Art Dubai adds cultural dimension to emirates' image
When Art Dubai first arrived on the international art scene eight years ago, it featured 40 galleries and welcomed 6,000 visitors. Last year, the number of guests more than quadrupled, a figure that is expected to increase yet again this year, with some 85 galleries signed up to show their offerings.
In a world where expansive and well-populated art fairs are a matter of course - Art Basel in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong, SH Contemporary in Shanghai, Scope Art Show in the Hamptons and London among others, the just-wrapped India Art Fair in Delhi - Art Dubai has quite quickly established itself as a pre-eminent showcase of art not just from the Middle East and South Asia, but also Africa and East Asia.
"Each year, we see the geographic spread of the fair widen and this year we have galleries from 34 different countries," says Art Dubai's fair director, Antonia Carver.
This year's edition runs from Wednesday to Saturday at the luxurious Madinat Jumeirah resort. The conference space at the hotel will be segregated into different categories - Contemporary, Modern and Marker - each with a different focus. There is much buzz around this year's Marker section, which will feature artists from the Caucasus and Central Asia, curated by the international art collective Slavs and Tatars.
Art Dubai has been successful in that it has given a new dimension to a city generally thought of as being high on flash and glamour.
"Dubai has been known as a city of business, trade, tourism and transport, but it is fast becoming known also as a city of culture," says Carver. "Working together with the museums in Abu Dhabi and the biennial and museums in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates has a strong cultural offering that is really beginning to hit the headlines."
Carver says Art Dubai "acts as a hub and a meeting point, reflecting the character of the city that hosts it".
The fair has in many ways acted as a catalyst in boosting activity and interest in the local art scene overall, with parts of the city now given over to regular art walks and other art-centric events.
About a third of the galleries at the event will be from the Middle East, another third from Europe, and the rest from a smattering of other countries.
"We see really exciting young galleries coming up in the Arab world and in Africa, and we slowly see galleries from East Asia having more interest in showing internationally and in reaching out beyond China and Hong Kong," Carver says. "In general, European galleries are more savvy and more focused on developing contacts and discovering artists outside Europe, and Art Dubai is one gateway to the wider Asia region, alongside Hong Kong."
Carver says it is this combination of introducing bold, unknown new talent alongside venerable international galleries that can help combat what she describes as "fair-tigue". The Marker event, especially, delves into an art scene that rarely gets international exposure by highlighting artists and galleries who are often overlooked by the typical big city art capitals.
Under an Artists in Residence programme, run in conjunction with the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, five artists and a curator - a mix from the United Arab Emirates and international - are invited to Dubai for three months in the run-up to Art Dubai, where they live and work together in Al Fahidi, the historical part of the city, to create works for the fair.
For a society that is still culturally and religiously conservative, Carver says that freedom of artistic expression has rarely proven to be much of an issue.
"We find that there is increased awareness and understanding from all players as the city and the fair grow, and very few instances of authorities intervening in any way," she says.
And with the kind of traction the fair has had in recent years, Carver says that early misgivings have long been invalidated. "When the fair began, the art world and others thought the founders were crazy," she says. "The UAE was not known as a cultural destination, but the founders had a belief in the city and in the concept of a fair in this vital part of the world."