Interview with Antonia Carver, director Art Dubai by Sabine B. Vogel

Sabine B. Vogel Last year you started as the new director of the Art Dubai. One of your first decisions was to leave the grid system for a kind of Souk-architecture in circles – will this continue?

Antonia Carver Yes – we are a fair of discovery, and want to maintain this fresh approach to the fair layout. Over the past couple of years we’ve tweaked the layout so that all the galleries are very much equal in terms of attention, access and audiences. In 2012, we think it will work particularly well, and accentuate Art Dubai’s diversity of galleries and artists.

SBV Last year 81 galleries participated, including 30 new ones. This year there are only 74 galleries – why less?

AC Many galleries requested a larger booth in 2012, and we sought to accommodate them; this seems like a sign of confidence in the region and the market. We had a return rate (of application) of 90% and many more new galleries applying, but we wanted to keep the fair “human-sized”, putting our resources into supporting the galleries, attracting museums groups and collectors from across the world, and into our (new, year-round) education programmes, commissioned artists’ projects, new series of residencies for artists and curators, and in expanding the Global Art Forum to six days: all these initiatives help bolster both the fair and the local/regional arts scene.

SBV It seems that the Art Dubai moves more and more towards a regional art fair – do you see a shrinking interest in western artworks in the MENASA-region?

AC No, not at all – in fact the opposite. We have tried to keep to the same breakdown as has been established over the past two years – of around a third of the galleries coming from the MENASA, third from Europe, and a third from the rest of the world. Such has been the increase in interest in artists from the MENASA (in part through the development of Art Dubai as a platform) that more and more artists from this part of the world are being taken up by galleries located in the West. At the same time, we see the taste of regional collectors expanding – not only towards Western work, but also towards wider Asia, and Latin America.

SBV How many percentage of the sells are staying in the region? Is it a growing market or just a playground for some happy few?

AC We don’t have statistics as such – the sales are between gallery and collector, but we are nurture our collector base across the board: we have a particular focus on hosting international museum groups and curators; we are increasingly drawing in collectors from across Asia and the wider Middle East; and we are -- year-round – nurturing the local collector base, encouraging younger collectors to join the existing patrons and families that have collected art for generations. The Middle East in general boasts a young population; in the Gulf in particular, young people tend to be extraordinarily open, internationally-minded and many are financially-secure. Dubai prides itself on being an entrepreneurial city. The numbers of people engaged in cultural endeavors and interested in exploring ideas has increased dramatically, year-on-year, over the past decade and continues to do so.

SBV The number of private museums in the Gulf region is constantly increasing - how many are right now around?

AC We are seeing at least one a year open in Dubai and Sharjah – and now have around 5-6 in the UAE alone. Doha now has 3 major museums and 2 arts centres already open, while Dubai has a number of new not-for-profit public institutions as well as being the gallery centre; Sharjah has a huge number of well-established museums as well as the Sharjah Art Foundation. Locally there is much debate about the best way forward to support the arts further, whether through commissioning bodies, public art agencies, institutions and so on. Abraaj Capital has led the way in establishing both its own collection and the Abraaj Capital Art Prize. There are other corporations and individuals quietly collecting at a serious level.

SBV The Saadiyat Island-museum projects are postponed or even cancelled - where do you see the future of the Abu Dhabi museums?

AC I don’t think there has been any formal announcement of postponement or cancellation. As I understand it, these are highly complex buildings, and they may take longer than was initially announced. There are so many plans and such diversity of institutions in the GCC now, let alone the Middle East as a whole, that we have plenty to be getting on with in the meantime.

SBV Art Dubai is mostly contemporary – will the fair include once in a while also a section for Modern Arab Art?

AC We don’t have plans to introduce a modern art section to the fair at present, but we are expanding into other areas. In 2012, the management team behind Art Dubai is launching the region’s first design fair, Design Days Dubai, which is in a different location but will overlap with Art Dubai. This is the first fair for limited edition furniture and design products in the Middle East/South Asia and is hugely exciting.

