"It's one of those art fairs that you want to be a part of, because all the right people go to them. Whatever that means!" Tarané Ali Khan, the spokesperson for The Third Line gallery in Dubai, laughs as she realises the stupendous art world cliché that she has just uttered. But the thing is, she's right. More than 250 galleries from North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia are taking part in this year's Art Basel Miami Beach, which wraps up today. Miami Beach is the sister to the Swiss event (Art Basel), which is seen as the world's leading art fair.
In this, its seventh year, the fair's selection committee has chosen to host galleries from over 800 applicants. The exhibitors, which include 25 new participants, are showing works by more than 2,000 artists. Elsewhere in the fair, the offbeat filmmaker David Lynch has been hired to design an installation. The project, Diamonds, Gold and Dreams, takes place within the 1,219 square metre Cartier Dome. Inside is a seven-minute "floating diamond" projection, accompanied by a musical score.
Organisers say the fair, which includes offshoot events like Design Miami, will attract 40,000 visitors this year, edging ever-closer to the tally of its Swiss counterpart. It calls itself the "cultural and social highlight for the Americas" and few people disagree. All this takes part in one of the world's best preserved Art Deco districts and what is more, it's still shorts weather. Anyone you speak to at the Miami Beach fair will say the same things. Words like "funky" and "youthful" are bandied around endlessly, reflecting the event's desire to be seen as more accessible than its Swiss counterpart. With a focus on cutting-edge art, the Miami fair may not draw the wealth of the European event, but it takes more of the kudos.
While Middle Eastern art is becoming increasingly fashionable around the world, the region has until recently been under-represented at the Miami fair. However, for the first time, this year's event has a substantial contingent of artists, gallerists, journalists and collectors from the Arab world. "The Third Line is one of the very few Middle Eastern galleries that have been accepted for Art Basel," says Ali Khan. The gallery she represents has been selected to take part in the fair's Supernova section, a platform that singles out 20 young galleries from around the world and allows them to present recent works by their artists.
The Third Line has flown four of its staff to Miami and paid around Dh40,000 for a 4x3 metre booth in Miami Beach's Convention Center. The cramped space will mean the pieces will have to be displayed on rotation, with only 11 of the 18 artworks visible at any one time. The conditions are far removed from the gallery's Dubai headquarters, but Ali Khan says it's well worth it. "Our aim is to get recognition of the artists and their works on an international platform, to show the rest of the art world that things happen here. We want to show everyone that art is growing. It is very successful and can compete with the rest of the world," she says.
One of the pieces in the booth is an original work, created for the event by the Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri. Flower Power, an oil on canvas piece, depicts a 1950s B-movie-style robot, with a string of flowers around its neck, reflecting the festival's view of itself as youthful, fun and innovative. The California-based Amir Fallah, famous for his depiction of ramshackle children's forts, and pieces by the Moroccan-born photo artist Hassan Hajjaj, will also be on show.
Following The Third Line's selection, other Dubai galleries have sent scouts to the event, testing the Miami ground for interest in Middle Eastern art. "I'm going to take a look and maybe we will submit an application for next year. I don't know if it will get accepted," says Maliha al Tabari, the director of the Art Space gallery in Dubai. "I went to Art Basel in Switzerland four years ago. That was amazing, but it's more for very high-end pieces like Picassos costing a million dollars or more. Miami Beach is more hip and funky and a trendsetter kind of fair. It has less of the masters."
Like many art fairs, Art Basel Miami Beach also aims to encourage discussion among its attendees. It does this in the form of its Art Basel Conversations and Art Salon programmes. On this year's bill, the topic is Will Art Transform the Political Face of the Middle East? The panel includes Ali Yussef Khadra, the founder of the Dubai art magazine Canvas, the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat and the Dubai-based art collector and businesswoman, Dr Lamees Hamdan.
"I'd very much like to see more Middle Eastern representation [at the fair], both Middle Eastern galleries and local UAE galleries," says Hamdan, who has recently been confirmed as the commissioner for the UAE's first national pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale. "The way that people view art [from the Middle East] has changed. Ten years ago I don't think we would have had anything written about it in a newspaper. Now we are here."
She believes the region's growing representation at fairs such as Art Basel and Venice Biennale is helping to develop its reputation as a cultural centre. However, she says individual galleries must also make greater efforts to become known on the international stage. "I think the UAE in general has a lot to offer. But we have to encourage our galleries to position themselves for an international crowd."
This year's event also marks the third edition of the Design Miami fair. The show, which began independently and is now part-owned by Art Basel's parent company, Messe Schweiz, features more than 20 international design galleries. Among the exhibitions is ALEF, created by the Villa Moda founder, Sheikh Majed Al Sabah, a member of the Kuwaiti royal family. His seven-day design show is intended to preview many of the pieces that will appear in his Al Sabah Art & Design Collection, which will open in the DIFC Gate Village, during Art Dubai in March 2009.
"We have a message to deliver and this message is that there is so much in the Middle East that nobody knows about, in terms of beautiful craftsmanship. We want to show people how beautiful art and design is in our part of the world," he says. He believes the Miami event is the ideal location to launch his collection. "It's the most credible art fair in the art world. If you make it at Design Miami or Art Basel, you are in with the best galleries in the world. That it why we decided to come here."
Highlights of his exhibition include the work of the Lebanese designers Huda Baroudi and Maria Hibri, known collectively as the design firm Bokja. In the ALEF show are pieces of vintage 1950s and Sixties furniture, which they have strikingly reupholstered in traditional fabrics of the Middle East. Also in the collection are surreal pieces by the Dutch artist Pieke Bergmans, who has created a Middle Eastern versions of her Crystal Virus series.
The artist hand-blows large glass "bubbles" onto antique Middle Eastern furniture. As the crystal is blown, it burns and marks the furniture, while at the same time taking on the texture and shape by the surface with which it connects. As well as the individual pieces on display, Sheikh Majed says Middle Eastern hospitality is a theme that he wants to convey to visitors. "We have these beautiful outdoor chairs where people can sit and eat dates, sweets and pistachios, then drink Arabic coffee, with incense burning around them. We wanted to bring the flavour of the Middle East to Miami.
"Everybody ends up here, the smell has been going all over the place," he laughs. Although his exhibition had only been running for one day when we spoke, Sheikh Majed says he already considers it to have been a success. For the members of The Third Line gallery, the success came when they were selected for the prestigious event. Everything else is a bonus. But after hearing nothing but positivity from the fair's attendees, eventually, Sheikh Majed is able to offer-up some small criticism.
"With Europeans we do not have a problem, they come and they buy and they leave. But with Americans it is different, they always say: "What is your best price? What's the best you can give me?"