Under its new director, Art Dubai is relishing its role as match-maker for the region with the international art markets.
Art Dubai sees itself as a match-maker in the contemporary art world
Under its new director, Art Dubai is relishing its match-maker role in the contemporary art world, writes Katie Boucher
"There is no other fair that is quite as international in its scope," says Antonia Carver, the new director of Art Dubai, which opened yesterday. In a world where the global art fair schedule keeps the collecting crowd almost permanently airborne, this is a bold statement. But consider the numbers: 82 galleries from 34 countries, more than 500 artists and 50 museum groups, all descending on the Madinat Jumeirah for Art Dubai's four-day duration. A meteoric progression, really, for the fair which started life in 2007 (as the Gulf Art Fair) and in five short years has come to be recognised as the region's most established.
"It's a meeting point like no other," says Carver, who was offered the role last June and has spent the intervening period grooming the fair into rather a different animal.
"I looked at what Dubai and the UAE have been most successful at for hundreds of years," adds the writer and founding editor of the arts magazine Bidoun, "which is really as a meeting point and a place of business and trade, particularly for south Asia, Iran, the Arab world and the east coast of Africa and the point at which those different communities meet the outside world. In a way, that's what Art Dubai does for the world of contemporary art: we bring all those constituents together and match-make them with the international guests we have coming in.
"We are a point of discovery for them, for everything that's happening in the Menasa," she says, using the acronym for "Middle East, North Africa, South Asia".
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The result is a tighter regional focus. A third of the galleries attending are from the Middle East, and Carver has harnessed artistic forces from across the UAE and beyond to create a more substantial regional "platform".
The Global Art Forum, a series of talks and discussions featuring high-profile speakers from within the art world is, this year, a collaboration between Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Doha. The programme opened on Monday at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha and continues at Art Dubai. "Those four cities were all involved in the planning and preparation for the forum," says Carver, "which is something that's really unprecedented."
Equally, Art Week, a new initiative that brings artistic events taking place in the UAE and Doha during March under one umbrella, will seek to showcase a broader glimpse of the region's cultural scene. Those include Adach's Hassan Sharif exhibition in Abu Dhabi and the Old Master Paintings from the Rijksmuseum exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.
"We have people coming from Beijing, Hong Kong and LA," says Carver, "and we feel that if they've spent 20 hours on a plane coming to see what's happening in the Gulf, then we really want to showcase everything to them and be a cultural leader in that way. We very much see ourselves as a fair for the region, not just Dubai."
In Dubai itself, the city's galleries have, since Art Dubai's inception, sought to show some of their most interesting work during the fair. These exhibitions will also be included in Art Week. "Other institutions do little pop-up projects with independent businesses and boutiques and art collectives," says Carver, "and this has organically tended to collect around Art Dubai. It was something we really wanted to recognise and showcase to all the international businesses coming that this is a place of real creativity. It's a cultural city where artists are producing new, dynamic work and curators are working with very exciting programmes. This brings it all under one umbrella, so that it's easy for people to access."
A number of recent gallery openings, including a new outpost of the Iranian artspace Etemad, and Lawrie Shabibi in Al Quoz's Al Serkal Avenue, as well as the new non-profit art space The Pavilion, the recently expanded and relocated Traffic and the new studio space, Satellite, mean there will be no shortage of things for them to see.
Carver was an obvious choice for director; few people have been as involved in so many aspects of the UAE's cultural scene, from Bidoun to the Dubai International Film Festival, where she is an adviser.
"[Art Dubai] has had a big turnaround," says Asmaa al Shabibi, a co-founder of the Lawrie Shabibi gallery and a former managing director of Art Dubai, "and I think Antonia is the right person to have brought in to do that. Two years ago, there were very few speakers from the Middle East. I think now it's much more about regional speakers and those who have real, in-depth expertise on the region speaking to international audiences who have flown here to listen to them. So it's almost the reverse. If we want to learn about the Russian art market we'll go to Russia. If we want to hear Anish Kapoor speak we'll probably hear him in London or Basel."
