By Thomas Shambler
On the eve of his new gallery opening in Alserkal Avenue, CEO sits down with owner and curator Stephane Custot to talk global trends, art as an alternative investment, and what's holding back the UAE's art scene
Galleries are popping up left, right and centre and the Dubai Opera House is on track to open in September. That must means we must finally have some culture in the region, no?
Previously not that many things were happening over here in terms of arts and culture, but things are changing. I was with the French ambassador three weeks ago, and we were talking about the Louvre Abu Dhabi opening. It's going to be the cultural event of the year, and not just for the UAE but for the world. The number of people who will be travelling here for that shows that times are changing. And perhaps the Guggenheim will be open in five years, which is also huge. Once there is a museum, there is usually a market for art. If a big collector lends a piece to a museum, for example, they tend to travel to see it on site. Afterwards, they visit galleries. It creates a market.
Obviously, 2015 was a great year for art…
It was a fantastic year for art, globally. But frankly, the past 15 years has been good for the art world if you read the headlines. Everyone focuses on what is trendy, which doesn't exactly reflect the real market. Right now, for example, contemporary art is very much on trend. It's doing very well. But I started working in the industry 30 years ago and my speciality was impressionists. Today the impressionists are a very small market, but back then it was the entire market. Look at 19th century French or English paintings, the interest is very limited today. Of course, if you talk about masterpieces then demand is always high.
The question I was going to ask was whether or not the market can continue? Everyone is predicting 2016 is going to be a bit of a bad year?
This is nothing new. People have been predicting that for the past 15 years. First it was 1998, then 2008 when the stock market collapsed. Interestingly, real estate went down – especially in Dubai – the art did not collapse. It was tough for an auction or two, but after that it back at full strength.
So that makes art a worthwhile alternative investment then?
I don't like to talk too much about art in terms of finance, because my job is more about creating collectors, dealing with passionate people. Of course, after a certain price the investment quality of a piece should be considered.
Don't buy art simply for the money.
It is better not to, because if there is a crisis then you're stuck with something on your wall that you don't like. That's an even bigger problem. First of all, you can't sell it. Second of all, it’s difficult to look at. At least if you buy a piece of art you like to look at, if there is a problem with the markets you can still enjoy that piece of art.
The internet has democratised a lot of retail industries, including art. I can go online right now on my phone and buy a piece of art. So what's the benefit of visiting a physical gallery anymore?
Tricky question, and I don't know if I have the right answer. I think if you are in to old masters and famous dead artists, you don't really need a gallery anymore. Paintings have been photographed, prints made, etc. You can easily find what you are looking for online. But if you want to see important living artists, you need to visit a showcase. That's where a gallery comes in. This lets the artist talk to people, to impress the people in attendance. For that reason, it's impossible for me to imagine a market for contemporary art without galleries. It's totally impossible.
One of the biggest obstacles to buying fine art is education. People do degrees in the history of art. If someone doesn't know the first thing about the world of art, how do they approach buying a piece that they want to keep for a while? Picking up an investable piece?
Years ago I would say these people don't exist. You were either in to art or you weren't. However, today they might think that way because something they saw on social media, or because a friend picked up a piece. People are talking about art more and more, probably because of museums. Museums are everywhere now, built by foundations and private benefactors. It creates a discussion. This was not the case 30 years ago. Art was only for intellectual people, people with knowledge and interest. Today art is more accessible. You can be in finance, you can be in the food industry, and on a friend's recommendation you visit an art gallery and fall in love with a piece of art. Then you start a relationship with a gallery, and all of a sudden you may have a house full of pieces.
It's a lot more accessible.
Yes, even on price. You can buy a wonderful photograph or sculpture, for example, for US$1000 or even less than that. Of course, you can still have something unique and nice for far, far higher than that. Even the luxury brands promote art, or rather they use it as a communication tool. The link between luxury and art is stronger than ever, and this is a little bit of a problem.
Why is it a problem?
Because art is art. Luxury is luxury. And people want to combine the two. I am not so sure it's a good thing because it pushes an artist to produce more and more. At some point, you’re in danger of losing a bit of your soul when you have to output at a certain rate for business. It's all a bit too commercial, that's my point.
There must be an element of trust between you, a dealer, and the customer. How does that develop?
It's like any relationship really, you hear about us from a friend or perhaps an article in a magazine. Afterwards, you may visit us and we get talking. If you buy, then you start being a collector and after a while you become friends with galleries and gallery owners. That relationship is what I like. What's nice about the internet – and also a little bit scary – is the access to knowledge online. So anyone can check that I am not trying to scam you. If you see something by a certain artist, you can go online and compare it to others on the market. If the price I have quoted you is too expensive, you will come to me and ask why. Maybe it's a little bigger, or smaller, it doesn't matter. But if you don't believe me then you won't buy it from me. And you'd be right not to.
Let's bring it back to the Middle East. Where does the UAE fit in to the art world?
98 per cent of galleries in Dubai show and sell Middle Eastern artists. Lots of them. I find this surprising because everything in this world is international. Your watch is Switzerland, your car is from the US. The architecture in Dubai comes from architects from all over the world. Everything here seems to be international except the art. They only seem to show Middle Eastern art. Because they want to create a market for it. In my opinion, in order to showcase regional art you need to start a dialogue about art from all around the world. Then once this region is known for something, known for certain characteristics, then there will be global demand for it. But not until then.