Art fairs

Sales slow as Gulf waits for planned museums to buy

And parallel event for collectors draws big names away from fair


Abu Dhabi

Art Paris, the Gulf version of the French modern and contemporary art fair, held its second edition in the vast seven-star Emirates Palace hotel from 18 to 21 November. This year the fair boasted 59 galleries, 27 more than last year, mostly from Europe and the Middle East but also many from the US, Korea, Japan and Indonesia—but sales were slow.

The fair is strongly supported by the local authorities, and last year the Abu Dhabi royal family stepped in at the last minute after a slow opening to ensure sales, buying 30 works in a rapid, $8m spending spree. This year the wife of the late Sheikh Zayed, Sheikha Fatima, and the Crown Prince’s wife Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan al Nahyan were given an exclusive preview; their art advisors were later seen consulting mobile phone images of favoured works. The pair are understood to have bought widely and—like all wily collectors—did not always pay the quoted price.

Official support for the fair extended to a parallel event—an art collectors’ programme organised by the magazine Canvas and financed by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. This brought in some 100 collectors for talks, parties and events, including Don and Mera Rubell from Florida, Londoners Judith and Michael Greer, Hong Kong and Shanghai-based collector and dealer Pearl Lam, London-based Iranian collectors Fatima and Eskander Maleki, and Lekha and Anupam Poddar from Delhi. Joining them were some curators including Aaron Betsky of the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Serpentine’s Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones.

They were treated to talks by the artist Shirin Neshat and by Zaha Hadid, architect of Abu Dhabi’s future performing arts centre, one of the key elements in the Saadiyat cultural project. This ambitious, $27bn-plus plan will put five cultural institutions on a 27 sq. km offshore island by 2018. Despite strong denials from the authorities, rumours persist that the museums in phase two (the Zaha Hadid centre and Tadao Ando’s maritime museum) may take longer than expected to complete, in view of the economic downturn. A phase two “Biennale” park seems to have been scaled back. But presidential advisor Dr Zaki Nusseibeh told The Art Newspaper: “All the budgeted projects are being implemented and there is no slowdown.”

These museums will be buying art at a future—but as yet undetermined—date. This was a major inducement for many of the dealers at the fair, who were attempting to make contacts and present artists with an eye on this potential pot of gold. Rather apposite was the golden tortoise by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre sitting outside on the beach, in a “sculpture park”. It was titled Searching for Utopia, 2003 (€800,000 through Guy Pieters).

As for sales this year, on the first evening galleries showing regional artists reported trade: Galerie Kashya Hildebrand had sold out of prints by Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi, while Tehran’s Silk Road had sold a triptych by painter Afshin Pirhashemi to an Emirati private client for $95,000.

Dubai-based galleries B21 and The Third Line said they had sold to known collectors, mostly from Dubai. Mid-fair, most of the European galleries reported interest but slow sales or indeed none at all. They also noted that while the stands were costly, at almost €600 per sq metre, construction was shoddy.

Others complained of a lack of co-ordination between the fair and the collectors’ programme, which saw the exclusive group whisked away for tours, yachtdinners and concerts, leaving little time to visit the fair. “Even if the collectors weren’t going to buy, at least the dealers should have had the opportunity to meet them,” said Parisian gallerist Pierre Dumonteil. “The programme is more social and not necessarily good for the fair,” agreed Naila Kunigk, director of Munich’s Galerie Tanit.

Art Paris director Caroline Clough-Lacoste responded: “We are totally aware of this issue and intend to address it next year, when everything will be more co-ordinated.”

Meanwhile, the ruling family was also raising its profile as patrons of art. The collectors’ group was granted an unprecedented visit to the Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed’s Sea Palace, a 1980s Californian-style villa, to view the collection built up by his wife. Comprising some 400 works, this is dominated by modern and contemporary Middle Eastern works with a few Western paintings, many acquired at last year’s Art Paris and at Art Dubai in March.