Coronavirus: Art Dubai, Jameel Arts Centre and UAE art galleries go digital

As cautionary measures against Covid-19 ramp up, the UAE art scene tries to stay relevant online

17 March 2020, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Stuttgart: A woman is holding a tablet in her hand, on which the app of the Mannheim Kunsthalle can be seen (posed scene). Although the museums in the southwest are closed due to the Corona crisis, some are opening up with digital offers for art and culture fans and those who might become fans. (to dpa "Closed museums open virtual art spaces") Photo: Marijan Murat/dpa (Photo by Marijan Murat/picture alliance via Getty Images)
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Following the coronavirus outbreak, a cascade of event cancellations and temporary closures have spread across the UAE, including in the arts and culture sector. In the face of this, key players in the local art scene are turning to the digital realm to stay connected to their audiences.

Art Dubai, which was meant to stage its 14th edition next week, has had to postpone the fair to later this year. Their proposed replacement, a local programme that would have featured local galleries and projects, has also been transformed to go entirely digital.

This modified programme, which launches on Monday, March 23, includes an online catalogue of works, a live broadcast of talks and an online performance programme.

The 2020 online catalogue, available beginning Tuesday, is an online platform of 500 artworks from the fair’s participating galleries across four sections: Contemporary, Modern, Bawwaba and Residents. It will also allow visitors to contact the galleries for purchase inquiries.

This year’s annual talks programme, the Global Art Forum, is themed Do You Story? and will broadcast a Newshour Special about the coronavirus and the narratives that surround it. Addressing the global mood of unease and uncertainty, artists and curators such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Ana Maria Nicolaescu and Rahul Gudipudi will take part in the online discussions. In addition, the forum will launch a series of interviews and insights from those who have participated in Global Art Forum previously called Planetary Feed.

Meanwhile, the fair’s performance programme, curated by Marina Fokidis, centres on healing and will feature performances or “performative artist contributions”, as Art Dubai refers to them, from five selected artists. Details on the performances have yet to be announced.

Through these digital initiatives, Art Dubai has modelled itself after other art fairs such as Art Basel Hong Kong, which cancelled its event this year due to the virus. As a solution, Art Basel Hong Kong organisers have created 'viewing rooms' where galleries can share images of artworks for sale and deal with potential buyers.

"I think it was very important that all work that has been done will still be available for a wide audience," Yasmin Atassi, founder of Dubai's Green Art Gallery, one of the fair's participating galleries, told The National. The gallery will present works by Brazilian artist Ana Mazzei, who spent six months completing her project for the fair.

This 'global corona moment' is also a sharp reminder of the role the digital realm can play, in sharing and building knowledge and encouraging collective learning.

Another Dubai gallery, The Third Line, will also take part with works by Jordan Nassar and Rana Begum. The viewing rooms will be accessible to the public from Friday, March 20 to Wednesday, March 25.

For both galleries, capturing online interest has become increasingly important. The galleries have teamed up with Alserkal Avenue to create 3D tours of their upcoming exhibitions, which are expected to go live on Saturday, March 21. “This is just the beginning of the gallery’s new online strategy that we aim to develop in the next weeks,” says Atassi, adding that her team is preparing to launch a new website that will contain archives of previous shows.

Institutions such as Jameel Arts Centre are also turning to their online platforms, including social media channels, to engage with audiences. According to Art Jameel director Antonia Carver, their closure has compelled them to “fast-track” previously planned digital strategies and “develop new resources to address the issue.” She added that they are committed to “release a new resource digitally” for every day that the arts centre is closed, which, for now, is until Wednesday, April 1.

“This ‘global corona moment’ is also a sharp reminder of the role the digital realm can play, in sharing and building knowledge and encouraging collective learning,” said Carver in a statement, adding that Art Jameel has always been “aware that our programmes are not only for those physically able to visit our centres: for many, particularly across the Middle East and South Asia, travel is a luxury.”

As such, Jameel Arts Centre has collaborated with artist Hassan Khan to produce a piece to camera where he draws parallels between the current health crisis and the ideas from a 2018 composition titled I saw the world collapse and it was only a word. "This title is so relevant to the present moment," he says in the Instagram video, adding "there is a sense of collapse underlying everything."

For Khan, whose large-scale musical installation Composition for a Public Park is currently set up at the centre, the coronavirus outbreak exposes the vulnerability of our societies. "What we have been witnessing for the past couple of weeks… the moment of hysteria you see in the supermarket… undercuts this deep sense of a very fragile ecosystem that we imagine to be our civilisation, that we imagine to be solid."

Jameel Arts Centre will also release interactive learning kits for children, a series of e-books and library catalogues online. Currently, it is developing open calls for artists that encourage the production of digital artworks.

While there are no definite dates for when art museums and galleries will reopen in the UAE, Carver is confident for a strong comeback: “Nothing can possibly beat seeing art ‘in the flesh’ – and when the virus is under control and museums reopen, many are predicting a renewed enthusiasm for thought-provoking, physical, collective experience”.