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A Milestone for Dubai: The DIFC Gulf Art Fair

A milestone in the development of the visual arts in Dubai and the region's art market.
By Seth Thompson | Mar 2007

Success of an art fair is usually determined by the amount of sales that it generates. For many who are passionate about the arts and live in Dubai, the DIFC Gulf Art Fair, which took place March 8-10, 2007 at the luxurious resort Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai, meant much more. It constituted a milestone in the construction of an arts infrastructure for Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates.

In its first year, the Fair attracted over 9,000 visitors and 40 contemporary and modern art galleries from different parts of the globe. Galleries included White Cube (London), SCAI Bathhouse (Tokyo), Max Lang (New York) and Gallery Chemould (Mumbai). In addition to an international gallery representation, the Fair produced the Global Art Forum and worked with Sotheby’s to create an education program on contemporary art and collecting. Site-specific installations by internationally recognized artists such as Nadim Karam, Mariko Mori and Lara Baladi were also part of the event.

John Martin, Director of the Gulf Art Fair envisions Dubai as a place of art commerce, "There has been a great deal written about the forthcoming museum projects in the UAE, which are fantastic, but I see Dubai’s real role as one of fostering art commerce. To many people art and commerce don’t mix, but I totally disagree: artists need to sell their work and tend to congregate around art markets more than museums. Art commerce is another side of ‘culture’, but one that is every bit as exciting and stimulating and vital as anything you will see in a museum." [1]

Nevertheless, one of the major highlights of the event was not about buying and selling art, but rather a sharing of ideas. The Global Art Forum, an education program of the Fair brought together more than forty artists, curators, dealers, critics and academics to focus on issues affecting the arts community, with many of the discussions concentrating on the Middle East. Topics included, "The Next Ten Years of Contemporary Art in the Middle East" and "Branding Cities through Culture." Savita Apte, Education Director of the Fair states, "The Global Art Forum is a great platform for local artists, designers and students to learn how international curators view the area. It is also a place for an exchange of ideas and where misconceptions and mistranslation can be negated." [2]

Thoughts surrounding many of these discussions suggested that Dubai needs to build an arts infrastructure. Currently there are no art schools in Dubai and there are no grants or public funding for the arts. So, the Fair was not just a place to buy art, but a platform for discussion on what needs to be done to build the arts culture.

Claudia Cellini, Director of the Dubai-based Third Line Gallery, which exhibits artists from the Middle East including India and Pakistan, states that the Fair presents local artists with the "ability to learn about the trade. The commercial market is what reigns right now because the institutions [museums, art schools] don’t exist yet." [3] This viewpoint may seem crass and an antithesis to what art represents to many. However, sales of art helps support artists to create their work - especially if no other art funding mechanism is available. The Creek Contemporary Art Fair which featured artists and galleries from the region ran concurrently with the DIFC Gulf Art Fair showing that there is more to Dubai’s art scene than just dollar signs.

Nevertheless, the success of an art fair hinges on sales, and without art sales, the fair will not be a financially viable event. Cellini, commented during the Fair that, "not only publicity, but strong leads or sales will determine the success of the show…If the Fair is successful, it will definitely have a direct impact on the art market in the region." [4] With Cellini’s gallery, The Third Line and Dubai-based gallery B21 reporting that sales have been generated by the presence of the Fair as well as more than 9,000 visitors attending to look at art and participate in the various educational opportunities, this event can easily be considered a success.

According to Martin, "Recent shows of contemporary Middle Eastern Art in the British Museum and Museum of Modern Art highlighted the fact that art from the region is highly regarded. There is a vibrant art community with exceptionally talented people. Sadly, up until the last few years, most artists have had to study and live in New York or London to find success. With a growing art market in Dubai this will change." [5]


  1. Email response to Author’s questions by John Martin via The Portsmouth Group handling communications in Dubai for the DIFC Gulf Art Fair.
  2. Author interview with Savita Apte on March 10, 2007, during the DIFC Gulf Art Fair.
  3. Author interview with Claudia Cellini on March 9, 2007, during the DIFC Gulf Art Fair.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Martin, Ibid.

Seth Thompson

Assistant Professor of Design at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and Director of Wigged Productions.

DIFC Gulf Art Fair
8 - 10 March 2007
Global Art Forum:
7 - 9 March
Madinat Arena
Jumeirah Beach
United Arab Emirates


Art Dubai

PO Box 72645
United Arab Emirates

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