Time Out emitted a collective sigh of relief as the local parts of the region’s most recent threepronged art attack, Art Dubai and Al Bastakiya Art Fair, drew to a close last week (Sharjah Biennial continues until mid-May). Despite concerns over the effect of the global economic downturn on one of the world’s fastest-growing international art fairs, Art Dubai seemed to successfully prove that there is life in the old art scene yet.
Opening night saw what felt like the whole of the international art contingent bear down on the Madinat venue in an effusive display that could have come with the strapline, ‘What credit crunch?’ – even as some of the foreign and local gallerists Time Out spoke to were slightly nervous about what to expect, in terms of sales. (One first-time New York gallery revealed that while it had seriously considered pulling out, ‘We had committed and really thought we ought to see it through. Time,’ our source revealed with a shrug, ‘will tell if that was the right decision.’)
Fast-forward a few days and sales were steady, if not quite up there with last year, according to our spies. ‘We haven’t had the big sales that we’d had by this time last year,’ one local gallery owner revealed, ‘but the smaller pieces are moving and there’s interest, which is encouraging.’
What was actually on the walls was a relatively conservative display of work – big hitters from the regional and international art scene – that seemed tailored for mass appeal (and maximum sales). What made the fair really stand out, then, as it has in previous years, was the add-ons – the Bidoun Lounge in the Art Park played host to book launches (we were especially delighted by sometime performance artist Janet Bellotto’s silent flute-playing) and talks, while the Gulf Art Forum opened up international debate.
Meanwhile, over by the Creek, the lack of pressure to ‘perform’, meant that Bastakiya Art Fair (BAF) was, to our mind, the more adventurous of the local fairs. thejamjar’s collaboration with Lahore’s Grey Noise gallery, for example, showcased unusual minimalist works from Pakistan, while the displays – clearly defined in the historic houses of area – had the benefit of feeling like individual exhibitions tailormade for the space, rather than the understandably more corporate feel of Art Dubai’s layout, with its plush carpeting and glossy jewellery displays.
In many ways, however, this is academic. For all the thunder behind it, Art Dubai is still a relative newcomer on the global art scene and its continued success is to be applauded for the buzz that it brings to the rest of the region. Arguably, BAF wouldn’t be the triumph it is without its proximity to Art Dubai. And while the Sharjah Biennial, at nine years and counting, remains the big daddy of all three, in terms of longevity, the decision to this year tie its opening with the far more commercial Art Dubai speaks volumes about which one registers higher on the international radar. Roll on next year, we say.