New for this year is a series of free workshops, which will run alongside the Forum, expounding on everything from art law, curating and criticism to how artists deal with galleries and how they can be commissioned by museums. Ensuring that the next generation is equipped to take the art scene here to the next level is something Carver feels passionately about. "Our core business is buying and selling art," she says, "and match-making between collectors and galleries. But we are also mindful of the other side of the fair, which is non-income generating and is a way for us to act as a catalyst in the local and regional art scene; giving back to the UAE art scene and developing it going forward through educational programmes."
Perhaps the best example is the fair's new fellowship programme. Six young curators and artists from six different cities across the region, including the UAE, have been selected by the Global Forum curatorial committee to come to Art Dubai and engage with the art scene there, as well as in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. "We're hoping that these amazingly talented people who are coming are going to form the basis of a think tank going forward," says Carver. "So each year we'll add on another six fellows to experience everything happening here. They will pool their knowledge and do a presentation while they're here and we'll connect them with other people, so it's encouraging them to take a new leap in their careers."
Furthermore, several Middle Eastern artists, among them the Syrian photographer Hrair Sarkissian and the Jordanian artist and photographer Oraib Toukan, have been commissioned to create works for the fair. Bidoun Projects, a regular contributor (it also curates the Art Park, an underground space that will host film and video events and talks), will present a live mural. And performance tours around the gallery hall by artists will provide the visitor with an unusual fair experience. "That you can see everything from commercial galleries to artists that are unsigned and the next big thing," says Carver, "makes it a real one-stop shop in order to find out what's happening in the region."
Marker, a new section of the gallery hall, will allow a selection of more experimental art spaces from the Middle East and Asia access to Art Dubai's high-rolling visitors. Curated by Nav Haq, exhibitions curator at the Arnolfini Gallery in the British city of Bristol, the participating galleries will all be showing work specially created for the fair.
"We wanted to encourage a new group of dynamic, experimental art spaces," says Carver, "the kind that never normally show at art fairs. It's not your run-of-the-mill stand but something completely different."
Other additions to the fair include DXB Store, a retail outlet selling products designed by UAE-based artists and designers; and the Menasa Studio Dispatches, a series of five-minute radio broadcasts by artists to create "a living archive of artistic practice across the region".
Then of course there are the more established events, such as an exhibition of work by the five winners of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, the world's most generous art award; and the Patrons of the Arts Awards, which, for the second time, will see a group of benefactors recognised for their generosity in developing arts in the UAE.
It is partly thanks to these donors, says Carver, that Dubai's art scene emerged relatively unscathed from the financial crisis. "Globally, people were surprised by the resilience of the art market," she says, "but I think Dubai took it to a new level. People were very determined to keep supporting the galleries. I speak to art collectors here who say that even through those tough months they wanted to buy something at every show they went to, no matter how small."
Carver sees it as part of her remit - and that of Art Dubai - to try to change the way people think about the Gulf. "A few years ago people used to think of the Gulf as a place of unlimited budgets, and that's the way people used to frame conversations, in terms of money. What we're trying to do is shift the conversation to be about artists and ideas and the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that exists here."
Art Dubai runs until Saturday at Madinat Jumeirah www.artdubai.ae
A new section of the gallery hall curated by Nav Haq will show experimental work by galleries based in Lahore, Alexandria, Bejing, Amman and Jakarta.
Abraaj Capital Art Prize
Don't miss the chance to see what the five winners of the world's most generous art prize have done with their US$120,000 (Dh441,000).
Menasa Studio Dispatches
Tune in to Dubai Eye 103.8FM or stop by one of the listening posts at the fair to hear five-minute radio dispatches by artists including Shezad Dawood and Reza Aramesh.
Check out the newly expanded Art Park, a car-park-turned-exhibition-space curated by Bidoun Projects, and its retrospectives of the Egyptian artists Sherif El-Asma and Wael Shawky.
Many of the city's galleries are staging exhibitions during Art Dubai. Climb aboard the Art Bus (www.artinthecity.com) to make sure you get to them all.