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Antonia Carver on Art Dubai

Art Dubai turns ten, and fair director Antonia Carver, former editor with sharp-witted magazine-turned-website Bidoun, explains the importance of flipping the conversation about how the Middle East is “read” internationally.

How has the ten-year turning point influenced your thinking about the fair?

The ten-year moment has made us think more broadly, notably about this shift in the art world away from Paris/New York/London as the arbiters of taste. This has influenced, or will influence, globally what we see as quality work: which artists we understand as superstars and what galleries are leading.

But don’t all fairs end up looking the same?

All art fairs say this, but it’s the role of the fair to keep the roster very fresh. In our particular case, Art Dubai is known as a fair where people come to discover new artists. This year, thirty-five percent of the galleries are new to the fair. This is due to a lot of young spaces that have grown up in the past five to six years across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia — and even Central Asia. We’ve had increased participation from those geographies. So there is, on one hand, the global shift I mentioned, but also institutions like Art Dubai, the Sharjah Art Foundation, the Dhaka Art Summit and many more that enable these spaces to survive and grow. In the end, it is really about the growth of an infrastructure. So it’s our responsibility to keep drawing in these young spaces and help support them.

Everyone is using the ten-year moment to talk about how the fair has changed. But I’m curious to know how you have changed since you started as Fair Director of Art Dubai?

I’ve done different things over the years that step in and out of the world I’m in now. In the 1990s I was part of a group running a post-YBA-era magazine in London called CVA [Contemporary Visual Arts, later Contemporary]. I was doing development and publishing, so it involved pitching to galleries in London and New York, and talking to them about trends, positions in fairs and so on. Then I went to work with Art and Asia Pacific [magazine launched in Australia in 1993], Iniva, and other organizations that were looking at art centers outside Europe and America. So I went from one extreme to the other: in London, we barely looked outside those universes and we thought that was the universe. I was very lucky to witness that shift taking place, these multiple art centers coming up. This led to a lot of questioning that I find interesting in my job now, even from the commercial side: looking at how galleries engage in the wider world and how they begin to understand these wider worlds as markets, not just exotic places where you find one artist for your roster who is not European or American.

You’ve been a highly visible figurehead of the fair for six years now. How do you think Art Dubai resembles you? Has the fair lost its edgy “Bidoun spirit,” which was there was in the early years with Bidoun Projects and partnerships like the Art Park — alternative programming in the parking lot — that you engineered before you were employed by the fair?

I believe in foregrounding ideas as much as works, and having real respect for artists. That’s very much the Bidoun spirit. It’s about constantly questioning and investigating — always throwing things out there for people to digest, or not digest since they’re not always digestible. It’s not like this is a commercial business and we’re just ticking boxes. We think about what this fair can mean for this part of the world. Looking around at the region, there is a huge amount of suffering and pain. There’s a way this region is read internationally. I feel the fair, in its little way, has its moment to flip that conversation around: it takes pride in history, cultural endeavor and ideas. Art Dubai is really trying to be a net producer of ideas. The Gulf is often perceived as a place that imports and consumes. Art Dubai is the antidote to that. We see the world differently, and artists are leading that process — as much through the work shown in the gallery halls as the ideas discussed in the forums. It’s about exporting out — new ideas and new works. This is a wholly different perspective. It should make people think.

by Kevin Jones