Elie Khouri: The Marketing Man

BY Rebecca Anne Proctor / Sep 26 2016 / 18:13 PM

Rebecca Anne Proctor speaks with Elie Khouri, CEO of Omnicom Media Group, MENA, on his philosophy of collecting and the power of art in the work place

Elie Khouri: The Marketing Man
Elie Khouri in his office in front of a work by Kehinde Wiley. 'Portrait of Jose Alberto de la Cruz Diaz.' 2016. Oil on canvas. 183 x 152.5 cm; 'Table 2' by Ahmet Dogu Ipek. Photography by Rajesh Raghav

The offices of Omnicom Media Group (OMG) in Dubai’s Media City aren’t your typical offices. When you arrive at the reception there’s a giant installation of an elephant by street artist ROA and a large black and white crayon and acrylic on canvas work by Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum. Walk around the corner to take the elevator and you will immediately confront a commissioned wall painted with colourful cartoon faces by French artist Thierry Noir. One of the region’s foremost media groups, handling accounts such as LVMH, Jumeriah group, Pepsico and McDonald’s, among many others, OMG is full of art. And it is so because of its CEO’s passion for collecting.

Elie Khouri, 52, dons his signature dark-rimmed glasses as he sits casually in his top-floor office. He is surrounded by art and design objects from his 200-strong collection of contemporary art, including Different Points of View, a sculpture by Tony Cragg; a painting of Jose Alberto de la Cruz Diaz by Kehinde Wiley that he picked up at last year’s Art Dubai; and Portrait of Woman by George Condo. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows amplify his white-lacquered space offering a sleek interior in which to showcase such stellar works of art. And there’s more. Artwork can be found on each floor of the building, in the hallways, individual offices, foyers and reception area. “Art in the workplace is important because it’s about enhancing creativity,” says Khouri, who notes that he features one art piece in his quarterly newsletter. “Art is engaging. Every time I go in the elevator I hear people speaking about the art. This has created a dialogue among employees. A lot of employees are becoming collectors now because they are seeing artworks in the building and they are understanding more about art.” Khouri stresses the importance on working in an environment with art, stating that he thinks the practice is underappreciated in Dubai. “It’s all about engagement, dialogue and creativity,” he adds. “It’s about spreading beauty. Art is beautiful. It’s about making the walls more gorgeous.”

ROA. Loxodonta Africana (Elephant). Circa 2015. Mixed media installation. Variable dimensions

Khouri began collecting seriously around six years ago. “There is not a process to collecting,” he states. “It is something I discovered in myself a few years ago. I used to initially buy art during auctions to support philanthropic work charities and then I started reading more. I think art comes when you have more time to enjoy things in life - when you are always travelling and stressed you don’t have time for it. It’s the point in your career when you start to want to appreciate better things in life.” Collecting for Khouri became a passion. He recalls how each night he would go home and read about art online. When he would travel he would make sure to visit as many art galleries as he could. His art collecting just happened.

Khouri’s first purchase was a work by Nabil Nahas. “I bought it simply because I liked the name of it which was It’s So Good To See You and I liked the work. The combination of those two made it irresistible for me to buy.” A Nabil Nahas work now hangs gracefully in his office as do other works by Lebanese artists, including Ayman Baalbaki and Marwan Sahmarani. While Khouri is originally from Beirut, Lebanon, his penchant for art can hardly be considered Middle Eastern. “I don’t particularly have a way or a method for collecting established or emerging or up-and coming artists or a particular nationality,” he says. “I buy what I like. Sometimes I buy artists that are not known because the work speaks to me.”

In terms of a method for collecting, Khouri doesn’t have one. “There’s no science behind buying art,” he says,

“My first hunch is that you have to love it. I only buy something I love and something that I would hang on the wall and enjoy looking at everyday—something that you don’t get bored of"

For Khouri, what’s important is the story of an artwork. “Every piece has to mean something. Every piece has to have something so that every time you look at it you discover something knew,” he says passionately.

