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Abu Dhabi Art 2014: The Future of Abu Dhabi on the Global Art Map?

- By Sophie Arni

“The local public became more engaged with the artworks than in previous years” - That was a conclusion of Leila Heller, owner of Leila Heller Gallery. Many conceptual museum-quality works were present throughout the booths. David Zwirner’s booth looked like the ultimate white cube gallery with a minimalistic selection of Donald Judd’s pile of black stacks and Dan Flavin’s neon tubes. Mona Hatoum’s Reflections (2013) photographic installation at was a nice touch of museum quality Arab conceptual art by an Italian/Chinese gallery. Following the contemporary conceptual, the ultimate commercial was present too. Acquavella’s Picasso and Rauschenberg paintings gave a certain upscale feel of buying and selling art.

Some Dubai-based gallerists view calligraphy and geometry-based commercial Arab art as a narrow-minded view on the works of Arab Contemporary Art. A lot of Alserkal Avenue-based galleries aim to sell pieces from MENA and international artists that can stand legitimately in the International Contemporary Art scene, such as Driss Ouadahi or Hamra Abbas. One of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s prime mission is indeed to promote Contemporary Arab Art; and in order to gain art historical significance, the contemporary Arab art market will have to produce more concept and less decor.

Another market trend worth noting was a regional focus on Asia. Galleries of Korea and Japan were first-time comers to the fair. They enjoyed it and will probably come back in the following years. Their commercial success was evident as I was passing through their booth every day to a new layout. Kukje/Tina Kim Gallery, with their Lee Ufans, had one of the fastest rotating booths. When asked about Korea and the UAE, its Director pointed out the underlying historical pearl trade relationship even before the oil boom, mentioning the Gulf as crossroads for Asian cultures.

Perhaps a seed against the West-centric art market has been planted at this year’s Abu Dhabi Art. East-East dialogues have been developed and will continue to grow as Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong becomes an established stop in the art world. Nothing can be generalized, but the commercial success of Chinese and Korean galleries in an art fair hosted in Abu Dhabi should not go unnoticed.

Abu Dhabi also holds a unique spot on the international art map. Institutions act as commercial buyers, more so than in any other place. Abu Dhabi Art was an example of an ‘institutionalized art fair’ playing on the same lines as the opening of the Louvre and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. It can be explained by macroeconomic circumstances rather than merely commercial success and regional trends in the art market. As the Artnet article covering the fair points out: “Unlike their American counterparts, institutions here often have a lot of buying power.” Those institutions can afford to acquire art thanks to generous endowments of the state. The institutionalization of the fair was felt in a place like Saadiyat Island, where the Guggenheim and Louvre will stand and where Abu Dhabi Art will continue to show. Museums and galleries’ directors mingled in a “laid-back atmosphere”, public art sculptures welcomed visitors at every entrance, talks were given by famous artists and museum curators, and the first Guggenheim Abu Dhabi exhibition opened, with the showstopper Yayoi Kusama installation at its pride. These factors add up to a sense that the fair had some a larger weight than a merely commercial one.

Showing conceptual regional works, alongside the successful sale of Asian Art demonstrate that Abu Dhabi is getting more and more involved and especially focusing on what could be their competitive advantage: their track to becoming a global art capital, that will perhaps capitalize on East-East dialogues.

Sophie Arni, November 2014, Abu Dhabi. All images are taken by Sophie Arni at the art fair.


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