Art Dubai adapts plans, but will still go ahead with a physical fair in March

The art fair will move to a bespoke structure with better safety provisions in DIFC

Art Dubai, which had taken place at Madinat Jumeirah in previous years, will be held at DIFC next month. Photo Solutions
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Art Dubai has announced that it will be moving to the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) during amended dates, in a rejigging of its plans to adopt precautionary measures for Covid-19.

The fair will move to a purpose-built structure at DIFC, where 45 galleries will have their stands, from Monday, March 29 to Saturday, April 3. Built under the plaza’s central arch, the new site will allow for better ventilation and safety measures that the Madinat Jumeirah hotel, where the fair is typically held.

A man takes a photo of Iranian artist Mohammad Hossein Gholamzadeh's 2019 work "Farewell to Proserpina" at Art Dubai in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Art Dubai is marking its 13th edition with an exhibition running March 20 through March 23. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)
Iranian artist Mohammad Hossein Gholamzadeh's 2019 work 'Farewell to Proserpina' at Art Dubai 2019. AP Photo

"Ours is a sector that has, like so many others, been significantly impacted by the events of the last 12 months, and we feel a keen responsibility to do everything we possibly can to support our communities in these challenging times by realising a physical fair," says Pablo del Val, artistic director of the fair. "Safety will always be our number one priority and the decision to temporarily relocate to DIFC has been unanimously welcomed by our partners. We are immensely grateful to each of them for their flexibility, support and their can-do spirit as we continue to navigate a way out of the pandemic."

Pablo del Val is Art Dubai's artistic director. Art Dubai
Pablo del Val is Art Dubai's artistic director. Art Dubai

For gallerists who cannot travel, the fair is offering remote stands. Art Dubai will construct the booths and hang the works, and, with trained assistants, liaise between collectors at the fair and the gallery directors in their home cities so that information is exchanged.

Del Val says the move was made in consultation with the galleries and that they have nearly reached their maximum of 50 stands for the new structure. The galleries are being given reduced costs, where they will pay a percentage of their sales towards the stand fee only after the sales have been made.

"It's a very generous offering," says Will Lawrie, of the Dubai gallery Lawrie Shabibi, who will take up the fair's proposal. "Art Dubai is recognising that just minor adaptations of its existing model would not work in these circumstances. Programming such as talks and F&B are not going to be possible in the same way. By having the fair in DIFC, they're also outsourcing to the restaurants who are currently still open under current guidelines."

Safety will always be our number-one priority and the decision to temporarily relocate to DIFC has been unanimously welcomed by our partners

If galleries are heading to DIFC, the real question is how many collectors will follow. The UAE is currently on the “red list” for the UK, meaning visitors have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days at their own expense, and other countries have similar quarantine restrictions.

But those involved remain optimistic, pointing out that many collectors have chosen to winter in the UAE, where the weather is nicer and the Covid restrictions have been less strict.

"A number of our collectors have returned to Dubai, and – perhaps because of the lack of travel – have become more invested in the local scene," says Lawrie.

The delay of the fair dates, which had been initially planned for Wednesday, March 17 to Saturday, March 20, is also intended to enable travel. The fair is now scheduled within the Easter holidays, and the few weeks might buy some time in terms of vaccinations and the lifting of restrictions both in Dubai and abroad. Del Val says international collectors have already confirmed their visit, though not as many as in previous years.

In 2020, Art Dubai was one of the first to move online because of the coronavirus pandemic, and now, though in an amended form, it is one of the first fairs to resume operation in-person. Some of its more ambitious plans have already been dropped, however. In an effort to bring added value to VIPs and local residents, in December it announced a revamping of its offerings, with ambitious city-activation projects by artists. It had also planned to collaborate with local art organisations, such as the Jameel Arts Centre and Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi. Some of partnerships might still go ahead, as Art Dubai says it will confirm the scope of their participation in the coming weeks.

Other collateral strands, such as the Modern section of the fair and Bawwaba, or "gateway", which looks at different areas of the Global South, are postponed till 2022. The Bawwaba edition for 2021 was to be curated by the Bombay-based cultural theorist Nancy Adajania.

In 2007, the year of the fair’s launch, the event was held at Madinat Jumeirah – but was branded the DIFC Gulf Art Fair. So the choice of DIFC, a network of plazas with high-end restaurants and a smattering of galleries, is in some ways a homecoming.