Art connoisseurs will be scrutinising brushstrokes and sculpture surfaces when Art Dubai opens today. But what they won't be able to notice - some small business owners hope, anyway - is the months of hard work that went into launching new galleries that opened this week.
"We worked on ours from last February until now," says Asmaa al Shabibi, the co-founder of Lawrie Shabibi, a gallery in Dubai's Al Quoz district that held its inaugural exhibition on Sunday. "From a business perspective, it takes a year - literally."
The recent downturn that swept through the art industry certainly stung many gallery owners and managed to shutter some of their storefronts as well. Most of the 40 art funds that also launched, or intended to, during the 2007 to 2008 art-fund boom also disappeared in less than a year, according to Castlestone Management, an investment advisory based in the UK.
There are some welcome signs of recovery. In London, recent contemporary art auction sales surged 56 per cent compared with similar events last year.
In January, the UAE's biggest bank by assets, Emirates NBD, announced it was teaming up with the Fine Art Fund Group to offer advisory services for high-net-worth banking customers who wished to invest in art as an asset class. And regional interest in collecting art is only expected to grow as marquee museums such as the Louvre and Guggenheim open in Abu Dhabi within a few years.
That is leading some entrepreneurs to set up shops in the UAE with the hopes of grabbing a slice of the Middle East art market, which is reportedly valued at US$10 billion (Dh36.73bn).
Yet other things have been weighing on the minds of Ms al Shabibi and her business partner, William Lawrie, as they position themselves to participate in the trend, such as getting used to working with suppliers so far in advance. "It takes artists at least six months before they produce anything," says Ms al Shabibi, who studied law but more recently worked as the managing director for Art Dubai then as an art consultant. "You can't just pick 20 works from their gallery. We were booking artists six months, sometimes a year, ahead. That was an eye-opener," she says.
Then there was fixing up a warehouse to store all that art, which Ms al Shabibi had estimated would take five weeks at the most. Nearly three months later it was finally complete. All told, the delays and higher-than-expected construction costs have certainly added up. "You come in with your estimates, with the length of time it'll take to set up and the cost, and you probably have to add at least 30 per cent on to both," says Mr Lawrie, a former director of contemporary Middle Eastern art at Christie's, the auction house.
Expanding a gallery's presence can be almost as challenging as creating a new one. Gallery Etemad, which has been open since 2002 in Tehran, also took about a year of planning before it opened its doors in the Emirates on Monday. Known here as Etemad Dubai, it will also take a unique approach with the artists it represents and the exhibits it hosts.
"There is a significant difference," says Aly Afshar, the galleries' director.
"In Tehran, we're much more locally focused [and] purely targeted at the domestic audience. Here we're absolutely far more internationally oriented."