Abu Dhabi Art’s new director talks to Nick Leech about her plans for an event that she has always viewed as "a very different fair”.
How Dyala Nusseibeh is bringing change to Abu Dhabi Art
Evolution or revolution; incrementalism or wholesale change? Those were some of the options that faced Abu Dhabi Art’s new director, Dyala Nusseibeh, when it came to programming this year's edition of the capital’s flagship art event, which opens on November 8.
Following stints at London’s Saatchi Gallery and the now-defunct Art International fair in Istanbul, Nusseibeh was appointed days before the opening of last year's edition, the eighth and last to be organised by the executive director for culture at TCA Abu Dhabi, Rita Aoun-Abdo, and her team.
While there were no doubts about Nusseibeh’s suitability for the role, the move prompted as many questions as answers: why had it taken eight years for the fair to appoint a director, and now that it had one, what approach would she take?
Would the Emirati follow the example set by Noah Horowitz, who used his first season in charge of the Armory Show in New York to make a radical statement? Or would she aim for the continuity achieved by Alessandro Rabottini at the Milan International Fair of Modern and Contemporary Art, who had already served a four-year apprenticeship under his boss Vincenzo de Bellis, the man he replaced as artistic director?
The first clue came in April with Galleries Week, a collaboration between Abu Dhabi Art and Warehouse421 that invited six galleries to exhibit affordable, sub-US$10,000 (Dh36,730) works in a pop-up venue in Abu Dhabi’s Mina Zayed. Then, in May, TCA announced the full programme for this year's Abu Dhabi Art.
It was immediately clear that the earlier collaboration and pitch had set a pattern. Featuring major curatorial collaborations with New York University Abu Dhabi Art Gallery’s Maya Allison, as well as Dubai-based artist Mohammed Kazem and curator Cristiana de Marchi, not only will Nusseibeh’s Abu Dhabi Art seek to make the most of the UAE’s existing networks, but also attempt a subtle refocus that allows it to develop deeper local connections, while expanding its scope and reach.
“I see my role as enhancing the fair’s existing strengths,” Nusseibeh tells me. “I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t have legs as it is – it does – but I’ve been attending Abu Dhabi Art almost since the first edition and I’ve seen it evolve.
“And I also think that one of my focuses going forward is to bring in artworks at lower price points that engage younger and new collectors in the middle tier, and that’s where we want to focus our attention in order to make Abu Dhabi Art more sustainable.”
Nusseibeh admits the market in the capital may be small in comparison to major international fairs, but believes Abu Dhabi Art has characteristics that make it unique.
“Initially, it was undeniable that the prospect of museum acquisitions attracted top-tier galleries, but beyond the museums, our host committee are also serious collectors who often buy museum-quality art because they want to support the fair and the art scene in Abu Dhabi,” she adds.
In a crowded calendar that is increasingly suffering from what journalist Georgina Adam has dubbed “fair-tigue”, the failure of shows such as the biennial Melbourne Art Fair, which closed last year after 28 years, and Nusseibeh’s previous show in Istanbul, which was cancelled last year in response to the deteriorating security situation in Turkey, only reinforce the need for change at Abu Dhabi Art.
Last year’s event featured the lowest number of exhibitors in its history, and despite displaying museum-grade work and attracting art world A-lister’s, the crowds that once thronged the fair to attend public talks by the likes of Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel were notable in their absence.
In a round-up, The Art Newspaper’s Anna Somers Cocks described last year’s show as an “artistically interesting and rather jolly” long weekend that was part-family-focused cultural event and part-fair.
“We certainly lost some of the top-tier names in recent years, but around 90 per cent of our exhibitors return each year, including blue-chip galleries such as Lisson [Gallery] and Galleria Continua, who do significant sales and not necessarily to the museums,” Nusseibeh counters. “Last year, there were 35 galleries ... this year we’re closer to 45, and I wouldn’t want to get much beyond than that. We’re getting back to the fair’s original size, and I think that’s just about right.”
Nusseibeh makes no bones about the role that writer, editor and uber-curator Omar Kholeif has played in attracting new blood to the Focus: Beyond Territory strand at this year’s fair.
“He’s a phenomenal curator with very close ties to artists and galleries and we gave him a very wide remit to do whatever he wanted to fit into the context,” Nusseibeh explains of the Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), who is performing a similar role to the one he was given by Noah Horowitz at the Armory Show in 2015. “He’s mixed very major artists with lesser-known names and that fits the diversity of the fair. You’ll see works that would do well in a museum and there’ll also be works that a young collector would be proud to have as an early acquisition.”
In commissioning three-month-long site-specific installations from Egyptian audio artist Magdi Mostafa and Saudi artists Manal Al Dowayan and Nasser Al Salem for Saadiyat Island, Al Jahili Fort and Al Ain oasis, Nusseibeh is also attempting to build on the work of returning Abu Dhabi Art stalwarts Fabrice Bousteau and Tarek Abou El Fetouh, whose street art and performance strands have traditionally extended the fair’s reach beyond its home at Manarat Al Saadiyat.
“This is only the first year, and I’d love to see how it evolves, but the idea is to reactivate historic sites by bringing audiences to them to connect with the history of those places and the history of the UAE,” Nusseibeh says. “We’ve deliberately chosen places that have phenomenal histories behind them, and we’re trying to get local and international audiences to come to places that are really key for us. The idea is to move the fair away from something that feels like an annual pop-up event to something that has more outreach during the year, because for us really to have roots, we have to engage at different levels with different communities and our projects this year really focus on that.”
Abu Dhabi Art will run from November 8 to 11 at Manarat Al Saadiyat and other venues. For more information, visit www.abudhabiart.ae.