When the global financial meltdown gathered over this Emirati city-state, many anticipated the worst. For those skeptical of what substance underlay the Brand Dubai marketing machine, it was assumed the UAE’s traditional entrepot would be brought to its knees.
At best, Dubai’s oil-rich sister city Abu Dhabi would buy out the debt, not unlike the way the U.S. state invested in financial companies it deemed too big to fail.During ArtDubai, the sixth of the emirate’s yearly art fairs, Dubai did not look much like a city on its knees.
“Locally I feel that it’s changing radically in an interesting way on a whole series of levels,” ArtDubai director Antonia Carver’s voice is slightly shot as she sits down for this interview. “It’s been a 10-year trajectory in the UAE, where you see this organic audience and community developing. What’s interesting is that it’s accelerated the last year or two. Maybe that’s got to do with fallout from the global financial crisis.
“There’s been the local development – one example is Rami Farook turning [his gallery] Traffic from a commercial space to a not-for-profit institution starting to commission artists. You see [more and more] young people putting their efforts into foundations and commissioning publications, experimental nights, debates and so forth. So you see that kind of maturing of the art scene locally.
“At the same time, you see collectors and patrons cementing their interest in using Dubai as a base, regardless where they come from. Maybe some of that has to do with what else is happening around the region and Dubai remaining this steady city.
“But it’s also got to do with the art scene here maturing, realizing ... that this organic audience is something very precious ... It’s very rare to go to anything and find it isn’t absolutely jam-packed full of people.
“We started a monthly seminar series in November and each month we look at a different aspect of the art scene and debate it with a panel. It’s a very simple educational seminar. The idea was that it was for young graduates. Actually everyone is over-subscribed. Yes it is young graduates but it’s also doctors and lawyers and journalists and people who work in advertising.”
Carver says that this local enthusiasm is also evident at this year’s edition of the art fair, whose usual contingent of European and American museums has been augmented by spaces from China and elsewhere in south, east and southeast Asia.
“Four or five years ago, I think people questioned whether it was a fashion thing,” Carver said. “Is it a bubble? But that initial interest on the part of international institutions about trying to get to grips with the Middle East through generalized group shows, happily seems to have become a deeper and more mature interest. We see institutions coming now and looking at artists, not necessarily coming looking for themes, but looking at the work of artists.
“Of course I hope that ArtDubai is a catalyst for this, but it’s also got to do with the caliber of work by the artists. If you look at the work in the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, it’s really, really strong. There are artists coming out of this region that absolutely deserve that level of recognition.”
Carver says it’s difficult to gauge what impact the financial crisis has had on the habits of local collectors.
“You can measure things by auctions and in 2010 there was a dip for sure: The auctions matched the market. If you look at how galleries have survived and even thrived, that too is an interesting story.
“In Dubai, pretty much no galleries have closed, which, looking at global trends is pretty unusual. Last year there two new galleries that opened and this year, there were five new spaces that opened on Sakkal Avenue, of which I think two are very good galleries with big plans for the future.
“Dubai was obviously affected by the global downturn and it’s hard to fathom how this has happened ... I was talking with a couple of local collectors about this the other day and they told me that during those very difficult years they had this informal pact that they would try to buy something from every show, even something small, spreading the love among all the galleries.
“The real estate market did collapse here, but Dubai was primarily a city of trade and that continued.
“Other countries have also begun using Dubai as a sort of funnel, a role Dubai has played for the Iranian art community for several years. Now it also seems to be happening more and more for Pakistan as well.
“Countries from the Arab world that are also going through troubling times are also using Dubai as a kind of center and funnel. The city has a very particular role to play in the archipelago of the art world. And that’s very much to our gain.”
Carver has been an active figure in the Emirati art scene for nearly a decade now, first as a journalist and a programmer at the Dubai International Film Festival before drifting into the orbit of ArtDubai. Much as she loves the aesthetics of artistic production, she reluctantly admits its commodification has played a role in the resiliency of the local art market.
“It’s hard to have any hard evidence for this but I did ask around a few people about this, and people were saying to me ‘Is it a safe asset?’ It’s always problematic to equate art with assets. There is a sense, and maybe this is one indicator of why the art market has held up – and obviously it has held up globally – but I think why it’s held up particularly well here is because there is some truth in that.
“I’ve spoken to people who say ‘I know I can trust art and it’s something I can hand down to my kids.’ So it’s something tangible and nowadays there’s a common ... I don’t know what you’d say, a lack of confidence in banks. Maybe?
“Obviously art combines something aesthetic and emotional and investment from the heart. At the same time, if it’s something you can keep in your family, hand down, that will increase in value. So it’s a winning proposition.”