It may not be the biggest show on the planet but Art Dubai, which turns 10 today, punches well above its weight, and has many reasons to celebrate as Middle East artists gain a firm foothold across the world for their unique skills.
March is one of the busiest months in the international arts calendar with nine major international fairs taking place.
They range from the big shows such as The European Fine Art Foundation in Maastricht, the Netherlands, and Art Basel Hong Kong to smaller events such as the Art Paris Art Fair and Art Central in Hong Kong.
But Art Dubai, which celebrates its 10th anniversary today when it opens at the Madinat Jumeirah, is unique as a window to the world of art in the region. While its numbers are modest in global terms, the fair was 26th in a recent global ranking of recorded visits.
“Looking at our colleague’s fairs around the world, they tend to focus on particular geographies and to be very skewed towards the art worlds of Europe and North America,” says Antonia Carver, director of Art Dubai.
“But there isn’t really another fair that has our geographic breadth or our approach to encouraging fresh, young spaces alongside established European galleries.”
Fairs such as Frieze London or Art Basel have far longer exhibitor lists dominated by local galleries, but this year’s Art Dubai will attract more than 500 artists of 70 nationalities, and 94 gallery operators from 40 countries.
“When the fair was established in 2007, I don’t think people ever thought that Dubai would become the international hub that it has,” Mrs Carver says.
“During the first four years of the fair’s growth, like many other events in this part of the world at the time, it was seen as a matter of bringing the best of the West to meet the East.
“But during the last six years that’s changed a lot and I feel we’ve really thought about Dubai’s role as a city, the UAE’s role as a country and our position here as we look out towards the rest of the Arab world, North and East Africa, and with Iran, Pakistan, India and Central Asia.”
For Mrs Carver that diversity, which also stems from the UAE’s historical cultural and trade relations, is one of the main reasons international art world luminaries are attracted to the fair.
It lures names including Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Germano Celant, director of the Prada Foundation, and London’s Serpentine Galleries’ curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.
They are not the only ones. Thanks to a partnership with the British Council, Art Dubai is also hosting a party of UK-based curators and museum professionals from organisations such as Tate Liverpool and the Ashmolean Museum, who want to be introduced to local institutions including Abu Dhabi’s Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.
“We see Dubai’s role as being a hub but also as a window to the rest of the UAE and we have a symbiotic relationship with local non-commercial institutions that is incredibly beneficial,” Mrs Carver says.
Chief among those is the Sharjah Art Foundation, whose ninth annual arts industry conference meeting attracted 40 international curators and museum professionals to the UAE this week, and Sharjah’s Barjeel Art Foundation.
Mrs Carver describes the foundation’s continuing show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, as a “game changer” for art and artists from the Middle East.
“It’s the first time I’ve been in London and heard so many people talking about an Arab art exhibition in London that they were repeatedly visiting,” she says. “It’s had such an impact on people’s perceptions of modern Arab art.”
If that shift in perception can be seen in museum displays such Barjeel’s show in London and the Los Angeles County Museum’s Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art from the Middle East, it can also be seen in the growth of international fairs and galleries in the region.
In New York, these include the Taymour Grahne Gallery and Jack Shainman Gallery, and in London the Ayyam Gallery, which also has a Dubai presence.
Last year’s Focus: Menam exhibition at the Amory Show in New York featured a group of 15 galleries representing 27 artists from the UAE, Egypt and Lebanon, as well as other areas of the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean.
Despite the increasing international appetite for modern and contemporary art from the region, this is yet to consistently manifest itself in the prices achieved at auction.
This evening, Christie’s Dubai celebrates its 10th anniversary in the Middle East with a sale, Now and Ten, of 40 curated works alongside its annual sale of regional modern and contemporary art.
With a pre-sale estimate of about US$9 million (Dh33m), the highest predicted in decade, the auction includes Sarajevo, a 1993 frieze by the leading Egyptian artist Omar El Nagdy, which is estimated to go for between $400,000 and $600,000.
