x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Eyes on Art Dubai

Feature The event's director, John Martin, talks through the galleries and artists lined up for Art Dubai 2009.

The Art Dubai co-founder John Martin says the event is attracting people from all over the world.
The Art Dubai co-founder John Martin says the event is attracting people from all over the world.

"Last year we had an awful lot of Russian visitors to the fair," John Martin explains as he awaits a flight from London to Moscow. "From October onwards, a lot of our job is getting international collectors and press coming to the fair in March. So we kind of concentrate everything in these months up till December."

In his capacity as Art Dubai's director, Martin is about to embark on a concentrated burst of interviews to promote the art event he started in 2007; at the last count he's got 13 scheduled over the next two days. But then, Russia needs special attention; its nouveau riches are an increasingly potent force in the international art business. And as Martin notes, Dubai is only four hours away. "Some of them actually said they thought Art Dubai could become the Art Basel Miami of Moscow," he says proudly. That's rather a convoluted accolade, I tell him. No, he says, it's just how things look in a globalised art market.

"Where we are, our location, we seem to be attracting more and more people from a hugely wide geography. Pretty much wherever we go there's someone - we have a lot of collectors from South America, from Japan, from everywhere in between. They're all fair game for Art Dubai." Indeed, in Martin's view, Dubai is set to become the world's major repository of global art. It's "very likely to become the trading hub of art in the Middle East", he says. It's also "a fantastic vantage point from which to see the cultural shift that has happened in the last 10 years from the West to the East.

"Dubai was slap bang in this new global culture," he says. "It's just geography: it's the most ideal spot." Hence the appeal of Art Dubai. "It gave Indian galleries the chance to meet American collectors," he says. "It gave a chance for European galleries to meet collectors from Russia and the Far East, and this is a great meeting point for people to come together into a dialogue." In the first place, however, it wasn't the political advantage that won Martin over. It was the Madinat Jumeirah. "I thought this would be a place where collectors would love to come," Martin laughs. "They could spend a week here. They've got the beach, a bit of a holiday.

"Most art fairs take place in very dull city convention centres, adjacent to something on computers or accounting industry seminars. And to have it here was much more in the spirit of what I thought an art fair should be. It should be entertainment. It should be fun." So, who's going to be doing the entertaining for 2009? "There will be around about 66 galleries," he says. "We're actually slightly down on last year, when 68 galleries turned out, because some of them have increased the amount of space they requested, which is kind of nice because that gives it more interest to businesses."

One business that took a particularly keen interest following the 2008 event was the investment firm Abraaj Capital. "They wanted to do something where they could become more involved as actual patrons of the arts," says Martin, "and we looked at a project that we could do with them that was relevant to what they did and really fulfilled a need in region." Hence the Abraaj Prize which, at $600,000 (Dh2.2million) split between three artists, is the most valuable in the business.

Open to artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, the award was for "ambitious projects that they may otherwise not have been able to realise". Candidates were nominated by gallerists and the winners were announced in October. The Turner-nominated filmmaker Kutlug Ataman was the only big name on the podium, however; the other two victors, Zoulikha Bouabdellah and Nazgol Ansarinia, were virtual unknowns, a satisfying outcome for Martin. As he explains: "The prize was there to get international curators looking far more closely at the quality of work that they produce now in the region."

The pay-off is that his discoveries have the opportunity to create something really spectacular. "Although artists in the region are doing very well at auction and exhibitions, that oddly means they don't have very much opportunity to devote a lot of time to one really ambitious piece. And so I think that things like this are doubly important." He adds: "The prize is giving them the chance to produce work that is really exceptional. It's museum-quality work, really ambitious. And I think that's something that visitors are going to find really interesting, and hopefully inspiring too."

Roll on March, when we can see it for ourselves.
elake@thenational.ae