Abu Dhabi Art, the jolly fair, changes directors

Last month’s edition was the last for Rita Aoun, who has made the event a popular annual fixture since its first appearance in 2008

by Anna Somers Cocks  |  1 December 2016
Abu Dhabi Art, the jolly fair, changes directors
The Guggenheim's Alexandra Monroe and interpreter next to Have a Banana at Abu Dhabi Art
Eight years ago, when the first Abu Dhabi Art took place, it was not yet clear what kind of market, if any, there would be for art in the region, but from the first it set out to be a cultural event as well as a fair.

It has brought samplings of famous art and personalities—from a mountainous installation of chairs by Ai Weiwei to the guerrilla artist JR’s photographic celebration of the faces of Joe Public. This year’s unavoidable event was the tons of bananas ripening fast on the floor of one the fair’s galleries, flanked by formal garden vases. Eat a banana, toss the skin in a vase, and reflect on death and decay were the instructions of its creator, Gu Dexin. Alexandra Munroe, a senior adviser on global arts to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, was its curator.

Notable public discussions have taken place: the starchitects Norman Foster with Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel; the museum directors Neil MacGregor with Richard Armstrong and the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk; and a memorable lesson on how value is created in art was given by the New York dealer Tony Shafrazi, to mention only a few. This year’s art world VIPs were Okwui Enwezor, David Adjaye, Giuseppe Penone, Idris Khan and Julia Peyton-Jones. 

The editor of Beaux Arts magazine, Fabrice Bousteau, has been the artistic impresario from the first. He brought intricate performances to the area around the Abu Dhabi Art pavilion, the Manarat Al Saadiyat, built to be the focus of cultural life while the big museums are under construction. To involve the town, this year the Egyptian curator, Tarek Abou El Fetouh, organised concerts on the Corniche and a public performance, Five Attempts to Speak with an Alien, by the Italian Anna Rispoli, on a dhow sailing along the waterfront.

Bit by bit, Abu Dhabi Art has built local support while settling down to be a small (this year, 35 galleries compared with Art Dubai’s 94) but artistically interesting and rather jolly fair—jolliness is markedly absent from the big fairs—to which Emiratis (sheikhs, sheikhas and commoners) and ex-pats alike flock with their children to see the art, do a painting class, eat street food from the stalls, listen to music, and watch avant-garde movies. The most committed go to the talks as well.

Some big international dealers —Gagosian and David Zwirner—have come and gone. Those who have remained—Acquavella, Lisson, Ropac, Custot and Continua—have established a relationship of trust with the ruling elite, who buy the big-ticket items for collections that are semi-private, semi-national. The galleries were warned that this year the big sales might slow down because of the economic situation, but Michael Findlay of Acquavella was sanguine: “We keep coming every year, and I can tell you that we don’t bother with places where we don’t sell.”

Why come to this fair? It is a place in which to see good art from the region and an interesting selection from the West in a civilised context where the public is uninhibitedly interested and the dealers have time to chat because enough sales are virtually assured.

This year, the consensus was that it had been a good fair. It was a particularly good one for the New York-based gallery Sean Kelly because it had brought work by Idris Khan, who is already a local hero because of his Martyrs’ Memorial. Priced at £75,000 each, his layered panes of glass with superimposed lettering or numbers could have sold many times over. 

Credit for the creation of Abu Dhabi Art is due to Rita Aoun and her team. Aoun is executive director for culture of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Cultural Authority. She is famous for answering emails by return, for her attention to detail, and for her capacity to cajole VIPs of all sorts to give the UAE a try.

Next year will be a busy one in the UAE because it sees the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, so Aoun has passed responsibility for Abu Dhabi Art to Dyala Nusseibeh, who began her career with the Saatchi Gallery in London, and in 2013 launched the Istanbul art fair. It will be her role to shape Abu Dhabi Art so that it is complementary to the city as it gradually becomes the museum hub of the region.

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