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Transnationaliser la péninsule Arabique : dynamiques locales, régionales et globales

Local, Regional, Global: An Investigation of Art Dubai’s Transnational Strategies

Local, régional, mondial. Étude sur les stratégies transnationales d’Art Dubai
Melanie Sindelar


Art Dubai est une foire d’art relativement récente qui est parvenue à s’assurer une visibilité internationale en l’espace de 10 ans tout juste. Cet article discute du rôle de Art Dubai comme acteur transnational et du projet de montée en gamme qui aspire à rejoindre le model global de foire d’art. L’article utilise deux concepts proposés par l’anthropologue Anna Tsing (2000) : celui d’« idéologies d’échelle », et celui de projet de « configuration d’échelle » (“scale making”). Il propose de comprendre le modèle de foire d’art comme une idéologie qui édicte les caractéristiques d’une foire réussie à l’échelle globale. L’article explore comment Art Dubai a fait preuve de créativité dans son appropriation de certaines de ces caractéristiques, et comment il se concentre sur les stratégies transnationales de la foire déployées à travers les expositions et les programmes. La foire attire à la fois des collectionneurs privés et institutionnels, et elle y parvient en s’auto-étiquetant (branding) comme une « foire de la découverte ». Elle se situe ainsi comme un intermédiaire entre différentes régions du monde. Une telle rhétorique et un tel marketing apportent le succès du projet et entretiennent aussi un goût très occidental pour la « découverte ».

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Notes de l’auteur

Research was facilitated through the University of Vienna and its Faculty of Social Sciences. I thank Andre Gingrich and Ayse Caglar for their invaluable critical comments and enduring support. My gratitude extends to Lantian Xie, Stefan Zweiker, April Reino, Eva Kössner, as well as the anonymous peer-reviewers, and editors for their helpful suggestions. Any remaining errors are my own. Finally, I would like to thank my colleagues at Art Dubai who so generously accepted me into their midst.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Thornton, 2010.

1It was just another September day at Sotheby’s London in 2008, except that the modern auction room was packed with much anticipation as the auctioneer’s voice dominated the room: “Going once. Going twice. Sold!” The auction, titled “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” and dedicated to Damien Hirst’s newest pieces, took place on the same day that Lehman Brothers crashed in New York. Notwithstanding, Hirst’s Golden Calf sold for a record price of 10.3 million pounds. Rumours circulated as to the identity of the lucky bidder. Finally, confirmation came: a representative of the al-Thani family, Qatar’s rulers, had bought the piece by bidding via telephone1.

  • 2 Brones & Moghadam, 2016.

2With inflated budgets thanks to the oil economy, Arab Gulf monarchies have transformed the global art market in the last decade through acquiring art and establishing art infrastructures. Indeed, these new power contexts have not only created nouveau riche collectors: with their entrée into the global art market, entire institutional networks have been established across the Gulf countries. This has also triggered interstate competition, for instance between Qatar and the UAE. Its transformative impact is further visible within the various emirates in the region. In the UAE, the emirate of Abu Dhabi has dedicated Saadiyat Island to hosting the Guggenheim and Louvre museum franchises. In the emirate of Sharjah, ruled by the Āl Qāsimī-s, an art biennial has been hosted since 1993. Dubai has created a vibrant and flourishing art gallery scene2, in addition to running one of the most renowned art fairs in the Middle East: Art Dubai.

3In light of this background, this article focuses on Art Dubai and examines the art fair’s strategies of scale-making, which both serve to insert the fair in a network of prestigious art fairs worldwide, and to cultivate a local arts scene in Dubai. It is not only curators, collectors, gallerists or artists who hold a stake in Art Dubai’s success. The rulers of Dubai also have an interest in developing an art scene in the city. The article examines closely Art Dubai as one of the key actors in this art scene. It investigates the ways in which the fair wants to — and to a certain extent has to — conform to pre-set expectations of what makes a global and prestigious art fair. Fulfilling such expectations guarantees more exposure and attracts a larger amount of galleries, collectors, institutions, and curators than simply operating on a local level. These expectations come together in a global art event format or “global art fair model”, an ideology that requires art fairs to be global in order to become relevant.

  • 3 Tsing, 2005.
  • 4 Ibid. p. 58.

4The anthropologist Anna Tsing (2005) argues in her book Friction3 that certain aspirations — such as presented above in the case of art fairs — instigate scale-making projects. The way Tsing uses scale and scale making is different from other literature in critical geography and migration research. To her, scale delineates the “spatial dimensionality necessary for a particular kind of view, whether up close or from a distance, microscopic or planetary”4.

  • 5 Ibid., p. 57.
  • 6 Tsing, 2000b, p. 347.
  • 7 Ibid p. 347, emphasis added.

5Tsing defines scale-making projects as “projects that make us imagine locality, or the space of regions or nations”5, as “coherent bundles of ideas and practices as realized in particular times and places”6. For Tsing, these projects interact with what she conceptualises as “ideologies of scale”. Ideologies of scale are “cultural claims about locality, regionality, and globality, about stasis and circulation; and about networks and strategies of proliferation”7. Ideologies of scale are thereby assumptions that certain projects need to perform at a certain scale to become successful. Tsing proposes to identify the discourses that determine which scale is relevant for a given project.

  • 8 Caglar & Glick-Schiller, 2015, p. 2.
  • 9 Ibid., 2015, p. 2, emphasis added.

