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Arabia & Art, by Alexandra Peers Market Trends, With Full 2007 Data  

Last month, three Arabian nations announced ambitious cultural projects that, over the next decade, are likely to pour billions into art collecting and arts institutions. Will this Mid-East oil money remake the art world? Yes, it will. The real question is: How much and how soon?

Looking for the answers -- and for a new generation of deep-pocketed art collectors -- a caravan of pioneering art dealers, collectors, museum officials and artists streamed into the United Arab Emirates in March. Events included the second annual Art Dubai Fair and a related and star-studded "Global Art Forum." Meanwhile, nearby Arabian nation Qatar announced the opening date -- Nov. 22 -- of its own cultural behemoth, I.M. Pei's new Museum of Islamic Art on the Persian gulf.

And in neighboring Abu Dhabi, cultural officials concurrently announced they were boosting the budget for their Saadiyat Island neighborhood of art museums to more than $27 billion -- and that price would, essentially, be no object when it came to filling the institutions with great art. Said His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, "We want a cultural renaissance: Modernism."

So, it looks like we have a new place to park the art world circus. But don't saddle the camels just yet. Hanging over the Dubai Fair was worry that the art market is about to soften and the hope that savior buyers may be found in the cash-rich, U.S.-friendly Emirates. (Sotheby's went so far as to host a three-day panel there to train wealthy locals and tourists how to buy art.) And there is that potential. But the buyers who stepped up in Dubai proved cost-conscious, nationalistic and slow to decide to buy. Galleries showing Middle Eastern and Indian art reported sales early on opening night. Others didn't sell work at all.

At the fair, Charles Saatchi bought "Arabian Delight," a camel in a box, by Pakistani artist Huma Mulji, for $8,000, according to fair organizer John Martin. Galleries October, Rossi & Rossi and Yvon Lambert sold work. Indian artists sold like gangbusters, as some collectors bet that the region's emerging art may skyrocket like Chinese contemporary art. New York art consultant Althea Viafora-Kress said virtually everything she asked about on behalf of a client was reserved ? but that her client had no interest in Western art.

The 68-dealer fair, back in the city after a difficult first year, attracted artists A Wei Wei, Tony Cragg, museum directors Glenn Lowry, Tom Krens, Art Basel head Marc Spiegler, influential dealer and designer Pearl Lam and New York galleries Yvon Lambert, Bonni Benrubi and James Salomon. Most prices were under $100,000.

Katherine Gass, longtime director of the Curt Marcus Gallery and now curator of the Jumeirah Essex House in New York, said she arrived at the event skeptical, then changed her mind and went shopping. "I knew it was going to be a great party, but when I first saw the dealers I thought 'People can see these in New York, what's the pull here?' Now, I get it," she said, lauding the beaches and weather. "Paradise -- and art that was much better quality than I expected."

There was some culture shock ? men had to steam out of the art fair in deference to a royal Sheikha. Few nudes or figures were shown amid fears of censorship in the Muslim nation. The fair had a difficult first year in March 2007, as sales were slow and some collectors who pledged to buy never followed through. Dealers complained, then and now, that there were few opportunities to meet with local. But in one measure of success, concierges at the fair hotels complained that too many guests were trying to extend their stay in the sybaritic beachside community.

Meanwhile, Dubai's neighbor Abu Dhabi, which has a 9% share of the world's oil, has even more aggressively tied its fortunes to culture. The nation had already announced its Saadiyat Island project, of course, (The commercial and residential construction project includes a Louvre Abu Dhabi, a performing arts center by Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry's 450,000-square-foot Abu Dhabi Guggenheim.) What's new is that ex-Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens will now have more time free to oversee it ? he's "the moving force" behind the project, said Mubarak Al-Muhairi, director general of the Tourism Authority -- and that collecting for the Louvre and Guggenheim satellites, and for the National Museum, has already begun. While the annual collecting budget for the Guggenheim is undisclosed, the Louvre's is estimated at more than $55 million a year. In something of a "go" signal for art dealers, Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, Deputy Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage, said Abu Dhabi will be willing to spend more than one year's budget on a single masterpiece acquisition.

The UAE region in general, and the Dubai Fair in particular, found an unlikely advocate in visitor Glenn Lowry, who spoke to a packed auditorium in Dubai on the history of the Museum of Modern Art. "I don't mean to plug the fair, but I will," said Lowry. "I spent a very profitable afternoon" looking at works by artists, some of whom he hadn't known of before. As for the lure of Arabia, he said he found it, "fascinating?I'm looking forward to going back."

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