Art is alive and kicking in Dubai — and so is the bigger business picture

New section, UAE Now, focuses on indigenous works by local independent artists.

Visitors look at artworks at the annual Art Dubai exhibition in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, March 21, 2018. Image used for illustrative purpose.

Visitors look at artworks at the annual Art Dubai exhibition in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, March 21, 2018. Image used for illustrative purpose.

Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah

There are several ways to feel the economic pulse of Dubai. You can pore over statistics from the Department of Economic Development; you can look at the sales and valuation figures from the property agents and the Land Department; you can look at the financial indices from the emirate’s two stock markets.

But by far the most enjoyable, and also maybe the most reliable, is to attend the opening night of Art Dubai, the annual cultural extravaganza that has been going for 13 years now and has made the emirate the main artistic center of the region. I’ve been to 12 of those, and in my experience the event faithfully reflects the underlying economic sentiment of the city.

In the early days, there was almost a feel of the California Gold Rush about it, with serious money chasing works at big valuations. Then, during the 2009 financial crisis, it all went rather flat, with investors keeping their wallets in their pockets for all but the most precious works.

On the opening night this year, the feeling was summed up by one art-lover I bumped into amid the painting, sculptures and other exhibits at the Joharah Ballroom in the Madinat Jumeirah: “I want something big enough for the wall in my living room, but small enough for my bank account,” he said, pondering a work by a Palestinian artist.

In 2019, people are still ready to spend, but they are looking for value.

For most of its existence, Art Dubai was generously supported by Abraaj, the private equity firm that rose to become the biggest investor in emerging markets before it crashed in flames last year. Arif Naqvi, the financial entrepreneur who set up Abraaj, had an eye for art works, but just as importantly saw the annual cultural extravaganza as a way to promote the firm’s image as a sophisticated investor.

The Abraaj lounge — complete with the pianist who made his name as the most popular turn at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos — really was a gathering of the creme de la creme of Dubai business and finance. It was a great place to find out what was really going on in the emirate’s economic scene.

Sadly, Abraaj and Naqvi are not involved in Art Dubai anymore. The firm has all but ceased to exist, while its founder is still dealing with the fallout from its collapse. Two other longtime sponsors, the Swiss bank Julius Baer and the luxury jewelry group Piaget — also from Switzerland — have stepped into the breach, along with the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and the hotels group Jumeirah, which provides the venue for the main event of the city’s week-long bash.

There was some speculation at last year’s event, when the Abraaj troubles were already apparent, that Saudi group Jameel — well known for its artistic and cultural activities in the Kingdom — might take over the Abraaj commitment to the Dubai event. But in the end, Jameel kept its focus on the arts center it was already planning on the banks of the Dubai Creek, which is also playing its part in the emirate’s flagship cultural week.

But the Saudi group was much in evidence on the opening night, as was the Kingdom’s Dhahran-based cultural institution King Abdul Aziz Center for World Culture (Ithra), which sponsored the big art prize of the event, won by London-based Saudi artist Daniah Al-Saleh for her “digital immersive installation” Sawtam.

This year’s Art Dubai — under a new artistic director Pablo del Val and international director Chloe Vaitsou — showcases the usual range of contemporary and modern works, but there is also the theme of the “global south” in the new gallery section Bawwaba, with a distinct Latin American feel. For the first time, a new section, UAE Now, focuses on indigenous works by local independent artists.

Maybe some of the extravagant pizzazz of the Abraaj years was missing on the VIP night — there was no sign of the Davos pianist — but there was enough glitz and glamor on show, as well as lots of extremely interesting art, to show that Dubai’s cultural scene, like the emirate’s economy, is alive and kicking.

Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai.

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