Building a collection that spans generations is an artistic process itself. Working in the media and branding business, Khouri knows what constitutes an established brand, and artists, too, can be brands. “You want to buy quality work and you want to buy a brand,” he explains. “Naturally, you want to ensure the collection lives on so you want to buy things you like, amazing work and at the same time hopefully good brands that will outlive their times. Generally, when you have a collection you need to have a few brands that are solid, like a George Condo, for instance, like Yue Minjun, like Tony Cragg.” Condo is one of his favourites. “I love him because he has a unique style; he’s a maverick. He pushes the limit of creativity.

In the beginning, his great thirst for art led him to visit major art fairs, including Frieze London, Art Basel Miami Beach, as well as many design fairs in Italy. He now buys more via the Internet at such revered sites as Paddle 8, Artsy, and Artnet, among others stating how he’s become “accustomed to appreciating art online.” But when he does buy art, it’s often internationally and not regionally-focused. “I buy much more outside of Dubai since there is still a limited amount of artists and gallerists,” he states. “I buy a lot at auction— Phillips, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In every city that I am in I make an extra point to see what else is out there.”

Lita Cabellut. Albert Einstein 01 . 2012. Mixed media on Canvas. 200 x 180 cm

Khouri admits that he is “impulsive.” He buys what he likes and he doesn’t spend too much time “procrastinating, analysing and researching.” Although, as he states, sometimes he gets anxious when he doesn’t buy something, especially at auctions. Khouri has also recently delved into Iranian contemporary art and several works by Rokni Haerizadeh.

Elie Khouri’s love of art extends to his philanthropic efforts. In the past, he has served as an honorary committee member of START, a non-profit organisation established by Art Dubai and the Al Madad Foundation to bring enrichment opportunities to under-privileged children in the Middle East through art. Elie has also supported the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon (APEAL), a non-profit organisation dedicated to showcasing and encouraging Lebanese artists as well as served on the board of Injaz-UAE, an organisation dedicated to educating students about work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.

A man with fervent drive and creativity, much of Khouri’s business ethic and artistic persona can be linked back to when he was growing up in Beirut. He was 10 years old when the civil war in Lebanon broke out. He lived in Ashrafieh, a district in Beirut that was at the time filled with political blocs. He recalls the sounds of bombs and bullets, the bodies of corpses dragged by pick-up trucks, the constant debris and the fear of not knowing whether his life was up next. In a piece Khouri’s written on LinkedIn entitled How growing up during the war made me a better person he cites ways in which the war helped him develop his business acumen and entrepreneurial drive. He first learned the lesson of being shrewd. “When you grow up during a war you tend to live your life with a good degree of street smarts—always looking for opportunities to better your situation and do the best with what you have. For me, it was entrepreneurship or as I thought of it then, making more pocket money,” he writes. The war also helped him learn how to solve problems creatively. In order to further his education Khouri had to come up with the funds himself. And so, when he was 16 years old, he started a fashion brand for children’s clothing for a contact he had in Kuwait. The venture was a success and it allowed him to fund his university education.

Andy Warhol. Marilyn. 2011. Serigraph. Five pieces. 91 x 91 cm

Ethically and creativity, Khouri has followed his father’s stead. His recent appetite for art and for all things “beautiful” is also a way for him to give back to the community. “Middle Eastern art still has a long way to go,” says Khouri. “It is undervalued as a market. We need to have more collectors. Corporates have to be more engaged in the scene as well. I think Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art are amazing platforms for enhancing the art scene. But we need much more educational interest by collectors to make the industry more vibrant.” His idea to open a private museum highlighting his own collection is one way in which Khouri hopes to be able to give back to the community and to the UAE. “It’s a pity when you have so many pieces of art to store them in a warehouse; it’s nice to share your vision and what you love with others because art has to be appreciated by everyone,” he says.

Khouri hopes to start engaging the Dubai government soon to help him find a plot of land where he can start his private museum. While the space would feature his collection, it would also be a place for emerging artists to exhibit their work. When asked why he prefers to erect the museum in Dubai and not in Lebanon he adamantly responds, “Dubai is home to me now.” After 25 years it surely is and the act of doing it here, in the UAE, is Khouri’s own way of sharing his art with all. “It is where I have spent my professional life and now half of my life. I owe it back to Dubai to do it in Dubai. I believe in that strongly.” – Rebecca Anne Proctor

This article originally appears in the autumn 2016 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art. Photography: Rajesh Raghav