An Exclusive Interview with Persian Gallerist Leila Heller

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Leila Heller Gallery Dubai
Photo: Courtesy of Leila Heller Gallery

This is going to sound like an oversimplification, but simply put, Leila Heller is one of the most important and influential gallerists and art dealers in the world. Her career spans more than three decades, beginning with the launch of her first gallery on Madison Avenue in New York City in 1982.

Heller arrived in America from Iran, where she was forced to leave after fleeing the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s. At 17 years old, she landed on the shores of the U.S. as an outsider, but quickly found her footing at Brown University, where she studied Art History, and later earned a Master’s from Sotheby’s Institute in London. A second Master’s degree in Art History and Museum Management from George Washington University was acquired, after which she began working at various museums. As much knowledge as she had gained in the classroom and institutions of art, it was in connecting with the artists themselves that Heller’s direction really started to take shape. Her life became the kind you read about in novels, filled with encounters with artists whose names now fill the pages of history books: Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeffrey Dietch, Cy Twombly. She visited their studios, she showed their work, she hung out with them at Studio 54 and the Mudd Club

It’s easy to idealize such a life, to wish to be a fly on the wall at her iconic exhibitions like the famed 1984 show “Calligraffiti” which brought 120 scruffy graffiti artists like Keith Haring and Massoud Arabshani to the posh circles of Manhattan for the first time. When viewed through a romanticized lens, Heller’s career looks like a meteoric rise. Truthfully, even for the most successful people in the world, the path is never straight and never continually up, but more akin to the path made by a rollercoaster: looping, diving, up, down, and all around. 

Since Leila Heller established herself by representing a niche array of Middle Eastern and Asian artists, she has grown her reach globally. In November 2015, the Leila Heller Gallery opened its doors in Dubai at Alserkal Avenue, and became overnight the largest art gallery in the entire Middle East. Exhibition launches were crowded, artists were thriving, the city was buzzing with energy for the arts. And then 2020 arrived.

COVID-19 collapsed industries in a matter of days. Gathering in groups was prohibited. Everyone was scared. Yet, Leila Heller persisted, knowing that times of turmoil are the instrument of creativity, that challenges are made to be risen to. In this illuminating and thought-provoking conversation with Savoir Flair, she explains her profound enthusiasm for the art scene in the Middle East, the partnership she has recently made with the Vortic app, and her plans for the future.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 13: Leila Heller attends Double Vision Curated By Jane Holzer at Leila Heller Gallery on May 13, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

I was curious about why you chose Dubai to open your gallery in the Middle East.
I am Persian, but I was 17 when I left and I have not been back home since the revolution. I finished college, graduated school, and stayed in [America]. However, I missed my roots. I had heard that there was a burgeoning art scene happening around 2005 and 2006 in Dubai, so I took my kids after school had ended for the summer, not knowing that it’s 118 degrees [47 degrees Celsius] in Dubai around that time of year. We still had a really great time. We visited the three galleries, and met a few collectors who I knew from New York and my past.

I really loved Dubai and I loved its energy. I liked going to the Souk and loved seeing what Mona Hauser had done downtown with XVA Art Hotel. In contrast, there was this whole new burgeoning city with better and bigger skyscrapers than Manhattan, and then there was Old Dubai, very much bound to tradition. It was very exciting to see these two cultures living side by side. I loved this dichotomy between the two. I also felt so welcome [in Dubai]. You have to understand it brought a lot of emotions out of me from my childhood. I fell in love with the people; Emiratis are the most welcoming people I have ever met. 

I fell in love with the people; Emiratis are the most welcoming people I have ever met. 

So, I started applying to Art Dubai and Art Abu Dhabi when they both started. I’ve exhibited at both of them since their inception. It has already been nearly 15 years since I’ve been involved in the art scene of the UAE. All the collectors that I developed through Art Dubai and Art Abu Dhabi started asking me, ‘Why don’t you open in Dubai? You’re showing Middle Eastern art in the United States. Why don’t you bring your gallery here?’. The idea started germinating in my head, and I started looking for spaces. Al Quoz was just beginning to happen, but even then, there was no art centre like we always had in New York. Whether it was Chelsea, whether it was Soho, whether it was the Upper East Side, there was always a cluster of galleries around. 