6Projects pertaining to a certain spatial dimension are entangled in a network of intersecting power relations. As anthropologists Caglar and Glick-Schiller point out, “the scalar question is not about size but power”8 and multiscalar analysis, as suggested by them, enables the “mutual constitution of the local, regional, national, and global through time and in the construction of social space”9. Therefore, Tsing’s proposed analytical principles also need to be understood in terms of acquiring and exercising power that operates beyond any one particular ideology. Indeed, projects of scale-making are placed in a network of multiple, and at times, conflicting ideologies, they become transnational when they transcend national borders in order to reach global relevance.

7In light of these considerations, I suggest in this article that the global art fair model is a particular instantiation of these ideologies of scale. Hence, for an art fair to become relevant, it must, first of all, claim to be global, and to be part of a network of the most reputable art fairs worldwide (Frieze, Art Basel, the Armory Show, etc.). I will first contextualise the evolution of Art Dubai within the local arts scene and discuss the criteria of the global art fair model. Then, I will investigate how Art Dubai aspires to this model, and the ways in which it places itself in a globe-spanning network of art fairs. Finally, I aim to show how Art Dubai brands itself as a global fair through specific transnational strategies. These strategies include the Global Art Forum (GAF) and two special exhibitions, Marker and Modern, which both aim at promoting the fair to international audiences.

8In support of this analysis, I collected observations during my time as an intern at Art Dubai from January until April 2015, and as a visitor to the 2016 edition of the fair. Whereas most of the data stems from participant observation, I also conducted five in-depth expert interviews with curators, gallery owners, and employees of Art Dubai during March 2015 and 2016 and took into account recent art market reports. I further analysed the success of individual exhibitions at Art Dubai through reviews published in both international and regional media, as well as in newspapers and in art magazines. These reports show how art critics and journalists perceive the fair and its programmes.

Contextualising Art Dubai

Art Dubai’s evolution

9In March 2016, Art Dubai celebrated its 10th anniversary. Founded on a smaller scale by Ben Floyd and John Martin as the Gulf Art Fair, it was located within the Dubai International Financial District (DIFC), its main business partner. In 2008, it moved to Madinat Jumeirah, a luxurious hotel complex belonging to the Jumeirah group, owned by Dubai’s ruling family. Every year, two of the hotel ballrooms are transformed into two gallery halls dedicated to contemporary art. Nearby, in the Mina Salam hotel, also part of Madinat Jumeirah, a third hall hosts modern art exhibitions. The fair runs for four days every March, concurrently with Design Days Dubai, its sister fair, and other art initiatives such as “Art Week”. All of these belong to the Art Dubai Fair FZ LLC (The Art Dubai Group), which is set up as a joint venture with Dubai International Financial District (DIFC). It is therefore different to SIKKA, an art fair that also takes place in March every year, but is located in the heritage district of al-Fahīdī, and is run by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority (DCAA).

  • 10 Art Dubai also introduced the Sheikha Manal Little Artists Program, and further hosts the popular C (...)

10In 2011, Art Dubai started a special exhibition called Marker in the contemporary art halls. The aim of Marker is to showcase cultural and artistic connections between the Arab Gulf and another region of the world. A curator from the chosen region is appointed to display his or her vision, and he or she invites artists to exhibit their work on the fairgrounds. In 2014, a new section of the fair, an exhibition called Art Dubai Modern, was established in order to exclusively exhibit modern art from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Finally, another programme aiming at reaching out to global art professionals has been running since Art Dubai’s inception, the Global Art Forum (GAF). It is inspired by the Art Basel talk series, but it differentiates itself from these in that it is a curated programme focusing on issues relevant to the Arab Gulf region10.

Local economic impact

  • 11 Art Dubai, 01.03.2016. The press release cites the study which was conducted by Repucom and commiss (...)
  • 12 Art Dubai thereby still only attracts a margin of those visits attracted by fairs like Art Basel (9 (...)
  • 13 Art Dubai, 1 March 2016.
  • 14 Abd Allāh, 2006.
  • 15 Brones & Moghadam, 2016.

11In March 2015, during Art Week, Art Dubai and Design Days Dubai together generated US$ 35 million according to a study11. They attracted a total of 25,000 visits12 by 15,625 unique visitors, among which half (51%) came from outside Dubai, and of which 46% visited primarily for these events. Together, the fairs generated over 6,000 purchases and 27,500 hotel nights for the city13. The fair thus contributes significantly to what ‘Abd al-Khāliq ‘Abd Allāh coins as Dubai’s “city-corporation” (al-madīna–al-sharīka)14. In addition, the success of the fair feeds the development of permanent art-related activities in Dubai, such as galleries, in particular in the al-Qūz industrial district15, which has recently expanded in the same post-industrial style as that of the old warehouses.

12In addition, the regional art scene, including the Arab Gulf and other Middle Eastern art capitals, did not suffer as much from the 2008 financial crisis, contrary to the international art market. According to the previous fair director, Antonia Carver,

  • 16 Joseph & Petterson, 2014.

“the regional gallery scene and art market have shown remarkable resilience. Contrary to other cultural capitals, galleries did not close in Dubai and the arts scene actually expanded during this time. The depression in Europe has perhaps accelerated the shift towards the East, as well as forcing institutions, galleries and the like to come to see themselves as part of a globalised art world”16.

  • 17 Ibid.
  • 18 Art Dubai, 2015.
  • 19 For example, such as Joseph & Petterson, 2014.
  • 20 Joseph & Petterson, 2014.
  • 21 Moghadam, 2013.
  • 22 Joseph & Petterson, 2014.

