The price is right at Art Dubai

-Hisham Wyne

Art for the sake of it is not enough. It needs a price discovery mechanism so artists can make a living.

Art for the sake of it is not enough. Eventually, it needs to become institutionalised, and priced. Because like it or lump it: even the vibrant creativity of art needs the forces of capitalism to balance supply and create demand so artists can make a living and galleries keep functioning

Think about it. You could own all the Google stock in the world. But without a stock exchange letting you buy and sell at a price determined by market movement, your stock isn’t going to do much.

The good news is that the Middle Eastern art market is booming. Step up, Art Dubai, and take a bow, for the fair has been the preeminent force pulling in global attention for Middle Eastern artists. Art Dubai, more than any other platform, has formalised the market for good art in the region.

Turn the clock back a mere ten years. The market for art back then was a chimerical beast. Emerging artists were patronised by rich relatives. With uncles twice removed snapping up a derivative Warhol-esque pop art piece for twenty thousand greenbacks, there was no real way of establishing realistic pricing. Many artists were selling for astronomical prices, but the net output of their careers was the two impossibly expensive works that went to the homes of rich relatives. And that was then that.

Art Dubai changed all that by bringing international legitimacy to pricing. And more importantly, by introducing scale and volume to proceedings so buyers could meet sellers en masse to hasten the process of price discovery. Art Dubai’s 2017 iteration closed its shutters a few months ago. But the good reverberations from its success are still tickling spines and caressing funny bones in the city. The fair pulled a record twenty thousand plus visitors through the numerous doors, interstices and alleyways of the Madinat Jumeirah. There were some ninety-eight museums and assorted institutions in attendance from around the world. And some ninety four galleries representing forty-three odd countries.

Throw these many buyers and sellers into the mix, and lubricate with networking opportunities and appropriate libations – and the result is practically inevitable. You get sales. And this year, sales appear to have been the strongest to date.

Now, this isn’t to be a cynical capitalist. As any rebellious creative will insist on earnestly telling you over a cup of green tea, art isn’t about the money. It’s about expression. But even artists need to be kept in green tea.

But when taken at a collective macro level, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that anything of value, worth or import needs to be tradable in a market that people trust. A market that isn’t capricious. A market that is easy to find, easy to visit, and easy to trade in. Take a look around.

Absolutely anything that is taken seriously in this world – from man-hours and skills to gold, diamonds, watches and cars – have established markets and price-finding mechanisms. And now, thanks in large part to Art Dubai, Middle Eastern art has that as well. People can snap up art, confident that they’ll be able to offload it at a premium if need be.

Art Dubai’s legitimation of a nascent art market would be material enough for an epitaph. But that’s before even considering the ripple effect the expo has. Art Dubai has catalysed a movement around it. The fair coincides with something called the Art Week, where just about every gallery, nook, cranny, performance space and cul de sac gets in on the action, throwing the city wide open to impromptu performances and carefully considered set pieces.

This year, Art Week had a hundred and fifty participants that put together three hundred and fifty events across the city. The Sikka Art fair colonised the Bastakiya low-rises for a week of music and performances. The galleries in Alserkal spruced up their display windows with new exhibitions. Even the DIFC galleries polished their already gleaming facades and made sure those five figure price tags could be read easier. And through it all, Design Days Dubai was pulling in people to look at its collectibles, limited edition furniture, and objets de art.

And somehow, through it all, Art Dubai managed to find time to unveil a scintillating work by the 2017 Abraaj Group Art Prize winner Rana Begum. Last year, Begum was given a hundred thousand dollars to sink into a dream project. The results of her experiments with immersion and colour were there for all to see at the fair. Meanwhile, the schedule snuck in an entire Global Art Forum focusing on trade. That’s before one even got to the commissions programme that had the Atfal Ahdath crew create The Room: Cooking Liberty installation, and had Meriem Bennani’s work nonchalantly adorning the Art Dubai Bar. No big deal, then.

And all the while, some twelve hundred young people from the country’s schools and colleges threaded through the fair in relatively well-behaved lines – and managed to not smudge anything at all. The audience got younger and more adorable still with the 700 students hosted by the Sheikha Manal Little Artists Program.

The point is: Art Dubai 2017 was big and busy and full of bustle. It was successful in pushing trade – all the while getting the community involved and monopolising art newsprint in the region. The world has always had Art Basel, Frieze London, Artissima and FIAC. Now, we have Art Dubai too. The art community has already commenced planning as the counter ticks down to Art Dubai’s next iteration at its usual venue from March 21st to 24th in 2018.

There are always two things needed to create a sustainable market for anything. The first: supply and demand. And the second: a place for the twain to meet to establish value. From eBay to Art Dubai, we're lucky to live in a age where we have such a choice of price-making platforms. Oh, and this piece first appeared in Shawati magazine....