But this is an exception, and other museum-grade works such as Al Buraq by the Iraqi artist Khadim Haider and Souk by renowned Lebanese master Paul Guiragossian, are predicted to sell for little more than than the US$221,846 that was achieved by a rare, diamond-encrusted Birkin handbag sold at Christie’s Hong Kong in June.
“People need to be patient. This market is only 10 years old and it’s still very young, but I think we are starting to see a steady increase in prices,” says Michael Jeha, managing director of Christie’s Middle East.
“The awareness and appreciation of Middle East art has increased, especially in the past two to three years.
“We’ve seen more exhibitions of Middle Eastern art globally, we’ve seen more international museums collect Middle Eastern art and we now have more international galleries representing Middle Eastern artists – and I think that is a trend that will continue. But there are a lot of things that need to happen in the next 10 years to see the overall price point increasing, and we still need to see more depth in the market and more depth of buying, with more buyers at the top end and more corporate collections.”
Mr Jeha believes the market for regional art has stabilised since the severe correction in 2008-2009, when prices for Iranian art fell by as much as 50 per cent. But he admits that the outlook is now less certain.
“We can all see that the world has become more challenging and that we are living in more uncertain times globally,” he says.
“There isn’t much positive news around if you look at the instability in the Middle East, the oil price, at China cooling and with the US elections coming up. But despite the challenges ahead in 2016, I think most people will accept that we’re not where we were at in 2009 or the second half of 2008. I think things are going to slow, but the question is by how much?”
That uncertainty has already been felt in the wider art market. This year’s TEFAF Art Market Report shows that global art sales fell 7 per cent last year to US$63.8bn and sales numbers declined by 2 per cent.
The number of fairs has also declined, but Mrs Carver says these trends have yet to be experienced in Art Dubai.
“We’re quite optimistic,” she says. “I’ve been talking a lot recently to collectors and economists and art market reporters, and there’s been quite a bullish response from people saying the UAE is in a relatively strong position in comparison to other cultural capitals.
“We’re obviously well-supported in the GCC, but at the same time I think we are better protected than most because, despite everything that’s happening politically in the wider Arab world we’re still in a wider region that includes Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, that’s experiencing pockets of growth.”
A recent independent report commissioned by the parent company of Art Dubai and its sister event, Design Days Dubai, sought to measure the direct economic impact of both fairs on the local economy. Conducted by Repucom, which specialises in analysis of sport and entertainment events, it found that last year’s fairs generated 25,000 visits and attracted 15,625 unique visitors, 51 per cent of whom came from outside the emirate.
These resulted in an estimated 6,000 art and design purchases, 27,500 hotel night bookings and $35m of new money into the local economy in just six days.
For the Dubai art adviser Salma Shaheem, head of Middle East markets at the Fine Art Fund Group, a more holistic approach is vital when it comes to assessing the UAE’s situation.
“If you isolate just one element of the market you’re not getting a rounded view,” Ms Shaheem says, admitting that her approach to art collecting and investment, which focuses on capital growth over decades rather than years, allows her to take a broader view.
“What we have here is a well-rounded art economy. It’s small and its growing and emerging, and therefore it has its growing pains, just as with any other industry, but I haven’t seen any of the original galleries shutting down or a freeze in the number of galleries exhibiting at Art Dubai.
“For me the amount of art that’s sold at Christie’s isn’t an indicator. It’s great but because art is a multi-faceted commodity it’s an alternative asset class. It is intellectual, it’s aesthetic, it’s about education and you can’t separate those facets.
“Tighten the focus and look what’s happening closer to home, at the expansion of Alserkal Avenue [in Dubai] and the fact that there are a lot more young collectors now than there were five years ago.
“Today we also have more Middle Eastern artists in museums abroad than we did five years ago and some have come from galleries locally, such as Monir Farmanfarmaian, who is represented by The Third Line.
“She is the first female contemporary Iranian artist to have a solo show at the Guggenheim. These are all things that show me we’re moving in the right direction.”