I heard from a friend of mine that Alserkal was beginning to start a new development for new galleries with much bigger, better spaces with 32-foot ceilings. I checked in my address book and I saw I knew a Mr. Alserkal, and he ended up being the brother of Abdelmonem [Bin Eisa Alserkal, who founded Alserkal district]. He had come to my booth at one of the art fairs, and he had given me his card and said, ‘If you ever need anything, call me.’ I called him and he arranged a meeting between Abdulmonem and Vilma [Jurkute] for me, and we discussed the district he was conceiving. After it was built and opened, I opened my gallery in November 2015. The whole community there is fabulous.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced maintaining the Leila Heller Gallery at Alserkal since COVID?
We are doing our best to bring people, but it’s not so easy. I remember the heyday, when 4,000 people would come to opening night. That was amazing. I’ve never seen anything like that. However, like every other community, things have changed due to social distancing. Art is not an essential item; it’s not everybody’s priority. Everybody has to worry about their children, schools, their businesses, so, it’s been a very tough summer and a tough year. Art Dubai and the Alserkal Art Week were cancelled, so that hurt the galleries a lot. 

We are all trying to become creative and have larger online presences and better online reach. I am very invested emotionally and financially with my partner in Dubai, and in my gallery, so we really are doing every effort behind the scenes right now to make the gallery function.

Prior to the announcement of Expo 2020, we had started integrating Emirati artists into our program, which was more of an international program. We have a Middle Eastern niche. We had been following the careers of several younger Emirati artists as well the master of them all, Abdul Qader Al Rais. We now have three Emirati artists that we are representing, including Abdul Qader, along with Zeinab Al Hashemi and Hashel Al Lamki. We are very invested in the Emirati art scene, which is also developing. Emirati artists are very talented, whether they work with my gallery or the other galleries. 

In the UAE, they really protect their artists, and that is commendable.

To what do you credit the development of the art scene in the UAE?
The development of the art scene within the Emirates has been incredible, due to the support of Her Highness Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan as well as her initiatives like Warehouse 421. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai has also given platforms to the artists here, including commissioning a few of them for Expo 2020 – that has now become Expo 2021 – and also His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, who has always supported the burgeoning Emirati art scene. Also Sheikh Sultan and Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, both their Highnesses have also lent big-time support in Sharjah for the development of Emirati artists in conjunction with global artists. They’ve put amazing shows together in that regard. The Minister of Culture, Her Excellency Noura Al Kaabi, has been very instrumental in supporting the local art scene as well.

It is incredible to have that level of support. It’s a very healthy community, not just of patrons but of artists, here. We are struggling in America to get art funding from the government for the artists. So it’s become a big challenge. In the UAE, they really protect their artists, and that is commendable.

Gaze and Glance exhibit Leila Heller Gallery
Bahar Sabzevari "Gaze and Glance" | Photo: Courtesy of Leila Heller Gallery

What were the early days of your journey to establish Middle Eastern artists like?
Well, when I opened in ‘82, I had zero support. A lot of artists started to hear that a Middle Eastern woman has opened a gallery on Madison Avenue and they began contacting me. Your heart is always in the Middle East if you’re Middle Eastern. Though most of my life I’ve been in the US, but I am still Middle Eastern at heart, so I felt great when any of these artists got in touch with me and I was able to give them shows. 

Once in a while, an oil company in Houston would get in touch with me to buy a few Middle Eastern artists for projects they were doing in Saudi or in the Middle East. Otherwise, at first, it wasn’t a sustainable business, but I did it out of passion. Then, in 1987, when the stock market crashed, it was very hard for the next 12 years or so to support the Middle Eastern artists that I was working with. Nonetheless, my gallery survived in different shapes and forms. Then in 2005, I did my first Middle Eastern show including all the artists from not just diaspora and the locals who had moved to Western cities, but artists from the region itself that were living there and working there – whether they were in Lebanon or Morocco or Iran or the UAE. That’s when I started concentrating on the Middle Eastern program that I had developed, that had become a niche for me. 