At the international level, the fair has indeed managed to establish itself on the international art calendar, and institutional interest is visible as yearly visitors include the Tate, LACMA, the Guggenheim, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, Centre Pompidou, Institut du Monde Arabe and the Hong Kong Art Fair Museum17. In 2015 the fair attracted about 400 museums directors and representatives18. Art market reports19 devote entire editions to the Middle Eastern art market and Art Dubai, giving credit to its former director Antonia Carver when she explains that Dubai is “emerging as the market centre for the region”20. In addition, Dubai has capitalised on a stifled arts scene across the Gulf to become a platform to market Iranian art to an international audience21, even if conflict in the region “negatively affects confidence among collectors in the market”22.

  • 23 For instance, in 2015 Art Basel Hong Kong has changed the dates of its fair to March, moving closer (...)

13In the face of an international environment of well-established fairs, as well as of regional competitors23, Art Dubai seems to have adopted the “global art fair model”, an ideology of scale that requires art fairs to perform on a global scale in order to become relevant. The focus of this article is to show how Art Dubai engages with this ideology of scale and how the fair works as a project of scale-making.

The global art fair model: Art Dubai as a “scale-making” project

  • 24 Baia Curioni, 2012, p. 122.
  • 25 For further reference to the relationship between Western notions of aesthetics and art in relation (...)
  • 26 Baia Curioni, 2012, p. 118.

14The first edition of the Venice Biennial, in 1895, can be referred to as the prototype for the global art fair model. Though both fairs and biennials are places in which “international cultural elites”24 express their class-affiliations and national belongings, these two event-formats are different in character25. Fairs, according to Baia Curioni, are “centered on the idea of producing a temporary marketplace for the arts, apparently without specific curatorial ambitions”, whereas biennials have “strong curatorial ambitions, and are in direct dialogue with museums, kunsthalles, and other exhibition spaces”26.

  • 27 Bailey, 2015.
  • 28 Velthuis & Baia Curioni, 2015, p. 14.
  • 29 Quemin, 2012, p. 65.

15More recently, Art Basel has come to be considered the template for art fairs globally, or what Woon Tai Ho, art collector and former marketing director of the National Gallery in Singapore, calls the “virtual template of what art fairs are today”27. It takes place each year in Basel, Switzerland, and aims at bringing together galleries and the public, while also providing a platform for artists, curators, collectors and art writers, and serving as a meeting place “where between 100 and 300 galleries get together, showing a variety of art in a small booth during four or five days”28. To my knowledge, such a blueprint depends on a few determining factors, namely (1) the ability to attract blue-chip galleries, (2) the provision of a platform for discussing relevant art world issues, and (3) recognition as a global art fair, not only as a regional or local event. The latter includes the ability to attract an international audience from various art scenes worldwide, one that is also representative of the global art world in terms of gallery line-up. However, international reach is not the same as being truly representative of the world art scene. If Art Basel is “truly international”, art sociologist Quemin argues, it is because the countries that are present “are the most prestigious in art world terms and clearly are leading nations in the field”29, although the composition of the galleries shows substantial bias towards European galleries.

  • 30 Fillitz, 2012, p. 115.

16If indicators of global reach can be identified, there is, however, no such thing as a unique format world-wide. The anthropologist Thomas Fillitz’s analysis of the Dak’Art biennial (Senegal) shows that art events do not just adopt some global “art event format”, therefore “producing but local variants to the general structure”30. Art fairs officials evaluate the extent to which certain templates for global art fairs are to be incorporated into their own event, and at what cost. Art fairs, as projects of scale making, thus often pervade received ideas of a global art event format and perform their version of globality in ways they deem appropriate. They thereby also set stakes for other fairs with which they compete globally.

  • 31 For critiques see Price, 2001, Karp & Lavine, 1991, Clifford, 1988.
  • 32 Velthuis & Baia Curioni, 2015, p. 14.

17The origins of a global art fair model are said to lie in the Global North (considering the Venice Biennial, Art Basel, and others), historically setting markers of distinction and evaluating whether art from other parts of the world was indeed “art” or just “material culture”31. The most prestigious institutions function also as “gatekeepers”, Velthuis and Baia Curioni argue, even denoting a “normative isomorphism” when Art Basel “only admits galleries if they operate according to specific norms and standards, which are thus implicitly enforced upon them”32. If ideologies of scale require projects to perform on certain scales, then the global art fair model, an ideology in itself, requires art fairs to perform that globality, and to strive towards being a global art fair, rather than just an art fair. Globality must be woven into the fair if it is to make a dent at the international level.

18The following examples illustrate two aspects of how the global art fair model is a response in a particular place and time to a given ideology of scale: firstly, the Global Art Forum, which is an educational initiative aimed at connecting local and international art experts; and secondly, Art Dubai’s Modern and Marker exhibitions that illustrate how fairs seek to “go global” by offering an unique blend of galleries and art work.

Art Dubai and the Global Art Forum

  • 33 See Abrams, 2015.

19The Global Art Forum (GAF) runs in conjunction with the art fair and is similar in nature to the talks programme at Art Basel, inviting artists, galleries and curators to panel discussions. The particularity of the GAF, however, is its focus on topics relevant for the Arab Gulf region, which are selected by commissioner Shumon Basar and then fair director Antonia Carver. The GAF’s format offers flexibility in the way of formats, including performances, lectures and video pieces, whereas most Art Basel talks are “talks” in the narrow sense. In 2015 however, Art Basel also introduced regionally sensitive talks33.

