By Tamara Pupic
Emirati entrepreneur, visionary and award-winning patron of the arts, Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, and Vilma Jurkute, director of Alserkal Avenue, give details on how his brainchild – Alserkal Avenue – has evolved into a platform for the region’s growing creative industries.
In what was once a discrete industrial district in Al Quoz, an Emirati entrepreneur most probably built the city’s first start-up hub back in 2007.
Alserkal Avenue, a complex of warehouses turned into world-class art galleries spanning across 500,000 square feet, is often described as the art and cultural space or Dubai’s cultural district. But, in its essence, Alserkal Avenue is not much different from modern high-tech clusters serving as the breeding ground for innovations of all kinds.
However, today’s tech venture capitalists pale in comparison with Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, an Emirati entrepreneur, visionary and award-winning patron of the arts.
“He always repeats that we are essentially taking the risk on the risk-takers. This is what we have been doing,” says Vilma Jurkute, director of Alserkal Avenue.
“It was the more unique they were and the fact that their concept was not present in the region, the more interesting they were for us.
“Maybe other developers would have said: ‘you are too young or too of a start-up. I’m not taking the risk. What if you shut down in a year?’ We had an opposite question. With his vision and support, we were able to facilitate that.”
Bringing the vast universe of her expertise in developing creative communities to Dubai a few years ago, Jurkute has been instrumental in the evolution of the avenue.
“I think we have set the standard and have given a model of how to support art and culture and how the creative economy can be,” says Alserkal. “This is again maybe a new initiative in Dubai which is evolving from being known as a touristic hub or a financial hub to developing the creative economy. So it makes us feel privileged that we are part of it.”
Although a century from now art historians might add an aura of elitism when describing him ‘as one of the most renowned art patrons in the region’s history,’ nothing close to heightened formality is observed in the presence of Alserkal. His warm and generous manner and friendly communication with Jurkute, his right-hand woman, put those around him at immediate ease.
Similarly, Alserkal Avenue has the power dynamics of a vibrant small town. “We, as the Arserkal Avenue community, have I think grown together with the concepts that are here,” Alserkal says. “We have reached milestones together.
“We and the home-grown art galleries that are in Alserkal Avenue have together reached where we are today. This is a learning process we have been through.”
It all started with the first gallery – Ayyam Gallery – opening on the avenue in 2007. Since then their curated community of home-grown art and design galleries has grown organically. Simultaneously, they have started receiving applications from international galleries.
In early 2015 Alserkal initiated an expansion plan to double the avenue’s space by adding more creative units, ranging in size from 1,500 to 6,000 square feet. The avenue will soon host a total of 94 contemporary art galleries, creative organisations, alternative community spaces, and similar.
“When we started the expansion we really had to ask ourselves one thing: ‘how do we create a cultural destination’, ‘how do we engage the audience and the public into day-to-day arts and culture?’, ‘how do we make it part of their lifestyle?’” explains Jurkute.
“Until then it was about industrial businesses and art galleries and creative spaces, but all visits were reason-driven. The idea was that you come to this space, spend time and continuously return.”
The opening of Leila Heller Gallery, the first US-based gallery to open in the region, as part of Galleries Night – the avenue’s regular event when art venues collaborate to hold their private viewings at the same time – in November last year, signalled that the avenue’s expanded area was ready to welcome new members.
The new additions are quite a diverse range of creative businesses redefining what we know about F&B outlets, film, fashion, design, and performance, such as a community black-box theatre, new design stores, the region’s first art cinema, as well as open exhibition spaces dedicated to temporary programming and an outdoor performance venue.
“We received concepts that we had never even thought possible in Dubai,” says Jurkute. “Those are all new concepts, very inventive concepts that are the first in the region. That is really a new stepping stone to the maturity of the creative economy going forward.”
A little less surprised by this is Alserkal. As a true visionary, he continues to see the opportunities transcending even the expanded infrastructure in which he invested AED50 million ($14 million).
“We are always evolving,” he says. ”It is a matter of developing and not just being limited to the physical space that we are.
“We are a curated community of leaders in their fields. Each concept has been a leader in what they do. They are the best in their field.”
“In any emerging economy, you will need a cluster to grow,” adds Jurkute. “It is across industries and that is why there is a tech cluster, for example. There is a knowledge-sharing element.
“Leaders of the creative economy want to be surrounded by others that are the best.”
The world has increasingly been shifting its focus to the creative economy.
According to a recent report, creative companies now account for over 5 percent of the UK economy. In the US creative industries employ 4.7 million people, showed a 2015 report by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The UAE recently launched Creatopia, the first government-empowered online portal dedicated to creative and cultural industry professionals.
