Art fairs around the world have been cancelled or postponed this spring due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, including Art Dubai. The fair suspended its 14th edition just over two weeks before it was due to open on 23 March, leaving many Middle Eastern exhibitors struggling to figure out a way to recoup the losses of what was once one of their most significant annual revenue streams.
In response, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced on 24 March that the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had bought AED 1.5m ($408,000) worth of art from Emirati galleries through a government scheme to help buoy the “country’s rich artistic ecosystem” amidst the crisis, according to the minister of state Zaki Nusseibeh, speaking to the regional newspaper the National.
Yet the initiative was not new, nor was it a dedicated response the suspension of Art Dubai. Instead the health crisis was used to unduly promote Art in Embassies, a programme launched in 2018 to place work by Emirati artists in embassies and missions around the world. The announcement proved confusing and frustrating to some dealers in the region who were left without any recourse to financial support from the government.
“We have never been contacted for any sales or interest in our artists in that regard,” says one Dubai-based dealer, who asked to remain anonymous. “Art Dubai mentioned this [programme] to us in 2019”, noting that the government initiative was supported by the postponed fair and promoted to several local galleries since its inception before the region’s Covid-19 lockdown.
The fact that the Art in Embassies scheme was touted as federal relief aid for galleries who would suffer from the postponement of the fair and the concurrent Dubai Art Week—which can account for around 40% of an Emirati gallery’s annual turnover, according to some dealers—obscured the fact that the programme was not only established before the crisis, but not open to all galleries.
“We don’t fit the narrative as we don’t work with geographic-focused programming,” says Umer Butt, founder and co-director of Grey Noise, a gallery located in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai’s main gallery hub, which announced its own online alternative to the Art Dubai called Alserkal Online, allowing virtual visits to all of its galleries. “We work with artists who don’t define their practice to a particular region. [The ministry's] initiative was only for ‘Emirati’ artists, who hold an Emirati passport. And we don’t represent any Emirati artists yet.”
The works acquired through the Art in Embassies programme will also be on display at Alserkal Avenue within the next month as part of an online exhibition.
“The Art in Embassies programme is an important initiative for Emirati artists and currently we are working in partnership with Dubai Culture, in recognition that now, more than ever, is a time to engage in meaningful and productive dialogue and to work together to find solutions,” says Art Dubai artistic director Pablo del Val, in response to questions regarding the fair's collaboration with the programme.
Indeed, many dealers are unfazed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s decision to widely introduce the embassy acquisition programme now given that any financial help in the middle of a global health and economic crisis is welcome.
“We will need a significant contribution be it a relief plan to cover the gallery overheads for the coming months and or support in the way of purchasing artworks from local galleries to ensure we can all continue to do what we do,” says Sunny Rahbar, the co-founder and director of the Dubai gallery The Third Line.
She notes that the UAE government acquired two artworks by Emirati artists Farah Al Qasimi and Lamya Gargash from the gallery this week, but that they have been working with the government on selections over the past few months.
“It was important to make our public announcement now exactly because of the current situation we are facing,” Nusseibeh, the minister of state, tells The Art Newspaper. “In the same way that the UAE government has launched a number of economic and financial measures aimed at softening the hardships both enterprises and individuals are facing, we feel we have an equal duty to help artists and galleries in those difficult times.”