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There's money in oil

... and acrylics and pastels... but how can interior designers choose the right art for their project?

Artist Kay Black says her abstract pieces are influenced by the colours of Dubai.
Artist Kay Black says her abstract pieces are influenced by the colours of Dubai.

The recent Gulf Art Fair and the upcoming Sharjah Biennial have prompted discussions in the art world on Dubai's ambition to evolve into a city of culture. Over the next eight pages we ask local artists, consultants, UAE gallery owners and the organisers of these two art fairs their thoughts on the local art scene and their advice on how commercial interior designers in the Middle East can make the most of the region's growing original resources.

With the Louvre in Abu Dhabi asserting that it will house a universally appealing mix of traditional paintings and über contemporary works, what is the future for art in this region in terms of style? South African artist Stephanie Neville comments: "As this region is so multi-cultural, I think the trends are difficult to trace. I do feel that an upsurge of large abstract pieces from well-known artists abroad are making an entry into the market. I also believe people are now more interested in the value of art as investment pieces or even as profitable resale values."

Artist Kay Black has created many paintings for clients on the Palm Jumeirah and in Dubai Marina; she agrees that contemporary art will soon dominate the art scene in the region. She says: "I think more and more Emirati people will move away from the traditional paintings that they grew up with and opt for more colourful abstract art - but it will still need to have some kind of Middle Eastern twist to it."

Maintaining a sense of Arabic influence is an important element in the work of all the artists we talked to. Modern abstract artist Marian Lishman works in oils and acrylics, she explains: "My influences are the colours of the UAE landscape, in particular the desert and the sea, plus the rich colours of local fabrics. I am also influenced by local buildings from mosques to the modern buildings on the skyline today." Black agrees that the colours in Dubai find their way onto her canvases too: "I love using rich dark reds and purples and I get my ideas and inspirations from everywhere. If I see a wonderful composition of colour somewhere this may then form the basis for my next painting."

Of course, the traditional desert landscapes are just one element of Dubai culture. Artist Carrie Wareham, who describes her acrylic compositions as 'abstract mêlées of colourful blends mixed with a bit of futuristic fantasy', says: "I am very much influenced by the colours and opulence of Dubai - it's such a cosmopolitan place to be and is full of a mixture of futuristic and traditional elements. The blend of people that visit, the colourful buildings and surroundings all add to the experiences I like to paint in abstract. Lately the buildings have caught my eye and have inspired the use of Swarovski crystals in some of my artworks."

The most popular imagery is undoubtedly that which reflects the unique culture of the region. Eyeing a gap in the market for Gulf-specific graphics, designers Catalin Marin and Trevor Halton launched earlier this year. Marin explains: "Beyond the predictable library shots, we found that the international image libraries we relied on did not suit our needs as designers or the needs of our clients. As we began to rely on our photography for many of our projects, it became clear to us that there is a void in the design market for local images depicting a realistic reflection of Arabic life."

The photographs are inspired by travels through the Middle East and are aimed at interior designers who want to add an Arabic reference, but with a bold, contemporary and adventurous feel to keep pace with worldwide design trends. The use of corporate and abstract images is fast becoming a popular brand component in commercial interiors. Marin adds that offices can adopt visual themes that inspire and freshen up the workplace. By putting original art into commercial projects it encourages a creative, stimulating environment and enhances a corporate identity.

A recent USA survey by the Business Committee for the Arts (BCA) and the International Association for Professional Art Advisors (IAPAA) found that 78% of people agreed that artwork in the workplace reduces stress. The same survey also found that 94% of respondents felt that art enhances the work environment.

John Sulzmann, managing director of British-based art consultancy Artworks says: "The situation that has arisen is one that enjoys a much closer tie up between art and commerce, especially in the form of corporate branding. Now, not only do firms want design that makes people feel better about the place in which they work, they also want something that makes a statement about them to their own employees, customers and the public."

Larissa Kolesnikova Perceptions Art Consultancy says: "Nothing makes a better and more sophisticated impression on a client then a well selected piece of art. Impressive art can help augment those intangible aspects that make a company truly successful."

The advice the artists and consultants give to interior designers is simply to ensure the artwork reflects the mood of the project. Neville asserts that many factors can influence the choice of art for commercial areas, such as the purpose of the space, the colour schemes and decor style chosen, in addition to the client's desires, tastes and the end-users of the space. Black agrees: "I would say make sure that you get the colours correct, which is the most important aspect, and then of course the right style of abstract art which comes with experience. Also the right sizes are hugely important; its amazing how often I have seen small paintings on large walls." Involving the artists themselves is often the best approach, as Wareham suggests: "If it's commissioned art the interior designers should invite the artist to offer their suggestions about how they would interpret the idea and work together to create the right effect."

Kolesnikova trumpets the role of the art consultancy saying: "We can help commercial interior designers navigate and source high-quality and fairly-priced art in the region and beyond, recommend artists available for commissions, help select art best suited to particular properties, whether a hotel, resort or hospital. We can also refer them to particular regional and international galleries that might be interested in such collaborations. As part of the Dubai art network, we can help them find partners that serve any particular art-related needs."

If the art scene is set to expand to the levels projected by the Europe president of Christie's, Jussi Pylkkanen, who asserted that Dubai will develop into a US $250million art market in less than the 20 year period it took Hong Kong to do the same, then employing an art expert to navigate designers through the diversity of art available is an intelligent decision.

Kolesnikova adds: "I can see that in 5-10 years the Dubai art scene will become much more sophisticated. Once the Guggenheim and Louvre in Abu Dhabi are completed and the Culture Village of Dubai is built, Dubai and Abu Dhabi will be able to attract artists from many regions, expanding its current pull from the Middle East, India and Asia. One thing will change for sure: as local art appreciators become more sophisticated, I would hope to see them showing interest in rather more refined techniques, particularly in photography - such as photography on silver, gum Arabic prints and bromoils. These techniques are very labour intensive, extremely beautiful and require a lot of skill on behalf of the photographer and a rather refined taste of a collector."

Neville, however, voices the same concern on homogenisation that arose at the DIFC Gulf Art Forum. She says: "As an artist in Dubai, I am wondering what effect the influx of the international art scene will have on our local expectations of quality, pricing and quantities. And if the international scene will take over the local scene and leave local artists with less opportunities... or more?"

Halton of Image Arabia asserts that the influx of international art can only benefit the local arts scene: "One could argue that many images and pieces of art have been imported into the region, however a local arts scene is rapidly developing through the mix of cultures in the region. As local galleries emerge, many artists now have the opportunity to exhibit their work.

Abu Dhabi has placed itself in the fast lane to becoming the cultural capital of the Middle East by buying into the Louvre and Gugenheim museums. Dubai's local talent will benefit from this growing interest in The Arts. We foresee that through these new opportunities, more artistic attention will be drawn to the Middle East and a regional standard with a reflective, recognisable style will transpire."

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