Will Dubai Present the New Economic Model for the Art and Culture Industries?

by Hania Afifi

Dubai’s creative industries received a massive blow when their golden art season which starts at the beginning of February was cut short before its biggest event Art Dubai; the largest Middle Eastern art fair and its accompanying activities like the Sikka Art Festival, DIFC Art Nights and Galleries Night were realised last March.

“In my gallery for one, we truly depend on Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art for 65% of our [Middle Eastern gallery] revenue”, explains Leila Heller, owner, and director of Leila Heller galleries in Dubai and New York City. Like many other participating commercial galleries and studios, Heller’s revenue during this season and Abu Dhabi art week covered their entire annual operating expenses.

Although most of the participating galleries and institutes rushed to replace the cancelled festivities with digital versions, the authorities knew it will not suffice. Not only were the planned activities conceived for the physical realm and thus may not migrate the full experience into the digital world, many of the participants were not equipped with the necessary digital business tools and expertise to carry out online financial transactions that can sustain the needed liquidity.

Dubai Ideathon, Zoom-Still

“An immediate action responding to the COVID-19 crisis came shortly after we understood how disruptive this pandemic is going to be to the cultural sector, especially the most vulnerable communities being freelancers and cultural SME’s.” says Ghassan Salameh, Dubai Design Week creative director and member of Art Dubai Group.  

Within two weeks members of the Art Dubai Group, Alcove Advisors and Atölye (creative services company) carried out exploratory research to identify the key challenges the industry is facing.  By collating the findings from 70 participants in 7 focus groups, they identified 6 challenges which they put forth in an open call to the public under the Dubai Ideathon banner:

  1. What solutions could be created to protect jobs and employees during crisis?
  2. How can the creative community self-organise? And what kind of public-private collaborations can we explore to help support the cultural industries?
  3. How can companies start reducing their fixed costs?
  4. How to improve company / client relationships and collaborations?
  5. How to maintain the flow of supply chains?
  6. Are businesses able to generate revenue from digital shifts? And how?

Within two days, the organisers received over 300 submissions which they filtered down to 150.  The selected applicants were invited to a two days online workshop where they were divided into 12 groups and asked to develop their ideas into solutions that they can present to Dubai Culture & Arts Authority (DCAA).

Similar efforts are currently taking place across the world.  However, few have asked the general public to contribute their thoughts on policy and other possible opportunities to rebound after the lockdown.

Dubai Ideathon, Zoom-Still

“I feel there is a very solid listening ear at the other end.  And this spirit of collectivity that we have … There is a sense of urgency to collectively protect the cultural industries and mitigate damage to businesses and prevent talent drain to the extent possible”, emphasizes Ayeh Naraghi, Director of Alcove Advisors; a culture consulting firm.  All members of the organizing committee in addition to the participants volunteered their time and forewent any fees to assist the authorities in finding solutions.  The committee is due to present the proposal within the next few weeks to DCAA outlining the necessary steps to implement the suggested solutions. 

The Arts and Culture Sector has never had a better opportunity to demonstrate its importance in our communities.  During this crisis we turned to the two most often undervalued and underfunded sectors in a given economy for relief; healthcare to attend to COVID-19 patients and the creative industries who provided us with the mental stimulation while we soldiered in self-isolation.  The question which remains now is will the policymakers in Dubai and across the world acknowledge the significance of the industry and implement the necessary solutions?