An expert on art and culture in the Middle East, Antonia Carver was appointed fair director of Art Dubai in 2010 and has subsequently turned the fair into a world class event with an international mix of exhibitors, important talks on issues related to the Gulf region, and educational programmes designed to make culture and important part of the future. The fair director recently took the time to talk to artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster about her evolving vision for the dynamic Art Dubai.

How has Art Dubai evolved since you became the fair director in 2010?

Art Dubai has expanded its reach in terms of geography and depth of discovery, in particular through Marker – the curated programme of upcoming art spaces with a geographic theme – over the years, we’ve presented the largest showcases of artists from Indonesia, West Africa, Central Asia and the Caucasus, ever to take place in the Middle East. Simultaneously, and organically, the fair has extended its outreach to the various African arts scenes and to East Asia, as well as the Middle East and South Asia.

Last March, we launched a new gallery hall devoted to modern art from the Middle East and South Asia – all solo and two-person shows of modern masters – which was very well-received, with one British museum director describing the experience to me as “being at a visual and conceptual university” for an afternoon.

We’ve seen the reputation of the fair grow in Europe and America, too, as interest in art from this part of the world continues to grow and deepen there, as well. Last March, for example, we had a large delegation of curators and patrons from the New Museum in New York, whose show of contemporary Arab artists opened this past summer.

We’ve also grown the not-for-profit side of the fair, and now have the largest educational and projects’ programme of any fair, worldwide, including commissioned projects, the Global Art Forum, an ever-growing children’s programme (which we work on with The Cultural Office) and our Saturday art school, Campus Art Dubai.

What best prepared you for your position?

I’m learning all the time and am lucky to have a dynamic team of colleagues, and each year, the fair benefits from the collaboration of a brilliant group of curators, artists and patrons, who contribute their ideas. My background in journalism and publishing gave me a ‘360-degree view’ of the art world, which – given the diverse nature of the fair – has been very useful.

What makes Art Dubai different from other art fairs around the world?

Art Dubai tends to attract the ‘who’s who’ of the art world – and we are certainly positioned among the leading fairs in this regard – but we’ve also carved out a space for ourselves in this crowded events market to offer something quite different. We deliberately keep the number of galleries to around 85 to ensure that the human-scale of the fair remains intact. Art Dubai has become known as a fair of discovery – of artists, galleries, movements and ideas – and we tend to work with many galleries and artists that aren’t seen elsewhere, and exhibit them on an equal footing with the very established European and American galleries. We place an emphasis on quality and the fair’s role as a meeting point. As above, the educational and projects programming also makes us stand-out from the crowd: we try to really think about our particular position in the Gulf and how we can deliver a fair that is super-relevant locally, and also absolutely essential internationally.

What makes it special for the region?

Art Dubai is the largest showcase of Arab artists, anywhere in the world. With The Abraaj Group Art Prize, projects and talks, as well as the galleries, it enables all of us working in the region to meet, view, discuss and take stock of the regional arts scenes. The fair is also a point at which the international art crowd accesses the regional scenes – so it facilitates exchange, encourages an understanding and knowledge of what’s happening in the region and leads to international opportunities, projects and exhibitions for artists from the Middle East. Our not-for-profit programming specifically benefits artists and curators from the region – at all levels, from students through to professionals.

How does the fair interact with coinciding regional events, such as the Sharjah Biennial and Design Days Dubai?

Art Dubai sits between the museum and exhibition developments in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Sharjah. We partner with all our neighbours and lead our visiting guests on tours across the UAE and the wider Gulf region. Design Days Dubai is a sister-fair, doing in design what Art Dubai does in art, and it takes place in March, as well, in Downtown Dubai. Sharjah Biennial also opens in March and we work closely with the biennial to coordinate the two events, which complement each other really well. We also collaborate with Sharjah Biennial on the film programme Moving Images, which looks at the shared space between art and cinema.

What kind of balance do you like to maintain between global and local exhibitors?

Around a third of the galleries come from the Middle East and South Asia, and around half the artists do, given the global nature of the gallery business nowadays. We try to keep a balance of around one-third from the region, a third from Europe and a third from the rest of the world.

How do you curate the three sections of the fair: Contemporary, Modern and Marker?

Contemporary is organized along the same lines as other leading fairs – galleries are welcome to apply (and we don’t charge an application fee, unlike other fairs), and a Selection Committee of gallerists and curators selects galleries on the basis of their booth proposal and concept, their artists and their year-round programmes. Modern also takes applications from galleries, but is governed by a team of expert curators, who work with the galleries and offer advice, before a final selection is made. Marker is organized by a guest curator and features five art spaces invited to participate each year.

What role does the Global Art Forum play in the mix?

