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Sat 23 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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Brush with success

Ayyam Gallery's Khaled Samawi is using his skills as a successful banker to try and break the mould.

Brush with success
Brush with success
An ex-banker, Samawi came out of semi retirement and opened his first art gallery in Damascus in 2006, expanding to Dubai in 2008 and Beirut in 2009.

Balancing the bottom line in the art world isn't an easy task. However, founder of Ayyam Gallery and Arabian Business Entrepreneur of the Year Khaled Samawi is using his skills as a successful banker to try and break the mould.

As every influential man does, Khaled Samawi has his critics. Rivals have accused him of running his gallery as a business enterprise, claiming that they should be solely cultural enterprises. Not that he cares.

"I don't understand the difference," Samawi says, matter-of-factly.

The ex-banker has always had a love of art and, in his previous life, each year he would go skiing in the Alps and browse the latest collections that the top galleries hoped he and his colleagues would spend their "fat bonuses" on. In 2001, he sold his banking business but was brought out of semi-retirement when he realised there was a way to combine his business acumen, with his love of art.

Opening his first Ayyam Gallery in Damascus in 2006, he quickly expanded to Dubai in 2008 and to Beirut in 2009. London, Hong Kong, Istanbul and Cairo are also on his radar. He clocks up attendance at around ten art fairs a year and he also has some 20 artists currently being managed by his staff of around 35. You can see why some of his gallery rivals might get a bit jealous.

"Maybe we have been too fast to open three locations in three years. I don't think it has been done before. We have done in three years what many galleries take twenty years to do," he says confidently.

Samawi first got into the business because he wanted to give his Swiss-born children a taste of their Syrian origins. Bringing them to visit artists around Damascus, he soon realised the journeys to the studios were often difficult and time consuming.

"The established galleries were also showing art from people who are 60, 70 or 80 years old, with a perception that ‘the older the better' as they will die sooner and their prices will sky rocket," he adds.

His business sense told him this was no longer the case and that the emerging artists were the way ahead as their prices were more likely to increase over time and, therefore, be more profitable. He obviously also grew tired of the long journeys and decided there had to be a better way for the system to operate and for the market to get access to these works. It also helped that the Middle East art scene was about to enter a boom period.

"Middle East contemporary art was extremely local before 2005, and was basically just a few Damascus collectors buying a few paintings from a few Damascus painters. It wasn't even buying; it was stealing the art from artists as the prices were ridiculous."It was around this time that two major things also happened: the big international auction houses, such as Christies and Sotheby's, began to focus on the region and the Gulf developers in turn began to focus more on museums as potential anchor attractions for major projects.

"A lot of collectors started to say ‘let's see what art they have over there, it's such a controversial place let's see what art it has'," says Samawi.

All of a sudden, it was no longer the trend for bankers in Fifth Avenue New York apartments to have a Picasso or a Van Gogh. They wanted to be able to say they had something unusual from Syria or Dubai, says Samawi.

"I know of many incidents where top collectors came to Damascus for 24 hours in their private planes to come to Ayyam Gallery to get art and then fly home again," he says.

Due to this increased interest, more artists in the region have been able to make a professional living out of their art. Prior to 2005, 99 percent of them were amateurs and depended on a full time job to make ends meet.

Making ends meet is also a concern for all businesses at the moment and two of the toughest business elements to manage in the art world are pricing and budgeting. How can anyone really value a piece of art?

"I don't think anybody can," Samawi says, "I've been with some of the biggest collectors in the world and I've put two pictures in front of them, one worth $5m and one worth $500,000 and they can't tell which is which.  Art is worth whatever you are willing to pay for it financially. The joy one gets from owning a great piece of art is priceless though."

Like most things in business, success is dependent on balance. "If the show or the artist isn't selling then we have made a mistake and we have priced him higher than we should have. If it sells too quickly then we have made a mistake and priced him too low. You try to find a happy equilibrium.

"You hear a lot about artists with waiting lists and I don't believe that, I think it is a game because if there is a waiting list then why don't you just raise the price? That is a game which I don't believe is doing the artists or the collectors any good in the long-term."

Budgeting is an even harder economic element to manage in the art world, says Samawi. For two weeks no one might buy a piece of art, while in one day a client might walk in and spend a few hundred thousand dollars on a whim.

"Luckily we do have repeat clients who look for specific things and we know what they are looking for but it is extremely hard to forecast our budgets and our revenues in any way."

The only thing that he can directly control is his costs and Ayyam has pursued an aggressive marketing strategy in order to establish its brand, investing nearly $1m attending around ten art fairs around the world last year.

"The most interesting thing about this business is that it is not scientific. You have no idea what is going  to happen."

One thing that is guaranteed, Samawi believes, is that "there will always be bankers and there will always be fat bonuses. That will never change."

And yet, as much as his competition might wish it, you don't get the feeling Samawi will be returning to banking any time soon.

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall