“We look at Art Dubai as an institution as much as an art fair,” says Antonia Carver, in her second year as director of the foremost event in the city’s cultural calendar. “The fair has been aware since the beginning that it can fulfil gaps locally. That’s how we sit in a very different position from other art fairs.”
Art Dubai will move into its sixth edition when the event opens at Madinat Jumeirah in March. It brought 20,000 visitors to the Madinat’s gilded ballrooms last year, and seeks to better that with a programme reckoned to be its biggest to date, revealed in a preview press briefing yesterday.
There will be 74 galleries from 31 countries in attendance, hoping to get their works seen and sold to an increasingly robust regional collector base and the international museums that have become regulars at the event. This means 500 artists will be under public scrutiny during the four-day fair.
Leading the charge of first-timers at Art Dubai is The Pace Gallery, home to a stable of household-name greats of 20th-century art such as Robert Rauschenberg, Bridget Riley and David Hockney, alongside more contemporary figures such as the Chinese performance artist Zhang Huan and Fiona Rae.
Other notable newcomers are France’s Galerie Perrotin (a roster including Maurizio Cattelan and Wim Delvoye), Ardnt in Berlin and Platform China from Beijing. “You need good sales for a healthy fair, and the way we measure that is the return rate of galleries,” said Carver at the press conference. “We had 90 per cent of the galleries who took part last year reapply for this edition of the fair.”
A keenly international fervour defines both the gallery line-up and the direction of the fair, which takes the Menasa (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia) region as its focus but seeks to connect this vibrant hub with art production centres as yet below the radar of most contemporary art fairs. This year, the Marker section – dedicated exactly to these fertile new grounds – will focus on Indonesia.
“Marker really aims to exemplify the role of the fair as a site of discovery. People can use Art Dubai as a place to learn and see something new,” says Carver. “There have been clear rumblings in the art world; people talking about the incredible work coming out of Indonesia at the moment.”
This, she says, is what prompted the fair to enlist the Yogyakarta-born curator Alia Swastika for Marker 2012. Swastika has worked with five galleries from across Indonesia, including Bali, commissioning their artists to create new works specifically for the event and on the theme of a personal relationship with faith.
“Also, Indonesia is similar to the Middle East in that the scene has become internationally known, but is just on the cusp of something,” Carver adds.
The UAE’s home-grown scene remains top priority in the fair’s agenda for 2012, and several of the country’s major spaces, including The Third Line and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, are exhibiting. A residency programme has also started in Dubai’s heritage quarter, Al Bastakiya, this week, with three international and three Emirati artists working out of several of its traditional buildings for the next three months. The resulting works will make their debuts at the Sikka Art Fair, running concurrently with Art Dubai and directed by the same team, which takes over the heritage quarter. More details on Sikka are to be announced by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority in the coming weeks.
But emphasising the non-profit possibilities of what would otherwise be a very commercial event has been a guiding light in the fair’s operations. Carver took the reins as director last year, and has helped to build a local education programme that introduces professional aspects of working in the art world through seminars and internships, which have been running since December.