Dubai is famous for its creative architecture, out-of-this-world shopping and aweinspiring sights and attractions. But while the emirate does towering and grand with incredible ease, this is a city that has also established itself as an art destination, and is set to become the global crossroads for culture in the Middle East.
“The art scene in Dubai has come of age during the past 10 years,” says Laura Egerton, a Dubai-based curator and one of the original team behind Art Dubai, the UAE’s leading international art fair. “Not only have gallery districts been established in areas where there were perhaps only one or two commercial spaces a decade ago but, more importantly, a culture for nurturing creativity has been established.”
With several artist residency programmes and educational initiatives underway, the grassroots art scene is blooming with fresh talent, while established auction houses including Christie’s, Bonhams and Sotheby’s regularly hold sales of Arab and Middle Eastern art. Egerton says: “Due to its geographical centrality Dubai is the ideal global meeting point and its truly cosmopolitan mix of residents means this is the place to experience art from all over the world.”
So what can visitors expect from the city’s main art areas? From industrial charm and atmospheric appeal to trendy cultural hangouts, we take a closer look at the expanding artistic community.
Al Fahidi historical Neighbourhood
Built along the Dubai Creek, Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, also known as Bastakiya, is one of the most picturesque spots in Dubai and amid its labyrinthine lanes you’ll find an array of quaint art galleries. The most famous is The Majlis Gallery, which was originally opened by long-time Dubai resident Alison Collins in 1989. Back then it was a place for local art enthusiasts to gather, but 27 years on it is one of Dubai’s premier fine art venues. The XVA Gallery, which specialises in contemporary art from the Arab World, Iran and the subcontinent is another must-see. Close by you’ll also find Tashkeel, a villa divided into six individual studio spaces, which are rented out to artists, who use the space to work and exhibit. Members of the public are free to drop by Tashkeel and chat to artists, as well as view their work and check out the latest exhibitions. Elsewhere in this area you’ll find Dubai Museum, which is housed in the Al Fahidi Fort (Dubai’s oldest existing building) and Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, which holds regular talks on UAE heritage.
With more than 20 galleries and creative spaces spread across 250,000 square feet of warehouse space, Alserkal Avenue is Dubai’s foremost arts district. Admittedly, it has a more urban aesthetic than the cultural and heritage quarter, and isn’t as polished as areas such as DIFC or d3, but within this industrial neighbourhood you’ll find an impressive concentration of large art galleries with regular exhibitions that bring an edge to the local art scene. “Alserkal Avenue is now home to original Dubai galleries, The Third Line and Green Art Gallery,” says Egerton. “As well as Grey Noise and Lawrie Shabibi, which are gaining critical recognition through their presence in international art fairs and curated exhibitions.” Meanwhile, new openings such as the Custot Gallery and the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation have further cemented the increasingly popular area as a haven for international art.
Dubai’s newest creative zone, d3, is a purposebuilt development aimed at Dubai’s creative industry. Located near Downtown Dubai, it takes its inspiration from London’s Shoreditch and New York’s Meatpacking District, and while only in its first phase (it opened in 2015), d3 aims to be the epicenter of Dubai’s counterculture. This impressive art hub is already home to an assortment of funky art galleries, boutique stores, pop-up cafés, studios and offices, and recently played host to the Dubai Photo Exhibition and Mario Testino’s Heat showcase, as well as events such as Downtown Design, Sole dxb and Fashion Forward. The first d3 gallery opening was family-owned Sconci Art Gallery, which houses an impressive collection ranging right from the seventeenth century to the modern day. Pieces of note include a signed Andy Warhol print, as well as one of the most important works in modern Italian art history, I’m Infantile, by Italian painter Mario Schifano. Located on the first floor of building eight, it’s definitely worth a look.
Dubai International Financial Center
The Arc de Triomphe-style Gate building at DIFC is an imposing structure and perhaps not one you’d automatically associate with an art district. However, this grey-slate construction is the entrance to the Gate Village, where corporates and creatives meet. As well as banks and financial institutions, there are currently 14 art galleries operating in this vibrant area, and with swanky bars and restaurants added to the mix, this is where well-heeled art enthusiasts flock. While established galleries, including Opera Gallery and Cuadro Fine Art Gallery, offer more than enough to keep connoisseurs happy, it’s also worth looking out for DIFC’s biannual Art Nights showcase, which take place in March and November. For one night only all the galleries here throw open their doors and the area buzzes with exciting exhibitions, art shows, talks and live music.