.”

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He hopes that Alserkal Avenue will show that the art scene in the UAE is not just a vanity project but can be a substantial part of doing business in Dubai. “When it comes to arts and culture there is always room for more. Which again is changing at the moment, as it is growing and developing. But I do hope to see more museums, more spaces for artists to create locally, educational programmes, more support for independent projects, art commissions and non-profit arts spaces. Alserkal Avenue situated within Al Quoz has become a hub for arts just like Shoreditch in London, the Meatpacking District in New York or Wynwood in Miami.”

While the Alserkal family may have been the pioneers and paved the way, it certainly seems to have caught on. As Alserkal was announcing his expansion plans last year, Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed also announced the launch of the Dubai Modern Art Museum and Opera House District to be located in Emaar’s flagship Downtown Dubai district. The project aims to build on the city’s 50 art galleries and festivals such as Art Dubai, and will also include a museum and two art hotels.

“The cultural accomplishments of a nation define its character and individuality. Having demonstrated our credentials in hosting world-class cultural events, the  UAE has established itself as a thriving destination for culture and the arts,” Sheikh Mohammed said during the announcement.

“We will continue to strengthen the infrastructure framework for promoting cultural initiatives, through projects such as the Dubai Modern Art Museum and Opera House District. This will not only encourage our talented local artists but also facilitate global cultural exchange.”

In addition, the developers behind the recently announced Dubai Design District have revealed they aim to complete phase one by January 2015. TECOM Investments said construction of ten buildings were already under way with the company investing AED4bn ($1.08bn) in the first phase of the project.

Dubai Design District will offer residential, commercial, retail and hospitality real estate, characterised by distinct public spaces, unique street furniture and shaded walkways. The development will include a creekside promenade with international and boutique hotels, a pop-up shop area, an amphitheatre and convention centre.

All these new projects are part of the General Secretariat of the Executive Council of Dubai’s plans to develop Dubai as a fashion and design hub. Its Dubai Fashion 2020 strategic plan will support Dubai and the wider region’s design and fashion industry and will have a “significant impact on employment across the value chain such as manufacturing, retail and design,” it said in a statement.

“Dubai Fashion 2020 will allow us to unlock the emirate’s full potential. While it focuses on developing a destination for the top international players in the industry, it also includes putting a particular emphasis on nurturing local talent, entrepreneurs and small businesses,” claimed Ahmad Bin Byat, director general of Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority (DTMFZA).

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Alserkal welcomes all these initiatives and how the sector is now been taken seriously. “We complement each other. Maybe they will get the flow [of business] from us. The concept started from seeing concepts like this all over the world, in London, New York and Hong Kong, where there are industrial areas converting to art districts.

“We were a community but we want to be a destination for art and culture and we are open to any kind of art creativity. We have ideas for incubators for small studios for artists, to help emerging artists from the region and the area.”

One idea would be to add in a residential aspect to the development, with artists living in among the galleries and interacting like a real community, but Alserkal says an obstacle lies in the zoning of the land.

“The idea of a resident artist is amazing. Depending on the zones is the issue, it depends on the zoning… If it is allowed we are open,” he says.

The Alserkal family business deals in everything from trading and real estate to managing international tyre franchises, but its approach is certainly very different — something that is evident from the skyscrapers it has developed in Jumeirah Lake Towers.

It developed Swiss Tower, which was the very first ‘country-branded’ business skyscraper in the UAE. The 40-storey Swiss Tower incorporates the distinct characteristics of Switzerland into its visual presentation and space and also includes inspiration from Swiss design elements, such as lush green Alpine meadows and hills and the majestic snow-covered Matterhorn against a blue sky. The tower itself also includes a Swiss restaurant and a variety of outlets retailing Swiss products and services.

“It was a success… it was during the peak of the real estate boom,” Alserkal says. Would he do another one and expand the country-themed skyscraper concept? “The possibility is always there,” he says cryptically.

Driving out of JLT, the new Dome Tower is currently being completed and it is no surprise that this distinctive tower, with its arches and more refined architecture has received many admiring glances. It is yet another project being worked on by Alserkal.

Back at the workshops below his office, Alserkal shows us some of the handmade and intricate pieces of artwork getting ready to be shipped to the JLT tower. The family certainly seems to be determined to leave its mark on Dubai and long may it continue.

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