In a time of crisis, Dubai’s cultural hub grew more united
Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal recalls a time when Al Quoz was home to nothing but warehouses and industrial buildings. When he was growing up, his family owned a marble factory in the area, situated around 10 kilometres south of Downtown Dubai. ‘I remember as a child coming to the marble factory,’ he says. ‘I have memories of visiting the factory, of going through the marble and the arts and crafts that were developed there.’
Today, Al Quoz is still broadly an industrial area, but it’s also where locals and visitors alike head to discover Alserkal Avenue. Established in 2008, this is an arts and culture district that is home to over a dozen major galleries and creative businesses and that is putting the UAE firmly on the cultural map. Abdelmonem was instrumental in the development of the district, having seen industrial neighbourhoods become thriving arts hubs around the world, from Chelsea in New York to London’s Shoreditch. ‘I wanted to see this in Dubai,’ he explains. ‘Dubai was already a tourist destination and an economic hub, [and] in line with the vision of the Emirate’s leaders, it was time for the city to develop into a cultural hub of the region.’
The contemporary art galleries that established themselves on the Avenue in the early years after 2008 soon garnered attention from international art fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze, while their artists caught the eye of various biennials and museum curators. At the same time, their growing programmes began to attract a wider collector base, from both individuals and institutions, which placed Dubai at the heart of the region’s art scene. In 2013, thanks to its early success, Abdelmonem and his team decided to expand Alserkal Avenue, doubling the number of physical spaces. Two years later, when the expansion was launched, the district was so in demand that they received more than 1,000 applications for the 40 additional spaces.
That year, alongside the launch of the expansion, Alserkal also announced its first raft of commissions. Over the years, the organisation’s focus on working with artists, both emerging and established, with a focus on participatory and ephemeral practices, has led to more than 20 public art commissions, numerous exhibitions in collaboration with international arts organisations and more than 5,000 public programmes.
Meanwhile, the organisation has been evolving internally as well. In 2019, all of Alserkal’s non-profit activities, including residency programmes, public art commissions and research grants, were united under the banner of Alserkal Arts Foundation; and, more recently, Alserkal Advisory was launched, a cultural consultancy for public- and private-sector organisations, with a focus on cultural production and heritage creation, which embraces a conscious approach to reimagining cultural destinations.
Perhaps the jewel in the Alserkal crown, however, is Concrete, which opened its doors to the public in 2017. It comprises four warehouses that were reimagined to become a 600-square-metre performance and exhibition space for museum-grade shows and alternative programming. The architecture practice behind the project was Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), which gives Concrete the added distinction of being the first building in the UAE designed by Rem Koolhaas’ firm. Its highly flexible interior, moveable walls and use of unusual materials (such as sprayed concrete and poly-carbonate cladding), coupled with its contributions to architectural heritage, earned the building a place on the shortlist for the 2019 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
Alserkal’s approach with Concrete has been to collaborate with the world’s leading institutions, in parallel with regional foundations, and it has already partnered with the likes of the Victoria & Albert Museum, Hayward Gallery, Samdani Art Foundation and Whitechapel Gallery, among others. Its programming of the space has been characterised by a multidisciplinary view of culture, bridging art, design, performance and fashion.
Over the course of the past decade Alserkal Avenue has flourished into what Abdelmonem always envisaged: a cultural hub for the entire region. Yet there is more to the area than simply a series of galleries and studios. There are also restaurants and cafés, an independent cinema, a black box theatre, a contemporary dance studio, a range of independent retailers, an architecture practice, community workspaces and yoga and fitness studios. As Abdelmonem himself puts it, the growth has been ‘organic’, with each newly joined entrepreneur wanting ‘to be part of the creative community of Alserkal Avenue’.
That community has, however, been severely tested over the past 12 months. The onset of the pandemic meant for Dubai, and by extension for the inhabitants of Alserkal Avenue, an abrupt halt to tourism, the suspension of events bringing groups of people together, and the reordering of priorities. ‘We were affected like any other business or sector that has the challenge of people being together in one place,’ says Abdelmonem. As is the case in countless cities around the world, this could have led to business owners simply shutting up shop and abandoning their physical spaces. Yet what happened in Alserkal Avenue became a welcome exception to that rule.
In April 2020, the Alserkal family launched the Pay It Forward Programme, which waived three months’ rent for over 50 of its community members on condition that they work to support various local communities in return. The initiative led to the creation of a barter economy within the Avenue with more than AED 1 million worth of goods and services exchanged between community members. Kenza and Patrick Jarjour, the founders of INKED, one of the leading culinary concepts within the district, decided to transform their space into a community kitchen; instead of serving gastronomic delights to well-heeled customers, they cooked meals for frontline workers and vulnerable communities across Dubai. In total, the kitchen delivered over 22,000 meals across the three months.
Dozens of other businesses within Alserkal Avenue contributed through the Pay It Forward initiative.
For instance, The Happy Studio, a pop-art community space, turned its hand to manufacturing masks and produced 5,000 of them, which were then packed in with the INKED meals. Elsewhere, the upcycling café concept Kave assembled safety boxes with soap and masks, while Gulf Photo Plus, Dubai’s centre for photography, organised a print sale, with proceeds going directly towards supporting artists during a time of few commissions.
Dubai was one of the first cities globally to begin emerging from the pandemic and today Abdelmonem and his team are looking to put the challenges of the past 12 months behind them. Yet there are useful lessons to be learnt. For instance, like so many worldwide, Alserkal Avenue pivoted many of its activities online during the worst months of the crisis. ‘We’re still learning from the pandemic,’ says Abdelmonem. ‘As we look to the future, [one of our focuses will be] finding new ways to harness and re-imagine the digital tools that have become so important to connecting with audiences.’
He is less concerned that there will be any kind of lasting impact on artists and arts communities like Alserkal Avenue. ‘Artists are resilient and have their own way of handling these situations,’ he says. ‘They’ll come out of this stronger, but institutional and individual patronage for the arts is more important than ever, and our role as leaders in the arts and culture sector is to continue to provide the support that is necessary to grow their practice.’
While focus is returning to Alserkal Avenue’s core purpose – putting Dubai on the global cultural map Abdelmonem – and the team are also looking to the longer-term future of the arts district. This spring, the organisation launched its first sustainability agenda, a series of measures designed to limit the district’s impact on the environment, including reinforcing infrastruc-tural enhancements such as solar power, alongside efforts to create lasting impact by inculcating behavioural change. Viewed as a whole, this new sustainability agenda is a powerful commitment to reducing the Avenue’s environmental impact – not to mention a stamp of proof that this truly is a long-term investment in the cultural capital of Dubai.