SBV Another innovation 2011 was the ‘Marker section’, a curated section with five young galleries – will this continue?

AC Yes – from 2012 onwards, the Marker section focuses in each year on a certain country or geography, to give viewers the chance to really get to grips with an arts scene. This year we’re focusing on Indonesia, and Marker is curated by Alia Swastika (co-curator of the Yogyakarta Biennial), who has selected five galleries and is working with their artists to produce new work for each booth at the fair. This section accentuates the fair’s role as a site of discovery – we’re looking primarily at a new generation of contemporary artists coming out of Indonesia who are experimenting with form and subject in such interesting ways – and who have a lot in common with artists in the region. We’re also expecting curators, gallerists and collectors to come to the fair from Indonesia, for the first time.

SBV At Christie´s auction autumn 2011 on Contemporary Asian Art it seemed that the next hotspot is Indonesia: out of 35 lots only 4 kept unsold – is this success the reason for picking Indonesia as a focus-country for Art Dubai 2012?

AC Actually we decided this back in April-May 2011 – the decision was more about connecting the Gulf with the world’s most populous Muslim country through cultural exchange, and because we’d detected a thirst within the art world to connect more with Indonesia. We feel Art Dubai can function as a “funnel” or point of convergence for upcoming artists from East Asia, Central Asia, and increasingly, parts of Africa – just as Dubai does already for Iran, Pakistan, the Arab world, and so on.

SBV Last year there were a lot of side-events – do you still see Art Dubai as an “umbrella“ for the Golf-region?

AC We launched Art Week last year as an umbrella for everything going on in the UAE and Qatar in March – all the exhibitions, projects, fairs and other events that now coincide with Art Dubai. This rich programme ranges from major museum shows to Galleries Night – the coordinated late-night opening of more than 40 new gallery shows across Dubai -- to projects and performances. Art Dubai has organically become the meeting point in the region. Through this programme, and our collaborative approach with the Global Art Forum, and across all our programmes, we aim to create a platform for the region, and a point at which international visitors can access the key people and events.

SBV You are living since 10 years in Dubai, do you see in Dubai any big chances over the course of the political changes around?

AC Dubai has changed dramatically over the past decade, in terms of its social character as well as architecturally. The city has remained calm throughout the past tumultuous year, and acted as a refuge for many – whether displaced by choice or otherwise – in terms of business, employment, opportunities. This is as true for the art world as it is banking, retail and trade sectors.

SBV Do you see any impact of the tense political situation in the region on the art fair this year?

AC In terms of debate, I expect people will – and as part of the Global Art Forum, with the theme of ‘The Medium of Media’, we have a session looking at news gathering in the Arab world, and another that looks at the pressures put on artists to interpret such events – and whether this is misplaced. In terms of artworks, I think artists are still working out ways in which to approach these seismic shifts – it’s an ongoing situation and one that will take decades for artists, writers and filmmakers to process. The artworks at the fair will no doubt feature a huge diversity of subjects. I am just back from Jeddah where I went to meet artists, curators and collectors, and what was encouraging is that there’s a new generation of artists coming up who are focusing on local, even domestic concerns – looking at the issues that affect them and their peers, and their work is all the better for it.

SBV Do you see any impact of the financial crisis in USA + Europe on the fair, less western galleries, less interest of private collectors or museum groups maybe?

AC Not really, actually. Western galleries seem to recognize that now is the time to reach out, particularly to the world beyond Europe/America, and that Dubai is an essential meeting point in this regard. Our aim is to build the fair as an “unmissable” annual event for all those that recognize that the art world has become a global phenomenon. Nowadays, there are few gallerists, museum directors, curators and collectors that are comfortable to stay home and ignore Asia/Middle East! We are welcoming galleries such as Perrotin, PACE, Arndt, Rodolphe Janssen for the first time, plus galleries from China (such as Platform China), new galleries from India (Seven, Mirchandani Steinrueke), and so on. We aim to be a flexible, innovative model of a fair, and remain an intimate-enough size for real conversations and exchanges to take place.

January 2012

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