“We look at Art Dubai as an institution as much as an art fair,” says Antonia Carver, in her second year as director of the foremost event in the city’s cultural calendar. “The fair has been aware since the beginning that it can fulfil gaps locally. That’s how we sit in a very different position from other art fairs.”
Art Dubai will move into its sixth edition when the event opens at Madinat Jumeirah in March. It brought 20,000 visitors to the Madinat’s gilded ballrooms last year, and seeks to better that with a programme reckoned to be its biggest to date, revealed in a preview press briefing yesterday.
There will be 74 galleries from 31 countries in attendance, hoping to get their works seen and sold to an increasingly robust regional collector base and the international museums that have become regulars at the event. This means 500 artists will be under public scrutiny during the four-day fair.
Leading the charge of first-timers at Art Dubai is The Pace Gallery, home to a stable of household-name greats of 20th-century art such as Robert Rauschenberg, Bridget Riley and David Hockney, alongside more contemporary figures such as the Chinese performance artist Zhang Huan and Fiona Rae.
Other notable newcomers are France’s Galerie Perrotin (a roster including Maurizio Cattelan and Wim Delvoye), Ardnt in Berlin and Platform China from Beijing. “You need good sales for a healthy fair, and the way we measure that is the return rate of galleries,” said Carver at the press conference. “We had 90 per cent of the galleries who took part last year reapply for this edition of the fair.”
A keenly international fervour defines both the gallery line-up and the direction of the fair, which takes the Menasa (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia) region as its focus but seeks to connect this vibrant hub with art production centres as yet below the radar of most contemporary art fairs. This year, the Marker section – dedicated exactly to these fertile new grounds – will focus on Indonesia.
“Marker really aims to exemplify the role of the fair as a site of discovery. People can use Art Dubai as a place to learn and see something new,” says Carver. “There have been clear rumblings in the art world; people talking about the incredible work coming out of Indonesia at the moment.”
This, she says, is what prompted the fair to enlist the Yogyakarta-born curator Alia Swastika for Marker 2012. Swastika has worked with five galleries from across Indonesia, including Bali, commissioning their artists to create new works specifically for the event and on the theme of a personal relationship with faith.
“Also, Indonesia is similar to the Middle East in that the scene has become internationally known, but is just on the cusp of something,” Carver adds.
The UAE’s home-grown scene remains top priority in the fair’s agenda for 2012, and several of the country’s major spaces, including The Third Line and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, are exhibiting. A residency programme has also started in Dubai’s heritage quarter, Al Bastakiya, this week, with three international and three Emirati artists working out of several of its traditional buildings for the next three months. The resulting works will make their debuts at the Sikka Art Fair, running concurrently with Art Dubai and directed by the same team, which takes over the heritage quarter. More details on Sikka are to be announced by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority in the coming weeks.
But emphasising the non-profit possibilities of what would otherwise be a very commercial event has been a guiding light in the fair’s operations. Carver took the reins as director last year, and has helped to build a local education programme that introduces professional aspects of working in the art world through seminars and internships, which have been running since December.
“I think it’s something very typical in the Gulf that we don’t have clear lines between private and public,” she continues, referring to the way that the fair has blurred the distinction between a seemingly commercial entity and an institution in the regional scene.
“It’s very unusual for commercial galleries in other parts of the world to take on running book clubs and film screenings and develop the infrastructure locally the way galleries here in the Gulf do. When Art Dubai started in 2007 [as the Gulf Art Fair], they knew that this is the way to work.”
While this year’s 74-gallery event is slightly more select than last year’s (82), programming around Art Dubai has ramped up significantly. The Global Art Forum began as a series of conversations and lectures about contemporary art from the region that sought to unpick the nuances of a new scene.
The London-based writer and curator Shumon Basar has stepped in to head up the forum for 2012: “The fair has been growing into an initiative that commissions new works, new projects, artist residencies, and I wanted the Global Art Forum to pick up on that,” says Basar. “We’ve been using the time leading up to March to commission a number of projects that shift the focus away from being simply a talking shop.”
GAF now takes place over six days, beginning at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha before moving to Fort Island in the Madinat throughout the duration of the fair. Basar explains that the theme of this year’s programme is “The Medium of Media”, via a series of conversations and performance-lectures. “We wanted to look at the different roles that media has played in the present since the Arab uprisings began at the end of 2010. That’s the broad thematic concern.”
This, Basar tells The National, will extend to discussions of the difference between reality and hyper-reality in the media, an artist-in-residency project at Al Jazeera and the very nature of the PowerPoint presentation.
A stridently non-profit, often academic, agenda in what is arguably the most commercial of environments that art exists in, has given Art Dubai a distinct identity – more of a festival than just a fair. “I think the fair has a particular kind of identity,” says Carver. “A very different and rare beast in the art world.”
• Art Dubai will run from March 21 to 24. A further events list will be released in February, keep an eye on www.artdubai.ae. The artists-in-residence are now working in Bastakiya and welcome visitors to their studios
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