Championing diversity in art: new Art Dubai Fair Director Myrna Ayad – interview

Art Radar speaks to new Art Dubai Fair Director Myrna Ayad.

Myrna Ayad talks about collecting practices in the ME.NA.SA. region and expectations for the eleventh edition of Art Dubai.

Portrait of Myrna Ayad, Fair Director, Art Dubai. Photo credit Abbi Kemp (2)

Portrait of Myrna Ayad, Fair Director, Art Dubai. Photo: Abbi Kemp.

Myrna Ayad is a Dubai-based arts writer, editor and consultant around the UAE. Formerly Editor of Canvas magazine, which focuses on art and culture from the Middle East and the Arab world, where she worked from 2007 to 2015, she also edited Art Scene UAE: Visual Arts Practices in the Emirates (forthcoming, 2016) and Contemporary Kingdom: The Saudi Art Scene Now (2014). She was invited to take up the position as Art Fair Director at Art Dubai in April 2016.

Nearly a year on from her appointment and with the inauguration of the eleventh edition of Art Dubai around the corner, Art Radar speaks to Myrna Ayad about what can be expected from Art Dubai this year.

Myrna Ayad and visitors to the Global Art Forum, January 2017. Photo credit: Photo Solutions. Image courtesy Art Dubai.

Myrna Ayad and visitors to the Global Art Forum, January 2017. Photo: Photo Solutions. Image courtesy Art Dubai.

When your appointment as Fair Director of Art Dubai was announced in 2016, you had been primarily known as an arts writer and journalist. Were you explicitly given the task of strengthening the role of the art fair as an engine for local art activity or is your appointment more reflective of the need to strengthen international ties through networking?

Art Dubai is an engine for the local and regional art scenes and has been playing this role since its inception in 2007. Since my appointment, my focus has been on developing and maintaining the fair’s collectors, galleries, art practitioners and institutions, alongside our International Director, Pablo de Val, who is based in London. My role involves strengthening the fair’s position to remain the nucleus to discover the best from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, as well as from Europe and the Americas.

Art Dubai Commissions, 2017. Manuel Pelmus, 'Public Collection of Modern Art', 2017. Photo credit: Brigham Baker. Image courtesy Manuel Pelmus & Alexandra Pirici.

Art Dubai Commissions, 2017. Manuel Pelmus, ‘Public Collection of Modern Art’, 2017. Photo: Brigham Baker. Image courtesy Manuel Pelmus & Alexandra Pirici.

The art-writing role requires a constant negotiation between attending to the commercial interests and paying sufficient attention to under-represented artists and practices. To what extent have you achieved the balance for the eleventh edition of Art Dubai?

Art Dubai has always operated differently in that it has the strongest non-commercial programme of any art fair and this has allowed us to redefine what an art fair can and will do. This year, we’ve added more programming in the form of a symposium focused on Modern art from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia; we’ve also initiated a film series, Art Dubai Portraits, that profiles artists from the MENASA, allowing viewers the opportunity to visit studios and meet artists through a short film. At its core, Art Dubai has and will continue to contribute to the Dubai and UAE communities through several modes. Initiatives such as the year-long Campus Art Dubai sessions catered to art practioners; the Art Dubai Fellowship programme; Commissions and Global Art Forum and so on are all part of our community programming. We pride ourselves on being the world’s most globally diverse fair and that isn’t solely reflected in the countries from which our galleries come but through the extensive community programming that we do, both year-round and at the fair.

Sultan Al Qassimi presenting work at Day two of the Global Art Forum, 2017.

Sultan Al Qassimi presenting work at Day Two of the Global Art Forum, 2017.

Talking of non-profit, Art Dubai has one of the largest educational programmes of any international art fair. What are you particularly excited about in 2017?

I’m excited about the inaugural Modern Symposium and its incredible line-up of speakers – from art historians and curators to patrons and academics, the quality of those intellectuals is mirrored in the participants of the Global Art Forum, whose theme this year is focused on trade, which is extremely related to Dubai. It’s also incredibly rewarding to see the increasing numbers of volunteers and interns from far and wide that want to be part of Art Dubai. Likewise, it’s wonderful to welcome the next batch of Art Dubai Fellows and see another set of graduates complete their Campus Art Dubai sessions.

Shumon Basar, Wael Al Awar, Todd Reisz, Noura Al Sayegh at a panel discussion on Day 1 of the Global Art Forum, January 2017. Photo credit: Photo Solutions. Image courtesy Art Dubai.

Shumon Basar, Wael Al Awar, Todd Reisz, Noura Al Sayegh at a panel discussion on Day One of the Global Art Forum, January 2017. Photo: Photo Solutions. Image courtesy Art Dubai.

The “Modern” section is now four years old. How do you understand the role of art history and historicising modern art in the region in relation to contemporary art and its markets?

The Modern is a predecessor of the Contemporary and in exhibiting it and allowing it focus through a platform such as Art Dubai Modern, the Contemporary is given some context. It was and still is important for Art Dubai to reflect on this history, its longevity, content and major themes to better understand the contemporary moment, its journey and roots. The Modern was a period that is still being explored, written and researched due to little documentation, and Art Dubai, being the preeminent platform for art from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, contributes to this narrative by presenting such a hall and also, this year, continuing that conversation with the inauguration of a symposium focused on art from the 20th century in these regions.

