Organised by the Sharjah Art Foundation, the March Meetings beginning on Saturday will see more than 80 writers, thinkers, artists and heads of institutions assemble in the city's heritage quarter this weekend.
The three-day event continues until Monday, and its line-up of lectures and presentations considers questions pertinent to art in the region. Embedded in that is a platform for showcasing new work by filmmakers and experimental musicians.
"This year's programme is very robust, and that's the result of an enthusiastic response to our open-call," says Judith Greer, the associate director of international programmes for the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF).
Greer says that the core discussions for March Meetings 2012 focus on residencies, when an artist gets funding to work in situ in a gallery over a period of time, and the importance of commissions for artists today.
Sharjah has a particular stake in this territory - two solo exhibitions open this month by Ziad Antar and Basma Alsharif, created during both artists' time in residence in the city. Similarly, the Sharjah Biennial is entirely commission-based, meaning that all work exhibited has been produced for the event and funded by the SAF. "There are not many huge collections of Middle Eastern art here in the region," says Greer. "Often, the only way that an artist can afford to get their work produced is through residencies and commissions."
The team has invited a number of experts and directors from the world's great art spaces, such as London's Serpentine Gallery (Hans Ulrich Obrist) and Kunsthalle Zurich (Beatrix Ruf), to discuss how these sorts of programmes have had success in their own cities, while a number of people working inside the region talk about its gathering importance here.
"Sharjah Art Foundation is expanding its residency programme," Greer continues. "This should help to encourage more initiatives around the region. It's also useful to bring international experts and organisations here so that they can discuss programmes with colleagues locally and new standards can be set."
If an event like this had headliners, then James Lingwood, a co-director of the UK-based art organisation Artangel, would be one.
Artangel has commissioned some of the most memorable public art pieces of the past 25 years, including Rachel Whiteread's House, a cast of the interior of a Victorian building in London, which won the Turner Prize in 1993.
Artangel commissioned Šejla Kameri? and Anri Sala to produce 1395 Days Without Red, two films that follow a woman trying to cross Sarajevo during the siege of the city between 1992 and 1996. The works get their Middle East premiere on consecutive days, with Sala's film screening on Saturday and Kameri?'s on Sunday, and a double-bill on March 25. Lingwood will introduce the films and also present his thoughts on the importance of site and location when creating public artworks.
Other highlights of the programme include Shezad Dawood, winner of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize at Art Dubai last year, talking about his recent feature-length movie in which extraterrestrials land in the northern English town of Preston. On Monday, the chief curator for the Sharjah Biennial in 2013, Yuko Hasegawa, is in conversation with, among others, the artist Riyas Komu, the director of programmes for the inaugural Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala later this year.
Look out as well for a performance on Monday by the Lebanese musician Tarek Atoui, known for his abstract, caustic compositions and ability to cobble together new instruments from electronics. His latest work, making its debut in Sharjah, is titled Revisiting Tarab, and explores the legacy of Arab classical music. "Using this source material doesn't mean that the work is any mellower or that the aesthetic of my work has changed drastically," says Atoui. "It is keeping the delicacy and intricacy of Arab classical music but in dense and heavy-bodied sounds."