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Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2022: Alia Al Farsi, Founder, Alia Gallery Housing more than 100 works by the artist depicting womanhood, society and Sufism, Alia Gallery is currently the largest private art gallery in the country.

By Sharifah Alhinai Edited by Aby Sam Thomas

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Alia Gallery
Alia Al Farsi, Founder, Alia Gallery

In her younger years, one of the things that Alia Al Farsi was certain she wanted to do in the future was to open her own art gallery. An artist herself, with an art career spanning decades and involving the representation of her country Oman in regional and international exhibitions and competitions, by 2018, Al Farsi felt it was finally the right time to start working on her eponymous gallery, Alia Gallery, which she describes as her "biggest art project yet."

Having spent her days working at Oman's then Ministry of Culture and Heritage for 17 years prior, the gallery is Al Farsi's first business venture. "During my time at the Ministry, I had seen how art businesses are managed," describes Al Farsi. "It is a completely different game from your ordinary business. Luxury and art require different approaches in marketing, sales, and operations, and it takes getting used to the market's ups and downs."

Yet, knowing the unique industry challenges, she was determined to take them on, and create a special art haven in a country where a national art museum is yet to be established, and the number of art galleries is still relatively low. Al Farsi's vision was to upscale a warehouse in Al Rusayl, an industrial area in Muscat, and have an exhibition hall, library, and cafe spread across two floors. "Since it was a somewhat unprecedented project in Oman, I faced many bureaucratic challenges, from getting the café license to naming the gallery," she recalls. "It was not easy to explain to the relevant authorities the purpose of Alia Gallery, but with determination and lots of resilience, I was able to do that."

In winter 2020, Al Farsi's long-held dream turned into reality, and the gallery, as she had envisioned it, opened its doors to the public.

Source: Alia Gallery

Housing more than 100 works by the artist depicting womanhood, society and Sufism, the gallery is currently the largest private art gallery in the country, and it has become a must-visit space for various segments of society. "Over the past two years, we have been fortunate to have guests from all walks of life, from royals, to college students, to tourist groups," she says. "It has been fascinating to see them under one roof, united by their appreciation for fine arts." With COVID-19 closures and economic turmoil forcing a number of established galleries around the world to permanently shut their doors, it is natural to wonder how Alia Gallery, a gallery that is new to the scene, fared within that context. "Sales-wise, we had a great year in 2021," Al Farsi says. "That year gave us a boost to keep going, and have faith in our products." She adds, "I believe the more you can hold your ground, the older the business becomes, which ultimately results in more brand recognition, and higher value for your art."

Related: 2022, The Year That Was: Rabah Saeid, Founder And Creative Director, Styled Habitat

While art sales are the backbone of any art gallery, Al Farsi understood the need to diversify sources of income early on. "We make it a point to rent our space to different communities and businesses to hold events at our venue," she says. In December 2021, Alia Gallery collaborated with Aston Martin to unveil the latter's Valhalla models in the gallery's exhibition hall. "While Alia Gallery is now associated with multiple luxury car brands, we also ensure that we are connected with literature, music and other forms of art," she adds, with reference to various workshops and musical evenings that are regularly held at Alia Gallery. "Events help us get higher footfall not only during the event, but for the weeks that follow it. I think having many people sharing content on their social media on the same day creates a buzz."

Source: Alia Gallery

That said, Al Farsi does not leave it all to chance. "You have to dedicate a budget to marketing," she is quick to emphasize, including for online promotions. "I believe that a strong digital presence is the backbone of any business marketing strategy. I understand that word-of-mouth and physical participation are equally important in the art business, but a digital approach is more affordable and not seasonal, which are very important factors in my gallery's marketing approach."

Online, Alia Gallery has a presence on both Instagram and Twitter, and the accounts are very active, with engaging posts about events, visits, and Al Farsi's own artworks. If users see an artwork they like, they can hop on to the gallery's website to view the art up close, check its price, and make a direct enquiry about purchase, wherever they may be in the world. The website boasts digital documentations of hundreds of works by the artist, which allows the gallery to operate through a hybrid physical and digital model. When asked why not just go entirely digital, as some galleries in the Arab world have done, Al Farsi replies, "In theory, online galleries are cheaper to maintain, but I strongly believe that our industry needs physical spaces and more personal touches to achieve its goals."

Source: Alia Gallery

Here, Al Farsi touches on an important point, which is the growing but still relatively small art purchasing and collecting culture in the Arab region as a whole, including Oman. "Allowing the local audience to interact more with world-class art galleries and museums, as well as international art fairs and auctions, will help shape a new culture in which people see art in their day-to-day lives," she believes. "However, introducing a new trend requires a government-level plan, which I hope to see implemented in Oman." In the meantime, Al Farsi is focusing on juggling between her new roles of being a gallery owner and artist. "I think it is very challenging to be an artist and a businesswoman at the same time," she admits. "To Alia the artist, art is priceless and sacred, but to the business-minded Alia, it is a product to display and sell. I think I am maintaining a good balance between the two sides of me, but I make sure to take breaks from the business once every quarter to refresh my artistic inspirations."

Related: Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2022: H.E. Alia Al Mazrouei, CEO, Khalifa Fund For Enterprise Development

Sharifah Alhinai

Founder, Sekka and Khaleeji Art Museum

Sharifah Alhinai is the founder and Managing Editor of Sekka, and the founder and director of the Khaleeji Art Museum. She is a graduate of the University of Oxford and The School of Oriental and African Studies, and the recipient of the Arab Woman Award 2020. She tweets @sharifahalhinai


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