A scholar and art historian, Savita Apte is the director of Art Dubai and Platform Projects Singapore, one of the founders of the Abraaj Group Art Prize and on the advisory board of the Sovereign Art Foundation, ParaSite and Asia Art Archive. A former consultant expert for Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art at Sotheby’s, Apte also writes and lectures on the subject, while not preparing for her Ph. D from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster recently caught up with the industrious Apte to discuss the evolution of Art Dubai, the Global Art Forum and the Abraaj Group Art Prize.

What was the path that led you to Art Dubai?

I was fortunate enough to meet with John Martin soon after he and Benedict Floyd founded Art Dubai. It was still a very fledgling venture at the time and John and Ben felt I had a valuable contribution to make, given that my background straddled both the academic and business side of art.

The Art Dubai website lists multiple occupations for you now—even as you direct the fair and oversee the Abraaj Group Art Prize. How do you manage all of these different creative roles?

I should clarify at the outset that Antonia Carver is the Fair Director. I am one of the Directors of the company Art Dubai. I no longer have any day-to-day responsibilities in the running of Art Dubai, but I am very actively involved with The Abraaj Art Prize. I also sit on the board of Platform Projects, Singapore, which is a not-for-profit arts organization that feeds seamlessly into ParaSite, Hong Kong and Asia Art Archive, where I sit on the advisory board. Happily, the synergies of all the organizations do converge.

Now that we’re several years into the developing contemporary art scenes in Asia and the Middle East, how do you view the current artistic situation in these regions?

Asia and the Middle East have always had a very vibrant visual culture and a long tradition of creativity. Perhaps what has changed in the last decade is how much contemporary art from this region has been in the global spotlight. This has led to a special efflorescence of a variety of artist’s led initiatives, spaces and sites of documentation—all of which have contributed to writing a more inclusive global art history.

What role does Art Dubai play in expanding the dialogue between the international arts community?

Art Dubai fulfills a crucial role as a meeting point between the art scenes of Europe and the Americas with the Arab world, Africa and Asia. Over the last nine years, Art Dubai has become a cornerstone of the region’s thriving contemporary art community. This is in no small part to Dubai’s geographic location and historical precedents but it has also been actively encouraged by the number of programmes that Art Dubai undertakes, including the Global Art Forum, Campus Art Dubai and Artists’ in Residence and the Marker programmes.

Who are the visitors that come to the fair and what are they are seeking?

Like art fairs around the world, Art Dubai attracts a broad cross section of people, including museum directors and curators that come to experience the commercial as well as the non commercial aspects of art fair and to keep abreast of local trends. We have several international museum groups—67 groups in 2014—that bring their patrons and supporters, who are often active collectors and that want to explore new geographies. Of course, Art Dubai attracts local and regional collectors, as well as artists, critics, students and people who are interested in looking at art. Art Dubai caters to all of these various audiences.

What’s new in the Galleries section of the fair in the 2015 edition?

Growing upon last year’s successful launch of Art Dubai Modern, there will be 15 galleries showing works by modern artists from the region. In total, between the Modern and Contemporary section there will be 92 galleries representing 40 countries. This year the Marker section will feature five thematic booths—publishing, sound, performance, exhibition and film—with works by artists from six different art spaces in Latin America that will be curated by Luiza Teixeira de Freitas.

Several galleries have opted to present ambitious solo and two-person shows within the Contemporary section: Carroll/Fletcher (London) will focus on Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, while Beirut’s Galerie Tanit will present a major installation by photographer Fouad El Khoury with poetry by Etel Adnan. Chatterjee & Lal (Mumbai) will present a solo show of drawings by Nikhil Chopra; and Atassi Gallery (Damascus) will display new work by Syrian master Elias Zayat.

A new project space will feature collages by renowned Iranian photographer Kaveh Golestan, curated by Vali Mahlouji. It will be an exciting Art Dubai with something for everyone.

Are the educational programs as important as sales?

