Until recently, Dubai seemed content with its reputationas a booming former backwater, flush with oil revenues andripe for investment, but absent of any culture saveconspicuous consumption.
Having firmly established its identity as a tax-freecommercial oasis in a politically volatile region, in 2005,the UAE’s second largest emirate decided to accelerate thediversification of its economy away from oil revenues andattract a new breed of foreign capital—artworks.
Riding the wave of skyrocketing international contemporarysales, and underpinned by an emergent class of buyers fromRussia, China, and India, Dubai would position itself as aglobal hub linking hungry, if undiscerning collectors inburgeoning non-Western markets with their more establishedcounterparts in London and New York.
To this effect, Christie’s Auction House opened regionaloffices in Dubai in 2005, and has held three auctions sincethen in which, according to Michael Jeha, Christie’s Dubaimanaging director, 90% of the lots were sold, even if cynicspoint out that between Christie’s twin inaugural auctionsheld last February, jewelry accounted for almost 60% of the$20.5 million revenue. Meanwhile, Christie’s equallyvenerable competitor Sotheby’s has also announced plans toset up shop in Dubai, and sponsored a local educationinitiative for Emirati collectors, artists and galleryowners.
Ambitious art fair
On March 8, the Dubai International Financial Center(DIFC) sponsored the inaugural DIFC Art Fair, moving theemirate one step closer to its goal of becoming what formerBritish galleriste and fair director John Martin calls “acenter of art commerce.”
Nothing if not ambitious, fair organizers expect Dubai’sart market to mimic its rapid commercial growth, and“strategic partner” DIFC reckons the event will become oneof the top five art fairs in the world within three years,rivaling the reigning international triumvirate of Art Baselin Miami, the Armory in New York and Frieze in London.
Given the absence of a thriving gallery scene, anup-and-coming group of local artists and collectors, or arenowned art institute in the deserts of the GCC, the claimmight be dismissed as unrealistic at best and bombastic atworst. But if Dubai has learned anything during its rapidrise to become the Las Vegas of the Arab world, it is how tosell. And once stripped of its cultural pretensions, what isan art fair if not an aesthetically pleasing market?
While, the jury may still be out on both the DIFC fair andDubai’s ability to cut it culturally, its first outing wasnonetheless a good start. The three-day event (andconcurrent global art forum) brought cult galleries togetherwith the marquee names of the art world. Some were drawn bycuriosity, others by the promise of a new class of spender,spawned by a $500 billion oil boom, and others by what werevariously referred to by Ben Floyd the fair’s financedirector as the “incentives,” “bursaries,” and “smallsubsidies” given to a handful of galleries “that we reallywanted on board.”
The 40 exhibitors assembled in the Arena of the MedinatJumeirah resort included Hoxton Square-heavyweight WhiteCube and its slightly less cutting-edge, yet prominentMayfair counterpart Albion; Chelsea mainstay Max Lang andSeoul’s Gallery Hundai. Over $100 million worth of art wasassembled in the chinzy hotel conference center, butgalleries and fair organizers alike declined to reveal thetotal value sold.
“There are different ways to measure success,” Jeha saidwhen asked the total volume of sales. “The attendance andcontent was good, and I know a lot of Indian and Arab artsold, but I don’t know the tallies from western galleries.”
However, based on reports, it seems unlikely thatpetro-dollars, an all-star roster, and a media blitztranslated into bumper sales this time around. “There havebeen a lot of conversations and we’ve sold a few things, butit’s not like the usual levels we see at art fairs like theArmory or Basel where we sell millions,” explained GrahamSteele of White Cube early on the first public day of thefair, who admitted that the customers lacked knowledge.
“They didn’t prepare collectors and there is a lot ofexplaining. People don’t know that this is an iconic DamienHirst,” he says gesturing to an installation of a medicinecabinet stocked with pills. “Or they don’t understand whythis costs £850,000,” he says referring to another signatureHirst butterfly piece hanging nearby. Indeed, none ofHirst’s work—including the most expensive piece at the fair,his “Spot Mini” car owned by British collector CharlesSaatchi and insured for $2 million—sold. White Cube, like Albion, tailored its display toperceived demand, leaving the racy Tracy Emins at home, infavor of more “universal” pieces like a colorful painting ofthe Luis Vuitton symbol.
