Economic growth in the Middle and Far East has, over the past decade, seen a steady shift of financial power to new territories and markets, from established bases in struggling Western economies. And the global art market - once concentrated in London, New York, and Paris - has followed suit. Today - driven by new waves of artists, dealers, and collectors - freshly minted art industries thrive in the Gulf region, India, and, most dramatically, in China.
These new art markets have demonstrated an intriguing East-West symbiosis. In the Gulf, India, and China, global art-business staples such as dynamic gallery spaces, art fairs, and biennials, have seen the world's new art players filtering local artistic traditions, cultural heritage, and contemporary global influences into unique products. And, conversely, the savviest names in international art have been quietly making inroads into these new markets for some years now. Top collectors and influential tastemakers such as Charles Saatchi and Larry Gagosian have opened up rich seams of attractive, investment-friendly art for a new breed of local and international collector.
The first wave of growth was seen in India prior to 2008, fuelled by new middle-class prosperity in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. Art funds such as Osian's - speculative investment packages aimed at first-time or novice collectors - enticed thousands of investors to sink money against estimated future increases in art portfolios. But after the 2008 crash, there were spectacular losses all round, with key funds struggling to repay investors. Commentators blamed market overheating on hyped artworks and oscillating prices, caused by an influx of speculators. "It was an artificial hype," says Neha Kirpal, founder and director of the India Art Fair, the latest iteration of which saw Indian art prices begin to creep back up. "Prices are more levelled now," she adds.
The swings and roundabouts of the contemporary Indian art market have provided a salutary lesson for the Gulf. There, a decade of growth in cultural infrastructure has seen state investment - from colossal museum complexes such as Mathaf in Qatar and planned branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre in Abu Dhabi - contrast with a rapid expansion of private galleries and art spaces in Dubai. And despite its own economic woes, Dubai's position as the region's trading platform for contemporary art remains resolute.
"Let's not kid ourselves," says Syrian-born art dealer and gallerist Khaled Samawi, whose Ayyam Gallery network now stretches across Damascus, Beirut, and Dubai, with further outposts planned for London and New York. "The Middle Eastern art market only really began to get professional five or six years ago. And now there are more important galleries in Dubai than in the rest of the Arab world combined."
With such renowned local collectors as Samawi, Sultan Sooud al Qassemi of Sharjah, Iranian contemporary art specialist Dr. Farhad Farjam, and businessman Ramin Salsali all exhibiting their collections in private museums and gallery spaces, the culture of art investment has been maturing rapidly. Yet, while Arab modernists continue to command top prices, recent recession-friendly trends, such as introducing new and untested contemporary artists at bargain prices, have ensured that the lower and middle depths of the local market remain buoyant.
As Antonia Carver, director of Art Dubai, an international art fair, points out, "The joy of this market is that there are younger artists coming up who are very affordable, given that they've mainly worked in cities that are off the global art radar." She continues, "And the new Asian/Middle Eastern art centres give them visibility and exposure. Then there are the superstars, often now seen as 'international' rather than 'Middle Eastern.' So there are entry points for new collectors as well as the more seasoned."
Carver reckons that the maturing of the collecting market means local collectors are moving from the safety of regional Arab and Iranian art into Western and Far Eastern markets, while increasing numbers of foreign investors are attracted to the region by entry-level prices.
Qatar's aspirations are expressing themselves at a more national level. Members of the Royal Family, notably Sheikh Hassan al Thani, have been amassing Western and Middle Eastern art since the mid 1980s. In December, art-industry bible Art + Auction declared Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, daughter of the Emir of Qatar and chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), the world's most important art collector.
"Sheikha Al-Mayassa has the resources of an entire country at her disposal," says Benjamin Genocchio, editor-in-chief of Art + Auction. This is clear as the QMA's dynamic new complexes - Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Islamic Art - spearhead a program of new institutions, vast acquisition funds, and lavish installations by guest artists. Yet it's hard to find an independent gallery outside the QMA-directed buildings, prompting questions about who exactly will be visiting the planned portfolio of state cultural institutions.
This question is perhaps answered by understanding Qatar's long-term goals. For the government in Doha, culture is being deployed as part of a wider plan to elevate the country's profile. By amassing art, building world-class institutions, and generally working to secure a reputation for cultural supremacy in the region, governments in the Gulf are shrewdly echoing the nation-building ethic of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century America.
In stark contrast to activity in the Gulf, the attitude of Chinese authorities to contemporary art, as demonstrated last year in the case of artist Ai Weiwei's detention, is complex. Yet there is no doubt that following the Chinese economic boom, the energetic spending that characterized the Hong Kong art market in the early 2000s has now taken hold across China, with the big brand names of contemporary Chinese art, such as Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, and Zhang Huan, enjoying success far beyond their national borders. At home, however, mainland collectors have been honing in on twentieth-century artists working in Western styles, such as Zao Wouki or Chen Te Chun, as well as more traditional artists such as Qi Baishi, whose 1946 painting Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree sold to Shanghai-based collector Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei for US$65.5 million last May.
As in the Gulf, it was foreign art dealers such as David Tang, Charles Saatchi, Uli Sigg, and Guy Ullens who initially made forays into the unexplored Chinese art market in the early 2000s. Chinese tastes were for more traditional art and artifacts, and contemporary art was viewed, for political and investment purposes, with skepticism. But recent years have seen Chinese collectors rush headlong into the country's art scene. "If we look post-2008," says regional expert Michael Frahm, of Frahm Limited in London, "Western buyers start to play a less significant role, and the rise of the Chinese buyer becomes apparent. And it is now Chinese buyers who drive the market forward."
According to the TEFAF Art Market Update 2012, in the space of one year, from 2010 to 2011, the Chinese art and antiques market more than doubled in value to around €9.8 billion, and a staggering 23 percent global share of a global art market currently estimated at €46.1 billion.
Georgina Adam of The Art Newspaper points to the massive increase in freshly minted billionaires as key in fuelling growth. "The Chinese Luxury Consumer White Paper 2012 says that there are 2.7 million high-net-worth individuals in China with personal assets of more than 6 million yuan [US$950,000]," she explains. "Then there are also 63,500 ultra-high-net-worth individuals with assets of more than 100 million."
While the new art markets of the Gulf, India, and China all owe their rapid growth to this new breed of moneyed collectors, eager to diversify assets and reclaim something of their countries' cultural energy, these are early days for contemporary art in the Middle and Far East. Artists are still coming to terms with the new demands of domestic and foreign markets, and opportunities for exhibition and sales are still growing. Yet the time has never been better for new collectors to enter the market - prices are still ebbing at relatively low levels following the global meltdown of 2008, while the quality and range of available art from emerging hubs are increasing exponentially. Contemporary Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern art could well prove to be a wise long-term bet.