Art Dubai: how’s it going, Myrna?

Art Dubai’s success in the face of the sheer number of competitors it now has in the art fair business prompted us to put some pre-fair questions to Myrna Ayad. Her appointment as Director of Art Dubai was announced just after the 2016 fair, and given that much of the planning for 2017 would have already been in place it seems reasonable to view this year’s edition as the first that she can really call her own …

Certainly this year’s fair plus associated events looks like the most substantial yet. There are no major changes of direction; instead there are satisfyingly meaty incremental advances in terms of size or content. The headline is the commercial success: this is the biggest and broadest Art Dubai yet, a considerable achievement in what is a hotly contested market.

As for content, the one big-ticket addition is the Residents programme, where 11 invited mid-career artists took part in a four-to-eight-week residency in locations around the UAE while creating “a body of work which merges their distinct artistic practice with their surroundings”. The final works are on show at the fair in a new Residents section.

Also new is the useful partnership with Saudi Arabia’s MiSK Art Institute, which is manifested as (among other things) dedicated sessions in Art Dubai’s Modern Symposium and a good-looking non-selling exhibition within the fair that surveys modernist art in five regional centres.

Myrna Ayad must be feeling quite plesed with her progress, and deservedly so.

magpie: are there simply too many art fairs? We count 102 around the world this year, plus 17 biennials/triennials. Is that sustainable? Or even desirable? And how can Art Dubai compete in this melee?

Myrna Ayad: It is a globally art-congested calendar, I agree. All the same, we stand out because we are the most global of art fairs and the preeminent platform for audiences to discover the best there is from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. We also host Art Dubai Modern, the world’s only platform for audiences to discover the modernist practices of artists from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. In addition there is our diverse programming onsite at the fair and also year-round through our community engagement …

We stand out because we are the most global of art fairs and the preeminent platform for audiences to discover the best from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia …

magpie: How does Art Dubai fit into the art market regionally and internationally? Are Art Dubai’s galleries selling to local collectors, or is Dubai seen as a hub that attracts a geographically more diverse audience of buyers?

Myrna Ayad: Dubai is a hub that attracts a geographically more diverse audience of buyers and Art Dubai is a fair that attracts a geographically more diverse audience of buyers – Art Dubai mirrors Dubai’s multiculturalism, diversity and dynamism. This year, our twelfth edition celebrates two records: 105 galleries from 48 countries, making this our most global to date.

magpie: You have been quoted as saying that a new generation of collectors is emerging in the region. How would you characterise these individuals? And do you feel that Art Dubai has been instrumental in their development, showing them what’s possible and what’s available?

Born in Beirut in 1977, Myrna Ayad is an independent arts writer, editor and consultant who has been based in the UAE for over 30 years.
She has written prolifically for publications including The New York Times, The Art Newspaper, Artsy, Artforum, Artnet and The National among others, and published books on major collections and art movements in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Previously Editor of Canvas, where she worked for eight years (2007 to 2015), Ayad is acknowledged as one of the Middle East’s leading cultural commentators. 
She was appointed Director of Art Dubai in April 2016.

Myrna Ayad: I definitely believe that Art Dubai has played an integral role in collecting habits and has been a major component in people’s collecting journeys.These individuals don’t pertain to a certain demographic; it’s rather a psychographic profile of practitioners who are keen on supporting and passionate about and interested in the arts. Many collectors began their journeys at Art Dubai and have gone on to build formidable collections; some have transitioned into patrons – supporting the arts by funding publications, scholarships, exhibitions; some have also established foundations.

magpie: How do you see the balance between the commercial goals of Art Dubai and its non-profit aspirations? For example, is the expansion of the Global Art Forum or the Sheikha Manhal programme contingent on the commercial success of the art fair? And does Art Dubai actually have to make a profit from operations, or are subsidies and sponsorships providing enough revenue?

Myrna Ayad: Our non-profit programme is probably one of the biggest of its kind that any international art fair produces. And we not only produce content for the fair such as the Global Art Forum and commissioning artists; we also have extensive year-round activities like Campus Art Dubai.

We see our long-term success in growing the cultural community around us, and it is part of our DNA. Although the commercial success of Art Dubai certainly enables us to produce much of our programming, we also rely on the support of our many partners, in particular the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority.

magpie: The current Art Dubai format packs a lot into four days – more than a hundred galleries to see plus the GAF, the Modern Symposium, the performances and after-parties, the Abraaj Group Art Prize … Any plans to extend the period of the fair?

