Fanfare for Art Dubai as Gulf City pioneers return to normal

Less than 10 minutes after the opening of Art Dubai, the Meem Gallery had sold three prints by famous Syrian painter Marwan – a sign of the pent-up demand and enthusiasm surrounding one of the first established international art fairs in the Covid era.

This week, after months of cancellations and online-only art events, a downsized, Covid-secured Art Dubai welcomed visitors to three tents in the UAE’s tourist hotspot.

“It’s huge for the art scene. Art Dubai is at the heart of the cultural sector in the UAE – we all really needed it, ”said Charlie Pocock of Meem Gallery. “They achieved the possible out of the impossible.”

The fair, now in its 15th year, played a pivotal role in establishing Dubai as a contemporary art mall, but was canceled last year due to the coronavirus.

This week’s event, which ends on Saturday, is the city’s latest attempt to rekindle its position as a commercial and tourist hub as it rushes with a successful vaccination campaign. The winter sun of Dubai, one of the most open cities in the world since emerging from a strict lockdown last May, has drawn temporary residents, from bankers to technicians, seeking to escape lockdowns elsewhere .

The emirate has become a mass tourist destination in the new year, triggering a sharp rise in cases and hospitalizations. This second wave is declining, but with a higher number of cases than in the UK and US per capita, holding an in-person art fair was a bet.

All exhibitors and staff had to pass a PCR test before the show opened. Security reinforced the reduced capacity, with 18,000 visits expected against 28,000 in 2019. There were 50 stands, compared to the usual 85, and, as an incentive, galleries only paid their stand rental if they made sales. On Friday, the show was on track to receive full stand fees.

“It was not without risks, but we were always convinced the show would be a success,” said Ben Floyd, co-founder of the event. “This payment system is unique due to the pandemic, but I anticipate that one element of it will continue in the future.”

The usual crowd of hipsters in glasses, women who artificially eat lunch, and bankers in suits without ties attended the opening on Monday. There was universal enthusiasm for the return of buying art in person. “We are the resistance against the crown,” said Ali Jaber, Dubai-based journalist and judge Arabs have talent, A TV series.

There were overseas collectors from Russia, India and Spain – although British visitors were notable for their absence. Since February, British nationals and returning residents of the United Arab Emirates have had to spend 10 days in quarantine at the hotel at a cost of £ 1,750.

London-based Lorenzo Ronchini said he would avoid the hotel’s quarantine by staying in his native Italy before returning to his Mayfair gallery. “But for me being at the fair is so important to attracting new customers, I would have quarantined the hotel if I had to,” he said.

Ángeles Agrela at the Yusto-Giner Gallery © Courtesy of Art Dubai

The emirate remains a magnet for artists and collectors from Asia to Africa. “It is important that the gallery looks east across the Indian Ocean, rather than always towards Europe or America,” said Danda Jaroljmek, founder of the Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi. Her gallery sales have quadrupled since September thanks to collectors having free time through lockouts, she said.

Parisian gallery owner Emmanuel Perrotin had spent part of the winter on vacation in Dubai. Having participated in 24 fairs in 2019 and only four last year, Art Dubai is its first release in 2021. “We have enjoyed life here, and with the closure of Paris, I am very excited to be doing the show”, he said, under one of Takashi Murakami’s Floral Paintings, which are estimated to sell for around $ 500,000.

Perrotin has seen how much interest in art has grown since his first participation in Art Dubai, a joint venture between private owners and the Dubai International Financial Center, in 2009. The city now has neighborhoods creatives such as Alserkal Avenue and a contemporary museum, the Jameel. Arts Center. “Dubai has changed,” Perrotin said. “We met a lot of people here with great interest – contemporary art is now more recognized.”

The show also attracted a new breed of collectors, digital natives inclined to make proselytism the latest phenomenon: NFT (non-fungible tokens), digital artwork verified by blockchain technology.

The Meem gallery at Art Dubai © Courtesy of Art Dubai

As collectors wandered the halls of Art Dubai, NFT enthusiasts joined an inaugural crypto-art cruise, where new works were on display by Amrita Sethi, the Emirati banker turned NFT, Amrita Sethi, the Playmate of the year Debby Gommeren and Sophia the robot.

There are plenty of “digital nomads” in Dubai, according to cruise sponsor crypto veteran Joel Dietz, who plans to make the city his primary residence. The sky-high selling prices raised by digital practitioners, fueled by the growing value of cryptocurrencies, have persuaded established artists to jump on the bandwagon, including Damien Hirst. A digital work by artist Beeple sold at auction for $ 69.3 million last month.

Back at Art Dubai, exhibitors say the fair is a testament to the city’s diversity. “This show represents the Philippines in a different way, challenging the stereotype of a major exporter of foreign labor to the Gulf,” said Chris Fussner of the Cebu-based Tropical Futures Institute exhibitor. “It’s good to represent ourselves culturally on the contemporary scene.”

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