  • 34 See Salamandra, 2013 for the relevance of the Gulf-London connection especially in respect to Islam (...)

20The topics of the different GAF editions often relate to globality: in 2014, the GAF’s theme “Meanwhile … History”, focused on specific moments in history that changed global norms; in 2015, the GAF, entitled “Download Update”, focused on technology; in 2016, the edition was entitled “The Future Was” and dealt with past visions of the future. However, it is not just the themes that make the forum global but also the strategies put in place to have a transnational reach. In addition to inviting speakers from other parts of the Arab Gulf or the world, the launch of the GAF often takes place elsewhere than in Dubai, the forum then relocates and ends during the Art Dubai week. In 2014 it was launched in Doha, in 2015 in Kuwait City, and in 2016 in London, highlighting the Gulf' connection with this megacity34. However, while the GAF is trying to break down borders — becoming transnational in order to become global — the reality of border-politics can hit back in a sobering way. For instance, in 2015 some of the GAF team could not travel to Kuwait on the grounds of their Iraqi citizenship.

  • 35 Interview with Uns Kattan at Art Dubai 2016, 19 March 2016.

21Uns Kattan, coordinator of the GAF for Art Dubai, told me that inviting only “high-calibre” panels consisting of internationally renowned experts goes against the mission of the fair. Instead, the fair aims to pair some of these with local and regional “rising stars”, which according to Kattan has often led to interesting collaborations. In my interview with Kattan, I suggested that it seemed as if the GAF nicely fulfilled the requirements of the global art fair model by branding itself as a “global” art forum and by using transnational connections. She, however, did not think that a strategy to “go global” was necessary in the first place: to her, the GAF, and the fair, are products of its surroundings. “Being where it is, in the UAE, it is [impossible] not to be global. Do you know what I mean in a way? Just look at us!”, she said, pointing at both of us, referring to the cosmopolitan and diverse character of Dubai, “and look at all the different people that are here”35. Perhaps unintentionally, I was levering the fair out of its specific locality, Dubai. Dubai might have made the fair more global than it made Dubai global, but it is still a relationship of reciprocity. Even if “becoming global” were unnecessary, the fact that Art Dubai — right from the start — incorporated a talks programme as any other successful art fair would, does hint at the fair strategically including this important component in order to compete with other renowned art fairs.

22The reason the GAF combines both well-known and local and regional rising stars on its panels lies in the ambitions contained in the programme, namely to educate and involve local and regional actors in building a local arts scene. This might be more important for Dubai’s art scene than in more established places, as local artists, curators, initiatives, and the fair are in a reciprocal relationship. Over the years, Dubai’s artistic community has grown and the art fair has fostered the talents of artists through initiatives such as Campus Art Dubai (CAD), an art school whose graduation ceremony takes place at Art Dubai each March. Thus, Art Dubai not only focuses on establishing itself as a market place for the wider region, but is also looking for ways and means to further develop the local art scene. Over its 10-year existence, the GAF has become an important meeting point for artists, curators, art writers, and other art world members from the UAE, the Gulf, and the Middle East. The GAF has gained reputation not only from its most loyal “fans”, but also from art journalists. By going beyond usually dry talk formats, incorporating various mediums, and pairing international and local and regional experts, the programme has transcended expectations.

23Whereas art talks always try to also attract gallery owners, those exhibiting at the fair are often too busy selling their artists’ work to attend talks on a regular basis. Whereas talks programmes and other educational initiatives constitute a necessary part of established art fairs, they are not the prime reason that collectors and curators come to the fairs. For an art scene to flourish one does not only need art production, one also needs to attract art consumption. Art Dubai has emerged as a new platform for UAE and Gulf-based collectors as well as regional collectors, who can buy pieces of art there without having to travel to international art fairs. However, in Art Dubai, it is not so much the presence of international blue-chip galleries — highly valued and esteemed for their selection of art works — that attract buyers: these are not yet overly present in Art Dubai. Rather, buyers and audiences are lured into Madinat Jumeirah each March by the promises of finding art at Art Dubai that cannot be found at other art fairs. The fair’s focus on introducing unknown and previously unrecognised art attracts collectors who are searching for lucrative investments. The Modern and Marker exhibitions have played crucial roles in this regard. They aim at establishing connections in time and in space between Art Dubai and the art scene of the Middle East and beyond.

Establishing connections in time and space: the Modern and Marker exhibition at Art Dubai

24The Modern exhibition at Art Dubai was established in 2014, serving to showcase modern art from the Middle East and Asia, then expanding to include North Africa as well. The Financial Times sees the establishment of the Modern exhibition as a sign that the “Middle East market is maturing”36. The Modern section has included artists such as Nabil Nahas, a Lebanese modern artist trained in the United States, M. F. Husain, an Indian modern painter influenced by cubism, Rasheed Araeen who left Pakistan for London in the 1970s and who founded the journal Third Text37, and in 2016 the Lebanese Malileh Afnan whose series “Wartorn” (1979) was exhibited by the Lawrie Shabibi Gallery in Dubai38. In an interview with artBahrain, Carver says that institutional collectors were delighted about the Modern section, “with one British museum director describing the experience to [her] as ‘being at a visual and conceptual university’ for an afternoon”39. Such statements by important museum directors attending the fair greatly improve Art Dubai’s reputation. They also underline the role taken by Art Dubai in educating Western art professionals about Middle Eastern art, and art from other regions. Communication with international art journals and newspapers is therefore strategic in building Art Dubai’s reputation. It rhetorically focuses on the discovery of art from lesser-known regions.

