When Stephane Custot was weighing up the advantages of moving into a space in Alserkal Avenue’s ambitious 2016 expansion, he, like others, was lured by the promise of becoming part of a unique arts community. He was also offered something that, in the art world, is close to priceless: the luxury of space. For gallerists such as Custot, owner of Waddington Custot in London and founder of fairs such as PAD London, PAD Paris and the Salon des Beaux-Arts, the chance to carve a creative showroom out of 700 square metres heralded the chance to curate exhibitions at a scale simply previously unavailable.
Custot Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, The World Meets Here (14 March–7 May 2016) brought together several of the gallery’s big-name artists, reflecting not only the gallerist’s 25 years in the art world, but also the gallery’s focus on modern and contemporary art. It cemented Custot Gallery’s reputation as a space that does not shy away from large works, presenting, as it did, mammoth pieces by Bernar Vernet, Marc Quinn, Robert Indiana, Frank Stella, Fabienne Verdiere and others – several of whom, including Vernet and Quinn, were in attendance at the opening.
The year swiftly continued with solo exhibitions of works by French sculptor Bernar Venet, American artist Richard Hoglund (curated by Kamiar Maleki) and photographer Nick Brandt. Most recently, to mark its one-year anniversary, the gallery has put on an exhibition entitled Black, White… (13 March–31 May 2017), which features works by American and European artists including Fernando Botero, Enrico Castellani, Ian Davenport, Jean Dubuffet, Tony Cragg, Richard Höglund, William Klein, Joan Miró, Jedd Novatt, Pablo Reinoso, Mark Tobey, and Fabienne Verdier. “This show is a milestone for us, yes, but the idea behind the anniversary exhibition was simply that I select what I like,” smiles Custot. “I show artwork from 1950 to the present day, that is what I do, so I wanted to stay within that spirit.”
For Custot, Dubai has always presented a unique challenge – a destination rising on the international art map, yet not perhaps the obvious choice for a dealer with experience in the art capitals of Paris and London. “Dubai is the place I choose to be in,” he asserts. “Sure, I could have chosen New York, or even Hong Kong, but Dubai presented me with a great opportunity to open a space that wasn’t too far from Europe, yet was in the middle of a region I didn’t know well and wanted to explore further.”
While one might assume Custot Gallery is a sister space to its the well-established London counterpart, Custot sees them as separate entities, and likens his Dubai venture to a start-up. He is also pleasantly surprised at the traction the gallery has received in such a short space of time, including successful participation at the 2017 edition of the Art Dubai fair. “You don’t normally expect to do well during the first year of a new business, but we’ve established a great network here, and met collectors from all over the world, most of them living in Dubai,” he says. “You really do get out of it what you put in, and people will not necessarily come to you if you don’t go to them first – but that is true wherever you go around the world. Unless you’re ready to pay for a primary location somewhere like the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris or Madison Avenue in New York, you won’t get large volumes of natural traffic through the gallery just on its own.”
The freedom afforded by the space in Alserkal Avenue (resplendent with nine-metre ceilings) means that Custot has a creative liberty not as easily available to him in the comparatively smaller space of London. “I have a great team in London, and they work on the exhibition programming there with me, and I love what they do. However, here in Dubai I can perhaps put on exhibitions that are a little more in line with what I would like to do personally. In a way, I have more freedom here, as the conversation is between me and me.”
“When I first came here, over two and a half years ago, and met with the Alserkal team, they were in the middle of building the expansion,” he says. “I loved the project from the start, and it made me dream about something I had been missing – the idea of a community. It was community that I was after when I created PAD and the other fairs, for example – the idea of creating a hub, a place where people could mix.”
Custot is fairly relaxed about the coming year, hoping to introduce new artists to Dubai and work on gallery programming, but there is no deadline. “I have the impression we’ve actually done quite a lot here with the space,” he says, “so perhaps now it’s time to also breathe a little bit and see where it all takes us. That is the luxury of creative freedom.”