Is Art Dubai the Future of Art Fairs?

Is Art Dubai the Future of Art Fairs?


After major international art fairs including Frieze and Art Basel were forced to go online due to the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying lockdown measures, this year will cautiously see art events begin to return. This includes Art Dubai, which recently opened and is the first physical art fair to take place in over a year.

Announcing the return to physical traditional fairs, Art Dubai artistic director Pablo del Val explained the importance of the format. “We see the importance of connecting with the world without the filters of a computer screen, and seeing art and culture in person is more important than ever before,” he said in a statement. “This edition of Art Dubai invites us to do precisely that, to recover our senses and reactivate them through art.”

This year’s Art Dubai will feature 50 leading galleries from across 31 countries, with a purpose-built venue, a curated sculpture park and a film programme. To mark the opening of this year’s fair, we spoke to four galleries from across the Middle East about what Art Dubai can tell us about the future of art fairs.

“We see the importance of connecting with the world without the filters of a computer screen, and seeing art and culture in person is more important than ever before.”

What are you most looking forward to about being involved in Art Dubai?

Agial Gallery, Beirut: Our gallery has been present in Art Dubai ever since it started more than a decade ago. It has become part of our annual program and our prime destination to meet with our Gulf clients and friends. We are so looking forward to coming back there after a year of confinement and hooking up again with collectors, colleagues and friends over there.

Hafez Gallery, Jeddah: To connect with our audience in a physical way that’s not digital. To see and feel people’s reaction to the work.

Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut: We have always participated at Art Dubai and it is impossible for us not to be present at the fair. We are looking forward to reconnecting with friends, institutions and collectors from the region. Although this edition does not resemble the previous ones, since the team will not be physically present at the fair, it nevertheless offers visitors the opportunity to physically discover the works we will be showing, which is essential.

Dastan’s Basement, Tehran: Dubai is a very special place for Dastan’s Basement. We most look forward to bringing an exciting presentation by some of the most interesting artists we work with to our friends in Dubai. Of course we are also looking forward to building new lasting and meaningful relationships that we can look back on for years to come. This year is particularly special since Dastan has broken down its program into three distinct lists with curatorial autonomy and directorships: Dastan’s Basement, +2 Gallery, and Parallel Circuit. We are excited to hear the feedback from the viewers this year.

Art Dubai, for a gallery based in Iran, feels like showing at home and I believe that many galleries in the region feel the same. Of course Art Dubai is more than just a regional fair. When Pablo del Val from Art Dubai first started, he was very keen on focusing on the global south. Over the years, he, along with all those who worked with him, have created something special. Dastan is really happy to be a part of this year’s fair.

Etel Adnan, La Ronde Des Oiseaux, 2019, Courtesy Of The Artist And Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut-Hamburg

What does it mean to be taking part in a physical art fair after the last 12 months?

Agial Gallery: It means first and foremost a comeback to some sort of normalcy: Traveling, meeting up with crowds, working in real physical conditions, in total contrast with the past year’s imposed rhythm of working remotely or through screens and social media.

Hafez Gallery: It’s very exciting. And for us, we also get to travel internationally for the first time in a little over a year.

Sfeir-Semler Gallery: A physical fair always brings a lot of energy. A fair is a place where we connect with people, exchange ideas around art and make new encounters. We missed all of these and we are looking forward to the coming edition, in its hybrid form.

Dastan’s Basement: Despite the challenging times, it was really important for Dastan to be a part of the region’s most important fair and to make sure it does its part in delivering a stellar show for the viewers after so long. The art fairs have played an important role in the development of the art industry and will continue to do so. After so much emphasis on an online presence, I am excited to deliver a show to an international audience since November when Dastan exhibited at Art021 in Shanghai.

“The galleries and Art Dubai have given meaning to being globally relevant while remaining locally authentic and respected.”

What does Art Dubai say about the art world in the Middle East?

Agial Gallery: Art Dubai is by far the most active platform of Middle Eastern art with the rest of the world. It’s the annual rendez-vous that cannot be missed for any gallery that would like to promote its artistic program to the international art communities.

Hafez Gallery: Art Dubai always brings a certain sense of class and culture while also being approachable. That reflects on the experience for us as visitors and exhibitors.

Sfeir-Semler Gallery: Art Dubai has proven its capabilities in consolidating the cultural sector in the region around a serious and professional fair bringing together institutions, collectors, curators and of course galleries from all over the world. It’s a fixture of the art calendar and the rendezvous for anyone with an interest in art from the region.

Dastan’s Basement: One of the strongest points of Art Dubai after its great team, is the galleries who have been a part of it for so many years. These galleries and Art Dubai have given meaning to being globally relevant while remaining locally authentic and respected. This is a point that makes the fair quite unique.

Hafez Gallery (jeddah), Art Dubai Contemporary, Art Dubai 2019, Courtesy Of Photo Solutions

Do you think Art Dubai is challenging Western perspectives of the art world in the Middle East? Do you think it’s important to challenge those perspectives?

Agial Gallery: Art Dubai is a platform that allows regional galleries to defend and promote their artistic programs, hence allowing the promotion of artists that think and work outside the western axis. I don’t like to use the word “periphery” because it sends back to a center and a periphery. I would like to think that in Art Dubai you can discover interesting artists that express themselves outside the established box.

It’s vital to allow all sorts of artistic expressions because diversity and plurality are the foundations of progress, especially during these current times of rising nationalism and entrenchment. Art is one of the rare domains where tolerance is present and freedom of expression still exists.

Hafez Gallery: It absolutely does. For example, after visiting Art Dubai and viewing some of the non-western modern art works exhibited in the modern section, you cannot help but feel that the narrative of modern art in the west needs to be updated. The western perspective of modern art is mostly limited to the west. A new look would certainly include artists like Ibrahim El-Salahi from Sudan, Mahmoud Saïd from Egypt, Shafic Abboud from Lebanon and many more.

Sfeir-Semler Gallery: There is no challenge at all here since Art Dubai follows a Western model of art fairs. However it actively promotes a scene that is under-represented internationally and therefore plays an essential role for its recognition and presence.

Dastan’s Basement: While challenging such perspectives is important, Dastan has always and will continue focusing on delivering an optimal presentation of the artists that it works with. It is the thoughts and works of the artists that will pose the right questions and end up challenging the perspectives of global viewers, which will hopefully include all views.

“It’s vital to allow all sorts of artistic expressions because diversity and plurality are the foundations of progress.”

What do you think Art Dubai tells us about the future of art fairs and, more generally, the art industry in the region?

Agial Gallery: There is no doubt that the past year has changed a lot of givens. Virtual modes of operations have imposed themselves in non-retractable ways. I guess people will avoid crowd events for long, therefore big gatherings like art fairs need to adapt to changing behaviors of humans on a global scale. Art Dubai is one of the first art fairs to open up for physical presence, and here we are to attend, watch and reflect about our future strategies.

Hafez Gallery: As visitors and exhibitors, we prefer the intimate, personal and focused setting of Art Dubai. We believe that to be an increasing segment in the future of Art fairs as a whole.

Sfeir-Semler Gallery: It is very difficult today to project ourselves into the future, in light of the covid crisis. All that can be said is that Art Dubai is a solid fair that can meet all potential challenges with a clear vision and a lot of flexibility, allowing it to meet the demands of the market and of the local and regional scenes. Art Dubai positions itself as a platform that successfully combines the commercial and not for profit aspects, and this has been one of the keys to its success over the years.

Dastan’s Basement: I am also pleased with the new all around solution that fairs have developed with more focus on content with the possibilities that have been developed online. It will certainly give the viewers a better experience.
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