Abu Dhabi Art: An Intimate Art Fair Experience

by Paddy Johnson on November 5, 2014 Art Fair

Galerie Thaddeus Ropac

A crowd of collectors at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac

ABU DHABI – After a Tuesday night opening at the Manarat Al Saadiyat that involved a near two hour Patti Smith performance and the glitteriest of the glitterati, Wednesday afternoon at Abu Dhabi Art seemed quiet by comparison. A steady stream of collectors were milling about the halls this first day of the fair, though just as often, so too were the dealers.

While those dealers often come from all over the world—from New York, to Berlin, and a few from Dubai, the breakdown of fairgoers seemed inverted, with a larger percentage of visitors being regional.

Sales weren’t pouring in, but most dealers seemed unperturbed. “It’s always slow at first,” Randy Moore of Tinakim Gallery in New York told me. “With this fair, sales happen at the end.” According to Moore, buyers at Abu Dhabi Art take more time deciding to make a purchase.

Tinakim Gallery

Installation view, Tinakim Gallery

That clearly had an unnerving effect on some dealers, particularly those who made a sizable investment to travel here. A David Zwirner employee told me the gallery had not sold any work, but then decided he didn’t want to be named. Aicon Gallery, an Asian-contemporary outfit from New York participating here for the first time, told me they’d sold plenty of art, but when asked which pieces, refused to name a single work. Art fairs are not for the faint of heart.

Still, sales were coming in. Dubai galleries such as Third Line Gallery reported that they’d sold work and Lawrie Shabibi had reserves on several pieces.  In fact, Lawrie Shabibi had inquiries on work minutes before and after we spoke. We were talking about the fair and its relationship to its neighbor Art Dubai, which takes place in March.

Installation view, Lawrie Shabibi Gallery

Installation view, Lawrie Shabibi Gallery

“I like to refer to Abu Dhabi Art as the ‘boutique fair,’” Lawrie Shabibi Director Asmaa Al-Shabibi said matter of factly. “The fair is more local and there are fewer parties.” Art Dubai serves a more international crowd, and as many as 17 different museum groups tour the fair.

Al Shabibi’s comparison reminded me a little of the difference between the ADAA Art Show and the Armory—each successful, but in entirely different ways. And of course, the allure of the upcoming completion of the Louvre and Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi cannot be understated.  “The Abu Dhabi Fair is more about galleries developing relationships with the local residents in the UAE and of course the upcoming museums on Saadiyat.  It is more “intimate” in that way.  At Art Dubai, as a Dubai gallery, we focus more on getting the attention of the international art community and visitors.  So I would say they are both complementary to each other which is why we do both”.  

All of which is to say, there are very good reasons to exhibit here, not the least of which being that the institutions buy work. That the Guggenheim has a show in the same building as the fair would be considered a conflict of interest in the United States (we like there to be at least be a couple of blocks separation); here, it’s simply business as usual.

As for the fair’s rate of sales, when I mentioned the last day at this fair was the often the best Al-Shabibi raised an eyebrow. “You never know until the end.”

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