However, an often overlooked feature of the creative economy is that it is full of small, fragile start-ups. Therefore, Alserkal’s support to entrepreneurs in the creative industries has led the avenue to evolve into an arts organisation and develop its own not-for-profit programming to nurture artists, curators and creatives from the region.
Until now, the programming has provided artists with additional platforms for engagement, such as the Safina Radio Project, an online cultural radio project presented during the opening week of the last year’s Venice Biennale, and various commissioned artworks showcased across the city.
Last but not least, in 2017 they will launch the first live-in artist residency in the UAE designed to encourage experimentation, dialogue and collaboration among their talented tenants.
Looking back at his beginnings in 2007, with the exception of an auction of Middle Eastern art by Christie’s in Dubai in 2006, Alserkal was among very few to attempt to position Dubai as a regional arts hub.
A year later, the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority (Dubai Culture) was launched by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, to position Dubai as an Arabian metropolis that shapes culture and arts in the region and the world.
Throughout March and April, Dubai Culture is organising its third annual Dubai Art Season which was initiated to highlight the city’s global place in the arts scene. The two-month event encompasses Art Dubai, an international art fair in the MENA region; Design Days Dubai, a fair dedicated to collectible and limited edition design projects; the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, and more.
Add to that Abu Dhabi’s plans of creating a cultural district on Saadiyat Island with the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, plus the internationally-respected Sharjah Biennial, and the UAE is on its way to reinventing itself as a cultural capital of the Gulf.
“May I say that it is a legacy. We are privileged that it is a legacy of a self-sustained model that is evolving into an art organisation,” says Alserkal about his project.
Being a pioneer in a chosen field is not uncommon for a member of the Alserkal family. His family predecessors were among founding members of the UAE’s first telecommunication network, Etisalat, and the emirate’s first bank Emirates NBD. Half a century before, the Alserkals had had an important political role in liaising between the British and the Trucial States.
Talking about the family’s current role in developing the region’s art and culture, Alserkal says: “I have been fortunate with the family that is supportive, that is encouraging to go and create initiatives, start something entrepreneurial, new projects that would add to family portfolio, to the experience of the family.”
“I think it is about finding what you really like within the niche that the family is in, and it is that balance,” he adds answering how he handles his family business with his passion for art.
“So it is finding the niche of what you like and balance it with family business and what is expected from you. This even gives it more enthusiasm because you are serving both.
“For example, in my case, we are doing something for the community, for the family and also something that I love and enjoy.”
The family was awarded by Dubai Culture with a Patron of the Arts Award from HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai.
A number of other Emirati families have also started investing in similar concepts.
The Seddiqi family, founders of retail group Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons, has supported MB& F M.A.D. Gallery, which showcases its kinetic art and limited edition designs focused on horology only in its three galleries in Geneva, Taipei, and Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue.
Jurkute points out that it all signals to a new trajectory of Emirati families and locally-based investors shifting their focus to support the arts scene. “It’s going to be a slow process, but it’s happening,” she says.
“There are more sponsors that are developing understanding as to how they can evaluate their return on investment in creative concepts. It was a learning curve.
“When it comes to the creative industry, a big part of it is invisible. So it is always about how that creative business is actually sustainable or how it makes money. There is always a question mark. I think that investors actually do not want to take that risk, they do not want to embrace that risk right away.
“It is much safer if you back one of the major companies that is opening from abroad. When you are investing in a creative concept, it is nurturing an entrepreneur.
“It is that growing together and nurturing them and then kind of winning this success together.”
A success in pioneering artists from the region onto the international scene is one of the avenue’s latest achievements. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, who is on the books of the avenue’s The Third Line gallery, was the first Iranian artist to hold a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
It is all due to one man’s contribution to changing how the West views the Middle East region.
It is the creation of an Art Market it Dubai, essentially a retail space for art. This is not the infrastructure needed for artists in Dubai. Culture isn't what you import, it's what locals (Emirati and expat) create in relation to this environment. Profit is a secondary element when it comes to the creation of the elements of culture. If you try to mix and match and offer the cultural production of other people and places in place of supporting those around you, the local cultural producers, then you are simply doing it for profit and marketing. Neither is fostering culture, it is only, yet again, putting commerce first. This is why it is so hard to feel any connection to Dubai apart from what wealth you can squeeze from it. That is the culture that is emerging. Enjoy spending it in London, Paris, New York and St. Petersburg while you support the culture of others.