  • 40 Barragán, 2008.
  • 41 Velthuis & Baia Curioni, 2015, p. 12.

25The Marker exhibition is situated within the contemporary gallery halls of the art fair and has been running since 2011. Each year, the exhibition focuses on a different region, inviting a curator from that region who travels along with galleries, art works, artists and art spaces to exhibit at Art Dubai. This rather new phenomenon of “curated art fairs” positions curators as mediators between the public and the artworks. As independent curator Paco Barragán argues in his book The Art Fair Age, “in that type of entente cordiale, the fair benefits from the prestige, know-how and contacts of the curator. The curator, in exchange, gets access to a new curatorial platform”40. Curators are increasingly responsible for the success or failure of an exhibition, regardless of institutional pressures, financial constraints, or dictates of the commissioners which affect the practice of a curator. Curators play an increasingly important part in the diffusion of the art fair model, as they “usually facilitate the globalization of contemporary art through their travels and mediating role”41.

  • 42 Mojeh, 2013.
  • 43 Eyene, 2015.
  • 44 Mojeh, 2013.

26By inviting art and artists from relatively lesser known art scenes, the Marker aims to position Art Dubai at the crossroads of East and West, North and South, as is shown by its first editions. In 2012 the focus of Marker was on Indonesia; which led to the presence the following year of two Indonesian galleries — D Gallerie and Edwin’s Gallery — in the contemporary halls. In 2013, the fair director invited Lagos-based curator Bisi Silva to exhibit art from West Africa. Silva was interested in the historical routes between West Africa, the Middle East and Asia42, revived by contemporary connections. Many works established references to the religion shared by both regions, Islam, which according to Christine Eyene from the art magazine Contemporary And, “was not only culturally relevant; it was also a clever commercial move within the frame of Art Dubai”43. Silva invited five renowned art spaces, featuring Espace doual’art from Lagos (Nigeria) — well established in West Africa —, Maison Carpe Diem from Segou (Mali), the Nubuke Foundation from Accra (Ghana) and Raw Material Company from Dakar (Senegal). The curator hoped that Marker would “lead to more dialogues and exchanges [as well as] curatorial projects”44. Silva became a member of the curatorial committee of Modern when it expanded to include African modern art.

27In 2014, the Marker exhibition focused on the Caucasus. It was curated for the first time by a pan-Caucasian collective, Slav and Tatars. Slav and Tatars invited five art spaces: ArtEast from Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Asia Art+ from Almaty (Kazakhstan), the North Caucasus Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Art in Vladikavkaz (Russian Federation), the Window Project from Tbilisi (Georgia), and YARAT from Baku (Azerbaijan). Slav and Tatars refused the art spaces be separated from each other by the usual white gallery halls.

  • 45 Kohn, 2014.
  • 46 Ibid., 2014.

28This type of approach echoes Dubai’s general strategy of establishing itself as a regional hub between Asia, Africa and the Middle East. As art critic Asher Kohn noted regarding the 2014 programme, the “disconnect” between the Caucasus and the Middle East is, to a certain extent, fabricated45. It can indeed be related to the communication strategy of the Marker exhibition to appear as a place where previously unconsidered connections are highlighted. Kohn is right to suspect that the artists showcased at Marker 2014 “did not jump out of the Soviet vacuum into collectors’ ‘discovery’”; to him, they are more “commodified by the changing economic modes of the post-Soviet states”46. Marker’s success then, also relies on creating artificial distance to forge connectedness, in order to draw important art investors and museum directors to Art Dubai. According to Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim museum in New York, this part of the fair is “fantastic” and “sufficiently complex”; and

  • 47 Daya, 2014.

“for Western visitors in particular, there’s a tremendous amount of new information. The fair gives me access to high-quality dealers and art that I wouldn’t have time to see otherwise”47.

The element of “discovery” becomes a successful marketing tool to get a considerable amount of institutional attention.

  • 48 Haupt & Binder, 2015.
  • 49 Interview with Luisa Teixeira de Freitas, 29 July 2015, via email.

29The 2015 edition of Marker chose to focus on Latin America, a choice that has been criticized by reviewers as Latin America is already a renowned art scene, not one that needs to be “discovered”48. The show however adopted an original approach, putting together different types of creations: sound pieces by Marina Buendia and Maria Ouiroga, a collective exhibition of several artists called “Building Imaginary Bridges Across Hard Ground”, and an exhibition of La Ene — Nuevo Museo Energía de Arte Contemporáneo. Videobrasil, a collective focusing on video and film production under the lead of curator Tereza Farkas (daughter of Videobrasil founder Solange Farkas) presented an interesting collection of films that explore the connection between the two regions. Independent local publishers from both regions were invited too: Tijuana from Sao Paulo, and The State, based in Dubai. The curator, Luiza Teixeira de Freitas, was herself critical of whether showcasing such a vast region was indeed possible49. She however underlined the benefits of “opening up so many important dialogues in the different sections”, and of Marker as a place where artists and art publishers can meet, citing for instance Dubai-based publisher The State participating in an art fair in Sao Paulo, subsequent to the Marker exhibition.

