Abu Dhabi is making a name for itself as a Middle Eastern art hub with a strong, if royalty-centred, fair performance.
Abu Dhabi Art, now in its fourth edition, wrapped up last Saturday after running from 7 to 10 November 2012. Many galleries reported sales, with the media noting a significant royal presence and a well-organised fair with strong artwork.
Strong sales result of royal family purchases
The 2012 edition of Abu Dhabi Art included fifty galleries, including ten newcomers. Many galleries were reporting sales from the fair, even some early on. Republished in ARTINFO, Dubai-based art magazine Canvas reported an exhaustive list of vernissage sales, concluding that the fair “opened on a high note with a bustling crowd, full booths and an optimistic outlook for the rest of the week”. They also followed up with a second-day sales round-up, noting that the positive momentum from the opening had indeed carried over.
However, Georgina Adam, writing for the Financial Times, was quick to note that much of the optimism was derived from the key buyers, the royal family, who could be relied upon to bolster sales at the fair. She said,
Essentially, there is one main buyer in the emirate: the royal family. Crown Princess Sheikha Salama is the most active – although, according to a number of dealers, her daughter Sheikha Maryam is also engaging with contemporary art. So having made their tour, the sheikhas and advisers will no doubt be making purchases before the fair ends Saturday night. Many of these works will end up in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, now expected to open in 2017.
As ARTINFO‘s Benjamin Genocchio noted, such monopolar market behaviour may ultimately harm Abu Dhabi Art’s chances of becoming a world-class art fair. As he said,
Herein lies the intriguing paradox of Abu Dhabi as an art fair location: In spite of its amazing facilities, good art, endless sunshine and zero tax status, there is a nagging feeling that this event — now in its fourth edition — is held largely for the benefit of His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and his circle of friends and family. There is nothing wrong with that, or the fair’s stated vision to help drive the local tourism industry, but it could be much, much more than that. It could be a truly great fair.
What they need here are more collectors. Clearly there simply aren’t enough people interested in buying art presently living in Abu Dhabi or hereabouts to make this a sustainable financial exercise for galleries. Unless galleries sell they won’t come back. This year the mood was more positive than last, I am told, and most galleries reported sales, but there is nothing like the crush of Basel or Frieze or Miami, where booths sell out in minutes. It is low key here, with things ‘on reserve’.
Increase in quality: fair, artwork
Commentators were virtually unanimous in noting an improvement over last year’s Abu Dhabi Art. According to Georgina Adam, the 2011 edition was fraught with venue problems as well as issues with the Guggenheim, leading to many gallerists pulling out of the fair. In 2012, journalists and gallerists alike seemed satisfied. The Khaleej Times called the event “a must-see fair as its exhibits have the potential to change one’s perspective on life”.
Art Director Sossy Dikijian of Dubai-based Artspace Gallery praised the unique balance of international and local art at the fair, as well as the calibre of artists and galleries present. She told Art Radar,
It brings in the top international galleries from the West as well as the top regional-based galleries. … With East and West galleries present, you’ll see some artwork that you might not necessarily see in the Middle East, if Gagosian is coming in and bringing their top artists, or other quite well-established galleries have their international artists…. It’s good to have people within the region being exposed to those artworks and educating themselves with what’s going on out in the West, and vice versa as well, for the West to know what the Middle Eastern region is looking into and what’s popular and what’s becoming more of an interest to regional collectors.
Some, such as ARTINFO‘s Benjamin Genocchio, noted the marked increase in artwork quality this year. He wrote,
The quality of the art was overall extremely high with a healthy mixture of international blue chip names and less renowned and regional artists, sometimes even within individual booths: Lisson Gallery, for instance, had a fragrant mixture of works by Ryan Gander, Anish Kapoor, Marina Abramovic, Shirazeh Houshiary, and others. It is nice to see the bigger galleries here catering to different tastes and price points.
Significance beyond the sales?
Other commentators noted that the biggest significance of Abu Dhabi Art was to present the city as an alternative to nearby Dubai as the UAE’s dominant art centre. The Abu Dhabi Art Hub opened in tandem with the fair, a multi-purpose building aimed to house sixteen art-related companies, a residency programme and studio spaces. With adjoining apartments, the hub is Abu Dhabi’s first “live-work space for artists”, according to The National.
Of course, the cultural highlights of Abu Dhabi will no doubt be the Guggenheim and Louvre branches slated to open in the city. The plans for these museums, which will be housed on the city’s Saadiyat Island, were unveiled to great fanfare during Art Abu Dhabi, as reported by The National.
With the long-haul in mind, the fair was pulling out all the stops to ensure maximum cultural clout. According to The Australian, what the fair lacked in sized it made up for in art celebrity, saying,
Although small, Abu Dhabi Art could not be accused of doing anything by halves. With a guest list to rival that of the world’s biggest fairs – Marina Abramovic, Anish Kapoor, Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher and architects Gehry and Nouvel were among those holding public talks – it offers an intimacy to which few other international events can aspire.
Optimism was high among the galleries Art Radar spoke with after the fair had closed. Athr Gallery saw the success of the fair as a combination of “the team that drives it together with the engagement and dedication of its patrons”. They expect the fair to only improve in the future.
The general atmosphere this year was very positive. … We are looking forward to a more diverse audience in the following year; this will come with the much anticipated museum projects and will have an outstanding impact on the whole region.
A representative from Hanart TZ Gallery told Art Radar that they were satisfied with the interest in their booth at the 2012 edition of the fair and hope to return. The gallery sees promise in the fair’s unique bid to become a world-class art centre. As they said,
The art hub of Abu Dhabi began a decade ago with the world’s top architects, and endeavours to turn a peninsular of sand into a major cultural art hub. For a country with two million, of which only 300,000 are Abu Dhabi nationals, an enterprise like this can only be described as a utopian project; and it is this larger art project that envelopes the small art project of hand-picked galleries at the Abu Dhabi Art fair.
Did you attend Abu Dhabi Art as a dealer, a collector, a visitor? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. Leave us a comment below.
- “Boutique” Abu Dhabi art fair welcomes 6 new Asian galleries – August 2012 – Abu Dhabi Art aiming for a smaller, more selective reputation
- Art Dubai: strong sales shine through fog of political tension – March 2012 – Art Dubai is Abu Dhabi Art’s main local competitor as an art fair
- Maraya Art Centre hub for contemporary Arab art – December 2010 – art infrastructure on the rise across the UAE
- Art world big boys attend second Abu Dhabi art – November 2010 – a review of the second edition of the fair
- Sheikh Sultan opens private collection to public putting Sharjah on the UAE art map – August 2010 – Sharjah also becoming a major regional art hub
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