Dubai's artistic ambitions challenge conventional wisdom

DUBAI: Participants in the nebulous entity known as the international art world may be forgiven for smarting, like a sting of sour lemon, at the thought of Dubai becoming a major destination in an already overbooked itinerary. There are hundreds of art fairs and biennials to attend every year. A swarm of artists, dealers, collectors, curators and critics gather and disperse for these events, held in cities ranging from New York and Los Angeles to Venice and Moscow to Auckland and Yokohama. There's even Argentina's Biennial at the End of the World in Tierra del Fuego along the way.

What does Dubai, a rapidly expanding and increasingly robust bubble for global capital on steroids, inject into the art world's schedule? Not a critical mass of young and hungry artists. Not a core gallery system fueled on the ambitious of fledgling dealers and upstart curators. Not a cosmopolitan streak bruised by history and the occasional bought of tumult that inspires either sublime or piercing work. None of these things exist in Dubai, not on first glance, at least, but more on that later.

Dubai does, however, have a history of trade, money to burn, a skyrocketing standard (and cost) of living and a fast-paced ethic of conspicuous consumption. The first ever Gulf Art Fair, held in Dubai's Madinat Arena over the weekend and staged in "strategic partnership" with the Dubai International Financial Center, tested out whether those things could actually combine to make art a combustible engine for another niche market in the United Arab Emirates.

The Gulf Art Fair is one of several initiatives exploring the potential of cultural initiatives to generate business activity outside of oil in the United Arab Emirates. The others include the Cultural Village project launched in Dubai last December; the Sharjah Biennial, which opens its eighth edition next month; and a deal signed last week to import a version of the Louvre in France to Abu Dhabi, part of a massive, profit-driven tourism complex.

The extent to which these projects are cooperative or competitive remains, for the moment, unclear. Abu Dhabi will hold an art fair of its own in November. The auction house Christie's set up shop in Dubai two years ago and has held three sales so far. Its arch rival, Sotheby's, singed a letter of intent with Abu Dhabi last month.

The Gulf Art Fair, meanwhile, is the brainchild of John Martin, an art dealer who opened a gallery in London for British and Irish art in 1992. For its first outing, the event brought 40 galleries from all over the world together to show and sell their work for three days. Three other events buttressed the fair and padded its commercial motivations with critical analysis, educational pursuit and local flavor.

The Global Art Forum took place in a tent on the beach at Madinat Jumeirah, a stone's throw from the Madinat Arena. It hosted panel discussions, artists' presentations and debates around such key themes as the future of contemporary art in the Middle East and the branding of cities through culture - and the participants were keen enough to thoroughly pick apart all those terms and presumptions.

Sotheby's sponsored an education program, teaching enlisted students about the ins and outs of the art market; developments in contemporary Indian, Arab and Iranian art; and the process of building public and private collections.

Further afield, the Creek Contemporary Art Fair, held away from the glitz of new Dubai in the rustic district of Bastakiya, provided a platform for the Dubai-based galleries and artists who were largely absent from the fair itself. Arguably the most interesting element of the weekend art extravaganza, the Creek event threw all those easy conclusions about Dubai having no culture into doubt. The scene so desired to give Dubai edge is already percolating there.

Still, to backtrack and risk being pedantic, what is an art fair? It is not an exhibition of art assembled for viewing pleasure, like a show in a museum. It is only marginally similar to an exhibition in a commercial gallery. There is no curatorial hand, no theme, no overriding conceit beyond commerce. An art fair is the same as an electronics expo - a trade show that displays goods for sale. Galleries rent out booths (though at least a few galleries were "invited" to Dubai this year) and kit them out with the works of the artists they represent. As for the public, you go, you look, you buy or you don't. The Gulf Art Fair, as such, created a fleeting emporium with $100 million in art on offer.

Those attending the Gulf Art Fair may be forgiven for blanching, like a host observing the behavior of a strange house guest, at the etiquette of the event. The fair was the first of its kind in "the region" - ostensibly meaning the Middle East (which curator and writer Tirdad Zolghadr, speaking on a panel at the Global Art Forum, succinctly and rightly likened to an abstraction such as zeitgeist or democracy) but perhaps more accurately indicating the trade routes and financial flows between the Gulf, Iran and India - and it arrived fully formed, as if the Gulf Art Fair would begin and in that moment be of the same caliber and prestige as the Armory Show in New York or Frieze in London. It could never be so, and there were awkward moments along the way. Those who live and work in Dubai should definitely be forgiven for not knowing how an art fair functions but for turning up to check it out nonetheless.

"Collectors here aren't really interested to buy," says Simone Precoma of Milan's Galerie Tega. "They have jumped over history. The sons of these people have seen art for the first time in London. They know a 30-year history. Art for them is Tom Sachs, not Picasso," Precoma adds with a gesture to the Spanish master's $6.6 million "Still Life with Coffee Pot" hanging behind him. "We sold nothing," he admits. "We never discussed prices. It's a game. They just looked."

Andree Sfeir-Semler of Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Hamburg and Beirut, by contrast, says she came to the Gulf Art Fair with no expectations and was pleasantly surprised: "I think they did a great job. Many collectors are here. Many curators are interested. The Arabs are much more cultured than the headlines would suggest.

"There is definitely a very interesting young generation, very striking, very dynamic," she says, many of whom are in their late 20s and early 30s and are poised to become tomorrow's collectors. "This generation grew up with money and is able to spend." That said, she prescribes patience. "It will take time." More collectors, better galleries and the formation of real institutions in the region, all of this will come, she suggests, and the Gulf Art Fair is part of the process.

Graham Steele of the powerhouse London gallery White Cube says he came likewise without expectations: "We are really just looking forward to having discussions in a part of the world where contemporary art is not as highly prized, where there is less discourse about contemporary art." Sales, Steele adds, were "fine but this isn't the Armory Show, where you do millions of pounds in sales a day, where it's a matter of a collector coming to see a work in person to say yes or no." The discussions that begin in Dubai now, he adds, will take time to unfold. Any hard or fast conclusions about an art market taking hold, then, will have to wait.





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