Opportunity Knocks: The Middle East Is The Emerging Art Market To Watch

With the correct funding and ambition, we could be set to enter a golden age of Middle Eastern art.

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Art has always told the story of the world it is created in. The most impactful works of art transcend time and borders, and they highlight the similarities and differences between cultures.

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However, it is the paradox of society's relationship with the arts that we all understand the intrinsic value of culture when associated with the past, yet contemporary art is rarely treated with the same reverence.

Art is serious business. More than this, it also has the power to bridge cultural divides and unite people. But if it is to continue to do so, we have to find ways to better support those creating art across the world.

Responsibility for effecting this change lies with both the art world itself, which needs to find a way to better value, market, and sell its practice, and with the institutions outside of the art world, the untapped market who can help to create a more sustainable arts economy.

We are seeing a perceptible shift in attitudes in the UK. The demand for culture is growing. Hotels are using art as competitive advantage, to attract a new guest profile, to tell meaningful stories, workplaces want art collections that visually reflect their values, while local and national government bodies increasingly see the value in installing art in public spaces to help drive footfall to the high street.

Where there was previously a divide between the art and corporate worlds, bridges are being built. Within this context, the Middle East is emerging as one of the most exciting regions to watch on the planet, a trend driven by spotting and supporting emerging local talent.

The Middle East is a region with a rich cultural history. It is historically significant, and it is the birthplace of huge artistic movements: from Arabic calligraphy that led to the Hurufiyya movement, to the Barjeel Art Foundation that was established to preserve modern and contemporary Arab art.

The art market has suffered throughout the pandemic. Disruption to physical events, including exhibitions and major art fairs, hit artist's pockets. Most artists are freelancers, so there often was little or confusing government provision to protect against the losses incurred by lockdowns. In many countries, cultural funding is the first thing to be cut in an economic downturn. Yet the Middle East is emphatically bucking this trend.

Funding is pouring into the region's arts domain, with commissions from luxury hotels driving that change, and ambitious funding from government bodies turbocharging the growth of the regional art market. In 2021, Saudi Arabia launched its inaugural Noor Riyadh festival, with the level of investment aimed at catalyzing one of the biggest artistic events in the regions in hundreds of years, according to senior advisers on the projects.

For an emerging art market, the cost of art is noticeably higher, because of the government investment being made into the sector. It's not uncommon to find upcoming artists from the Middle East selling at prices that established artists in the UK and Europe would command.

This trend is in stark contrast to what is happening in the UK, where a dearth of funding can dissuade young people from pursuing a career in the arts in favor of a career in, for example, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Indeed, the UK's former education secretary Gavin Williamson announced a 50% funding cut for arts and design courses, with the money being redirected into STEM.

The knock-on effects of this are grave, with 92.1% of people working in the creative industries in the UK hailing from an advantaged socio-economic background, meaning that some of the best upcoming talent from other social classes are being lost, and creating a vicious cycle of lack of diversity and representation in the UK art market. Without a career pathway for the most talented people in the sector, and without the requisite funding to ensure that culture is being given the focus it deserves at an educational level, the arts will suffer in the UK.

A buoyant arts economy starts with education and promoting creative career opportunities. Of course, a market needs to be there, but the middle east is experiencing huge development across the region. The Gulf States can look forward to hosting major cultural events, including the World Cup in Doha, and with Saudi Vision 2030 coming into effect, the art industry is ripe for rapid development.

The region could learn from the mistakes other regions have made to create value across the market, to show creatives that their practice can be profitable, and to create strong partnerships between the corporate and creative worlds to the benefit of both. An opportunity exists to usher in a new golden age of art in the Middle East. However, to create and foster movements that will be remembered and lauded hundreds of years in the future, the onus must be on investing into culture today.

The Middle East region is taking the first steps on a bold path to stamp its authority on the global art market. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum. With the correct funding and ambition, we could be set to enter a golden age of Middle Eastern art.

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