For art fairs, and with them galleries and collectors, 2020 was a disaster. According to Clare McAndrew, researcher responsible for the annual Art Basel & UBS global art market report, out of 365 global fairs in 2020, 61 Percent were cancelled outright, while 37 Percent held live events and two percent offered a hybrid version. More importantly, virtual viewing rooms weren’t able to make up for the loss of income and contacts. From formerly around 45 Percent of average annual gallery turnover, last year only 13 Percent were made through some sort of fair exposure; a dramatic loss for galleries.
It is in this context that Dubai was staging the first physical art fair of 2021; and not surprisingly it was regarded with high expectations. The fair took place from 29 March to 3 April with 50 galleries from 31 countries participating. While on a much smaller scale than in normal years, this certainly was a great achievement. The fair had moved from its previous location in the luxurious Madinat Jumeirah to the Dubai International Financial Centre in the heart of the financial district rather than in a more tourist driven spot, certainly a wise decision. While some overseas visitors attended the fair, the majority of visitors were locals or expats living in the region. The fair managed to accommodate 18,000 visitors during the course of six days. William Lawrie from Dubai based gallery Lawrie Shabibi was grateful for the event: “I was stunned by the number of collectors who had come from all corners of the world, despite travel restrictions and red tape. There was a concentrated energy throughout the run of the fair, lots of excitement and some great sales”. A representative from Galerie Nathalie Obadia, who had managed to participate despite being located in Paris, was also happy with the result, claiming that from each artist shown at the booth, work was sold. Another first-time visitor from Paris was Galerie Perrotin, who also reported strong sales. This was another demonstration, not only how strong the collector market in the Middle East is, but also how excited collectors are being able to see and purchase art again face to face.
While the quality of the work presented was much more varied than in previous years, with some very derivative, decorative work present, there were thankfully exceptions. Especially interesting were some video works and photography presented by the most interesting regional galleries. Athr gallery shows works by Ahaa Alamoudi and by Sarah Abu Abdallah. The latter video artist had a solo show at the Kunstverein in Hamburg in 2019. Experimenter from Kolkata showed works by Radhika Khimji. The Omani born, London based artist, created embroidered paper works for the fair. Other interesting regional galleries were Dastan’s Basement from Tehran and established Meem Gallery, operating in Dubai as does Third Line. Comptoir des Mines Galerie from Marrakesh was one of the few African galleries present. They sold a work by Moroccan-born artist Fatiha Zemmouri for $32,000. So, the market is strong, private collectors as well as institutions have been reported as buying from the fair. It can only be hoped that Middle Eastern Art will find its way back also into a European art fair context soon.
It is not surprising that Clare MC Andrew pointed out in the report that art fairs were a high priority for galleries this year. But sadly, the recovery is slow and how many art fairs in which parts of the world can go forward is as yet more than uncertain. The cancellation of the London June art and antiques fair Masterpiece serves as a good measure of caution. One thing that Art Dubai has shown is that the appetite for art in the physical realm is as strong as ever.
(Image credit: Afifa Aleiby, Flute, 2012, Oil on canvas, 70 x 70 cm, Courtesy of the Artist and Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery)