"More fringe then ever" reads the alluring strap line for this year's Bastakiya Art Fair (BAF), the independent art event set to run alongside Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial this week. "Fringe" has many connotations, all of them pleasantly sketchy, but you'd be mistaken to think it refers to a few watercolours knocked up by a local art group and hung in a starkly lit hall. These days, fringe means big business.
"'Fringe' refers to where it sits on the cultural landscape," says Emily Doherty, BAF's director. "The Sharjah Biennial is the curated, non-commercial event, Art Dubai though also curated, is the big commercial event, and we're there as a venue for emerging or young artists to show their work for the first time." Over the last decade, fringe art fairs have played an increasingly important role in the commercial art market, providing cash-rich collectors with access to the most cutting edge work around. The Frieze Art Fair, established in London in 2003 to bring a flush of young talent and money to the capital, now lures collectors from around the world, and has since spawned its own fringe event, Zoo Art Fair. Its younger, edgier sister now also draws an eminent crowd, and is deemed by some to be more interesting and innovative than its rival. Similarly, Art Basel, the world's biggest art fair, now has Scope, the global fringe event that takes place simultaneously in the city, nipping at its heels when it comes to attracting the top buyers.
Previously known as the Creek Art Fair, BAF is in its third year. "We changed the name because it takes place in the al Bastakiya area of Dubai," says Doherty. "It's entrenched in that location and we thought it suited it better." Its fringe credentials were stepped up in January when its funding fell through. "We looked around and said: 'Can we still do this fair?' We only had the fees from each participant, but we just decided to go with it because the idea is that it's a fringe event."
And so their survival mantra - "more fringe than ever" - was born. "It became much more of a community event because we had no money," Doherty says. Thankfully, the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority (DCAA) recently stepped in with some funding, but its scant budget has resulted in a sharper focus for this year, with the event's emphasis remaining on the art itself, as well as a daily programme of talks.
"It started off as a budget thing, but actually it simplifies it because there is so much happening this year with the Biennial, Art Dubai and the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair." Twelve houses in the Bastakiya neighbourhood of Dubai, as well as their courtyards, have been transformed into contemporary gallery spaces. The artists exhibiting are a mind-bogglingly international mix. The British-born, UAE-based photographer Mark Pilkington will be exhibiting alongside Mizmah, a collective of six arts graduates from Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. Saatchi Online, the online arm of the world-famous and recently relocated contemporary Saatchi Gallery in London, will occupy an entire house, where the writer and curator Ana Finel Honigman has selected the best of Saatchi Online's Middle Eastern artists. And the Diesel Art Space, an international initiative that aims to encourage young artists in the field of contemporary art by salvaging public spaces, will display work by an artist who has never shown publicly before.
The community aspect of fringe events is integral to their success, says Doherty. "It's about the whole community, not just Dubai," she says. "For instance, people who are from the Middle East but living in London are showing; people from Beirut are showing; and we have Australians, Brits and Canadians showing. The whole point of fringe is that it's inclusive." However, she is keen to emphasise the addition of a selection committee this year, which has actively raised the standard of work by filtering entries. "The work has to be of a certain standard because otherwise we don't get people to come and buy the work. We want to platform the best young, emerging local work there is, and we want to set a standard. We think that the work we have this year is really interesting and fun and visual."
Running alongside the exhibitions will be BAF Art School, a series of open-access talks curated by Sara Raza, a former curator of public programmes at Tate Modern. From 10.00am-noon every day, members of the public will be able to take part in discussions on topics such as current trends within contemporary art at the XVA Gallery courtyard. "It's being billed as an alternative art school because there's no art school in the UAE," says Doherty. "Sara's developed some interesting topics which perhaps you would talk about in your visual culture MA. The idea is that you come along and have coffee and croissants, and every day it's a different discussion." This laid-back approach is another fringe characteristic, it seems. "This is not about being a highbrow, exclusive event. It's about getting people interested in art, and it's about first-time collectors coming along and meeting younger artists."
As well as the draw of undiscovered gems, the Bastakiya neighbourhood itself has huge appeal. Its traditional, wind tower-topped houses were built in the late 1800s to house the pearl merchants who inhabited the then small fishing town of Dubai. It was recently renovated and now houses a scattering of hip cafes, galleries and boutique hotels. "The houses are completely higgledy piggledy," says Doherty. "Quirky as anything. But that's what makes it so interesting. There's a sense of it being much more organic in a way. It's such a visual experience. You're walking around and it's very serene, very beautiful. You've got all these old houses, and then you've got contemporary art both outside and inside. It makes for a very heady experience."
Many of the eminent art collectors who will descend on Dubai this week will be seeking out just the kind of emerging talent that BAF champions, according to Doherty. "If you have any serious collectors, when they come to the art fair, they will usually be interested in finding out what other talent is there, nurturing that talent and building a relationship with them," she says. "Fringe is important because it can throw up some really interesting artists."
Equally, its part in promoting the next generation of artists is crucial, she says. "You're providing a public space for those artists who don't have a gallery to represent them yet, or they're younger galleries and they can't necessarily afford to do the major art fairs. You need to support young artists. Otherwise how do they nurture their careers?" The fringe concept also sits well with a fragile economy, she says. "You've not only got everyone pulling together, knowing there's not much of a budget, but you've also got galleries who can't necessarily pay thousands of dollars for the big art fairs now. So they come to us and get a fantastic space for a reasonable price. We haven't got a huge amount of money, but this isn't about being glossy and having a big opening night. This is about having a great time and showing some strong work."
In fact, the ripples currently running through the economy could benefit the local art market, she says. "There is a natural cycle and there's been a slightly false economy here recently, where lots of very young artists have been pitching their work out for huge amounts of money to a very receptive market. And it can't go on forever because what happens is that nobody else in the world can afford it, so you don't get your art shown anywhere else. I think people will be more discerning about it now. The work that's being put out there will be stronger, people will collect the work that's worthy of being collected, and hopefully prices will be more realistic."
For the next few days, the streets of Bastakiya will be abuzz with the names of the region's best emerging contemporary artists. So go and listen in - and enjoy a light continental breakfast while you're at it. The Bastakiya Art Fair will take place in the houses of Bastakiya, Dubai from 9.00am-8.00pm today to March 22. For more information, visit www.baf.ae. Valet parking is available.