Most art fairs are “front-loaded”, meaning that the bulk of sales are made on the first day. Not so in Abu Dhabi, whose annual art fair opened on Tuesday with a ladies-only visit in the morning and a buzzy vernissage in the evening. But dealers were not discouraged, explaining that they didn’t expect big sales until the end of the fair. This wasn’t just wishful thinking. The reason? Abu Dhabi Art belongs to the emirate’s government, which supports its art fair, believing it to be part of its “cultural ecosystem”.
Essentially, there is one main buyer in the emirate: the royal family. Crown Princess Sheikha Salama is the most active – although, according to a number of dealers, her daughter Sheikha Maryam is also engaging with contemporary art. So having made their tour, the sheikhas and advisers will no doubt be making purchases before the fair ends Saturday night. Many of these works will end up in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, now expected to open in 2017. Both architect Frank Gehry and Guggenheim president Richard Armstrong were present at the fair to reassure any doubters that the project will truly happen.
This fair has had its ups and downs – the worst, by common consent, being last year’s. Problems with layout, air-conditioning and above all the non-appearance of Guggenheim staff led to a number of dealers dropping out. So this year’s roster of 50 exhibitors included 10 newcomers – but there has also been a sharp improvement this time around in the organisation, the layout and the way the art was displayed. The fair attracted hordes of people and, most encouragingly, many Emiratis.
Abu Dhabi is more conservative than Dubai and, judging by its offerings, seems to have quite decorative taste. A number of booths boasted art that was shiny, mirrored, sparkling and sequinned (sometimes all at once). One example was Bharti Kher’s four-part mirrored-and-bindi work “Redemption Is Not the Only Reason to Look up into the Night Sky”, specially made for the fair (€600,000 at Hauser & Wirth). Another was Ropac’s elegant stand, featuring Raqib Shaw and Farhad Moshiri works sparkling with sequins and glass beads (the woman depicted in Moshiri’s “Pill” (2010), $190,000, had crystal teeth). Even a painting of bombs by Lebanese artist Ghassan Ghazal at Janine Rubeiz – “Pink Rain” (2012; $16,000) – was overlaid with glitter.
There was a more experimental piece at the same gallery (“Don’t Feed the Artist”, with Mazen Kerbaj shut in a glass box and gradually filling the walls with his work), but this was tucked at the back and hardly challenging. Some sales were made at the opening: Meem Gallery and Waterhouse & Dodd were happy, and many other exhibitors were waiting for tonight to see reserves turned into solid commitments.
One reason dealers come to the Abu Dhabi fair is the potential honeypot that is the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, due to open at the end of 2017. Until now the big unknown has been what it is collecting but director Richard Armstrong partly lifted the veil at a panel at the fair on Wednesday, revealing six works out of the 100-odd acquisitions made so far. These are a ripped poster work by Jacques Villeglé; a major installation by Algerian Rachid Koraïchi; a mirrored sculpture by Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian; a glass chandelier by Ai Weiwei; a “tapestry” by African artist El Anatsui; and a sculpture by Indian artist Subodh Gupta. Asked later whether that mix – one-sixth European to works from other regions – was indicative of the museum’s collecting thrust, he said “Yes”. Armstrong also insisted that he was trying to be “as fair and conscientious as possible” when making purchases from dealers.
Bad news comes from London, with Hotel gallery going into liquidation. Created by Christabel Stewart and Darren Flook in 2003 in their living room, Hotel gained a reputation for finding and promoting young artists. “We were always very successful curatorially,” says Flook. “But it was always tough financially … Once cash flow dries up, it’s difficult for a gallerist to survive.”
Along with New York dealer Elizabeth Dee, Flook is also co-founder and co-owner of the well-regarded Independent art fair, a role that he will continue. He was asked what he thought would be the impact on this fair (as well as on Art Basel Miami Beach), with dealers possibly being unable to participate because of flooding from superstorm Sandy.
“For galleries that are on a knife-edge, Sandy could kick them over the edge,” said Flook. “But for the ones that are financially stable, they certainly won’t close because of the flooding. We’ll have to wait and see.” He said that in response to the superstorm, Independent may focus more on the non-profit sector: “We are having conversations about how we can support colleagues by giving them a platform at the fair.”
What are his other plans? “I will be concentrating on Independent and looking at other creative roles,” said Flook. “But for the moment I am finding that winding down a business is a tremendous amount of work.”
It was a case of reality falling a little short of expectations at Christie’s sale of Impressionist and Modern art in New York this week. Nerves were strained in the run-up to the auction, with the city still far from recovered from superstorm Sandy. The sale turned in just over $204m, but this fell short of the $250m-plus upper target (pre-sale estimates don’t include commission; results do). Top lot was Monet’s “Nymphéas” (1905), making $43.8m (est $30m-$50m) and sold to a US buyer. A European buyer paid a record $23m for Kandinsky’s “Studie für Improvisation 8” (1909), but 21 lots failed to find buyers, giving a sold-through rate of 70 per cent. Sotheby’s evening sale was postponed and was held after we went to press.
Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper