When the hammer fell last night at the second-ever Sotheby’s contemporary art auction in Doha, the sale total may have been almost half last year’s results but 13 new auction records – four more than the previous year – were set by bidders from 22 countries eager for some of the hottest artists in the Middle East and beyond.
Emerging artists like Abdullah Qandeel, Ali Banisadr, and Mahmud Obaidi shot past their auction estimates, while blue-chip names like Anish Kapoor and Damien Hirst anchored the sale. If the final numbers weren’t the stuff of major headlines, the Gulf’s interest in art has always been a long game as the region continues to climb the ranks of the art world by building a vast and expensive infrastructure of museums, art fairs, artist residency programmes, biennials, and art auctions.
Sotheby’s … business strategy was clearly focused on educating local buyers and expanding their tastes past traditional painting and sculpture than making a quick buck.
Along with the new levels for Middle Eastern arts patronage, the tide for artists from the region also continues to rise and artists who only a decade ago were largely unknown, like Monir Farmanfarmaian and Bahman Mohassess, are sought after today.
The Sotheby’s sale in Doha on October 13 had many firsts, including the first video installation by Shirin Neshat ever brought to auction, and their business strategy was clearly focused on educating local buyers and expanding their tastes past traditional painting and sculpture than making a quick buck – that’s certainly the reason a conceptual piece by Lawrence Weiner was undoubtedly included.
This multi-million dollar auction took place on the same day as news broke that 300 major artworks from French museums will be loaned to Louvre Abu Dhabi, including textbook paintings by Leonardo, Titian, David, Monet, and others.
The Louvre in the UAE will be the area’s first encyclopaedic museum, and it is only the first of many local art venues that are being built by the world’s leading architects.
Artistic tastes appear to be changing in the region, as well. If the Sotheby’s sale, like the art on display at Art Dubai and other local art fairs, tends towards the decorative, abstract, and largely apolitical, the loans from France include paintings that will feature nudity and religious symbolism that were once considered outside the scope of local mores.
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Next door, the government of Saudi Arabia is planning to spend more than $1.7bn on building 230 new museums, which will not only display archaeological works but contemporary art. The scale of the region’s cultural building boom is massive, as countries that once had few museums are overnight turning into repositories of the latest art trends and styles. Add to this the fact that Qatar is considered one of the world’s biggest contemporary art buyers and you have the makings of a global art powerhouse.
The influence of this Middle Eastern art market boom, which began in earnest with the establishment of the Art Dubai art fair in 2005, and gained steam in 2008 when a work by Farhad Moshiri climbed past the $1m mark, isn’t limited to the MENA region. Even in New York, the influence of this art gold rush is clear. A major exhibition of contemporary Arab art, “Here and Elsewhere”, at the city’s New Museum recently closed after rave reviews. A retrospective of Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian will travel next year to the Guggenheim Museum, and a large show by Lebanese artist Huguette Caland is set to open later this month at a major Manhattan art gallery.
In the Gulf, art is being used as a tool to attract the right type of tourist and investor, namely high net-worth individuals who feel at home next door to museums and sculpture parks. Yet it would be a mistake to think the fascination between the GCC and the art world is one way.
Artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude have spent the last 37 years trying to build the largest sculpture in the world in the deserts of Abu Dhabi. “The Mastaba“, as it is known, will be made from 410,000 multi-coloured barrels to form a mosaic of bright colours. Like a modern-day pyramid, it will rise 150m high to represent the type of power only extreme wealth and power could convey. Perhaps the artist couple saw the future back in 1977 and imagined that one day their massive vision would be realised as part of a network of art sites and institutions.
Next March, the 12th Sharjah Biennial will open with the theme “The past, the present, the possible”. It only highlights the fact that in these halcyon days of the region’s art boom, nothing about the future feels impossible at the moment.
Hrag Vartanian is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the arts blog Hyperallergic. He is a writer, critic and curator based in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.