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Wed 17 Mar 2010 08:42 AM

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Dubai Art fair aims to defy debt

A third of last year’s exhibitors skipping Art Dubai, but dealers see future for a Gulf-based show.

Dubai Art fair aims to defy debt

Art Dubai opens its doors today with few of the world’s top-selling galleries present, four months after the Gulf emirate announced it was renegotiating its debt, sparking a global stock-market rout.

A third of last year’s exhibitors are skipping Art Dubai, including dealerships such as London’s Lisson Gallery and New York’s L&M Arts. With booth rates discounted by 20 percent, there are 72 exhibitors -- four more than in 2009. About 40 percent are first-timers.

“Dubai won’t be the same place as it was two years ago,” said John Martin, who co-founded the fair in 2007 and saw it grow during the art-market boom in 2008. “The amount of money sloshing around will be less, of course it will,” the 42-year-old London gallerist said in an interview.

Dubai, the second-biggest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, borrowed tens of billions of dollars to fund a building boom and turn itself into a global trade and banking hub. The 2008 global credit crunch made it harder for companies to repay loans. Dubai World, one of the emirate’s three main state-owned holding companies, is in talks to restructure about $26 billion in debt.

The threat of a Dubai default initially made some art-fair participants jittery, with “a lot of nervousness internationally and even regionally,” and some messages from US visitors worried about their physical safety, said Martin, who reassured them.

Clouding the outlook was the slump in the contemporary-art market, where auction prices for some artists fell up to 50 percent.

Confidence has been boosted by recent sales results, such as the record 65 million pounds (then $103.4 million) paid for a Giacometti sculpture in London on February 3.

Artists showcased in the gallery booths this year include Indian painter and filmmaker M.F. Husain; El Anatsui of Ghana, who makes tapestries with bottle caps and copper wire; and Iran’s Farhad Moshiri, who in 2008 became the first Middle Eastern artist to sell an artwork at auction for more than $1 million: His ”Love” sold for $1.05 million in Dubai.

Anticipating the tough market conditions, and acting well before Dubai’s debt announcement, Art Dubai said it would charge about 20 percent less per sq m: $550 instead of $700. Galleries focusing on single artists were charged $500.

London’s Lisson, which represents Anish Kapoor, is giving Dubai a miss mainly for calendar reasons.

“There isn’t any kind of strange, spooky story,” said director Nicholas Logsdail, who sold five works at Art Dubai last year, including a Kapoor and a small work by Tony Cragg.

Dubai is “as good as any fair in the world” in terms of its organisation and talks, Logsdail said. Still, the market in the Gulf has “a long, long way to go.”

“There may be a great deal of wealth, but not a great deal of knowledge,” he said. “They don’t know why one thing is worth $100,000 and another is worth $1 million. The great challenge for Dubai is, the knowledge has to meet the wealth.”

This year’s Art Dubai also faced competition from the Abu Dhabi Art fair, which in November drew top world galleries -- including the Gagosian Gallery and White Cube -- offering highly priced works. Abu Dhabi is acquiring art to put in the Louvre, the Guggenheim and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum being built on the island of Saadiyat.

Waterhouse & Dodd, a London gallery that represents Middle Eastern artists, is skipping Dubai to concentrate on rival Abu Dhabi Art, with which it is linked. Director Ray Waterhouse described Art Dubai as “a fantastic fair,” though he said “not many people did well” there last year because of the art-market slump.

 “I wouldn’t blame the organisers,” he said. “There was a good atmosphere, and great parties, and they brought people in, but people weren’t buying.”

Lisson’s Logsdail is among dealers who would like to see the two fairs merge: Abu Dhabi draws Western galleries seeking to sell to new museums, while Dubai draws collectors from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia buying art that costs on average less than $30,000. Martin, Art Dubai’s director, also favors a merger.

Art Dubai was born of the collaboration between Martin and a Dubai-based British banker. Martin had co-founded Art London, and his banker friend talked him into creating a fair in Dubai.

“We would have been the last people on the headhunters’ list employed to do it,” said Martin, who for 18 years has run the John Martin Gallery, focusing on British and Irish art.  

The fair was a year in the making. Martin was won over when he found the venue: the convention center in the Madinat Jumeirah beachside resort. There were 40 booths the first year. The fair faced a challenge to attract good galleries, given Dubai’s image as “a city of bling, with not a library, and zero credibility, intellectually and artistically.”

A “self-consciously intellectual” forum of parallel events was set up in the first year, Martin said, including talks by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and by Cragg. The non- commercial events program has been maintained.

Irrespective of how well Art Dubai fares this year, dealers see a future for a Gulf-based fair.

“It’s a part of the world that’s doing its best to enter the 21st century with an enormous amount of enthusiasm and investment and determination,” said Lisson’s Logsdail.  “Maybe a bit too fast, but it’s got to happen.”

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

dr william zelinka 10 years ago

while your text is well done you are the only e-zine in the world that would not choose to show representative art by image..l.you do show one Indian artist and thank you for that but are there no arab artists among the 70 some exhibitors? is there no database of previous exhibitions regarding images. in short, one does not touch art today without graphic support and example.

Homa Vafaie-Farley 10 years ago

While Art Dubai is a great step towards further appreciation of art in the region. It is sad to see the the major art organizations/ schools such as the non profit making Dubai International Art Centre is included. I have been told by reliable sources that the costs are just too high for such organizations to participate. It would be wise and beneficial to all if Art Dubai organizers were to work closely with the DIAC ( which is the very first art centre ever established in the U.A.E. and has been involved in the teaching and nurturing of arts in this country) to ensure that there would be a way to include them in future events. They could for example organize a trip to the centre while the members work could be exhibited. This would be a great way for the art dealers and galleries to meet local and locally based artists who otherwise would remain antonymous.