As of the beginning of August, Art Dubai will have a new director: an English writer and editor who has made herself omnipresent in the Middle Eastern art scene over the past eight years. "They offered it to me last week," said Antonia Carver, speaking from Dubai Airport where she was waiting to fly to Switzerland for Art Basel, the world's leading art fair. "It's all been quite a rush because we wanted to take advantage of the fact that Art Basel was on to do something there. I start on August 1 and the other side of things, of course, is that time is ticking and March suddenly seems quite close."
It's hard to believe that she is really feeling the pressure. Up until now, Carver has managed to combine roles as a founding editor of the arts magazine Bidoun and as a Middle East correspondent for The Art Newspaper and the film trade paper Screen International. At the same time she has been a selector for the Dubai International Film Festival and an organiser for the Global Art Forum. She has also been serving as a member of the jury for the Abraaj Capital Art Prize and edited or contributed to several art books.
Carver has arranged to withdraw from some of these more active duties to focus on Art Dubai. "My programming role at DIFF is just as a consultant and just on the Arab films," she said. "It's also a sort of a passion of mine so I was loath to give that up." Meanwhile, she is retreating to a board role on Bidoun magazine, where she will advise on strategy. Her focus will be the fifth Art Dubai, and her priority will be to "consolidate and strengthen ties to the region, meaning MENASA" - that is, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.
"I'm pretty lucky to take over this year because next March is also Sharjah Biennale 10, so it's Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennale, and it's going to be a fantastic year," she said. "Really the UAE at that time in March will be a destination for anybody that's interested in engaging in the art world in the region." Carver came to Dubai in 2002. She had been working for the Edinburgh International Film Festival as an advisor on Iranian film. When her husband came to work on the Financial Times's UAE desk, Carver welcomed the opportunity Dubai offered to deepen her acquaintance with Middle Eastern culture.
"For me what was so exciting was that it was so close to Iran," she said. "You could hop on a plane and also go to Beirut and places like that where I'd begun to work with artists and filmmakers. It was really nice to get more into that." In 2002, she admits, Dubai "was quite a different place". "There wasn't so much going on and you really had to dig beneath the surface," she says. When you did, though, "you found these amazing initiatives like the Emirates Film Competition, which was just acting like an informal film school. Things were really happening, but they just weren't as obvious as they are today."
Indeed, eight years later the UAE's cultural scene is flourishing. "There's probably never been such international interest in Middle Eastern contemporary art as there is now," Carver says. "There's the Sharjah Art Foundation that presents one of the leading biennales definitely in this part of the world, and then there is Art Dubai and the gallery scene here, and there are some major museum plans that are happening in Doha and Abu Dhabi.
"This all presents a kind of Renaissance, if you like, or a new move in this region, and something that people internationally are very interested in." They will want to see what Carver does next.