One of the world’s youngest contemporary art fairs, Art Dubai has already emerged as the most significant commercial art event in the region and already figures among its more venerable peers.
Last year the BBC stated, “With Art Dubai, Dubai will soon position itself alongside Paris, London and New York as a world art center. Yet it’s unlikely that the director of Art Basel or FIAC would be as approachable as John Martin and Zain Masud, director and assistant director of Art Dubai. In their words, that lack of pretension reflects the mentality of Art Dubai.
“We’re exclusive but inclusive, Masud laughs while describing the fair’s context within Dubai. At once stylishly cosmopolitan and eagerly capitalistic, the city’s meteoric rise generated an opportunity that John Martin, owner of a gallery in London, seized with Art Dubai co-founder Ben Floyd.
“Everything around us was taking off, we were riding this wave of interest that centered in Dubai. The region deserved something that was world class, Martin asserts.
Martin explained that rather than setting up a museum, (Abu Dhabi has since amply filled that void with the Guggenheim and Louvre), an art fair could be set up in a few months to facilitate network growth between artists, galleries and collectors, both within the region and outside.
“I think there is a kind of logic to Dubai as this crossroad.and as a tax free zone, Martin continued. Fortunately, he says, cultural ambition quickly followed the commercial aspect of the art fair.
Art Dubai’s fourth manifestation will take place from March 14 to 20, beginning in Doha and transferring to Dubai. Although essentially an art bazaar and networking opportunity, Art Dubai brings a swell of concurrent cultural events. Last year saw performances by dance troupe Joumana Moourad & IJAD, among others, while the Global Art Forum unites leading artists, curators and museum directors to discuss art production in the Middle East.
Martin explains that unlike more traditional artistic centers, Art Dubai cannot rely on its surroundings to provide the “added depth and dimension.
“From the beginning Art Dubia had to contend with [the perception] of Dubai [as] shallow. Therefore, Art Dubai “had to work hard to show that there is strong content attached to everything we did, he said.
Working to overcome the image of Dubai as a soulless and cultureless commercial center has earned the fair staunch support from Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashid.
Yet with its venue and sponsors, Art Dubai can’t help being glamorous. Housed in the posh Jumeira district, the Madinat Arena nearly shares its beach with the Burj Al Arab. In 2007 Credit Suisse sponsored an “Art and Entrepreneurship show, while last year saw Van Cleef and Arpels present “The Art of Magical Jewels.
Masud points out that the image of Art Dubai as sexy and glamorous reflects a trend seen in all art fairs, “This is what the art world has become, she reflects.
Yet the global art market has suffered like all industries from the economic downturn. In Martin’s opinion, this is great news for Art Dubai.
“The economic crisis has helped enormously to reduce rents, which were keeping artists away. He also explains that recessions often yield the best artwork, as galleries and artists compete for fewer and more selective buyers.
“Some of the biggest private collections began in a recession, a time when you could easily get the best work. He explained that younger artists with lower price tags also have a better opportunity of gallery partnership than they would when buyers are willing to shell out for more established, pricier artists.
Martin acknowledges that Dubai remains a space in which to show art, but has yet to produce much of its own compared to the region’s more traditional artistic havens, Cairo and Beirut.
“While I think Dubai still has a long way to go as a production center, it’s an important meeting point for artists, he says.
Which explains the team’s presence in Cairo. “In a successful art city like Cairo, we’re trying to persuade galleries to take part in Art Dubai, however successful they are in their city. There’s a growing interest in seeing more Egyptian artists, Martin explains.
Of the city’s venerable galleries, Martin says, “People come to them, [galleries are] a destination, they’ve got a good international network. It’s city people like to visit, [with a] strong, loyal collector base. He laughs “They can’t keep it [Egyptian art] a secret any longer; they have to share.
Masud emphasizes that as a regional art fair, Art Dubai reaches out to Cairo and Beirut to “make sure people know that [Art Dubai] is a platform for them.
Masud focuses on intensifying support for Middle Eastern artists. Half Saudi and half Pakistani, experience as a critic in the European art scene proved the necessity of curatorial backing for groundbreaking work. She wants to see “more than just pictures to decorate a wall, but sculpture and installations. Responsibility and confidence are things that we need to work on in the region, speaking as an Arab.
Towards that end, Art Dubai grants the most generous art prize in the world, the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, for artists in the MENASA region, (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia). Last year Egyptian photographer and co-founder of the Contemporary Image Collective Hala El-Koussy, in partnership with curator Jelle Bouwhuis, was one of the three winning artist/curator teams. Her work will be shown at Art Dubai 2010.
Martin commended Culture Minister Farouk Hosni for his assistance to Egyptian artists, applauding the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (AISS) for reviving the disappearing craft of granite sculpture in Aswan. This year, the 15th AISS brings together Egyptian and international sculptors from January 2 to February 20.
Townhouse Gallery was represented last year, and Martin and Zain hope to see more of an Egyptian presence at Art Dubai.
They’re quick to point out though, that artists have never been constrained by borders. Within an increasingly globalized art scene, where gallery representation knows no nationality, the notion of the artist as national treasure is fading.
“It’s not like a football team, Martin chuckles.
Although Art Dubai intentionally highlights MENASA artists and art traditions – not least because many of its wealthiest buyers seek Indian and Chinese art – it also represents a future where a universal aesthetic replaces regional bias.