View from Burj Khalifa of the towers near Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai. Photo by Christian van Elven.


United Arab Emirates
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In Dubai, anything can happen—certainly when compared with the rest of the stern and strife-weary Middle East. The region’s former grandes dames—Cairo, Tehran, Beirut—may well contest Dubai’s claim to being a cultural beacon, just as the West cynically dismisses it as frivolous and hollow. Yes, Dubai is an upstart, bristling with impatience and impertinence. Its art infrastructure was fast-tracked into existence in a matter of years, a sprint that will intensify in the run-up to 2020 when the emirate will welcome the World Expo. From a scattered handful of galleries in 2004, the downtown landscape will soon boast a huge, government-backed “cultural district” with art spaces, a modern art museum and an opera house. The current gallery “neighborhood” on Alserkal Avenue will double in size over the next year. Old-timers insist that a vibrant local art scene predated the current arts-specific construction scramble, but for most the question still lingers: is Dubai there yet? 

Unlike neighboring Abu Dhabi—future home of Guggenheim and Louvre outposts—Dubai does not benefit from a top-down, government-funded strategy to acquire culture. The foundations of Dubai’s art scene are commercial: an expanding gallery scene catering to a growing collector base and the yearly Art Dubai fair, now in its eighth year. As ecosystems go, Dubai is uniquely lopsided; its commercial might overshadows a lack of institutions, an underdeveloped arts education infrastructure and a timidity toward cultivating serious critique: a woeful “what’s on” approach to culture prevails in local publications. 

But change is afoot. Tashkeel, the sole nonprofit offering artist residencies and studio space, is gaining significance as a hub for the creative community. Campus Art Dubai, a six-month alternative “school” for United Arab Emirates-based artists, writers and curators, was launched in 2013 as part of Art Dubai’s educational programming. Meeting twice a month, participants work with tutors on projects and produce a joint publication that will be available at Art Dubai 2014. Heightening geopolitical turmoil elsewhere in the region is also driving artists and gallerists—notably from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Pakistan—to Dubai. Here, they find a more broad-minded outlet than they likely would in their native lands, which in turn means the boundaries of what can be shown in Dubai are slowly being pushed. 

So has Dubai—an autocracy where rulers’ portraits grace every lobby and Sharia law prevails—become tolerant? Western critics are quick to blame censorship for what they perceive as muzzled agitational yearnings when, for example, they find no works about the Arab Spring in fairs and galleries. Of course, censorship exists. One need only look at the locally distributed international publications for which these same critics write—more ribald visuals are obscured by the black marker of the unflappable censor. But politically charged works are exhibited in Dubai; they just tend to be more nuanced, less seditious. Ingrid Hora’s “Dear Leader” show at Grey Noise gallery in 2013, for example, foregrounded issues of individuals within the mass, and could easily be construed as a comment on Dubai’s own brand of societal control. Tolerance, ultimately, is where you look for it: episodes of altered works may occasionally flare up, but there is plenty of thought-provoking work displayed under the radar. 

As might be expected, there is a distinct seasonality to activities. When Art Dubai starts up in March, Art Week—an umbrella initiative uniting the fair and the government body Dubai Culture—also springs to life, as do SIKKA, a satellite fair for emerging local artists; the Global Art Forum, a series of live talks; and visiting initiatives, such as 2013’s traveling program of exhibitions “The Moving Museum.” The rest of the year is attuned to the steady ebb and flow of gallery vernissages. Resident observers, concerned with recruiting an audience for contemporary art, grumble that such transient fare provides little sustenance. Yet Art Dubai opened its popular Campus Art Dubai doors to a wider membership in October, and is providing an ongoing flow of programs such as talks, screenings and debates throughout the year.

In December, shortly after Dubai won its 2020 World Expo bid, a celebratory billboard on the main thoroughfare, Sheikh Zayed Road, blurted out, “Whoever said winning isn’t everything doesn’t know Dubai.” The statement is divisive in much the way Dubai itself is: it makes some cringe while rousing others, like a rambunctious teen at some grave family ceremony. The emirate’s art scene, as yet untouched by 2020 hoopla, is nonetheless buoyed by the heavy market-focus at the very core of Dubai’s worldview. Sandwiched between demurely intelligent Sharjah, the cultural doyenne, and mighty Abu Dhabi, whose feverish brand-buying is likely to propel it from cultural zero to hero, Dubai cuts the figure of a boisterous, gangling youth: with key milestones under its belt, it still scrambles along the road toward maturity, overeager to be taken seriously once and for all.