'It brought a sense of normality back': UAE art galleries remain hopeful after reopening in quiet season
Shutdowns in March were a big blow to the art scene, but digital sales have helped venues stay afloat
In galleries across the UAE, the art is awaiting visitors.
With restrictions around the country continuing to lift in recent weeks, art spaces have been raising their shutters to welcome those craving culture once again. Last week, institutions such as Louvre Abu Dhabi, Sharjah Museums and Sharjah Art Foundation reopened with safety guidelines in place.
Commercial galleries did so earlier in May, albeit incrementally, with appointment-only visits and limited capacity due to their smaller spaces. However, the doors have reopened to a seasonal lull and a bruised economic landscape.
“We have now slipped into summer, so the walk-ins are very rare. We never hold new exhibitions this time of year,” says Asmaa Al Shabibi, director of Lawrie Shabibi in Alserkal Avenue. The gallery is currently exhibiting Upsurge: Waves, Colour and Illusion, a group show that opened in March, featuring works by Mohamed Melehi, Mona Saudi, Hamra Abbas, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim and Shaikha Al Mazrou.
Now, Al Shabibi says, it is back to business as usual. “Some clients are coming in to see the works, mostly by appointment following our own outreach. The pattern seems to be that they see something online or something we have sent them, then come in to take a look. This isn’t really that much different from how we conducted business in the past.”
Quiet gallery spaces are nothing new for the UAE art scene this time of year. In a way, the shutdowns caused by the pandemic have already inflicted their worst – March would have been the regional industry's busiest month, with Art Dubai and various events bringing in major collectors.
“It was sad when March was cancelled,” Harriet Bardsley, director of Tabari Artspace in DIFC, says. “It is a time for artists to really shine. It’s when museums and institutions come over to see what’s happening in the region.”
The gallery, which reopened in early June, had been working on a solo show with artist Hazem Harb for nine months before the opening in March. Two days later, Dubai went into lockdown.
“It was very hard for us and the artist for people not see the work. It was that element of the lack of showcase that was sad,” Bardsley says.
Though their physical spaces were inaccessible for months, galleries used that period to swiftly amp up their digital presence with virtual tours and online sales. Tabari Artspace launched an online tour of Harb’s exhibition within a week and, even virtually, the show almost sold out. “As a gallery, we don’t rely on walk-ins. Most of our sales are from collectors who we’ve known for 17 years,” Bardsley adds.
For galleries, creating new digital strategies is one of the major adjustments spurred by the pandemic, and its consequences are lasting. Bardsley says that Tabari Artspace will continue to put on virtual versions of all exhibitions in the future, even with the physical space open. They have also conducted more virtual studio visits with artists for collectors.
Another example is the Sotheby’s online auction named This Too Shall Pass, in which Lawrie Shabibi participated. Melehi’s Soleil Oblique II earned the top lot and sold for twice its estimate at $200,000 (Dh734,900). The online auction, which included works from seven Dubai galleries, raked in $763,625 in sales.
“We had been quite busy working on the auction. Having the gallery open against meant we were able to get access to the works, take photos and have clients come in to see some of the art. It has pretty much been our focused priority for the past six weeks and it really paid off,” Al Shabibi says.
Despite favourable performances in the digital realm, galleries are still pouring efforts into putting on shows. Tabari Artspace’s new exhibition, which opens on Monday, June 29, builds on Harb’s previous show. Contemporary Heritage: Part 2 marks the first time that the Palestinian artist has made prints of his work available.
“You need a space to showcase a collection, especially when you’re dealing with Harb’s new works. There’s a lot of photography involved and it’s very hard to portray it via image. You have to see it in its environment,” Bardsley says. The usual vernissage or opening night gathering won’t take place, but visitors – with face masks firmly on – can still stop by.
One of the best things about reopening is probably the fact it brought a sense of normality back
Asmaa Al Shabibi, Lawrie Shabibi
Though the wheels of commerce in the art circuit are continuing to turn, the pandemic’s effects may still be felt in upcoming shows. Bardsley says the gallery is preparing three new exhibitions for the rest of the year, starting in September. However, there is uncertainty around the logistics of shipping in artworks from abroad.
“We can’t get the works in very easily,” she says. Planning for artist visits is also a challenge, as flight schedules and quarantine rules are subject to change. “Having an artist at an opening is very important, so this is slightly hindering our programming,” she adds.
Al Shabibi offers a more hopeful tone. In addition to success at the Sotheby’s auction, the gallery has also received temporary reprieve from its rent through Alserkal Avenue’s Pay It Forward Programme, which waived rental fees for its galleries for three months.
“One of the best things about reopening is probably the fact it brought a sense of normality back,” she says. “It’s like we all took a deep breath and started gradually moving forward.”
Updated: June 30, 2020 03:56 PM