The Gallery and the Artist

Green Art Gallery launched in Dubai in 1995, where it became one of the city’s first art galleries. In 2010 it relaunched with a new space in Alserkal Avenue, under the stewardship of Yasmin Atassi, the second generation of her family to oversee the gallery. As part of this relaunch, not only did Atassi change the aesthetic of the exhibiting space itself, she also recalibrated the gallery programme from one that showed mainly the works of Arab modernists such as Fateh Moudarres, Dia Azzawi and Paul Guiragossian to an international roster that reflects the cosmopolitan nature of Dubai. Today the gallery represents critically-acclaimed contemporary artists such as Hale Tenger, Nazgol Ansarinia, Kamrooz Aram and Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, and more. 

Yasmin Atassi speaks to The Journal about the process of working with artists – what she, as a gallerist is looking for when adding a new artist to the gallery roster, how the process works, and what makes an artist a good fit for a gallery and how they are signed up.

What was the process of recalibrating the gallery programme like?

I knew that the only way I could take over the gallery and make it function as a solid commercial space was to change direction and run it as a professional art gallery. When Green Art Gallery was originally founded, it was more of a salon d’art, reflective of the period in which it operated in Dubai in the 1990s. By 2008, however, when I took over, the arts and culture landscape in the UAE and wider region had totally changed, with many professional galleries opening. To continue running the gallery as it had been would not have been sustainable.

What was the most important change you made?

I wanted the artist roster to be more international, but it was also important that the gallery programme be relevant to its audience – relevant to the region, and relevant to who we are as a gallery and as a cultural family. I want the artists who come on board to create their own conversations with each other. Not all of them will have that sort of artistic exchange at the same time, but there are so many interesting links between our gallery artists on an individual level. Ultimately, a gallery programme advances with your own intellectual curiosity and intellectual advancement.

How did you go about all this when you took over? Was there a particular model you were following?

It wasn’t easy. I had to change much about how we operated – not just the artist roster – in order to recalibrate the gallery and take it from where it had been in the 90s to the present moment. It was a real learning curve. I had to reach myself how to run a professional art gallery, and I asked myself questions like: What does it mean to represent artists? What is the role of a gallery? While at face value a gallery sells art, it does so much more than that. 

How did you answer these questions? How did you teach yourself?

I was a sponge – I went everywhere, and I read everything. I took myself to every single biennial and art fair. Magazines, events, art gallery openings, I drank it all in. I wanted to understand the whole art ecosystem. I drew up business plan after business plan because this had to become sustainable commercially – both to create the most successful environment in which to support and promote my artists but also for me. I was a 25-year-old working as hard as she could, and this needed to become my livelihood. In those very early years my salary was negligible. The gallery had no money, and every penny we made I would put back into the gallery.

When did you sign on your first ‘new’ artist and who was it?

It was 2010 and Kamrooz Aram. I flew to New York in order to convince him to join the gallery. 

The Gallery and the Artist - Features - Atassi Foundation

Sehar Shah's exhibition "When Words Disappear into Trees" at Green Art Gallery, March 2021

Now the gallery is thriving and has a critically acclaimed roster of artists. What catches your eye when looking to sign up an artist to the gallery?

There are so many artists whose work I love but I don’t sign up because I feel it would be difficult for me to present their work or sell it – this is one factor. When I do see an artist that piques my interest, I will dig further. Obviously, the internet is a great resource, whether that be the artist’s own website, or a page on a museum they have shown at, and so on. Then, hopefully I will find a contact for them and reach out so that we can arrange a Skype or a Zoom call. If possible, I may then fly to meet them and visit their studio because it is important to see the work but also to find out if the personalities match and if we can work together. The work needs to be solid, but I need to be able to know I can work with that work – show it, sell it and promote it.

What decides that, for you?

What I am looking for is a consistency and depth of artistic practice. But also, does the work make me think? It has to have some layers to it – and can the artist talk about their work and explain it clearly and eloquently?

How can artists best connect with galleries or get a gallerist’s attention? Does sending an unsolicited portfolio ever work?

The issue with sending portfolios is that, while artists are welcome to do it, sadly more often than not they are not relevant to the gallery programme. What I mean is, while it is important to share one’s work, do your homework first: research the gallery you want to target first. If you make predominantly figurative work, there is not much point sending it to a gallery that deals exclusively with abstract art, for example. See if your work fits in: do you see work that is similar, either aesthetically or conceptually? Do you feel your work makes sense in the context of the wider gallery programme? These are really important factors. 

So if not gallery submissions, what’s the best way to catch your attention?

Artist-run spaces or student shows are excellent places to get your work seen. If you are hoping to get your first gallery representation, showing it in emerging spaces is a great way to get exposure because gallerists like me go to shows of emerging talent – they are great places for making discoveries. 

What makes an artist ready for gallery representation?

Maturity of the work, I think. Also, is there a full series? Is it part of a unified concept? If I asked you to give me a solo show, could you do it, would you have the work and the vision, both conceptually and practically?

What else should an artist be able to provide and what does the gallery take care of?

I do believe that while it’s important for an artist to understand the basics of the business side of working with a commercial gallery, there is no need for an artist to be a commercial guru or business whizz. That’s what we’re here for – to let the artist focus on being creative while we handle the rest – shipping, photography, mounting a show, press and marketing, applications for biennials and art fairs, the list goes on. But do document your work properly and provide titles and captions. Finally, you would be surprised, but the number one thing artists forget to do is sign their work!

Apart from signing their work, what is the most important thing an artist can do, then?

Stay authentic to you. Good work can be simple and powerful – it comes from such a sincere place.

The Gallery and the Artist - Features - Atassi Foundation

Afra Al Dhaheri's exhibition "Split Ends" at Green Art Gallery, January 2021