Abu Dhabi’s art blossoms

Since 2006, when it signed agreements with the Guggenheim Foundation and the Louvre to establish world-class museums on the nearby island of Saadiyat, the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, has placed culture high on its public agenda.

By Nazanin Lankarani

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Published: Sun 14 Nov 2010, 10:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:28 AM

The Abu Dhabi art fair this month was a striking example of how the policy is working.

“Abu Dhabi Art is part of a greater vision to build transnational cultural institutions to ensure that the Arab world is not isolated,” said Rita Aoun Abdo, director of the cultural department of Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Co., or TDIC, which co-organised the fair and is the agency behind the development of Saadiyat Island.

The TDIC started the fair last year in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage to serve a dual purpose: plant the seeds of a local art market and bring into the region high-quality art worthy of the bare walls of its future museums.

Judging by the impressive roster of this year’s 48 international and regional participating galleries – including the likes of Gagosian and Acquavella from New York and White Cube from London – the event was a success.

Though sales were spotty, the primary stated objective of most top international galleries was to establish a relationship with the TDIC, which not only organises the fair but also owns the museums under construction and finances the public acquisition of art.

“We are here not so much to sell but to help build an infrastructure to support the future museums,” said Tim Marlow, co-director of White Cube. “Unlike last year, where we showed a range of works by different artists, this time the idea was to do a museum-quality show and go deeper into a single artist’s career.”

White Cube presented a one-man show of Damien Hirst’s early works and sold a diamond cabinet, titled “Sadness,” for $4 million, to Shaikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, chairwoman of the fair’s host committee and wife of General Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE armed forces, who is patron of the event. The New York dealer Larry Gagosian put part of his private collection on display in September at a temporary exhibition space on Saadiyat Island near the museum construction sites.

The show, rumoured to be for sale, will run through January and is titled “RSTW,” for “Rauschenberg, Ruscha, Serra, Twombly, Warhol and Wool,” all artists inthe collection.

The TDIC denied any plans to buy Gagosian’s collection, but works by all the same artists were available for sale at the Gagosian booth at the fair.

A first-time exhibitor, the New York gallery Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, brought several museum-quality pieces, including Frank Stella’s “Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation II)” from 1970, a monumental abstract painting of overlapping arcs measuring 3 by 15 metres, or 10 by 50 feet, and priced at $5 million.

The work is the last in private hands of the artist’s “Damascus Gate” protractor painting series, the other two already being held by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm, given the possibilities offered by the future institutions and private collections,” Nahem said. “I see great potential here and a genuine interest in art that goes beyond trend or simple curiosity.”

He said the Stella piece was on reserve for “a very serious buyer.” Other confirmed purchases, by Shaikha Salama and by the Qatari museum Mathaf, included works by artists from the region, an important recognition for local artists and a good reason for many exhibitors to tailor their selections to the needs and tastes of a growing local collector base.

“Our pieces have a natural collector base in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent,” said Ali Bagherzadeh, founder of Xerxes Fine Arts, based in London, who sold a piece titled “Twisted Melody” by the Pakistani-born Simeen Farhat to Shaikha Salama.

The Agial Art Gallery in Beirut confirmed a sale to Mathaf of a piece by the Lebanese artist Nabil Nahas.

In a region where art appreciation and art collecting have long been traditions limited to the ruling classes, setting an example goes a long way.

“It is important for us to be part of a regionwide cultural movement that has spread to Doha, Dubai, Kuwait and Beirut,” Bagherzadeh said. “This can only be good.”


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