I’m sitting in the artsy loft office of the Salsali Private Museum, I’ve been here for the last hour listening intently to the proud owner of Al Quoz’s most talked about new hotspot. The interview has ended, the recorder has been switched off, and the charismatic 45-year-old Iranian entrepreneur and owner Ramin Salsali insists I stay, madly searching his Mac notebook for a YouTube clip of French baritone opera singer Philippe Javoussky. He spins the laptop to face me and we watch the nine-minute clip together. Gazing adoringly at the screen, not unlike a doting dad, a beaming Salsali eagerly awaits my reaction to the voice he describes as ‘incredible’. It’s then that I realise this is a well-intentioned man who wants to share his passion for culture with the Middle East, not make his next big buck. And his dream will come true when Salsali opens Dubai’s first private museum this week on November 14 in Al Serkal Avenue.
Now, one might wonder how a conversation about the arts ended with us glued to a laptop – an object far removed from most inhabitants of a museum. You see, the Tehran born Salsali, who divides his time between his homes in Germany and Dubai, has not yet opened his private museum here in Al Quoz, but he is already looking beyond. ‘My other dream is to open an opera house. I would like to only concentrate on baritone singers – I would like to bring this type of undiscovered opera to Dubai,’ he says.
When he mentions this to me, I’m dumbfounded. Why hadn’t anybody thought of this before? Indeed, these are the same words that rang through his own head when he conceived the idea to open a non-profit art space in Dubai. ‘Galleries have a commercial agenda, they have a certain programme, and they have to promote an artist. They have to make a profit. We have the luxury of not being under pressure to make money to run this place. It’s a philanthropic project,’ says Salsali.
Salsali, whose collection has grown to over 400 pieces (including paintings, photography, sculpture and video works in the 20 years he’s been in the market), says that having access to culture in this region is something that hits home. ‘I feel responsible, as a Middle Eastern person, for this place. Dubai is very unique in that you have a lot of different people living next to each other, yet they respect each other, and this should be supported. My life was like you until the age of 15 and then after that we faced a sudden revolution in Iran in a very short time – it all happened in a year. Once you feel that everything is going in a way that means you lose your entire base, then you admire Dubai more.’
Cultured and eloquent, Salsali speaks from the heart. He’s articulate, warm and down to earth: there’s no sign of bravado or the type of overbearing ego that could easily go hand in hand with such an ambitious undertaking as this. On the contrary, this project is a labour of love. ‘Some people have a collection gene. I have 900 matchbox cars and I will never throw my matchbox cars away. Things that kids do I continue to do in old age as well,’ says Salsali poking fun at himself.
Salsali, whose day job includes running two companies at the forefront of green technology; one providing services to the petrochemicals industry and the other in real estate, says 80 per cent of his entire collection has been transported to the new museum in Al Quoz. The pieces will go on rotation throughout the year, with a focus on contemporary Middle Eastern and European artists. These include the world famous Jonathan Meese, Kiddy Citny (who painted part of the Berlin Wall murals), Reza Derakshani, Anahita Razmi, Niki de Saint Phalle, Daniel Richter, Fischli & Weiss and Louis Bourgoise as well as up-and-coming local talent. But the space will also provide an outlet for other collectors to meet.
‘We are not only a collector support and contact centre, but every year we will host two other collectors from outside and inside of the UAE. We have already had the first request from France and Germany, from one of the biggest photo collectors in the world. His family collection dates back to 1890. He would like to come and show here.’ says Salsali.
But while his appreciation for European art is unwavering, he is adamant that his journey is about promoting Middle Eastern talent that is often overlooked. ‘My target is to make us more proud of our heritage. For example, we are always looking to architects such as Frank Gehry. On Sheikh Zayed Road I can count 10 top buildings, magnificently done. Sometimes in the evening, I take my car – I collect old cars and I have to drive them – and go down Sheikh Zayed Road to stop and look at these buildings that have been created.’
Pausing to reflect is a poignancy that Salsali has mastered – and for the man who dreams big, nothing it seems is far from reach. With that in mind, we ask him where he would like to see the future of Dubai’s art scene? ‘My main desire is that HRH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai calls and tells me: “go and bring me the best Middle Eastern architect and build a museum in Dubai.” This will bring much more money to Dubai and change the landscape. Culture is now becoming a very essential part of keeping peace and social tranquility in society.’
Salsali Private Museum opens on November 14. Warehouse 14, Al Serkal Avenue, Street 8, Al Quoz (04 380 9600).