World Art Dubai returns to make all the difference

After complaints about last year's inaugural event, World Art Dubai, the local event for affordable art, returns this week for its second edition. We look at what went wrong and how the organisers aim to avoid repeating the mistakes.

Art lovers at World Art Dubai held last year. Courtesy World Art Dubai
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For an event that is still in its infancy, World Art Dubai has admirable ambition and makes some big promises.

With galleries from the Middle East, Europe, the United States and even Congo exhibiting, there will certainly be a wide spread of international art on offer when the event returns for its second edition on Wednesday.

And with a maximum price set at Dh10,000, the aim is to help casual buyers and novice collectors get their hands on a piece of unique art without breaking the bank.

However, it remains to be seen whether the event has quite managed to find its footing.

Last year’s inaugural event attracted 97 exhibitors. This year, even more are taking part – 140 – but only a handful of last year’s participants have returned, with several complaining of low sales and inadequate filtering of the audience.

“The big disappointment that we had last year was that the people who attended did not understand art,” says Jeff Scofield, director of Gallery 76 at the Dubai International Art Centre, who brought his work and that of three other artists to last year’s event.

“They expected things to be much more cheaply priced and didn’t really know what they were looking at.”

Scofield is not returning as an exhibitor this year, but will have a work in the installation section, a non-profit section of the fair.

“On the flip side, for emerging artists such as we are, this is the right event to be at,” he says. “It was an excellent event in terms of networking and to meet galleries from all over the world and therefore I am very happy to be returning.”

Sharon Harvey, the founder of Showcase Gallery in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, also decided not to return for the second edition, despite reporting good sales of sculptures by Zimbabwean artist Helen Teede and a painting by British artist Amartey Golding last year.

“The problem, in my opinion, was that it was not properly curated,” says Harvey.

“There were a handful of reasonable galleries with some good art but there was a lot of poor-quality pieces of art that I felt I didn’t want to be associated with.

“I just didn’t have enough confidence to spend the money or the time for this edition.”

However, she agrees that there is a “massive need for an affordable art fair” in Dubai and says she would return if the event was better managed.

Pravin Punjabi, the fair’s new director, is aware of the concerns and criticisms after last year’s event.

“It is important to realise that with any art fair, it takes a couple of years to establish itself properly, and we have made many efforts this year to improve the event,” he says.

“The first thing we have done is manage the expectations of the galleries. We have consulted all of them and made sure they understand that no piece can be priced at more than Dh10,000.

“We have also added an advisory committee to go through every application carefully. I hope that you will see there is a huge difference from last year.”

The addition of such a committee is an important step if the fair is to build its credibility. The advisers, who have acted as an initial filter for applications, are: Neel Patkr, events director at Dubai art studio The Jam Jar; Wendy Harris, head of art at Repton School, which supports young artists; Noush Anand, creative director at Freedom Art, an organisation that promotes emerging artists; and Rebia Naim, director of the International Emerging Artist Award, which will host part of its annual event at this year’s fair.

“World Art Dubai is a serious art fair with a long-term plan to establish itself in the Middle-East’s art scene as a destination for purchasing affordable art,” says Naim. “As with every new initiative, the first edition is a learning curve and the fair has been absolutely receptive in absorbing new ideas on how to improve and make the second edition a better version.”

Punjabi says that they have listened to the feedback from last year’s exhibitors and added a Dh15 entrance fee. “It is a small step to bring in people who are really interested in art,” he says. “It is a gradual thing to see how that works but from my perspective, I am quite amazed by the amount of people who are coming from around the world and showing interest in this event.”

When done correctly, the affordable art fair model is very successful. London, Singapore and New York all host similar events and they are a great stepping stone to bridge the wide gap between expensive works on display at high-end art fairs, such as Art Dubai, and the cheap, mass-produced prints that many buy to decorate their homes.

Works at World Art Dubai will include art by Indian artist Balesh Jindal, who specialises in painting with a palette knife.

Her piece Joy, depicting a woman's face, is being brought to the fair by Art Mudra gallery from Mumbai.

Jordanian artist Shadi Abusada from Bavaria Design Gallery also chose to depict a woman, but in his piece Daff, an abstract globe obscures her face.

Russian artist Anna Dudchenko draws a delicate image of an old lady in her whimsically titled Alice in Wonderland. Dudchenko, who has lived in Oman since 1999, is one of the many artists who are taking solo booths for their works.

From Dubai, as well as Andakulova gallery who are bringing a selection of Central Asian artists, The Art Cocoon, an online contemporary art gallery, are bringing a collection of emerging artists with some interesting photographs being the highlight.

Irina Bourmistrova, the resident curator at Andakulova Gallery, formerly Alif Art Gallery, is one of the few returning exhibitors.

“For us, this art fair is very important because we are a young gallery in Dubai and it is a fantastic chance to show to a wide audience the quality of the art that we have,” she says.

“Last year, what was lacking was a stringent selection of the galleries, so that there were many pieces of art that could not be considered good enough.

“However, I believe this year will be much better. We have had much more attention from organisers and they have been receptive to my comments. There is always a hope that this art fair will develop further.”

Punjabi and his team have also made a concerted effort to host a robust programme of talks aimed at first-time buyers.

There is also an interesting partnership with Repton School, featuring a display of artworks from students that show that they are thinking about the education side of the event – which is vital for nurturing a new generation of collectors.

“World Art Dubai seeks to open up the art market to everyone,” says Punjabi. “We aim to contribute to the growth of demand for art from art lovers and buyers after seeing the quality of art at the fair.

“We believe that the curation of the fair with affordable price points will further enhance sales this year.”

• World Art Dubai runs from Wednesday to Saturday at Dubai World Trade Centre.