Along with many other respected figures in the art world, the contemporary collector Judith Greer has just arrived in the UAE for today's opening of Art Dubai. "It may be a difficult time in the global art market but there is still a palpable sense of excitement about contemporary art in the Middle East," she says. It's a burgeoning art scene that Greer knows an increasing amount about. The American collector is involved with several UAE art projects. Last month, she took part in The Royal Academy Series Talking Art: three days of discussions in Abu Dhabi around the contemporary exhibition Emirati Expressions. This week, she is here for Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial, which she applauds for being held simultaneously. Together, these events have attracted a large number of international visitors to the Emirates. "The main goal is to see work that I can't see in England," she says.
But there's another reason for her attendance: the publication of an Arabic translation of her book, Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector's Handbook. She has collaborated on the work with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) and will appear for a book signing at Art Dubai tomorrow with her co-writer, the art journalist Louisa Buck. First published in the UK in 2006 in time for the fourth Frieze Art Fair, the book has also been translated into Italian and Russian, and there are plans for a Chinese edition. It covers topics from the differences between contemporary and traditional art to the different roles that dealers and curators play, and also includes informative chapters on insurance and conservation.
"It was the product of a certain period of time in London, really the early 2000s after the Tate Modern opening when there was an incredibly growing interest in contemporary art," Greer explains. "But there were very few resources for people who wanted to become involved in what was an increasingly vibrant and exciting world." So Greer and Buck, who knew each other professionally, set about writing a book that would help those who wanted to become more knowledgeable. "It was to teach them in a way that wasn't about just spending money, trophy hunting, or investing but more about becoming part of the fabric of the art world," she says. "You have to become a patron, join the art institutions, go out and make friends with the galleries, friends with the artists and learn about what this means."
The lack of information available to those interested was something Greer felt she could help with specifically because she had immersed herself in the contemporary art world from a very young age. Having grown up in the American state of Washington with no background in art, her interest in the subject started when she landed in Japan on the first stop of a planned world tour before going to graduate school. "But in a funny way, rather like this region, when I went to Japan in 1980 it was misunderstood by the West," she says. "I went thinking it was going to be this really traditional society but it was just exploding with a contemporary feel and emerging culture and I was so fascinated."
Greer ended up staying in Japan for 13 years, marrying there and involving herself in the art world, meeting artists, curators and dealers. Eventually, her passion and enthusiasm for her subject led to a directing role within the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. Then in 1993, Greer, her husband, Richard, and children moved to London, a choice she explains simply: "I married a British man and I had children so it was time to make a decision about where to go." The family moved to the Notting Hill area of the city, and Greer commissioned the renowned Italian architect-designer Ettore Sottsass to renovate their five-storey town house.
Greer stopped working professionally but her passion for art meant that she threw herself into the London art scene anyway. In the 1990s, this meant she came into contact with the Britart and YBA movement, including artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin when they were still relatively unknown names. Initially, Greer says, friends found her enthusiasm for their art strange. "People thought, 'What are you doing? What is this stuff? What are you doing going out to the East End instead of having nice little dinner parties with the rest of us bankers?'"
But it was a tide of opinion that soon turned when contemporary art started to become fashionable. "There was a real change in the early part of 2000," Greer says. "People started saying: 'Hey, next time you go to the East End can I go along with you?' and 'How do you get to know about contemporary art?'" "I was very happy to spend my time educating people and soon I had five bankers' wives in the back of my car," she says of her explorations to London's creative East End. But taking small car loads of inquisitive friends around London was not the most practical way to teach people about the art they found there, so she and Buck sat down together to write the book.
According to Greer, the contemporary art boom in London at that time is similar to the level of excitement over the growth of the art scene in the Middle East now. "It's a confluence of all sorts of factors within a period of about three years," she says, citing both Art Dubai and artparis-Abu Dhabi as examples of major events here that have helped generate interest. "A really intense explosion of occasions and auctions at which there was a sense of the birth of the Middle Eastern art world."
There are differences here though, Greer says, emphasising the need for a stronger sense of an artistic community, more universities and support of young, emerging artists. "I think it's fantastic that the government has these unbelievable institutions coming up," she says of the cultural plans for Saadiyat Island in particular, but adds that what's needed is a solid culture. Mention of the investment side of contemporary art raises the subject of the problems affecting the art market. Greer touches on the infamous Damien Hirst sale at Sotheby's in London last September that raised $198 million (Dh727m), a record-breaking price for an auction of works by a single artist. At the time, it was celebrated by many as an example of the art market bucking the financial crisis, but it was held on a day that coincided with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Since then there have been continued rumours of bidders now being unable to pay up. Greer says that people in London are still talking about it.
More recently, news broke of Annie Leibowitz pawning all future rights to her work in order to raise a loan of approximately $15m (Dh55m) from the lending firm Art Capital. Greer nods her head. "There is a real problem right now because a lot of people have borrowed money against their collections," she says. "I think we'll see a lot of work going up for auction." She then lowers her voice. "I will tell you something I have heard, that artists aren't being paid. People have come in, put down 40 per cent for a work and promise more in the next month or two but don't pay up. I know that some very serious collectors aren't paying and I'm hearing it more and more."
Greer herself has rarely sold any work that she has bought, and mentions some of the pieces in her house. "I have a particular love for work by a Japanese woman called Yayoi Kusama," she says. "Hers is probably the most valuable work I own." She mentions others by Hirst and Emin. "And I have these beautiful Gary Hume leaf paintings that are in my dressing room. They give me pleasure every day." The house, then, is her own gallery. "I would never buy anything for storage," she says. "Maybe I don't know exactly where something is going to go but I can imagine it in the context of my life."
She is cautiously critical of those who buy art for show because of the effect that it has on the market and the hedge-fund culture that came to afflict the market in recent years. "It was getting so hyped up that young artists all of a sudden were fetching prices that were untenable." The subject of young artists, and the fostering of their work and reputation, is a subject on which Greer speaks passionately. "When the market's too hot, what happens is that the middle steps get lost and an artist suddenly becomes very fashionable and very expensive but doesn't have the career to support it."
She returns to the subject of the YBAs, pointing out that they achieved success at the beginning of their career with little support. "They didn't have a boom market, nobody was buying their work so they made work, and had fun. And because of their incredible enthusiasm and the belief in what they were doing that's how this incredibly flourishing art scene happened." On the future of the art world she is candid. "Even though it is painful for some people, it may be good that things have slowed down a bit," she says. "What people forget is that the art market is a tiny part of the art world. The art world consists of artists working, gallerists trying hard to promote them, young curators going around trying to find interesting work. The real art world has always and will always be there." Especially, one imagines, with protectors such as Greer.
Judith Greer will be signing copies of Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector's Handbook at Art Dubai tomorrow from 5.30pm-6.00pm.