Rula alami private collection of arab modern and contemporary art.







An Art ecosystem is a complex network between stakeholders, a set of active institutions, galleries and individuals and ” larger forces ” that stimulate the global art marketplace.


When it comes to Art in the Middle East the system’s complexity is even greater than other regions.This region is far from being homogenous . It is vast and diverse with intricate layers of history and a multitude of cultures.The term “Arab countries” is even a more confusing generalisation. It overlooks differences in cultures and erases diversity. Bearing in mind these qualifications one can shed light on the important aspects and developments of the Middle East Art scene that led to a dynamic market that is gradually integrating into the global art scene .

Unfortunately in the last decade, the Middle East has been witnessing political unrest, wars, financial crisis, and their complex repercussions are still reverberating across the region. Unrest and conflict in our globalized age can only send shock waves.Paradoxically, The post 9/11 period lead to a rise in interest for the region’s history and culture. The tragic deliberate destruction of historical landmarks by ISIS also increased visibility of the region’s wealth in culture. From a western perspective, the attention to Middle Eastern art was an overdue acknowledgment.


Despite the obscure scene of instability, the Middle East cultural scene has been quite vibrant. Most notably is the founding of new museums, in addition to significant private and public initiatives and projects. The dynamic primary art market’s place is Art fairs. Auction houses cover a huge chunk of the secondary market. Below is an attempt to dissect this buoyant cultural scene.


Auctions houses

Top auction houses like Christies, Sotheby’s, and Bonham’s played a crucial role in bringing secondary Middle East art to international platforms , and creating a competitive bidding experience. They ignited the idea of “investing” in Middle East art and provide a database trend and results, all guides to market sentiment.

The first major auction was set by Christies Dubai in May 2006. Its success opened the door for additional by yearly auctions, other auction houses getting in the loop and most importantly new galleries opening in the region.

Sotheby’s held a small private auction in London in 2005. It opened in Doha in 2008. It inaugurated its Dubai office in 2017, and holds one auction in Dubai along with the London auction, in addition to year round events.

Bonham’s hold had an office in Dubai (in 2008 they sold the first $1 million Middle Eastern work, Farhad Moshiri”s’s mixed media “Eshgh (Love)”) . It now holds its auctions in London. Arcache is a pioneer of the auctions scene in Lebanon.

At Auction Lebanon.

Tehran Auction, started in 2012 focuses on modern and contemporary Iranian art. That is partly as a result of sanctions imposed on Iran.

AlBahie in Doha backed by Qatar’s ruling family, in 2016.

In 2017, the modern and contemporary Middle East auctions delivered it s strongest result since 2008. Total auction sales totaled about $33 million down 8.9% from 2016, with Christies having the highest share 36.6% followed by Sotheby’s 26.5%, Tehran Auction 24.3% and Bonham’s 12.6%. Christies sales increased from $11.4 million in 2015 to just about $12 million for in 2016 and 2017, revealing a flat market.

In other words the regional market remains niche and dwarfed when compared to the international art market.


Pre auctions, few galleries were selling Middle East modern art or promoting regional emerging artists. With the advent of auctions, galleries mushroomed specially in the Gulf region and instigated a dynamism unseen before. Most of these galleries are the gatekeepers of the art market. They have the power and advantage of making decisions on behalf of artists –for example who’s work gets exhibited at art fairs, who will enter the next auction. So they do play an prime role in the market by introducing artists to the art scene , to collectors and ultimately to museums. Among early leaders : Agial gallery, Gallerie Janine Rbeiz in Beirut, Gallerie Atassi in Damascus, Gallerie Al Marsa Tunisia, Al Bareh Gallery Bahrain, Claude Lemand in Paris to name a few.

Art fairs

Generally Art Fairs are the most important in attracting new buyers. Art fairs proved to be real drivers of the region’s art market. In parallel to auctions ,the first regional art fair was in Dubai. Art Dubai brought galleries and hundreds of collectors and visitors with an extensive program of events invigorating the Middle East art scene even more. Other important fairs are Abu Dhabi artContemporary Istanbul, and Beirut art fair and early this year the African Art Fair 1:54 in Marrakesh.


Museums, Foundations, and Corporate    Collections

Museums, Foundations, and Corporate Collections are all spaces that have the function of showing art to the public. Regional foundations and corporate collection, specially banks, existed way before the 2006 market started its journey.

One of the first regional museums is Tehran Museum of Contemporary art (TMoCA), inaugurated in 1977, It contains collections of more than 3000 items including 19th and 20th world-class European and American artworks. It also has one the largest collections of Iranian modern and contemporary art.

