Rain or Shine

Abu Dhabi
11.25.09

Left: Artist Jeff Koons and collector François Pinault. Right: Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong.


WOODEN SHIPPING CRATES lay baking in the hot Arabian sun last week as workers scrambled to finish the setup for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Art fair. Nearby, a twenty-foot-tall black, red, blue, and yellow Alexander Calder sculpture wafted in the humid air, flown in at a cost of one hundred thousand dollars for the occasion by PaceWildenstein gallery. The mighty Calder, tagged at forty-five million USD, held its own despite an incongruous temporary beachside setting, positioned behind the pink marble Emirates Palace hotel.

I was among the ranks of the curious attending a new art fair in a region I had never visited. The government-run Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) was behind the junket, the fair, and the area’s explosive cultural expansion. Abu Dhabi’s rainmakers, including His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince, have committed billions to diversifying their image and economy away from oil derricks. Within five years, art-packed branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim will rise out of the sand, and the prospect of an art spending spree explained the presence of some of the world’s most exclusive vendors, London’s White Cube and New York’s Acquavella Galleries among them. At the moment, there isn’t much besides the beach to lure tourists to Abu Dhabi; if all goes according to plan, in the next decade this will change.

Left: Architect Jean Nouvel. Right: Dealer Jay Jopling.


The fair’s opening last Wednesday evening was sedate—no dense throngs of “VIPs” or collector shenanigans. Visitors from Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait, and other Arab localities drifted around the fair floor, where fifty dealers had set up their wares. The most important customer came after the fair was closed. The crown prince’s wife, Sheikha Salama, toured the stands from 11 PM until 2:15 AM, greeting sleepy dealers and studying the offerings.

Abu Dhabi Art was really two fairs under one roof. On the one hand, there was a slew of young galleries from places like Bangalore, Damascus, and Dubai, showing works that ranged from calligraphic kitsch to more promising endeavors. Red dots appeared at the stands of well-known Dubai dealers Third Line and B21, where young Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh’s punchy assemblages caught the eye of megacollector François Pinault, who scooped up a bunch. Pinault, along with Jeff Koons, attended as special patrons, supplying the fair with a much-needed (and -touted) branding edge.

The other fair was a higher-stakes arena, featuring major New York and European dealers. Hauser & Wirth brought a large Louise Bourgeois spider and Subodh Gupta skull, while White Cube offered sparkling paintings by Hirst. Tony Shafrazi hung his ’80s-themed stand with Basquiats, Warhols, and Harings. A consortium of seven dealers, including L&M Arts, Malingue, and Louis Carre & Cie, combined forces with Picassos and Légers. “The art is major,” said Chicago collector Stefan Edlis. “The dealers are smelling money here. People wouldn’t bring thirty or forty million dollars’ worth of artworks if they didn’t.”

Left: Louvre director Henri Loyrette, artist Yan-Pei Ming, and curator Marie-Laure Bernadac. Right: TDIC culture-department director Rita Aoun-Abdo.


Yet this wasn’t a usual fair. Dealers moaned that the visitors weren’t very inquisitive and speculated that some weren’t even aware the stuff was for sale. “I only get one question a day,” said one bored dealer. Fair organizers countered that this was all part of a steep learning curve. They positioned the event as part of the larger cultural evolution. “We need to consider this as a platform instead of a fair,” said Rita Aoun-Abdo, who wields considerable power and influence as director of TDIC’s cultural department. But would sales be made? After all, many dealers were forking over at least nine hundred dollars a night for rooms at the pink palace. “Sales have happened,” said Aoun-Abdo. “It’s a long-term partnership. The dealers who came here, they made a choice, and Abu Dhabi respects this choice. The stakeholders acknowledged the dealers” and were pleased “to have the big guns here.”

Despite the obvious need for patience, the big guns got antsy as the week wore on. But it wasn’t all work. The fair ran from 4 PM to 10 PM, allowing dealers time to tour the world’s third-largest mosque and (occasionally) to play. Paul Gray of Richard Gray gallery went water-skiing. Nicholas Acquavella, who had brought a Bacon and Picasso, went wakeboarding. (Many dealers, though, never strayed from the hotel.) It was even possible to see a “local” museum show. The Guggenheim mounted its first loan exhibition (more than fifty stellar paintings, from Cezanne to Pollock) in gallery space located beside the hotel’s prime coffee spot.

Thursday morning we were bused to Saadiyat (or “Happiness”) Island, a mostly barren chunk of dusty land that will eventually be home to 150,000 residents, in addition to museums and marinas. Architect Jean Nouvel, who is designing the Louvre Abu Dhabi, was on hand to take us around a temporary metal building, constructed to test how light penetrates a ten-layer dome. “A rain of light,” Nouvel described it. That will be a novelty, given that Abu Dhabi gets an average of five days of rain a year. We also visited the adjacent site, where construction on the Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi began a week earlier. En route to the palace we passed old wooden fishing boats, a Brioni store, and flatbed trucks loaded with rebar and cranes.

Left: Dealer Tony Shafrazi. Right: Artist Subodh Gupta and dealer Anthony d'Offay.


The fair’s social element ratcheted up on Thursday night with the “Wings” party, conceived as a “multimedia” extravaganza, meaning an impressive fireworks display and an endless stream of disjointed live entertainment. The evening began well, with an exuberant Indian musical performance and a thoughtful discussion with Nouvel. Koons gave one of his cryptic talks, touching on Duchamp, morality, and “acceptance.” Things soon went downhill. A performance by the band CocoRosie, who sounded like Björk on helium, prompted me to flee. Luckily, French dealer Daniel Malingue invited me to join his group for a late-night meal. We sat on the Palace terrace, plates piled high with lamb, salmon, and other buffet offerings.

Even by the end of the week, many dealers still wondered whether (what else?) sales would be forthcoming. “Most fairs are about the first day,” said PaceWildenstein’s Marc Glimcher. “This fair is all about the last.” Glimcher did close a deal on a late Calder. Gagosian sold a blue and red de Kooning. On Saturday evening, the night before the fair’s final day, word ran around that the crown prince was on the way; several hours later, it became evident he wasn’t coming. Nothing like being stood up by royalty. Dealers peeled off their stands and headed for the front door, where two white buses—one for men and one for women—waited to take them to another palace for dinner. Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac stood in the gleaming marble entryway. “It’s definitely an exciting new place,” said Ropac, who has been to Abu Dhabi four times in the past two years. “We have to take it seriously.”

Lindsay Pollock

Left: Site for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Right: Dealer Iwan Wirth.


Left: Dealer Kamel Mennour and Kamel Mennour director Jessy Mansuy-Leydier. Right: Sharjah Biennial artistic director Jack Persekian.


Left: Galerie Gmurzynska's Bradford Dennison Waywell. Right: Bruce Altshuler, director of NYU's Museum Studies program, with collectors Stefan Edlis and Gail Neeson.


Left: Designer Max Lamb. Right: Guggenheim curators Valerie Hillings and Susan Davidson.


Left: Princess Michael of Kent at Galerie Gmurzynska. Right: A viewer looking at a photo by Andreas Gursky.