When it comes to being able to transform an idea into reality and then into a headline-generating international phenomenon – usually within the span of a decade or less – Dubai simply doesn’t have a rival. Whether film festivals, horse races or world government summits, the question is rarely “how?” but “how big can we get?”
It certainly applies to Art Dubai, the 12th edition of which starts this week in Madinat Jumeirah. It is already the region’s most important art fair and this year will expand the number of international galleries participating from 94 to 105. According to its director Myrna Ayad, Art Dubai has become “a key meeting point, locally, regionally and internationally and offers a real showcase for emerging talent in the region”.
It is also a platform for championing the art scene in the Middle East, a place with its own currents, movements and artists that deserve recognition beside more celebrated centres. Indeed, its section on Modernism in the Middle East has become a vital component in the study of art in the region between the 1940s and the 1980s – a period that Art Dubai is helping to not simply elevate but actually define.
Above all, though, Art Dubai is a place for people to buy high-quality art; a chance to visit the stands of some of the most reputable and exciting galleries in the world, identify trends and talents, and maybe leave with a piece to decorate a home, office or, perhaps at some point in the future, an auction house.
We asked Art Dubai director Myrna Ayad why the fair represents an ideal opportunity to start a collection, and why that collection might lead to something bigger and more worthwhile.
Tell us about the 2018 edition of Art Dubai
Well, there are now 105 participating galleries this year, which is more than 2017.But our goal is never to be merely a big show, it’s to be as diverse as possible. Not bigger, just better, more diverse and better curated, with more artists from across the world – and particularly from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. For 2018 we have “residents”, whose work is located between the two Contemporary halls. These spaces will house the work of 11 artists from a number of countries including Africa and South America, who are working in collaboration here and in Abu Dhabi.
Are there any themes at this year’s fair?
There are no themes to Art Dubai. We do talk to galleries about the works they’ll show and advise on curation and stand design, but we don’t dictate anything. In fact that’s one of the things we love most about Art Dubai – through the art the galleries bring in, we see whether any themes or trends emerge. For instance, last year, we saw that there was a lot of geometric abstract works. It’s a thermometer for the global art scene in a way.
Why is Art Dubai a good place to start a collection?
It’s that word “diversity” again. Art Dubai showcases galleries from 48 different countries around the world, and the breadth of galleries and countries reaffirms our place on the global art scene. You simply won’t find our level of diversity at any of the other major shows such as Basle or London. There are also works from as little as a couple of hundred dollars all the way up to six figures. People think it’s difficult to start a collection, that art is remote or intimidating, but I know people who started by buying a piece at Art Dubai and who have now substantial collections – and have even turned into patrons.
How important is Art Dubai in ensuring that art from this region is seen as an investment globally?
We work with a lot of institutions to foster greater recognition for the art produced here. Major collections, such as Tate in London, the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum, all now have acquisition committees to explore art from the MENASA region. More than 90 museums from around the world now attend Art Dubai, to not just acquire pieces but to network, appraise and discuss art from the region.
Who are the key patrons in the region?
This is now the 10th year of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, for instance, and it forms one of the most important acts of patronage in the Middle East. Past winners of the prize have gone on to win major awards and exhibit in the likes of the Guggenheim and the Tate, so it’s been a hugely significant champion of art here. Then there are foundations such as Art Jameel, Sharjah Art Foundation and the Barjeel Art Foundation. They’re not just buying art, they’re exhibiting it, providing residences, offering programming and workshops – really helping to foster an art scene here.
Being a patron is about supporting artists and the artistic community in a city or country. For instance, the private bank Julius Baer recently commissioned a new work for its premises. That’s real patronage. Anyone can be a collector.
Why do we need patrons?
I think it was Winston Churchill who said, when he was told that the government was going to cut funding for the arts and music, “Then what are we fighting for?” Really, it’s about making a commitment to humanity, about safeguarding history, about cementing a legacy. How do we get to know each other if not through art? It’s a way to learn about other cultures. I love the messaging at the new Louvres in Abu Dhabi: “In us we see the other”. Art helps provide a window.
Do you have any idea of the value of art transacted as a result of Art Dubai?
It’s difficult because you can’t know the relationships made at the fair or enquiries that turn into sales directly as a result of the fair. What I do know is that, in 2015, we were responsible for $35m expenditure in Dubai during that week, so that’s a pretty large operation.
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