With its recent expansion bringing in a wealth of new galleries and more, Alserkal Avenue has cemented its reputation as Dubai’s hub for contemporary art and culture.
By Priyanka Pradhan
Back when Alserkal Avenue was first established in 2007, taxi drivers would wonder what their Louboutin-wearing passengers were doing, coming to such a neighborhood. Smack in the middle of nowhere—or, more precisely, Dubai’s Al Quoz industrial zone—it consisted of a couple of streets of corrugated-metal warehouses set across from dusty auto shops and rusty hardware factories. Fast forward to today, and Alserkal Avenue has evolved from that rugged, industrial landscape into an arts and culture destination pinned firmly on the map of the city—and, with its recent expansion, on that of the region too.
Created by renowned arts patron Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal, whose family has owned the area for decades, Alserkal Avenue’s modest brick-and-steel aesthetic is a sharp contrast to the glitzy glass skyscrapers of Dubai. The first gallery to set up shop here was the Ayyam Gallery (No. 11), showcasing new and old Middle Eastern contemporary art, soon followed by other well-known regional galleries such as Lawrie Shabibi (No. 21) and Grey Noise (No. 24). As the years rolled on, places like The Fridge (No. 5), an indie record company that organizes concert series and educational music programs, and The Jamjar (No. 74), which offers workshops and a DIY painting studio for the public, joined the area, growing it into the mix that it is today: contemporary art heavyweights alongside spunky, interactive creative spaces.
The Avenue’s recent expansion has seen it double in size to 50,000 square meters with the addition of a host of new galleries, places to eat and drink, and an OMA-designed project space that will open in September. “When we announced the expansion of Alserkal Avenue, we pledged that we would use this opportunity to break new ground and stimulate new thinking,” says Alserkal, and the newcomers seem to be doing just that. El Seed (No. 75), the prolific French-Tunisian “calligraphiti” artist, installed himself in the Avenue’s first artist studio, where visitors can make appointments to come see his work known to juxtapose different languages, cultures, and identities. In another first, Swiss luxury watchmakers MB & F’s Mechanical Art Devices Gallery (No. 81) is making a splash as the only gallery of its kind in the Middle East, focused on kinetic art such as handcrafted motorbikes, robot hands, and horology.
But the surest sign of the area’s success is the art-world power players who are moving in. While Dubai has yet to match the financial prowess of other contemporary art destinations such as New York, London, or Hong Kong, the international galleries flocking to Alserkal Avenue show that the future might be different. For example, the Avenue has just welcomed the New York–based Leila Heller Gallery (No. 86–87), a blue-chip gallery that’s a source for some of the most exceptional works from major 20th-century artists, Andy Warhol included. “With the opening of many major museums and institutions in the U.A.E. in the near future, and the expanding design district and arts scene, the art world’s interest in Dubai is only increasing,” Heller explains. “And at the same time, the collector base here is growing, so it felt like the right moment to make a move here.”
“I was immediately attracted to the uniqueness of this district, where tire sellers and art galleries rub shoulders,” says Stephane Custot, whose Custot Gallery (No. 85) opened in mid-March. In its Paris and London locations, Custot has a legacy of fostering a dialogue between influential modern masters and international contemporary artists, and here in its gorgeous 700-square-meter Dubai outpost, it continues to do just that. In the inaugural exhibition, The World Meets Here, Robert Indiana’s textual sculptures and Marc Quinn’s giant metal seashells appear alongside hanging works from the likes of Miró and Picasso. “The combination of Alserkal Avenue’s cheerful, diverse character and the large exhibition spaces available won me over, as I wanted to find a venue that could house large-scale sculptures and installations.”
It seems that every tenant offers something different. The Jean-Paul Najar Foundation (No. 45), a private nonprofit museum, showcases the impressive American and European post-minimalist collection of the late Paris-based collector Jean-Paul Najar, set in Bauhaus-influenced architecture designed by Mario Jossa of Marcel Breuer & Associates. On an entirely different note, Dubai-based gallery The Third Line (No. 78–80) moved here from its prior location in order to double its space (which now includes a lounge and screening room) and better support its 27 emerging contemporary artists, all of whom are Middle Eastern.
And it’s not just an appetite for art that Alserkal Avenue satisfies. Eateries have set up shop here—an outlet of Paris’s cold-pressed juicer Wild & The Moon (No. 77); a soon-to-open artisan chocolatier, Atelier 68—and fashion is making its way in too, such as the upcoming kimono boutique Chi-Ka. In the words of its founder, “Alserkal Avenue is a home for dreamers, visionaries, and creative leaders who are looking to add to the cultural wealth of our region.” Needless to say, taxi drivers are no longer surprised by requests to come here.
This article originally appeared in the April/May print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Avenue for Creativity”).