The Global Art Forum has become the largest annual discussion platform in the region, each year involving around 50 speakers and contributors, taking place in different cities in the Gulf, over five days. Each year, the Forum takes on a theme, and we tend to look in at visual art and the contemporary art world from within and without – involving artists, curators and collectors, of course, but also filmmakers, theatre directors, writers, technologists and musicians – so taking a wide perspective on the art world. This tends to then draw in a wider audience, both local and international. The Forum has been described as the ‘brain’ of the fair: it has a life of its own to a certain extent, but also informs and debates key issues around the fair as a whole.

Since its inception in 2009, how has the Abraaj Group Art Prize advanced art in the region?

The Abraaj Group Art Prize is the only award of its kind in the region, and indeed, in the art world in general, in that it awards a proposal, rather than an existing work. It’s been hugely exciting to see the award identify groups of artists each year, many of whom have then gone on to greater international recognition after winning the prize. The support of the Abraaj Group for cultural projects and for artists and designers grows each year. We hope that others will take up their example of corporate philanthropy in the arts in the Gulf, too!

And what results have you seen from Campus Art Dubai, a school for artists, curators, writers and cultural producers based in the UAE?

Campus Art Dubai is about to go into its third season, with both a rolling, year-round Community programme (which enthusiasts can join, as well as the arts community) and an intensive six-month Core course, for 15 artists, writers and curators, which this year is led by Murtaza Vali and Uzma Rizvi. We’ve seen very tangible results, such as participants going on to win fellowships, take up MA places abroad and gain exhibitions and residencies, as well as the more intangible – such as a growing sense of community locally, or growing debates around the nature of and potential for art schools in the region. Campus Art Dubai is supported by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and also by D3.

What other educational programmes do you have?

Something for everyone! We have a children’s programme at the fair, run in partnership with The Cultural Office of Her Highness Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, which features workshops and tours for ages 5-15. We’ve developed quite a dynamic programme – devising kids’ activities with artists that work in sound, installation, performance and theatre. The student and internship programme has been running for years; we launched Campus Art Dubai for the post-graduate and community level; and we also have the Forum Fellows programme for mid-career curators and writers working across the Arab world. And then of course there’s the Global Art Forum, and the Terrace Talks, at the fair itself, plus a year-round series of outreach events and more.

What are some of the standout commissions that have been done for Art Dubai Projects?

It’s hard to pick out just a few! We had a fantastic crop of projects in 2014 – perhaps the standout was the diversity – everything from Hajra Waheed’s shadow performance on an abra each evening through to Amina Menia’s ‘standing stone’ and Myriam Al Qassimi bringing to life the ‘buhoor’ at Madinat Jumeirah. Shuruq Harb’s intervention in the catalogue, telling the story of fake Paul Klee works, in a subtle and exploratory way, is a project that many people found after the fair and have mentioned to us since, so it’s interesting to see the longer shelf-life and reverb of the projects, long after the fair has finished.

Who will be curating the Projects section for 2015? Has anything been commissioned yet?

We recently announced that Lara Khaldi will be curating Art Dubai Projects 2015. We’re thrilled to be working with her – she has great experience in the region, having worked at Al Riwaq Art Gallery in Bahrain, Sharjah Art Foundation and directed the Sakakini Centre in Ramallah, among other places – and internationally, too, having just completed the prestigious De Appel curatorial course. We’re discussing ideas with her now. She’ll also be overseeing the AiR Dubai residency programme for UAE-based artists.

Are there any new things that will be added to the ninth edition of the fair in 2015?

The programme has grown so much in the past few years and we feel we have the building blocks in place now. Having said that, there are a few new developments in 2015 – the Modern section is opening to Africa as a whole this year; we’re including a live event and potentially a commission outside the fair, as part of Art Dubai Projects; and there are some exciting announcements to come, but my lips are sealed for now.

Do you think there is anything else that you need to do to bring in more museum groups and collectors or are you happy with the results that you’ve been getting?

We’re happy with the results we’ve been getting, but we’re constantly assessing the fair and looking to outreach further. The geographic focus for Marker 2015 will help us reach to new groups and collectors, and we’re building on the new communities we’re introducing each year, consolidating their interest. More and more regional events and exhibitions now position themselves around the fair each March, and we see greater audience numbers each year, both local audiences and the international art crowd, so we know we’re heading in the right direction!

Lastly, how do you think the fair has added to the appreciation of art and culture in the region and worldwide?

Art Dubai has tended to reflect the growth of the arts scenes in the region and also act as a catalyst, encouraging growth and also appreciation. There’s of course still so much to be done, especially when it comes to developing critique, coordinated approaches to public art, encouraging private patronage, and so on, but if we look back over the past ten years, the level of awareness and appreciation of contemporary art in the Gulf has grown so dramatically – there’s never been such a level of regional support nor international interest. We’ll be celebrating that, and much more, next month at Art Dubai!