Dubai-based art collector Ramin Salsali is one of the most influential figures in the Middle Eastern art world today. From petrochemical consulting to unofficial arts advisor to the UAE authorities, the arc of Salsali's career reflects a trend in many emerging economies where art and art collecting have become a growth market.
Last November, Salsali opened his private collection to the public. Today, the Salsali Private Museum in Dubai has become the go-to address for collectors investigating the Middle Eastern art scene. "Salsali reflects the growing glo-balization of art collecting," says Robin Woodhead, international chairman at Sotheby's. "He has all these influences, and they're reflected in his collection."
Woodhead says increasingly sophisticated collectors in the UAE are now looking beyond their own borders.
Salsali was born in Tehran and studied in the United Kingdom and Iran before relocating to Germany in the mid-1980s to study economics and management and industry design. He graduated in 1993 from the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. He established a consultancy in the late 1980s called Teamec, focusing on innovative and green technologies for the petrochemical industry. The business flourished and diversified.
All the while, Salsali was amassing art worldwide, forging the connections with artists and dealers that he continues to maintain today. He has become a key figure in the Middle East art market and an influential player in the local collecting scene. His enthusiasm and drive mirror Dubai's cultural ambition.
Salsali's cosmopolitan outlook was shaped in his years as a student in Munich. It was there that he began collecting art, inspired by a friendship with artist Kiddy Citny. Something about the artist's giant, primitive figures, which adorned sections of the Berlin Wall, resonated with the young Iranian.
Understanding Citny sparked a larger interest. Salsali's international travels with Teamec brought him into contact with a huge variety of artists in cities across the world, which was endlessly fascinating for the budding collector.
"I had launched my company, acting as a consultant for marketing heavy equipment to the petrochemical industry, so I was traveling a lot and would be alone in a strange city. So I had to overcome my 'Lost in Translation' feelings by going to galleries and museums, and step by step, you begin to buy art. You build a connection with cities." His collection expanded, soaking up new works by artists of all backgrounds; incorporating diverse media, styles, and forms; and including work from around the world. It numbers close to six hundred pieces.
By repurposing a spacious ware¬house in the Al Quoz estate into the Salsali Private Museum, he exhibits selections from this collection, and engages with the bur¬geoning trend for collecting art that is spreading through the Gulf region.
A decade ago, contemporary art barely existed in Dubai. Salsali's mission has been to encourage and edu¬cate potential art collectors, but also to support local artists and dealers. He works to spotlight developments in Middle Eastern contemporary art through a global network of collectors and critics, traveling to all the big art shows on the collecting circuit, promoting the UAE as a destination for art commerce.
Since opening in November, his museum has hosted shows sourced from his own collection as well as an auction by the charity Magic of Persia. His sustained promotion of Dubai's art credentials has earned Salsali the UAE's annual Patron of the Arts award for the last three years running.
"It's a journey of discovery," says Salsali of collecting art. "Step by step, your tastes mature, you gain experi¬ence." He hopes to encourage others in the region with his museum. "Some people jump into the art market and hire others to create a collection. They are investors, not collectors." Salsali likens people who get into art purely for the money to a prearranged marriage, where love is a secondary consideration.
Dubai's top arts patron is bubbling with plans for the future. His model is new, because the mission is new: link¬ing the dynamism of art in today's Mid¬dle East with markets in the West. On the drawing board is a gallery in Berlin, for example.
Says Salsali: "I am the man who falls in love first, and then gets married."