The commercial part of the fair is very important, but the constellation of educational activities that Art Dubai organizes and supports are equally important. In addition to the Global Art Forum, Art Dubai organizes a year long Campus Art Dubai programme, where students benefit from a variety of practitioners from the curatorial, practicing and academic world of art. There is also a well-established artist residency program, which is run in collaboration with the Delfina Foundation. In addition there is an Art Dubai Salon that allows collectors unique access to visiting artists and curators. All of these add to an enhanced visual experience at Art Dubai.

What’s on the agenda for the Global Art Forum this year?

This year’s Forum begins, for the first time, in Kuwait, and then continues at Art Dubai, and features five days of live talks, presentations, discussions and commissioned projects and features a diverse line-up of participants, including artists, curators, musicians, strategists, thinkers and writers. The ninth edition of the Global Art Forum (14-15 in Kuwait, 18-20 in Dubai) takes on the theme of technologies and their impact on the world of art and culture. Titled “Download Update?,” the Forum is co-directed by Turi Munthe and Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi. Shumon Basar is Director-at-Large.

The Global Art Forum Kuwait is supported by the Tamdeen Group and takes place at Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, in association with Sultan Gallery and Nuqat. Global Art Forum Kuwait will be annotated by special exhibitions and events across the city.

The 2015 Global Art Forum is presented by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority (Dubai Culture) and supported by Dubai Design District (d3). The accompanying Forum Fellows programme, part of Art Dubai Education and supported by Julius Baer, focuses on upcoming writers from the Middle East and will be led by Tirdad Zolghadr.

Now in its ninth edition, how would you summarize the impact that the Global Art Forum has had on the increased awareness of art from the region?

Over the last nine years the Global Art Forum has been the site for lively talks and discussions and given audiences the opportunity to listen to internationally renowned thought leaders in Dubai. It has become a space for an exchange of ideas, new trends in authorship and communication and above all the center of moderated discourse. For most students of art and art history from the region, it has become the gateway to think outside of the box and dream big.

And the Abraaj Group Art Prize is now in it’s seventh edition. How have you seen it benefit the artists that have won the prize in the past?

Every year The Abraaj Group Art Prize winners have gone on to greater accolades, even more global recognition. Past winners have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, Documenta, Sharjah Biennial, Gwanju Biennial and Kochi Muziris Biennial, to name but a few. In addition the works have been loaned to a number of museums, including the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Maxxi, Rome; and the Museum of Art and Design, New York. 

The award was previously given to multiple winners, but year there is only one winner along with several shortlisted artists. Why has the award been changed?

The Abraaj Group Art Prize has always been receptive to the demands of the artists from the region and has constantly evolved in response. This year the emphasis has been on a single winner, Yto Barrada, whose commissioned work will be supported by previous work from the shortlisted artists. In addition, The Abraaj Group is supporting five innovative young graduates through full scholarships for their master’s degree course at the Royal College of Art, London, as part of the Abraaj Group Award.

What will the 2015 winner, Yto Barrada, and the runners-up present at the fair?

We are very excited that Yto Barrada will present her newly commissioned work Lying Stones in the exhibition “Before History,” curated by the 2015 guest curator Omar Kholief. In Lying Stones, Barrada questions the authenticity of history and museology, through the study of paleontology in Morocco. Her work will be supported by Temporary Autonomous Zones (2012) by Sarnath Banerjee; Spectral Days (2013) by Setareh Shahbazi; and Mute Tongue (2010) by Mounira Al Solh.

As you start to look ahead to the seminal 10th edition of the fair in 2016, while looking back at the history, how would you evaluate where you are now and how you envision the fair moving forward?

It has been a decade of hard work, which has been rewarded by a group of galleries that have continued to exhibit with us from the very beginning and have helped shape the contours of the commercial success of the fair. That we are successful has been in no small measure to the galleries who exhibit with us, the fabulous museum groups, collectors, curators, directors, students, artists, writers and critics that support us every year. We have always distinguished ourselves as a fair of discovery, a very human scaled fair and we will continue to build on this foundation—cementing our reputation as a truly global fair.