  • 50 Interview with Ringo Bunoan at Art Dubai 2016, 18 March 2016. The Asia Art Archive is a charity bas (...)
  • 51 Artist-run spaces, in opposition to gallery-run art spaces, are initiatives where artists both run (...)
  • 52 Interview with Ringo Bunoan at Art Dubai 2016, 18 March 2016.
  • 53 Ibid.

30In 2016, the Marker exhibition invited the Philippines, a country whose citizens constitute one of the main immigrant groups in Dubai. The curator was Ringo Bunoan, an artist and curator living in Manila. She had conducted research on art spaces ran by Filipino artists for Asia Art Archive50, and it is through this international connection that she came to meet with Antonia Carver, then director of Art Dubai. Bunoan decided to show alternative forms of art and the exhibition exclusively displayed artist-run spaces51, which have become a key feature of the Philippines art scene, such as 98B, Post Gallery, Project 20 and Thousandfold. She wanted to bring a new approach to Art Dubai’s more classical canvas-dominated exhibition. “We are here to show works that are very different from what’s there”52, she told me in an interview, pointing across to the other galleries in the hall. She added that people are perhaps not yet ready for such kind of work, but that this is also “a way of educating them”, and Dubai might be the right place for that. For Bunoan, “The Gulf is also a crossroad, an entry-point to Europe, a confluence of different cultures”53 and Marker provides ample opportunities to reach out to other audiences. Some pieces were bought by local and European collectors.

Art Dubai and the politics of discovery

31The art fair is first and foremost an economic enterprise, and as such must guarantee revenues to attract galleries willing to rent booth space at the fair. In order to draw galleries, curators, collectors, and the audience to Art Dubai, the business rhetoric of being a “fair of discovery” becomes a crucial marketing component.

  • 54 Steiner, 1994, p. 133.
  • 55 Ibid., 1994, p. 133.
  • 56 Haupt & Binder, 2014.
  • 57 Tripathi, 2014.

32Analysing the African art scene and its relation to Western art markets, anthropologist Christoph Steiner observes that “one of the key factors in the presentation of an art object is to create an illusion of discovery”54, and that “African art dealers are well aware of the discovery element in Western taste”55. The same seems to apply in the Arab Gulf, as can be seen for instance when former Art Dubai Fair director, Antonia Carver uses the rhetoric of newness and discovery. In the online art magazine Universes in Universe, Carver explained that “Marker epitomizes the role of Art Dubai as a ‘fair of discovery’”56. This choice of words is used repeatedly in interviews, press releases, and conferences of the fair, putting the communication means in motion to establish this truth. The branding of Art Dubai as a “fair of discovery” is strategically displayed in official statements, in order to establish its specificity and uniqueness compared to more renowned art fairs. The fact that Art Dubai does not yet attract as many high-value (so-called “blue-chip”) galleries is presented as a deliberate choice to give space to lesser known galleries that are more interesting for art collectors to discover. Hindu, one of India’s most widely read newspapers, comments on this strategy, saying that Carver’s “claim was corroborated by the absence of blue-chip Western galleries and the presence of several unknown and uncelebrated artists from West Asia”57. Directors of important art museums worldwide, as cited above, join the chorus celebrating Art Dubai as a fair of discovery where they can educate themselves.

  • 58 Austin, 1962.
  • 59 Hall, 2000, p. 184, emphasis added.

33Whether or not Art Dubai is a fair of discovery, the fact that this rhetoric is employed strategically by the fair management, and received well within the media, already creates an illusion that indeed Art Dubai seems to be a fair of discovery. In Austin’s spirit, such a speech act of “discovery” is felicitous and brings into reality what Art Dubai desires to become58. There is a performativity that applies here, as noted by the linguist Kira Hall: utterance “has no truth value since it does not describe the world, but acts upon it”59. In other words, Art Dubai becomes a fair of discovery because it made others believe that it was, thereby validating its successful claim.

  • 60 Quemin, 2012.

34Given that Art Dubai competes with more established art fairs, and needs to both attract art producers (artists, galleries) and consumers (institutions, collectors), the rhetoric of discovery can be seen as a specific marketing strategy employed in order to attract investment. As a speech act it acts upon the media and consumers to create a specific vision. As a marketing strategy, it advertises the “undiscovered” to a primarily strong Western collector base, providing notions of exoticism where the undiscovered will be discovered and the formerly untranslatable will be translated. The art fair poses itself as a mediator and translator between different artistic worlds that seemingly do not know each other. During my internship at the fair, Antonia Carver mentioned during a staff meeting that Art Dubai is an “an art fair for the Global South” and seeks to act as a successful mediator of arts from the Middle East and from other Global South regions. By providing such a service, as well-intentioned and lucrative as this may be, it also serves to create an expectation of translatability. If the “Western” (or “Northern”) audiences are to get to know other art scenes and practices, these have to come with the tools that can translate their value and desirability. Fairs such as Art Dubai play skillfully on the Western-centric approach to art of international institutions such as MOMA, Centre Pompidou or Tate60 that need to be educated. By returning as yearly visitors, such institutions display the need for venues such as Art Dubai, that both secure discovery and the tools to understand it, unlike most European art fairs.

  • 61 Tsing, 2000a, p. 118.
  • 62 Ibid., 2000a, p. 118.

