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  • Mar 04, 2020

Art Dubai Fair Postponed; Replaced By Local Arts Program

General view of Art Dubai in 2019. Courtesy Art Dubai and Photo Solutions.

Art Dubai has postponed its 2020 edition in light of the intercontinental spike in Covid-19 cases. In a statement emailed on March 3, the leading Middle Eastern fair announced that in lieu of the commercial showcase, a smaller program of cultural events will take place during the fair’s original run dates, March 25–28. The reconfiguration of the fair comes almost a month to the day of Art Basel Hong Kong’s cancellation, also due to the coronavirus, delivering another blow to a global art market that has seen fluctuations across and within regions for the past few years.

According to the statement, signed by Art Dubai CEO Benedict Floyd, artistic director Pablo de Val, and international director Chloe Vaitsou: “Given the essential role the fair plays in promoting local and regional artists, we have made the decision to stage a programme tailored to the local cultural community instead, including existing fair programme contributors and thought-leaders. The new format . . . will present events, exhibitions, talks and strands of the existing Art Dubai programme. These will include local and regional gallery presentations, Global Art Forum, Residents and Campus Art Dubai.” Further details on the fair’s new schedule and lineup of events are forthcoming.

Founded in 2006 as the Gulf Art Fair, Art Dubai has become a major boon to local and regional art systems, raising the profile of artists working in the Middle East, as well as cementing the emirate’s status as a global contemporary art hub. As reported by Arabian Business, Art Dubai brought in AED 121.4 million (USD 33 million) for the city in 2019; AED 95.5 million (USD 25.9 million) was attributed to the fair’s attendees, 41 percent of whom were foreign. In recent years, the fair has doubled down on its international focus, introducing the Residents and Bawwaba sectors, which invite galleries and artists from across the Global South to produce special presentations.

Dubai gallery Lawrie Shabibi’s co-founder William Lawrie said to ArtAsiaPacific: “Art Dubai week is the biggest week of the year in Dubai and that represents a good part of why we are in Dubai . . . Of course we have to re-think what we show during the Dubai art week as it becomes a more local affair, spread throughout the city.” He added, “I think this could affect many other fairs worldwide leading up to the summer. We are not planning to participate in any until the Autumn, when we have two or three in the works.”

“[Postponing] is the smart and safe thing to do for Art Dubai,” remarked Isa Lorenzo of Manila’s Silverlens Galleries. “Covid-19 is certainly turning the art world more into a local situation, which is how most galleries started anyway. I mean that it is the time for local art audiences to come support and celebrate homegrown practices.”

Sunny Rahbar, co-founder of Dubai's The Third Line, expressed optimism: "I feel there is a great opportunity here for us all to look at ways the art world can adopt new models be it via technology or else just new ways to participate and remain relevant in these ever-changing times. We have been thinking about digital platforms and other technology we can use to bring what we do to our audiences without them having to come to us."

Although gallerists have publicly supported Art Dubai's decision, the postponement raises concerns over the strength of the regional art market, which had already been experiencing slowed growth. Earlier this year in January, auction house Christie's canceled its annual March sale of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art at its Dubai outpost, citing insufficient consignments of "quality work."  

Reports of new Covid-19 infections outside of China have now outpaced those in the country, where the first cases broke out in Wuhan in December. Along with Italy and South Korea, Iran has seen a spike in cases over the past two weeks, with more than 2,300 infected and 77 dead. The Iran outbreak has put its regional neighbors on high alert, with the first confirmed cases in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, and Oman all linked to travel in Iran. The spread of the coronavirus poses a threat to Middle Eastern economies dependent on foreign trade and tourism. As analyst Varsha Koduvayar told travel industry intelligence platform Skift, “The biggest thing coronavirus has shown is how vulnerable the Gulf is to an epidemic, given its role as a travel and logistics hub.”

At the time of writing, more than 92,000 Covid-19 cases have been reported worldwide, while the death toll stands at 3,110.

Ophelia Lai is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor.

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