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A new hub for global art market in the making
In news after a major earthquake and an impending Tsunami threat, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, has recently been in international spotlight for another reason: as the prime attraction for potential art buyers at 2012 Art Dubai’s Marker section, representing the region’s thriving contemporary art scene.

The grand event, symbolizing the emergence of a new global art hub featured thematic exhibits involving more than 500 artists from 75 galleries from over 30 countries, in addition to artist and curator residencies, performative tours, talks, screenings, commissioned projects and workshops. The idea was to engage with the audience and to decipher contemporary art trends by involving experts and artists, investors and collectors through a vibrant and interactive mix of programs. Most dealers and gallerists revealed that the combination of the Arab spring’s international resonance and an expanding network of wealthy individuals and institutions made the fair a grand success.

Savvy art aficionados, who have already witnessed the rise of India and China as new-century’s art superpowers, obviously do not want to miss out probably the next one in making – Dubai. The Arab art market, analysts point out, has been gradually maturing and consolidating; it’s steadily but surely warming up to quality works of art by young and talented practitioners. Dubai’s art scene has indeed come out stronger since the global economic meltdown in 2008-09, carving a solid regional identity for itself. The price points there are not obviously at a Murakami or Hirst level. However, an influx of bolder dealers and more informed collectors is creating space for more pricey works, marked with a distinct improvement in quality quotient.

Giving a flavor of things cooking up is an ambitious project of a new artist plus art gallery hub in the vast warehouse area of Al Quoz. Estimated to cost roughly £8.5m, it incorporates the creation of around 46,000 sq m of creative space for galleries and artists’ studios in Al Serkal Avenue that already houses many top contemporary dealers the region. The site will include restaurants and a café, to transform it into a complete entertainment arena. Underlining the dynamism of Dubai’s art scene, Katy Watson of The BBC News states, “It has grown rapidly, and galleries have multiplied in recent years. The emirate is being seen increasingly as the region's art trading hub. Spurring the art scene development are the collectors, mostly younger patrons from Saudi, Qatar and the UAE, keen to invest in contemporary artworks within their own region.”

With a whopping 500% increase in total sales figures of Middle Eastern art segment over the last five years or so, global auction houses like Christie’s with prominent salerooms in Dubai, are keen to capitalize on the new market. In the process, women in the Gulf are getting scope for free expression, lending voice to mute and oppressed sections of society, while scooping even a bigger career opportunity. It’s a touch ironic that the art produced in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia is most interesting and socially relevant; also where the female artists are finding their voice through visuals.

They may not still be able to wear what they want, vote or drive a car, but they are turning to art in order to release their pent-up feelings. Significantly, there are many women collectors and patrons of Middle Eastern art, apart from those occupying top positions at prestigious museums and festivals in Abu Dhabi and Qatar. But while the recent violent uprisings might have whetted the appetite of aspiring art buyers, one of its underlying reasons - arbitrary, at times unpredictable state clampdown on public speech and expression – continues to loom over the art scene here!

Fairs like Art Dubai are no exception! As was reported in the media, Dubai authorities ordered its organizers to remove a few pieces from display prior to a visit by of the emirate’s ruling family members so as not to antagonize them. Its director Antonia Carver though, played down the alleged censorship, emphasizing it was not uncommon for works to be removed in this fashion across the globe due to cultural or legal concerns. She was quoted as saying: “Dubai’s approach to artistic expression has developed in the recent years. As the city has grown as a cultural capital, it has become more open to the subjects that can be tackled.”

This interest is also a lucrative one for those running the art galleries in Dubai. The opening up of new venues points to a growing demand for art. In fact, not many can promise space for artists keen to put up an exhibition for the next several months. They have to endure a prolonged waiting period, at times more than a year before they can find a space. The region is witnessing just the beginning of a boom, with immense potential for major art investment, thanks to a growing number of people in the Emirates now opting not only to buy, but also to appreciate art.

Interestingly, just about a decade ago, not many people seemed to take any kind of interest in art, with most investors opting for real estate or banking. Analyzing the scenario of ‘Art as the new business trend’, a report in The Gulf News some time ago had quoted an art market player as saying: "I feel the new generation is well educated and globalization has played a role in making (Emiratis) far more open to different cultural influences and ready to take their interests to higher level. They now study (art) as a new career path. Many of the female students also look forward to investing in art."

Meanwhile, new and modern art from India is witnessing a significant resurgence in terms of collector interest in the region. Capitalizing on it, galleries like Dubai-based 1x1 Art run by Malini Gulrajani are keen to carve a niche for themselves. The gallery owner has brought several top names on Indian art scene to Dubai, including Riyas Komu, Bose Krishnamachari, Vivek Vilasini, Chittrovanu Mazumdar and NN Rimzon, among others. A recent group exhibition ‘Fragile’ demonstrated a marked offshoot of interest in its quest to expand its market for contemporary Indian art.

Going by the trend, the Middle East and Dubai in particular, can well emerge as a hub for contemporary Indian art, a segment still relatively under-explored in the region.