When you launched your first gallery on Madison Avenue, there was no market for Middle East or Asian art. It wasn’t until about the mid-2000s that that really started to change. What were the factors that gave rise to this market?
The reason this market changed tremendously was the Internet. Suddenly, artists that were local became international. I should also give credit to Christie’s, which started having auctions in Dubai and then followed by opening offices there. Phillips [Art Gallery] also opened offices there. They all opened offices because there was a nascent art scene that was developing. Then the region announced Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi, as well as some foundations that were developed in Dubai like The Farjam Foundation. Now we have the Ishara Art Foundation and Jean-Paul Najar Foundation in Alserkal; so many art foundations have helped develop the art scene in the UAE. 

Elsewhere in the region, you have Lebanon, where new museums started developing, and Saudi Arabia has a huge museum program going on right now with a total of 20 museums that will be developed by 2030, with 11 already underway. 

The art scene is very active and the support of artists is very active in these countries in a very big way and it is really quite impressive. The rulers of each of the countries we’re discussing developed art programs, gave grants for artists to go to study in the U.S., and in many other ways have worked so hard to create a thriving art scene in the Middle East.

Pearly Gate Soraya Sharghi
'Pearly Gate | Photo: Courtesy of Soraya Sharghi

I’ve noticed that in all creative sectors, social strife and political unrest have led to some of the most profound artistic movements. I am looking at the world right now, which is in tremendous turmoil, and I am wondering what the art world will look like in the next few years, coming out of all of this anxiety?
Well, I think there is going to be amazing art created. It is being created as we speak right now. The Black Lives Matter movement in America has now created some amazing art that you see on the Internet, and artists are making huge political statements. This is going to be an era that is going to be remembered, and will make its mark in our history. 

This is going to be an era that is going to be remembered, and will make its mark in our history. 

Viewing art is an insular activity to begin with. How are you navigating your exhibitions during a pandemic that requires social distancing?
With a stronger online presence by all galleries, especially as people are getting used to purchasing art online. It won’t be the same experience, but we have recently launched our show of Reza Derakshani on the Vortic Collect app, which offers a virtual art-viewing experience, and has about 40 galleries on it in total. It was developed by Oliver Miro, who is the son of [famous art dealer] Victoria Miro. With the Vortic app, you are able to go in depth into each painting and experience them as if you’re standing in front of them. 

Because our reactions to art are so personal, and you have experienced so much art throughout your incredible career, I have often wondered if you have ever had a really strong, visceral experience to any pieces in particular?
Actually, I had a meltdown when I went to the studio of Soraya Sharghi. A friend of mine, who had been a collector of this artist, said ‘you need to come with me’ and we went to Long Island City to the studio of Soraya Sharghi.  I had a meltdown in front of one of her paintings, which I now own. I saw it and immediately thought ‘that is me in the picture’. It totally was my childhood represented in that one painting.

The artist is only 30 years old and she had never met me in my life. She is also Persian, and has a studio in New York. She is an amazing artist and I did her show in Dubai, but I didn’t show this one painting that I took to my own home because it was too personal. 

To this day, I’m just crazy about it, and not because it is done in such an amazing way and painted so well, but because it’s my life history in this one painting. It just looks like me. If I showed you a picture of me as a child and the picture of this little girl in this picture, you would say, ‘oh, absolutely this is you’. 

It gives me a sense of belonging even in this very difficult time. It shows me that life changes and to always be positive and never give up fighting. You know there were times that were very difficult when I was a student, and I was separated from my parents because of the revolution. Yet I worked and I fought and I took care of my little brother who was with me in New York and who was still in college. I have also faced very hard times in the past two years, losing my mother, and also battling cancer. This painting gives me strength and hope and shows me that my life has been a journey and this is a part of it and I will get through. I will work so hard to get back to the great days of the art world, both in New York and Dubai, because I just can’t give up hope.

On display now at the Leila Heller Gallery in Dubai is Abdul Qader Al Rais in Gallery One, Zeinab Alhashemi and Hashel Al Lamki in Gallery Two, and Shahzad Hassan Ghazi in Gallery Three.
Leila Heller Gallery
I-87, Alserkal Avenue
Al Quoz 1 – Dubai
(+971) 04 321 6942

Visit www.LeilaHellerGallery.com for more information on the gallery in Alserkal and its latest exhibitions.

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