Myrna Ayad: You’ve kind of answered your last question – we stand out with a packed programme! No plans to extend the period of the fair, so my recommendation is to pace yourself when visiting.

Start with a walk through Modern to get a better understanding of arts practices and styles in the 20th century; complement your understanding with a session at the Art Dubai Modern Symposium that addresses the lives and legacies of masters working between the 1940s and 1980s in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

For the first time this year, Art Dubai Modern stages a non-selling exhibition that surveys modernist practices in five Arab cities. That has been curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath and is supported by the MiSK Art Institute.

Residents is very much an extension of what we do as a fair: support artists, serve as a platform and engage the community …

Walk over to the Contemporary halls to get a feel of what trends and moods dominate the art scene today, and then visit Residents to see what emerging artists produced during their recent residency in the UAE.

The Global Art Forum takes on the theme of automation this year and is entitled I am Not a Robot. This is not only insightful but can serve as a breather from all the art on show!

Check out The Room, where the artist collective GCC has transformed the space into a TV set. Visit the Abraaj Group Art Prize to see what/who the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia’s most important prize celebrates. And party afterwards!

magpie: Ah yes, Residents – this year’s new feature. What’s your thinking here? What do you hope to achieve?

Myrna Ayad: Residents is very much an extension of what we have been doing, and continue to do, as a fair: support artists, serve as a platform and engage the community. Art Dubai’s gallery line-up mirrors Dubai’s multiculturalism and diversity is found in the fair’s programming. We’ve invited 11 artists from nine countries to participate in our inaugural Residents, and we collaborated with three entities – Tashkeel, d3 and Warehouse421 – to provide them with studio space. Works produced during this time will be showcased at the fair through the artists’ respective galleries.

It is a multifaceted delight, if you will. The works produced are ‘made in the UAE’: the artists will host open studios, meaning there is greater engagement and awareness: the residency will impact and influence their work, not just during their time here but afterwards: and we, as an art fair, facilitated this …

Casablanca’s Mohammed Melehi is one of the artists featured in the MiSK show That Feverish Leap into the Fierceness of Life

magpie: Any plans for future expansion – can you fit in more galleries, for instance? The Modern section seems relatively modest: do you think there’s scope for development here? The Modern Symposium seems to me to be a potentially significant addition, particularly in terms of establishing the credentials of Middle Eastern art of the last 60-80 years – are you pleased with it? Do you have plans to develop it further?

Myrna Ayad: This year presents our largest Modern hall to date with 16 galleries from 14 countries. In addition, the Modern hall is sponsored by the MiSK Art Institute. As far as ‘development’ is concerned, the hall this year will be augmented in two ways – a non-selling exhibition, That Feverish Leap into the Fierceness of Life, that surveys modernism in five Arab cities [Casablanca, Riyadh, Cairo, Khartoum and Baghdad] with loans from public and private collections, curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath and supported by the MiSK Art Institute; and second by the sophomore edition of the Modern Symposium.

I’m delighted with the line-up of speakers and the sessions at the Modern Symposium – where little documentation and literature is available on modernist practices in the Arab world, Middle East, South Asia and Africa, here is a series of discussions with leading academics, scholars and patrons that inform, educate and inspire.

We didn’t expect too many revelations from the conversation, since that’s not how things are done in the Middle East, but we were looking for some pointers about the role and the future of Art Dubai. And it looks as though we can conclude …

> The link with Saudi Arabia via the Misk Art Institute’s sponsorship and participation provides a useful deepening of the Modern section of the fair; even if it doesn’t add to the hall’s commercial appeal immediately, it will help to develop that in future years

> The Residents programme looks like a win-win – allowing a selected number of individual galleries to promote specific artists, engaging UAE institutions (including Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi) in Art Dubai, providing input into the artists’ work now and (hopefully) in the future, spreading the word (albeit briefly) through the open studio days.

> Although Art Dubai has a packed programme during the fair, there are no plans to add extra days. Instead there’s an implied option of increased off-site community engagement and similar events throughout the year.

Above: Last year’s Abraaj Prize went to Rana Begum for this spectacular and much-applauded installation



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