35Creating a bubble of excitement seduces investment in the first place, according to Tsing; in “speculative enterprises, profit must be imagined before it can be extracted; the possibility of economic performance must be conjured like a spirit to draw an audience of potential investors”61. Investment can only be attracted if you manage to convince them that there will be such opportunities, and it is often because of rhetoric that first investments are laid. Therefore, as Tsing argues, “dramatic performance is the pre-requisite of […] economic performance”62. In this regard, Art Dubai tries to fulfil investors’ expectations for investment, leading to an interplay of evidences of success and of rhetoric that seem to make Art Dubai a lucrative enterprise.

  • 63 Interview with Ursula Krinzinger at Art Dubai 2016, 19 March 2016.
  • 64 Interview with a Dubai-based gallerist, Al-Qūz, 22 March 2016.

36Selecting the best galleries — that expose the finest art on offer to potential buyers visiting the fair — while guaranteeing regionally balanced exhibitions becomes critical, a balance that can be difficult to maintain through time, as mentioned by Ursula Krinzinger from the renowned Viennese Gallery Krinzinger and a member of the selection committee of Art Dubai. To her, it is the artistic quality of a gallery that should determine first and foremost whether a gallery is invited or not to exhibit63. On the other hand, for gallerists, the only real measure of recognition of their expertise is commercial success. Being nearly sold out at an art fair is vital for a gallery’s reputation, especially since participating in a fair is painfully costly. Artworks must be shipped to other continents, fees for exhibition booths must be paid, and many more obstacles deter smaller galleries in particular from exhibiting in the first place. As one gallerist explained to me, nobody is interested in just selling one or two artworks that will not “break even” — the level of sales necessary to fully cover costs and start making a profit. Most galleries expect more than that: they want to make a real profit64.

  • 65 Yogev & Ertug, 2015.

37Maintaining a satisfying level of sales for the galleries is therefore a yearly challenge for Art Dubai. In this regard, the fair does profit from its geographical location as a “half-way” meeting point for American and European as well as Asian galleries and collectors. In their analysis of the growing regional presence of Asia in the global art world, Yogev and Ertug65 show that, for a majority of Asian galleries, exhibiting in America or Europe is not an option given the distances involved. Art Dubai’s location backed by good transportation infrastructures is thus an asset, and this is presented as an incentive for private collectors or public institutions. Art Dubai offers sufficient exposure to Western collectors, institutions and curators that often play the role of gatekeepers of the global art market.

  • 66 Joseph & Petterson, 2014.
  • 67 Joseph & Petterson, 2014, p. 3.
  • 68 Moghadam, 2012.

38Art Dubai also profits from the increasing base of Middle Eastern art collectors that it helped to create. In a 2014 report on the Middle Eastern art market66, Alia al-Senussi, patron and VIP relationship manager at Art Basel, notes the profound changes that the art market has undergone in the Middle East in recent years, due to the formation of a collector base. These collectors have “moved between international art and Middle Eastern art more fluidly than ever”67. Art Dubai plays a crucial role in the education of regional art collectors, private collectors and individuals who buy art for pleasure and investment. Furthermore, Art Dubai profits from — and also helped establish — the local arts scene. The sector of arts has indeed expanded since the 2000s. The geographer Amin Moghadam shows the development of new places for production and, more importantly, of selling, as well as the adaptation of the legal framework for such activities68.

  • 69 Hanieh, 2011, p. 103.

39Thus, the fair is involved not only in attracting consumers, but also in producing producers. Art Dubai does function as a network for sellers (galleries) and buyers (institutions, professionals, etc.). But beyond and above, the fair offers a stage for cultivating artist careers. Its in-house school named Campus Art Dubai provides a platform for criticising each other’s work and developing professionally as an artist. Future buyers are also cultivated, including the “new capital class”, which Hanieh termed “Khaleej capital”, a class that embodies “a new set of social relations that are developing around pan-GCC accumulation opportunities”69. Art Dubai thereby creates producers and consumers for its own future.


40Although Art Dubai is just ten years old, the fair has grown quickly and is part of the development of the local arts scene in the Arab Gulf. As a young art fair, however, beyond an interested local and regional public, Art Dubai has to reach out to international curators and collectors used to art fairs such as Art Basel. The article discussed the commonly perceived criteria of the so-called “global art fair” model. Fairs are recognised as global when they attract international art world members and host international art galleries, thereby balancing both the need for quality and regional exposition. It was suggested that such a blueprint becomes an ideology of scale, in Tsing’s sense, as the art fair claims to have what it takes to be “truly” global.

41However, in order to draw investment, a successful art fair has to spark the imagination. The rhetoric and marketing strategies of Art Dubai helped portray it as a fair of discovery. Such a marketing strategy raises questions as to whom previously “unknown” art can be mediated and what its effects are, on a moral-political level and in terms of business success. Although at times these programmes may appear morally ambiguous as they use regional connections to elevate these as “discoveries”, they also establish more institutional interest within and towards the region and the wider Middle Eastern transnational networks.

42Art Dubai draws in this respect from Dubai establishing itself as an important trade hub and a city where business is conducted in a transnational fashion, in connection with Asia, Africa and Europe. This role has been expanded since the 2000s by the ambition to become an international tourism destination as well, an ambition within which the development of an art scene, and an art market characterised by its unique blend of non-European art, sits nicely.

  • 70 Chan, 2016.