Istanbul Museum of Modern Art opened in 2004.

In the last decade , the Gulf region witnessed a tremendous development namely building state of the art museums.

MIA Museum of Islamic Art opened in 2008.

MATHAF Qatar Museum of Modern Arab Art was inaugurated in 2010 .The Museum of Modern Arab Art contains a diverse collection of more than 6,000 works . Its mission is to promote public awareness and appreciation of modern and contemporary art that is from, or inspired by, the Middle East and the Arab world.

The UAE governments encourage the development of major cultural projects throughout the Emirates.

Sharjah Art Museum opened in 1977.

The Louvres Abu Dhabi inaugurated in 2017.

Recent auctions and art fairs have been quite upbeat due to the curators of these museums actively buying for their collections, as well as important foundation collectors competing for the best works.

Art patrons and collectors

Historically, the interest in Middle eastern modern art was confined to a limited number of art appreciators and collectors.

The growth in the breadth of the market in the past 10 years paralleled by the powerful marketing of auction houses have created an array of new local collectors looking to acquire works by prominent Middle Eastern artists as well as new contemporary artists.

Needless to say, the gulf market is sensitive to oil prices and regional tensions which reverberate accross the region. Art works are considered luxury products hence they are price elastic mostly in times of financial and political crisis, which go in tandem in the region’s yoyo situation .


There are numerous foundations that play a vital role in promoting regional culture, and activating interest in regional art:

Atassi Foundation, Barjeel foundation (Sharjah) , Dalloul Art Foundation DAF (Beirut) ,Farjam Foundation, Kinda Foundation (KSA), Sharjah foundation.

Art Funds

A growing phenomenon in the art world is art funds which are generally privately offered investment funds . The Fine Art Middle East FAME is a partner of The Fine Art Group in Dubai. It launched in 2012 to offer advice and alternative investment opportunities in Middle Eastern art.



Tehran Biennale started 1958 , when Iranian modernism was at its heyday. It was disrupted but re instated in the last few years into three biennales Sculptures, Photography and Miniature art.

The Sharjah Biennale , started in 1993, is organized by Sharjah Art Foundation. It fosters international artistic dialogue through a wide range of contemporary cultural programs, large scale installations, performances and films.

Qalandiya international, was founded in 2012 as a joint contemporary art event that takes place every two years across Palestinian cities and villages.

21,39 — Jeddah Arts is a non-profit initiative
organized by the Saudi Art Council.

Non profit cultural institutions

There are few private and public institutions considered the pillars of “Art for All”. They are the ambassadors of a cultural production that transcends the commercialization of Middle East arts and challenge the channeling of visual arts into the dominance of globalization .

The following are some of the most dedicated institutions with an impressive impact on regional cultural production:

Arab Fund For Arts and Culture AFAC, established in 2007 as an independent initiative that funds individuals and organisations accross the Arab world in various cultural fields.

Art Jameel is an active organization that supports artists and creative communities through various channels and disciplines. Jameel Arts Center in Dubai, is dedicated to exhibiting contemporary art to the public and to engage communities through learning.

Ashkal Alwan, The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts is an association promoting and producing contemporary art practices in Lebanon.

Contemporary Art Platform in Kuwait, is a cultural center for exhibitions, film screening, lectures…

Darat Al Funun, Amman, founded in 1988 as a platform for contemporary Arab artists to support art practices and to document Arab art.

Dar El Nimer in Beirut. It as an art foundation for historical, modern and contemporary cultural productions from Palestine and the region.

The Mosaic Rooms in London. Their mission is to support and promote contemporary Arab culture through contemporary art exhibitions, multidisciplinary events, book launches and more .

The Palestinian Museum was inaugurated in 2015 in Birzeit Palestine, with a mission to foster Palestinian culture in Palestine and the world. It also offers spaces for creative ventures, educational programs and innovative research.

Sursock Museum, Beirut (founded in 1961) is a legacy museum that re opened in 2015 with a mission to inform and challenge audiences , to preserve and exhibit local and international art. Sursock Museum is a vital cultural platform for Beirut as the cultural city of the region.

Some private museums are non profit initiative like Salasali Museum in Dubai and the most recent Nabu Museum in Lebanon, KOC Contemporary museum , Istanbul.

