Art Dubai's Director, Antonia Carver, talks about the importance of local art

With Art Dubai in its third year under the tutelage of Antonia Carver, the annual art fair has grown into a global event and solidified Dubai’s place as a cultural gateway to Asia.

Antonia Carver, pictured in 2011. This year's edition marks the third fair under her direction. Pawan Singh / The National
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Antonia Carver was never supposed to go into the arts.

As a sociology and social anthropology graduate of Edinburgh University, she always imagined she would end up putting her study of human behaviour to good use.

It was a trip to Australia for her final year dissertation that caused her to change her mind. For her thesis, she focused on Aboriginal artists based in cities and the impact of art on those caught between two communities.

Next week, the 41-year-old will mark her third year as director of Art Dubai. While a glance at her biography throws up an array of accolades, from managing one of the biggest art fairs in the Middle East to serving on the board of the Bidoun arts initiative, as well as consulting on the board of Brownbook arts magazine, writing about the arts for publications ranging from The Guardian to The Art Newspaper and Screen International and serving on the programming committee for Dubai International Film Festival. She also juggles the demands of bringing up three children who are nine, six and five with her journalist husband.

She is modest about her many achievements. "I am just like anyone else. You take on lots of things and get used to it - plus I have a very accommodating family."

It is now just three days before Art Dubai kicks off, and the five-day fair is a game of impressive numbers: an anticipated 27,000 visitors, 75 galleries from 29 countries, 75 museum selection committees, 500 artists and, of course, the potential for millions of dollars to change hands.

But if Art Dubai were nothing more than a commercial art fair, it would undoubtedly have foundered before reaching its seventh year.

When it began in 2007 under the directorship of London gallery owner John Martin, it was largely a platform for western galleries selling western art to the Middle East, with The Third Line the only UAE gallery and one of only a handful from the wider region.

With sales plummeting by a quarter in 2009, from Dh73.5 million the year before, the focus evolved to Middle Eastern art under Martin and latterly, under Carver.

Today's fair is a more mature affair, with a strong emphasis on education and nurturing artistic programmes year round.

"Fairs really work when they take on the identity of a city and really hone a very particular space in the art world calendar," says Carver.

"People are time-poor. They want to limit their travel and have certain hubs where they know once a year they can go and meet key people in one spot and really get to know the best of that region.

"That is what we are trying to deliver with Art Dubai. We try to be a different art fair and contribute to the local art scene by developing programmes all year round. We believe by being locally relevant, we are interesting to the international community as well."

Preparation began months ago with a flood of applications from galleries keen to exhibit. Organisers were determined to keep the fair to the same size as last year because, as Carver says, "when you go to exhibitions with 250 galleries, by the end of the week you cannot remember anything … we are about supporting artists, education and building up the local art scene."

In January, the run-up gathered pace with the arrival of three artists from Egypt, Lebanon and Indonesia, who took up residence in Bastakiya together with three Emirati artists to create original artworks from the unique perspective of those displaced from their natural environment and responding to their new surroundings.

The result will be on display at the fair alongside the five international winners of the Abraaj Group prize, among them Pakistani artist Huma Mulji and Syrian photographer Hrair Sarkissian.

When Carver first moved to Dubai in 2001, the roots of an art scene were only just starting to take hold.

While based in London in the 1990s, she had already started discovering new talent through the London-based Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts). That role led her to work with black and Asian artists and to a position as a programmer in Iranian cinema for the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2000.

"I started to become more interested in the Middle East and first went to Iran in 2000 looking for great films," says Carver.

"It was fantastic and because so many people in the film community were aligned with the arts community, that interest grew, although I did not actually study art at all."

Once in Dubai, she acted as a consultant for the inaugural Emirates Film Competition in 2001 and freelanced as a journalist for a number of arts publications, including ArtAsiaPacific and as the Middle Eastern correspondent for The Art Newspaper.

Shortly after Bidoun magazine began publishing in 2002, she joined as an editor and was key to its curatorial programme Bidoun Projects, setting up its Middle Eastern office in 2008 and organising exhibitions, workshops and talks, often in conjunction with Art Dubai.

So it was a natural progression when Martin left to return to London that she was approached to take over as director in 2010.

"It was something I was really interested in because it combined all those different roles and involved having a 360-degree view of the art world," says Carver.

"John had set up this incredible foundation, which was a real gift as a director to build on. The biggest challenge has been trying to take the fair to the next level. We want to build it as a global platform and play a greater role in nurturing the local art scene."

Art Dubai's standing on the international stage is reflected in the calibre of this year's guest speakers, from Generation X author Douglas Coupland to former REM singer Michael Stipe, now an artist, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the director of international projects at London's Serpentine Gallery.

Many will be speaking at Global Art Forum, a series of seminars and workshops running in conjunction with the fair.

If the West's fascination with the region was initially piqued by a post-9/11 climate, then what has taken its place is a more sustained interest, says Carver.

"There were mutterings that it might be a blip and people asked whether it would last, but what we have seen has been the opposite," she adds.

"Institutions which became interested in the Middle East through shows touring Europe and America started to take a deeper look at artists in their own right. Through the fair, that is growing."

She points to the number of museums, from the Tate to the British Museum and the Centre Pompidou in France, which now have departments dedicated to showcasing contemporary Islamic art.

A team from Art Dubai stays in contact with them throughout the year, taking them to see art initiatives in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi as well as Dubai.

Ultimately, she sees Dubai as being one of two gateways to Asia - the other, Hong Kong, will see the indomitable Art Basel taking over for the first time this year - with the focus in the UAE on being a "globalised meeting point".

But while Hong Kong will look towards the east Asian and Chinese market, Dubai plans to play on its history as a juncture between East and West and its background as a home to 150-plus nationalities.

"It has been a real privilege," says Carver, "to see an art scene grow in such an international way, taking into account the bedrock of history that has always been here in terms of poetry and art."

She says she would like to build on that and see "the UAE getting the international attention it deserves and to see the country playing a part in the wider world of artists based in the Arab world."

And that's pretty remarkable. Because Antonia Carver was never supposed to go into the arts.

Art Dubai runs from March 20 to 23, with a collectors' and patrons' preview day on Tuesday, March 19. See for full details on visiting times.

Tahira Yaqoob is a regular contributor to The Review