43Finally, the way in which Art Dubai has created not only a platform for the local arts scene but has also actively engaged in forging links between regions and nations through its special programmes, has set the fair apart. Beyond the fair itself, more long-term transnational connections have been established between art scenes: in several cases, the invited art regions, curators and galleries of the Marker exhibition further developed their profile on Western art markets or continued their relationship with the Arab Gulf scene. Bisi Silva, the curator of Marker’s West Africa edition, has been appointed to the curatorial committee of Art Dubai Modern. Slav and Tatars have continued to exhibit and curate art in the Arab Gulf. Almost concurrently with the Philippine edition of Marker 2016, the Art Tactic report of February 2016 labelled the Philippines as one of the upcoming regions for art in Asia70. In Dubai itself, beyond the frenzy of what has been termed the yearly “March madness”, Art Dubai has proven itself to take an important part in the consolidation of the local and regional art scene and market through its outreach programme, its transnational strategies and its support of a local art base.

  • 71 Art Tactic, 2014. ArtTactic podcast with Antonia Carver, transcribed.

“But over the years the fair has become more and more global in nature, and so we’re talking about having eighty-five galleries — they came from thirty-four different countries — so I think for our size we are the most globalized of fairs that are out there at the moment”71.

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1 Thornton, 2010.

2 Brones & Moghadam, 2016.

3 Tsing, 2005.

4 Ibid. p. 58.

5 Ibid., p. 57.

6 Tsing, 2000b, p. 347.

7 Ibid p. 347, emphasis added.

8 Caglar & Glick-Schiller, 2015, p. 2.

9 Ibid., 2015, p. 2, emphasis added.

10 Art Dubai also introduced the Sheikha Manal Little Artists Program, and further hosts the popular Campus Art Dubai (CAD), a class taught throughout the year that culminates with a graduation each March at Art Dubai.

11 Art Dubai, 01.03.2016. The press release cites the study which was conducted by Repucom and commissioned by Art Dubai itself.

12 Art Dubai thereby still only attracts a margin of those visits attracted by fairs like Art Basel (98,000 visits in 2015). See press release Art Basel, 21 June 2015.

13 Art Dubai, 1 March 2016.

14 Abd Allāh, 2006.

15 Brones & Moghadam, 2016.

16 Joseph & Petterson, 2014.

17 Ibid.

18 Art Dubai, 2015.

19 For example, such as Joseph & Petterson, 2014.

20 Joseph & Petterson, 2014.

21 Moghadam, 2013.

22 Joseph & Petterson, 2014.

23 For instance, in 2015 Art Basel Hong Kong has changed the dates of its fair to March, moving closer to Art Dubai, forcing well-known galleries to decide between Dubai and Hong Kong.

24 Baia Curioni, 2012, p. 122.

25 For further reference to the relationship between Western notions of aesthetics and art in relation to issues of globalization, and a certain “traffic in culture,” see Marcus/Myers, 1995.

26 Baia Curioni, 2012, p. 118.

27 Bailey, 2015.

28 Velthuis & Baia Curioni, 2015, p. 14.

29 Quemin, 2012, p. 65.

30 Fillitz, 2012, p. 115.

31 For critiques see Price, 2001, Karp & Lavine, 1991, Clifford, 1988.

32 Velthuis & Baia Curioni, 2015, p. 14.

33 See Abrams, 2015.

34 See Salamandra, 2013 for the relevance of the Gulf-London connection especially in respect to Islamic art.

35 Interview with Uns Kattan at Art Dubai 2016, 19 March 2016.

36 See citation in Daya, 2014.

37 Third Text. Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture.

38 For a review of Art Dubai 2016 and Modern, see Sindelar, 2016.

39 artbahrain, 2015.

40 Barragán, 2008.

41 Velthuis & Baia Curioni, 2015, p. 12.

42 Mojeh, 2013.

43 Eyene, 2015.

44 Mojeh, 2013.

45 Kohn, 2014.

46 Ibid., 2014.

47 Daya, 2014.

48 Haupt & Binder, 2015.

49 Interview with Luisa Teixeira de Freitas, 29 July 2015, via email.

50 Interview with Ringo Bunoan at Art Dubai 2016, 18 March 2016. The Asia Art Archive is a charity based in Hong Kong dedicated to documenting the recent development of art in the region.

51 Artist-run spaces, in opposition to gallery-run art spaces, are initiatives where artists both run a specific art place, school, or gallery, and reject the idea of needing a ‘middle-man’, namely a gallerist.

52 Interview with Ringo Bunoan at Art Dubai 2016, 18 March 2016.

53 Ibid.

54 Steiner, 1994, p. 133.

55 Ibid., 1994, p. 133.

56 Haupt & Binder, 2014.

57 Tripathi, 2014.

58 Austin, 1962.

59 Hall, 2000, p. 184, emphasis added.

60 Quemin, 2012.

61 Tsing, 2000a, p. 118.

62 Ibid., 2000a, p. 118.

63 Interview with Ursula Krinzinger at Art Dubai 2016, 19 March 2016.

64 Interview with a Dubai-based gallerist, Al-Qūz, 22 March 2016.

65 Yogev & Ertug, 2015.

66 Joseph & Petterson, 2014.

67 Joseph & Petterson, 2014, p. 3.

68 Moghadam, 2012.

69 Hanieh, 2011, p. 103.

70 Chan, 2016.

71 Art Tactic, 2014. ArtTactic podcast with Antonia Carver, transcribed.

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Melanie Sindelar, « Local, Regional, Global: An Investigation of Art Dubai’s Transnational Strategies »Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 7 | 2016, mis en ligne le 08 décembre 2016, consulté le 15 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Melanie Sindelar

University of Vienna, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology

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