With the introduction of Art Dubai Modern (devoted to modern art from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa) the fair was put in direct competition with Istanbul and Abu Dhabi. A few years on, how do you envision Art Dubai in relation to its regional art fair competitors?

Art Dubai has always been the region’s main cultural event in terms of its representation of artists, extensive programming, being home to the region’s main art prize (the Abraaj Group Art Prize), the number of artists it commissions, its year-round following, diverse programming. Art Dubai Modern was just another addition, another development in the fair’s overall programming.

Maryam Wissam Al Dabbagh, work presentation. Global Art Forum Day Two. Photo credit: Photo Solutions. Image courtesy Art Dubai.

Maryam Wissam Al Dabbagh, work presentation. Global Art Forum Day Two. Photo: Photo Solutions. Image courtesy Art Dubai.

How would you summarise the shifting landscape of collecting in the region? In 2017 what are the primary groups of buyers visiting Art Dubai and where do they come from?

We’re happy to have seen, over the last decade, collectors transition into patrons, sitting on the acquisitions committees of major institutions and lending their works and collections to institutional shows (for example, Mohammed Afkhami’s collection at the Aga Khan Museum and Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi at the Whitechapel Gallery, among others). We’re also happy to witness an increasing number of regional collectors coming to the fair and beginning their collections at Art Dubai; this is evident in the growing number of collectors we’ve added to Art Dubai’s Art Salon, an exclusive group of collectors for whom we organise monthly events. This year, Art Dubai inaugurates the Invited Collectors Programme that sees the fair invite 100 collectors from around the world to a bespoke programme of events, offering an exclusive look at Dubai’s cultural landscape, which includes curator-led tours, functions with UAE royals and patrons and other events. The 11th edition also sees over 80 representatives from museums, institutions and foundations in attendance (among them the MoMA, Norton Museum, British Museum and Tate) in addition to a unique VIP programme.

Kader Attia, 'When Cardboard Repairs Plastic #4', 2016. Scooter shells, card box, fibreglass. 114 x 180 x 42 cm. Image courtesy of GALERIE KRINZINGER and the artist.

Kader Attia, ‘When Cardboard Repairs Plastic #4’, 2016, scooter shells, card box, fibreglass, 114 x 180 x 42 cm. Image courtesy Galerie Krinzinger and the artist.

Art Dubai’s “Marker” section has, since 2012, provided the space to focus on a particular country or region (last year’s focus was on the Philippines). Could you tell us why the Marker section has been cancelled for the eleventh edition? What other programming will replace its function?

Marker aimed at exhibiting and promoting art from otherwise underrepresented regions. Over the years, we came to see that art from these regions was in fact being shown through our galleries, ultimately contributing to our positioning as the world’s most global art fair. Diversity is central to Art Dubai and none more so than this year that sees the fair welcome 93 galleries from a record 43 countries. Diversity is also evident in our programming with initiatives such as the inaugural Art Dubai Modern Symposium as well as performance-only Commissions, among others.

Manuela Ovalle, 'Objeto rosado', 2016. 175 x 85 x 20 cm. Image courtesy D21 Proyectos De Arte and the artist.

Manuela Ovalle, ‘Objeto Rosado’, 2016, 175 x 85 x 20 cm. Image courtesy D21 Proyectos De Arte and the artist.

There are 25 new galleries participating this year. Could you tell us a bit about how these galleries were selected and which spaces you are particularly excited to have at the fair?

The 25 new spaces participating at Art Dubai this year were chosen by our Selection Committee, which we shuffled last year: existing members Andree Sfeir Semler of Sfeir Semler Gallery (Beirut/Hamburg) and Ursula Krinzinger of Krinzinger Gallery (Vienna) were joined by new members Isabelle van den Eynde (namesake gallery, Dubai), Glenn Scott Wright from Victoria Miro (London) and guest curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath. All galleries were accepted based on their proposals, curatorial vision, artist roster, gallery programming and backgrounds in terms of age, reputation and art fair participation. We’re excited with the contingent of galleries coming from Iran (largest yet) as well as Latin America and first-time participants from Algeria, Peru and Uruguay. While Art Dubai has, over the years, shown Iranian, Algerian and Latin American art, the fair is delighted with the diversity and energies coming through from those spaces.

Myrna Ayad giving a talk at Global Art Forum Day 1, January 2017. Photo credit: photo solutions. Image courtesy Art Dubai.

Myrna Ayad giving a talk at Global Art Forum Day One, January 2017. Photo: Photo Solutions. Image courtesy Art Dubai.

At the tenth edition Antonia Carver announced that 45 percent of the artists participating in the event were female. Abraaj Group Art Prize 2017 has an all female line-up. How does the rest of the event fare in terms of gender equality? What strategies are in place for further increasing the participation of women but also other minorities in the event?

Our focus has always been to exhibit artists based on quality and not gender specifically. I’m very pleased to see so many women participate, but this is ultimately a reflection of the quality of art that we show and promote, and it is on this principle on which the fair operates. Over the years, we’ve seen an increasing number of women in the art world, and as you correctly pointed out, the Abraaj Group Art Prize is an all women line-up this year. Some examples of women in our programming this year also include Meriem Bennani designing our Art Bar, Yasmina Reggad, who curates our Commissions and is joined by artists Lana Fahmy and Pauline Bastard.

Rebecca Close

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Related Topics: FairsDirectorsBusiness of ArtProfessionalsevents in Dubai

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