Canapes, catalogues and Abraaj patronage
The event, now in its 12th year, has become the biggest art fair in the Middle East, rivaling the major art festivals in Asia.
This annual celebration of cultural inspiration has helped put Dubai on the map as a center of artistic achievement, spreading the message of the city as a refined and sophisticated urban environment. And it has encouraged other Arabian Gulf centers to use the “soft power” of art as a civilizing activity.
Abu Dhabi has taken it further with the Louvre and the planned Guggenheim, while Saudi Arabia is in the middle of an artistic explosion, centered on Jeddah, to accompany the great transformation envisaged by Vision 2030. But both owe a debt of gratitude to Dubai, the first mover in art in the Gulf.
The six-day event is always enjoyable, even if — like me — you don’t really know that much about art. I just let it wash over me, as they say, in the exhilarating company of glamorous and influential people who know how to have a good time. Art Dubai is cool.
A lot of the credit for that has to go to the private equity firm Abraaj, and to its founder, Arif Naqvi. He has supported and promoted the event with Abraaj patronage and cash, as well as his firm’s extensive network of well-heeled and powerful business people, who have formed the cadre of buyers that any art event needs.
Abraaj has also put its own money on the block, funding the Abraaj Group Prize, which has become a permanent collection. This bank of about 30 artworks — paintings, sculptures and visual art — is a valuable asset in its own right, but has rarely been been seen as a unified collection. Some is in storage, and some on loan or on tour.
Canapes, catalogues and Abraaj patronage Art Dubai may well be the coolest festival in the Middle East. But even so, the hottest topic at its glitzy opening night was the future of its long-term backer.
At Art Dubai’s opening night, Abraaj announced that it will hand over custody of the collection with a long-term loan to Art Jameel, the cultural arm of the wealthy business family from Saudi Arabia. From November this year, it will go on show in the new permanent exhibition space the Saudis are building in Dubai.
This is all part of the growing Saudi involvement in the art scene, both within the Kingdom and elsewhere. Next year Jameel will open Hayy, a new creative hub in Jeddah, that will complement its House of Traditional Arts in the Red Sea city’s historic old town.
Saudi influence was everywhere at Art Dubai. The Misk Art Institute, part of the cultural and educational organization founded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sponsored the Dubai fair’s modern section in its first involvement as a full partner. It also promoted the “Reframe Saudi” event, a virtual reality show that describes changes in the Kingdom from an artistic viewpoint.
There was much speculation at the always-gossipy opening night about what this growing Saudi involvement would mean for Art Dubai in the long term. The festival comes at a challenging time for Abraaj, which since the beginning of the year has been caught up in a controversy over $200 million of investor funds that apparently failed to reach their intended destination — medical projects in Africa and Asia.
Some big investors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank, demanded to know where the money had gone. They were assured that delays in investment projects meant that it has been held back, and there was no suggestion it had been misappropriated.
Nonetheless, Naqvi considered it a fitting moment to step down from the management of the funds business, although he retains the position of chief executive of the Abraaj holding company he started in 2002. He was traveling on the opening night, and unable to assume his customary role at the center of the bash.
There is new management in place at Abraaj, and much talk of a new global philosophy to go with it. Recent appointments at the firm have suggested a more globalist philosophy will be introduced to augment traditional emerging markets expertise.
Will the new-look Abraaj want to continue with its sponsorship of Art Dubai? That was a hot topic over the canapés and catalogues. Both organizations insist the shake-up will have no bearing on their relationship.
But it may be that the new regime, after review, reaches the conclusion that 10 years is long enough and that it is time to hand over to a new patron.
If that is the case, there will be no shortage of potential sponsors looking to take Abraaj’s place. Art Dubai has become such a fixture in the Gulf’s cultural infrastructure that the art establishments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia can surely be counted on to take it to the next level.
- Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. He can be reached on Twitter @frankkanedubai
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