While chunks of the Arab belt oscillate between simmering and boiling, teardrop-shaped Dubai is clinging tightly to its legacy of eye-of-the-storm capitalism. And now, it seems, the city’s atmosphere of easy-breezy consumerism and, for most, visa-free tourism is proving critical not just for businesses, but also at sustaining afflicted art and cultural communities across the region. This weekend’s four-day long Art Dubai (16-19 March) fair sought to reaffirm just that.
Sales at this year’s Art Dubai were robust and attendance at the fair — which included big name institutions like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the British Museum — was the highest in its five-year history.
Although the Jasmine Revolution appears almost trouble-free when compared to nearby Libya, the art market of Tunis is still licking its wounds. Tourism levels for the North African country have dropped 40 per cent. Collectors who might have journeyed there to buy art from any one of the city’s contemporary art galleries have most likely put trips on hold.
For Lilia Ben Salah, director of Tunis’ Galerie El Marsa, this means having an active presence in Dubai is key to gaining exposure to a sophisticated audience. A strong Dubai acts as an anchor for the regional cultural scene, she explained, “and fairs like this only deepen the city’s role.”
According to Stephen Stapelton, founder of the Saudi Arabian arts initiative, Edge of Arabia, Dubai represents “an important model for developing the arts economy in Saudi Arabia”. The three-year-old initiative has conducted several key events in the city as well as taking a booth during this year’s fair to promote the artists it represents. “Dubai contributes to building the brand and reputation for contemporary art and a creative economy, especially in the Gulf where investment in arts and culture is such a new development,” said Stapelton.
It’s the city’s legacy as an economic buffer to its surroundings that first put it on the global art map for international collectors and curators. And, now, as the region’s stability seems even more tenuous, it’s what keeps bringing them back. “You need a minimum level of stability for a society to collect,” explained managing partner of the Dubai-based Ayyam Gallery, Hisham Samawi. Along with two Dubai galleries, Ayyam also has outposts in the more traditional art production centres of the region — Cairo, Damascus and Beirut — also places where many of the artists they feature call home.