The Swarovski chandeliers in Abu Dhabi’s seven-star Emirates Palace hotel vied for attention this week with equally luminous visitors from the world’s best contemporary art galleries. Among all the finery the likes of Gagosian, White Cube and PaceWildenstein mounted works from top earners such as Koons, Hirst and Prince for the city’s newest fair, Abu Dhabi Art.
The concept for the event arose six months ago when the two-year-old Art Paris Abu Dhabi fair buckled under financial pressures, giving the capital’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) an opportunity to swoop in, take over and re-brand. Despite rushed beginnings, the affair managed to lure a stellar cast of participants, some of which have never punctured this oil-rich region before.
Their unfettered devotion to the neophyte event is a testament to the success of the government’s $27bn investment in the arts, most of which is happening on a nearby island called Saadiyat, or “happiness” in Arabic. Compared to the neighbouring Yas Island, which last month inaugurated an F1 racetrack and a soon-to-be Ferrari branded amusement park, Saadiyat’s construction efforts are still embryonic. Still in keeping with the Emirate’s flair for speedy construction the TDIC is promising that, in just a few short years, their biggest commissions – Frank Gehry’s stone-clad conical Guggenheim and Jean Nouvel’s moon-shaped Louvre — will swing open their doors. And if all goes according to plan, Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum will float above the island’s mangroves next to Zaha Hadid’s milky white Performing Arts Centre just two years later.
And while for the moment a visit to the Guggenheim means standing in the middle of a parched, camel-coloured strip of land with nothing in sight but a couple of cranes and construction workers, one building on Saadiyat managed to coincide its opening during Abu Dhabi Art. Manarat, which translates as “lighthouse”, acts as Saadiyat’s visitors’ centre and exhibition space. It encompasses four galleries, a restaurant, theatre and, of course, a sales centre for the island’s future residences.
Chosen to curate the main gallery’s first show, Disorientation II, was longtime Sharjah Biennial artistic director Jack Persekian. For the Jerusalem-based Persekian, the Saadiyat concept has managed to blaze a trail and attract global attention like few other endeavours in the region have before it.
Indeed, that is precisely what lured the blue chip, Zürich-based Hauser & Wirth gallery to the fair. Standing in front of Alighiero e Boetti’s brightly woven Map of the World, sales director Frédéric Larroque traced his finger past the Middle East, redrawing the art world map ahead of next months Art Basel Miami Beach. “Here, just to the right is Asia,” he said as nearby men in dishdashas swished past a towering Louise Bourgeois spider. “Over there we have India, China and Russia. In Abu Dhabi we are in the middle of everything.” He dragged his finger far west past France, across the Atlantic and down toward America’s south. “From where we are Miami seems very far away.”
Despite the attention, however, visitors were just a trickle and even fewer doled out cash. It was a stark comparison to rival Art Dubai which despite the lack of big names, always packs in big crowds. Still, the prevailing feeling here was one of commitment not just to the fair but also to the city in general. Even the notoriously tight-lipped power dealer Larry Gagosian spent two hours of his time on a panel talking about how to collect. Dubai may have the flash and the swanky parties, but when it comes to a demand for art, few cities in the world compare to Abu Dhabi’s thirst.