x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Paris of the East

Interview Marc Laurenti talks about the opening of the first-ever French-owned art gallery in Abu Dhabi - the cultural equivalent of a grand slam.

"It is just our contribution to Abu Dhabi's fantastic cultural revolution," says Laurenti of his new Paris-Abu Dhabi Art Gallery.

A gallery opening in Abu Dhabi is ­always a good thing; every space contributes to the artistic life of the city. But the first ever French-owned art ­gallery in Abu Dhabi opening here right before the artparis-Abu Dhabi fair is the cultural equivalent of a grand slam. Yes, there's been a bit of confusion about the link between the gallery and the art fair since both use the famous capitals in their names, but this isnt a problem in the eyes of gallery owner Marc Laurenti.

"I think its complementary," he says. But make no mistake about it: this isn't a temporary show, the ­Paris-Abu Dhabi Gallery is here to stay. Ensconced in a penthouse apartment in the new Al Sahel Towers building, the gallery overlooks the Abu Dhabi waterfront or, as Laurenti says: "You have the feeling that you are actually plunging into the sea, a wink to the Tate Modern in London." Instead of giant, cold white walls, the Paris-Abu Dhabi Gallery is charmingly cluttered with ­­ mid-century modern furniture and swamped with paintings of all sizes, including several by Yves Henry, an artist often referred to as the French Andy Warhol.

There are objets d'art clustered around low tables, one of which ­features a spectacular antique Quran (the second oldest ever sold in Paris, apparently). There are ­metal tables by Georges Braque, one of the founders of the ­cubist ­movement, that are as ­substantial as they are rare. There are only 75 of them in the world. The Paris-Abu Dhabi Gallery has two. So much art in one small space might give the impression that the Paris-Abu Dhabi Gallery doesn't ­really know what it wants to ­specialise in. But Laurenti quickly dispels such thoughts with his enthusiastic mission statements.

"The aim of this gallery is to bring the best and the most fine pieces of art to Abu Dhabi, he says. But this gallery's aim is not only to sell ­paintings it is to create bridges between people to understand each other better." The Paris-Abu Dhabi gallery will be open by appointment only, which will give Laurenti a chance to go back and forth between the two countries and service his flagship operation the Marc Laurenti Art Gallery in Paris.

"I always say that I am French by blood but Emirati by heart because I am 42 years old and I have known this country for almost 30 years, says Laurenti. My life is linked with this country and the people of this country." As he speaks to me, Laurenti wears a striking pink shirt with jeans. It's a look that only a Frenchman would attempt to pull off. He looks like he would be at home sailing a large boat in the Mediterranean, and indeed he was born in the south of France, living mainly in St Tropez.

But Laurenti is also very familiar with the Gulf and speaks some Arabic. In fact, he first came to Abu Dhabi in the early 1980s. "I was 14 and came with my parents. There was nothing. There was the sea and the sand and the highest building was four stories," he says. "The advances are unbelievable. This is really what I call progress." Because of his familiarity with the region he has lived in the Middle East off and on for 15 years ­Laurenti says that he is uniquely placed to bring the first French art gallery to Abu Dhabi.

He claims that after all the ruling family has done for art and culture, with the Saadiyat Island Museum plans and large-scale exhibits such as the Picasso show that ran at the Emirates ­Palace recently, his gallery is just a modest addition, a small stone in the cultural construction of Abu Dhabi. He got the idea for the gallery from Emirati friends who gave him a subtle hint that France or someone French should add to the cultural life of the city. "They said, 'It's a pity there is no French art gallery. We are doing so much to develop art. Someone should do something'," says Laurenti. "A message was sent not directly, but there was a ­message. As we love this country and we love art, we decided to take a step in that direction and this is the result."

The day before the gallery's opening, Laurenti is circling ­frantically around the penthouse. He and his wife Wanda live in the other half of the apartment-cum-gallery, something that could prove to be problematic if all of the 600 people on his guest list, which ­includes both high-ranking sheikhs and the French ambassador to the UAE, show up on opening night. He says that the invitation specifies that the opening will take place at 6pm and onward, that he hopes the entire crush of invitees doesnt arrive all at once.

He seems worried. The gallery space also doubles as his sitting room, with a large flat-screen television next to the various works of art for sale. It looks like it could hold about 30 people on a good day. Though Laurenti's Parisian ­gallery participated in the artparis-­ Abu Dhabi Fair last year and had plenty of success selling its wares, Laurenti made the conscious choice not to enter the fair again this year for financial reasons.

Still, he doesn't see the fair or any other gallery as competition. Instead Laurenti chooses to think of the art scene in the UAE capital as a ­collaborative effort to build up the cultural life of the city. "We are not here only to sell. We are here to ­advise people about what they should put in their places and what they should buy even from the ­other galleries," he adds. Opening an art gallery is a gamble even in the best of economic circumstances, so why would anyone choose to start a project like Paris-Abu Dhabi now? Laurenti says that after the success he had at the ­artparis-Abu Dhabi Fair, he has been coming back every two months to follow up with customers all part of the VIP treatment he offers and to find out if opening an outpost in Abu Dhabi was worth the risk.

"All the figures showed that it was a very good idea," he adds confidently. "Abu Dhabi has a key role to play in the world of art, which is a $20 billion (Dh75 bn) market that doesn't know about the economic crisis." In fact, Laurenti thinks that now, in particular, is the right time to ­invest in art. "It's excellent in terms of ­return on your investment as well as the pleasure of having a magnificent painting at home that you can admire," he says.

In other words, it is both a financial and cultural investment. But Laurenti is not all about the money. His Parisian ­gallery gives part of its profits to charity, a practice he hopes to continue at the Abu Dhabi location. "Personally, I believe that when you receive, you should give back," says Laurenti. "We will give some paintings for charitable auctions in which the gallery will take nothing. We will also participate by giving back a part of our profits to the Red Crescent and other groups."

The ambitious gallerist is also planning to host parties, presentations and conferences both inside Paris-Abu Dhabi and in other ­venues. He is already talking with the Sorbonne and the Cultural Foundation to get Islamic art ­experts on board for a seminar. No doubt there will be a mention of his celebrated antique Quran. For now, though, Laurenti is as charming as he is rushed. He is ­trying to think of a way to politely tell guests that glasses are at no time welcome on the Braque tables, the stars of his collection.

Cleaners vacuum and sweep though his flashy zebra rug looks pristeen and the nearby white sofa brand new. Other preparations for the big opening will include ­several runs to the ­airport to pick up a number of the artists he represents, who are also coming to town for the party. "For the opening, we have a great mix of French artists and those from former Yugoslavia," he says. "It is just our ­modest ­contribution to this fantastic ­cultural revolution."

swolff@thenational.ae