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A rendering of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi
A rendering of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

TOUGH ROAD AHEAD FOR ABU DHABI ART

Dec. 12, 2011

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The promise that the huge Saadiyat Island cultural development in Abu Dhabi would become a global playground for wealthy art aficionados no doubt boosted participation in Abu Dhabi Art, Nov. 16-19, 2011. But the fair was surprisingly quiet, a situation that one exhibitor attributed to caution in the face of the Arab Spring. "Nobody comes except for the royal family and some expats," he said. "It's a pretend art fair."

Now in its third year, the event draws participation from the likes of Edward Tyler Nahem, Gagosian, Thaddaeus Ropac, Pace, White Cube and L&M Arts -- and this time around relocated from the Emirates Palace to a facility on Saadiyat Island itself. When the 40 or so dealers signed up for the 2011 edition, the Zayed National Museum and branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim were all set to open between 2013 and 2014. Museum acquisition committees had already been formed and were expected to buy at the fair.

But in early November, after it was too late to back out, dealers got news that the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi -- already under fire from Human Rights Watch and a growing number of artists over the working conditions of the imported foreign laborers -- had stalled its construction plans indefinitely. Its contracting company cited “the immense magnitude” of the Frank Gehry-designed museum, slated to be the largest in the world, as a cause of the delay. "The museum can't be built," was one interpretation of this diplomatic observation. Another down signal: Gugg museum chief Richard Armstrong and curator Nancy Spector skipped the fair this year.

Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper reports that for the dealers who hadn’t already shipped their goods to the UAE, many hastily revised their booths. Instead of, say, large, expensive sculpture that would be better suited to an institution than a private collector, dealers had to swap out their wares to appeal to other buyers, namely members of the royal family. According to the report, Leila Heller Gallery traded out the works by Marcos Grigorian and Shirin Neshat that she originally planned to show in favor of popular prints of Elizabeth Taylor in the Middle East -- she sold several for $30,000 a pop.

A Lisson Gallery director was not so optimistic, telling the paper, "This is our first year here and [as such] it is an investment in the future, but the market needs enormous improvement to be significant.” Another gallery, which remained anonymous, told the paper it made just $6,300.

Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi has a lot of competition with other growing art hubs in the Gulf. Dubai is home to the Middle East’s biggest fair, while Qatar is ruled by a family that is rumored to have been the big buyer at Sotheby's of record-setting works by Clyfford Still and Joan Mitchell. Qatari royal Sheikh Saud al-Thani was just named the art world’s number-one spender.

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