The fine art of art management in Abu Dhabi (and an Open Call)

If you haven’t been to the Louvre Abu Dhabi yet, you seem to be alone. The car parks and snaking queues spilleth over and are a testament to the fact that residents of the capital are keen for an art scene. So what happens when a noted local artist, skilful gallerist and social media maven team up to enliven the Abu Dhabi art scene? 

Abu Dhabi-based International Artist Management (iAM) is a full-service fine art management agency for professional and emerging artists interested in advancing their careers in Abu Dhabi’s newly competitive art world. iAM intends to bring a consistent series of quality visual arts exhibitions to the capital and to help give emerging artists a leg up in what’s becoming a crowded field.

Artist Emily Gordon, curator Cherry Ali and content producer Elizabeth Totton will debut their new operation on 15 February 2018 with an exhibition in the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr.

All dressed up and nowhere to show?

More and more artists are appearing in Abu Dhabi, keen to exhibit and keen to sell – all dressed up but finding themselves with nowhere to show. iAM aims to fill the gap, saying it wants to grow the local arts scene and find exhibition spaces in the city to meet the demand.

“This was just a no-brainer,” laughs Emily Gordon, her rose round-lens glasses pushing back a hip dip-dyed fringe. “I’ve been waiting so long for an art scene to happen here, you may just have to bury me in it.” Emily, 35 years a resident of Abu Dhabi and owner of a very distinctive highly decorative multi-layered multimedia style, is one of a handful of working artists who have pioneered the Abu Dhabi art scene, at least for women.

“It’s not easy to sell a visual art scene to a country with such a long nomadic history – the UAE simply doesn’t have a history of collecting things, least of all as art.

“That didn’t stop me from making it though. When I first started making my signature layered resin paintings, no one actually wanted them. It took a while, but eventually they started to find an audience and I became associated with the local art scene. But that scene is a long way from being grown up.”

That’s true, and it’s indicated by the dearth of gallery spaces. At least the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi adds a significant public space to existing roster (the Manarat al Saadiyat, the Art Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi, and Warehouse421). But the only professional independent galleries in town are the long-serving Salwa Zeidan in the St Regis Collection on Saadiyat and Etihad Modern Art (no connection to the airline) behind Al Bateen Mall.

The new or emergent artist isn’t going to find it easy to get exhibited there, and while there are some opportunities with open calls and competitions – mainly from Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority – these naturally tend to be focussed on specific tourist-related events or Emirati-oriented cultural issues.

Opportunities for all?

There’s still a lot more to be done to build Abu Dhabi as a vibrant centre of artistic opportunity, to provide exhibit spaces for art of genuine quality … which is the other issue: an indifferent artist with a dynamic, pushy nature is going to find exposure easier to come by than an artist of genuine quality who happens to be reticent and/or deficient in social media skills.

That’s why we have high hopes for International Artist Management. iAM says it intends to build an art exhibition circuit that both artists and buyers can rely on. That means more exposure for local art and artists, and curatorial policy that identifies and fosters the more interesting examples.

“There are a lot of people in Abu Dhabi who would appreciate an arts scene, but it’s been too hit and miss,” says Cherry Ali, the curator in the team. “Emily and I have been working together for some time and we both finally decided to put together a programme of regular exhibitions of assured quality. We want to meet the growing demand and also to assist emerging artists with expertise to nurture a career that will hopefully extend far beyond the capital. We intend to sow the seeds of a grassroots art scene that will long outlive our time in Abu Dhabi.”

We intend to sow the seeds of a grassroots art scene that will long outlive our time in Abu Dhabi

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of iAM’s proposition is the promise of practical guidance for novices and for emerging artists. To some extent this is exactly what a conventional gallery should offer to its artists, encouraging them to develop professionally and thus to improve their appeal to buyers such that everyone benefits. iAM is interested in a more basic level of support, however, and is for instance developing an Artist Media Startup Package that should provide essential information about PR, social media and marketing generally.

Marketing yourself

Freelance writer Elizabeth Totton is spearheading this aspect of iAM’s offer. “As an artist, I can say from experience the daunting act of self-promotion stood in the way of success for me. All I wanted to do was make art. The last thing that I wanted to do was sell it or sell myself. But there’s a lot of art out there: how are people going to hear about you unless you make a noise? And besides, people sometimes want art with a heart; they want to be hooked into the story.”

iAM’s Artist Startup Package aims to make it so easy for artists to self-promote they won’t even know they are doing it. Or as Elizabeth puts it: “we will make self-promotion fun and easy by walking artists through the process and taking all the hard work out of it”.

So as an iAM artist you’ll be doing all the work of promoting yourself, but you’ll be using a set of proven and practical tools to do it. And iAM will be curating, presenting and promoting the shows that you feature in.

Open Call

It’s early days yet for International Artists Management – the website and social media presence aren’t up and running at the moment, for instance, and the commission structure hasn’t been published yet – but there is an Open Call for an introductory show that should help clarify iAM’s aims and operations.

That runs from 13 February at the Fairmont Bab al Bahr (below), a successful venue in the past for art exhibitions – notably No White Walls, a previous group-show venture in which Emily Gordon has been involved. “Fairmont hotels make global headlines for delivering properties that nurture the contemporary arts scene, and the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr is the gold standard of this endeavour in Abu Dhabi,” says PR Manager Julia Dziakhtsiar, with all the understatement you would expect. “Our philosophy is simple: while travelling, who wouldn’t choose a hotel that offers a primo cultural bonus in addition to a place to rest your head?”

Well, that’s true enough. And Fairmont’s generally upmarket clientele provide a useful captive audience for displayed art; the attractive brunches provide extra footfall too. There are worse places to be seen …

The Open Call is for any UAE resident 18 years or over to submit a single original artwork (though a series – of photographs, say – is considered one artwork). There are no restrictions on nationality, medium or subject matter.

The deadline is tight, though: application forms and images must be submitted by midday on 13 January. Email for the application form, and submit it with your CV and hi-res images of the proposed work.

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