By Saturday afternoon, 12 of the 30 pieces Albion shippedto Dubai—including eight edition pieces from the Campagnabrothers—chairs covered in a furry orgy of stuffed animalspecies and sold for $18,000 each—had been snapped up, “andnot just by expatriate residents of Dubai,” said stafferMatt Langton, “but by locals too.”
Wide range of interests, but few sales
Elsewhere, interest in a photograph of Yasser Arafat and avideo installation of oil being spilled over a pile of sugarcubes by French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, both selectedbecause they were thought to be “appropriate to the area,”was muted, while at a booth shared by Max Lang, Malca FineArt and Enrico Navara, where pieces ranged from $25,000 to$2 million, reaction was “mixed.”
“We’ve had offers from European, Russian, and Indiancollectors but haven’t closed anything yet,” reported adecidedly unimpressed Lang, adding that Andy Warhol’s iconicdollar sign has had a lot of interest. Navara said localswere remarkably curious about contemporary art, and the“clueless were willing to find out why.” He plans to attendin 2008, and reap the rewards of the education dispensedthis year. Indeed, it was this level of phlegm that was theorder of the day as exhibitors, who forked out between$20,000 to $50,000 for a stand, took the lackluster sales instride. One gallery owner who huffily declared that he had“never lost so much money at a fair” in his career,grudgingly said he would return.
That smaller, regional galleries like Third Line, thefair’s sole Emirati exhibitioner, outperformed theirwestern counterparts (it sold at least half of its 23 works)bodes well for the sustainability of the fair, and theMiddle Eastern art market in general, according to AndréeSfeir Semler, the grand dame of Beirut’s fledgling galleryscene. “Its easy to attract international galleries thefirst year, and maybe the second, but most of them won’texhibit the third year unless the fair offers somethingdifferent from the others,” she explained. “Basel getsstronger every year because it has an identity. They’vestarted nicely here because they have Indian, Persian,Turkish galleries, and we’re from Beirut. And having theinternational galleries attend raises the standard of theevent, but no one is going to come to Dubai to see theWarhols. Regional artists have to draw on their own cultureto make a name from themselves and stop trying to imitatethe west,” she says.
The intersection of globalization and Islam threadedtogether the art on view, including a “Militant Snoopy”action figure wielding a beard and a gun, a $25,000gem-encrusted “Nation of Islam Knuckle Duster” with the wordAllah inscribed in Arabic, and “Diamond Head,” FarhadMoshiri’s glittery gold and black eagle painting, thatfetched $70,000 within two minutes of the fair opening.
John Martin said it is not unusual for new buyers toinitially invest in art from their country of origin, but astheir collection and awareness grow, the focus on aparticular geographic region melts away. “Most of the bigWestern pieces were bought by expats living in Dubai, justas Indian collectors bought most of the Indian work. But asfair gets bigger, Asian collectors will shift towardsWestern art, and vice-versa. We hope to position it as asandbar between the two cultures,” he added.
Most western galleries in attendance were not expecting bigsales, Marin insisted, but came to make connections in anart market with huge potential. Though he expects privatecollectors to be the engine of Dubai’s art market in thefuture, corporations setting up offices in the emirate areanother promising customer-base.
Art is a new staple of investmentportfolios
“Banks invest in contemporary art, not least because youcan hang it on your wall. Banks court wealthy clients, a lotof whom are private collectors, by setting up separate artconsulting branches. Art is becoming a staple of moderninvestment portfolios,” he said.
One needs to look no further than the growing number ofart investment funds for evidence of the growing appetitefor art as an investment vehicle. While the trend is by nomeans new, venture capital funds and financial institutionshave only recently begun to turn their gaze outwards toemerging markets. The question is whether the Middle Eastwill be next, and if Dubai will be able to assume a role asthe “third leg”—a title one gallery owner bestowed on HongKong—of the contemporary art market.
Much like Dubai itself, it is difficult to disengage thehype surrounding the fair from the reality, but Tim Harrisonof HSBC does not think the emirate’s potential as an artmarket has been inflated.
“If you look at the fair next to Christie’s successfulsales and the Louvre (to be built in Abu Dhabi), we areseeing a notable move towards investment in art,” Harrisonsays.
“There is a lot of art being produced in the Arab world,which will find more obvious channels for sale in theregion, and we have Indian collectors coming through. Dubaiis well positioned to be a trading hub for South-Asian,Middle Eastern, and Indian art.”