Abu Dhabi Art 2017 has unveiled the 48 galleries from 18 different countries that will be featured in this year’s fair (8-11 November). This is more galleries than last year – which had 35 – and it also seems to be the maximum that fair director Dyala Nusseibeh wants for her first outing: “we’re getting back to the fair’s original size, and I think that’s just about right” she said in an interview recently.
The Manarat could probably shoehorn in a few more – though not many more – but clearly Nusseibeh has a strategic as well as a pragmatic view of the fair’s position.
The elephant in Abu Dhabi Art’s room is Art Dubai, already sprawling across multiple exhibition rooms and scaling up an already rich programme of extras and additions. Last year Art Dubai had 94 galleries, and the fair clearly positions itself as an international art hub.
Dyala Nusseibeh’s Abu Dhabi Art is making more of its boutique status, emphasising its local credentials and highlighting the emergence of a local market (sales at Abu Dhabi Art reportedly used to be limited to the Royal family and latterly the Saadiyat museums, but there seems to be a broader range of buyers these days).
As she put it: “This year’s edition aims to uphold and drive Abu Dhabi Art’s reputation as a regional cultural powerhouse … It will continue to provide a platform from which cultural and artistic dialogue can be initiated, paving the way for the evolving art scene in the Emirate and the UAE”.
Nusseibeh clearly has the task of creating an identity (and a role) for Abu Dhabi Art that means the fair will not be overshadowed by Art Dubai or swamped by the mass of competing art fairs worldwide –this year there are around 270 of them, up from just 100 in 2005. Ms Nusseibeh herself has experience of the attrition among art fairs: her previous job was at Istanbul’s Art International, launched in 2013 and cancelled in 2016 – though the security situation rather than commercial factors were cited as the reason.
But galleries remain keen on art fairs in principle; The Art Newspaper reports that galleries typically expect between 40 and 60 percent of their sales to take place at fairs, and that dealers increasingly see art fair participation as a viable alternative to a year-round permanent address. Sales at Art Dubai 2017 were reported to be the strongest to date, for instance; and if you’re a gallery based in London or New York, a few days in Abu Dhabi looks more economical way to reach a local market than a full time space somewhere in the city (especially as there’s no recognised gallery area in Abu Dhabi, so it’s not obvious where you’d actually locate your storefront).
For the buyer, of course, art fairs make for an efficient one-stop-shop system. Don’t discount the peer factor, either – the networking with people who speak the same language of the art market, the (usually) friendly (and sometimes testosterone-fuelled) competition to identify and then purchase the hot pics, the after-parties, the satellite events … It can make for a very pleasant shopping trip.
There’s a lot to be said for a smaller art fair, too. There’s not so much pressure on the galleries to compete for attention or on the visitors (and the potential buyers) to check out the work on offer. At the larger fairs, for instance, there’s a perception that day one will see the best buyers; so that’s when gallery owners are on hand, impressing each other and arranging private sessions for the favoured few. For the rest of the fair days they’ll often leave their booths in the hands of more junior staff, so visitors don’t get the same chances to learn and to negotiate.
Last year’s total of 35 galleries at Abu Dhabi Art did seem a tad thin, especially after the first couple of days, but 48 feels like a good combination of scale and opportunity.
The galleries who have signed up represent a good mix, too. Galleries returning to Abu Dhabi Art this year from Dubai include Leila Heller Gallery and Cuadro Fine Art Gallery. Among other returnees are Agial Art Gallery (Beirut), kamel mennour (Paris, London) Galerie George-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois (Paris), Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac (Paris, London, Salzberg), GALLERIA CONTINUA (San Gimignano, Les Moulins, Beijing, Havana), and the blue-chip Lisson Gallery (London, New York).
There are four categories for the galleries:
- Modern & Contemporary – defined by Abu Dhabi Art to mean “galleries who have been open for more than seven years” rather than the conventional art world definitions of ‘modern’ meaning art created roughly between the 1860s and 1960s, and ‘contemporary’ meaning art from the present day and the relatively recent past and preferably avant-garde in some way. In practice these galleries will be showing both, probably from the better-established names.
- Bidaya – galleries that have been running for less than seven years “showcasing some of the most exciting emergent artists worldwide”. Bidaya means ‘beginning’ in Arabic; this is where you’d expect to find the riskier stuff.
- Solo Projects – a new category this year, featuring a solo show by the participating gallery’s artist. This could be alongside a main booth or as an individual category. So far we know about Meem Gallery, which will have a single monumental work by Dia Azzawi; and recent works by Chant Avedissian at Sabrina Amrani Gallery.
- Focus: Beyond Territory – another innovation, a curated category for “a group of inter-generational artists and major projects from both emerging and leading galleries” that will be shown to a Middle Eastern audience for the first time. In essence this means an international platform for early- and mid-career artists selected by the curator, Dr Omar Kholeif; he’s a senior curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and is highly rated by those in the know, including Dyala Nusseibeh. Seven galleries are being featured – GALERIST (Istanbul), In Situ – Fabienne Leclerc (Paris), Jhaveri Contemporary (Mumbai), Marian Goodman Gallery (New York, Paris, London), Sprüth Mager (London, Berlin, Los Angeles) and from Dubai The Third Line Gallery and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde. Returning exhibitor Sean Kelly Gallery (New York) will participate in both this section and in Modern & Contemporary.
The additional not-for-profit activities look slightly more rounded this year, too. Munira Al Sayegh, one of the best of the UAE’s up and coming young creators, is responsible for a programme of talks on local and Gulf-wide art histories and narratives. Durub Al-Tawaya, Abu Dhabi Art’s performing arts programme, is once again curated by Tarek Abou El-Fetouh. Another Abu Dhabi Art stalwart, Fabrice Bousteau, is looking after the Street Art programme.
The Beyond strand is an annual programme of large-scale sculptures and installations organised by Abu Dhabi Art and located throughout the emirate. For 2017, three established contemporary artists – Manal Al Dowayan, Magdi Mostafa and Nasser Al Salem – have been commissioned to make works for this initiative.
This year there’s an add-on called Beyond: Emerging Artists, an extended programme of insights and direction for three emerging UAE-based artists that will result in work to be shown at Abu Dhabi Art 2017 and for three months afterwards. This is curated by something of a dream team – Mohammed Kazem, a seminal figure who is probably the UAE’s best established artist; and Cristiana de Marchi, artist, curator, writer, and acknowledged expert on the development of contemporary art in the UAE.
That should be good. So should another new feature, a curated exhibition called Gateway that draws connections between established UAE artists and their international peers. The curator is Maya Allison, Chief Curator at the NYUAD Art Gallery, who has just closed the important But We Cannot See Them show. Subtitled Tracing a UAE Art Community, this highlighted the development of avant garde art in the Emirates between 1988-2008 with some unexpected insights (and the participation of Mohammed Kazem, among others).
Above: Dia Azzawi is showing with Meem Gallery in the Solo Projects section – this is his major 2.5 x 15m work Mission of Destruction. Below: Hassan Sharif, Jellyfish No 13. He’s with Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde in the Solo Projects categroy