International exhibitions and acquisitions

Major exhibitions of Middle Eastern artists were held in Europe and America:  Chafic Abboud as well as many other regional or diaspora artists at Institut Du Monda Arabe Paris. Fakhrenissa Zaid , Salwa Raouda Choucair were shown at Tate Modern in London in 2013 and 2017.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s famous mirror works were exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York in 2015. Lebanon’s Etel Adnan appeared at the Serpentine Galleries in London in 2016, while an overview of Egyptian Surrealism was staged at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2016.

Among prime Western museums acquisitions: The British Museum (works on Paper),Tate Modern (Chafic Abboud, Dia Azzawi, Ibrahim Salahi …), Centre Pompidou, and Guggenheim (Monir Farmanmanian).

Further reinforcing the infrastructure, both Zenderoudi and Guiragossian, like Mahmoud Said, are in the process of having catalogue raisonees compiled of their work. Such initiatives are a necessary step towards establishing a properly regulated market and therefore one that sustains consumer confidence.


Many significant exhibitions and retrospectives were curated by famous curators , alas hired mostly from outside the region. Rose Issa has curated multiple projects in the region of a high standard. Christine Tohme curated Sharjah Biennale in 2016. Generally, There is a serious lack of cultural professionals from the region , which is due partly to the infancy of the art infrastructure and Art education.

The Internet

Art enthusiasts can now participate in online auctions facilitated by auction houses and purchase art from various established vendors. Though the internet facilitates a more efficient art collecting process, authenticity and quality must be carefully evaluated. Artscoops , an online platform funded in 2015 ,is very active in promoting , selling and showing Middle East art.


The marketing tools used through art magazines advertising campaigns by auction houses have succeeded to promote regional art and stimulate interest in regional cultures. A pioneer in reginal art information ( 2004) and anaylis is the magazine Bidoun.Bidoun fulfilled a gap in three areas: publishing, educational and curatorial. Canvas Magazine was founded in Dubai at the outset of the regional auctionsIt carries in depth features in many disciplines related to art and culture in the Middle East. Selections Arts has risen to become a major source of information about regional art and beyond . Its dynamic online platform provides a wide coverage of art events and artists worldwide. In addition, Instagram is becoming a major platform for galleries, artists and art collectors.


The cultural ecosystem continues to make a significant impact within and beyond the region . Sustainability of current activities requires institutional support and provisions.

Even though the Louvres Abu Dhabi and others gigantic projects are prestigious developments in the cultural scene, it is certainly not the physical infrastructure that will support and sustain the cultural production and dialogue . An art ecosystem requires more than buildings. It needs cultivating attitudes towards the intrinsic value of art. Educating and training a new generation of art professionals in the Middle East is a crucial step to improving the viability of its art market. Teaching a general appreciation for art history and contemporary art will create a community of support for contemporary arts creation. Institutions such as Art Jameel are devoted to this educational mission. It is worth mentioning that three Curatorship education degrees were developed in the last three years: American University of Beirut, Universite Saint Joseph Beirut, and NYU Abu Dhabi. Hopefully, a new generation of curators will complement the art scene and move it to an academic level.

Moreover, market’s sustainability is challenged by the concentration of buying power in the hands of affluent regional acquirers. Recently the market appears to be stagnating and lacking new and younger collectors.

Middle Eastern art acquisitions by international museums is quite limited and almost insignificant when it comes to international collectors.

In fact, international collectors are rarely exposed or interested in Middle Eastern art. For primary art ,the the most active galleries showing in major fairs like Frieze are Sfer Seimler, Third line and Lawrie Shabibi.

Unfortunately, Art Dubai is facing serious challenges. It has ended its decade-long sponsorship agreement with Abraaj Group. Abraaj collapsed into bankrupcy this year.

In conclusion, The Middle-Eastern art market appears to be at precarious crossroads. It has calmed considerably since the boom year of 2008, when Christie’s Dubai auction sales peaked at about $29 million.

Both the total value of the region’s sales and the number and quality of lots consigned have been dropping since 2013-2104. The region’s ailing economies and political instability are bringing the art market build up to a stall in parallel to a lack of funds to support cultural production. Despite this rather pessimistic scenario, cultural practices are finding innovative ways to develop and thrive in the face of challenging circumstances.These cultural activities, whether publicly or privately funded are invigorating for the cultural scene and influence interest in regional arts. On another dimension, the international art market is still buoyant and defiant.Its influencers may look for opportunities in a largely untapped regional market.


For simplicity this essay covers mostly the Arab region and Iran.The information is by no means comprehensive especially for Turkey and North Africa.

June 2018