Art Basel Is Organizing a Three-Day Sustainability Summit in Abu Dhabi in Its Latest Effort to Evolve Beyond Art Fairs

Art Basel Inside is the art-fair company's latest project.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo by Voyage Way, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Art Basel organizers have made it clear that they have no interest in bringing yet another art fair into the already-crowded fair landscape. But that doesn’t mean the company isn’t interested in expanding. And the latest area of growth for the organization is high-profile events.

The company today announced a new initiative called “Art Basel Inside” that will bring influential entrepreneurs and cultural leaders to Abu Dhabi for a three-day conference in February 2020. In a release this morning, organizers described the new initiative as “a multi-faceted cultural experience offering thought leaders from diverse fields and industries the opportunity to share visions and engage with the issues facing the world today.”

Veteran curator and art historian Marc-Olivier Wahler, who was recently appointed director of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva, will organize the three-day program. The Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism will serve as co-host, though Art Basel organizers would not disclose details of the contract or elaborate on how the initiative is being funded. Notably, the dates of the event—February 14 to 16—overlap with the second edition of Frieze Los Angeles, the newest fair launched by Art Basel’s biggest rival.

Art Basel organizers stressed that “Inside” is different from its Art Basel Cities initiative, which works with local governments to organize bespoke cultural events and expand local art scenes. The new concept was researched and developed by the Art Basel Business Initiatives Department (the same squad that developed the Cities initiative) over the past three years. Asked whether they plan to bring Inside to other cities, a representative said it is currently a “one-off event,” but “it is certainly possible that we will hold further events in the future and to further develop the program.”

Marc-Olivier Wahler. Photo © Benjamin Schmuck

Marc-Olivier Wahler. Photo © Benjamin Schmuck

More than Art Basel Cities, the event perhaps more closely resembles major gatherings like the New York Times International Luxury Conference held in Hong Kong last year, the (controversy-ridden) Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh, both of which aimed to raise the profile of their locations as hubs for new ideas and connect business leaders with wealthy potential customers in new regions.

The new initiative comes as Art Basel’s parent company, MCH Group, has pulled away from its investment in regional art fairs. In November, the organization said it would sell off most of its stake in these events and downshift its ambitions “for the necessary stabilization of the company.”

So far, details on exactly what Art Basel Inside will look like are vague. According to the company, the three-day event will include “thematic journeys, site-specific installations and commissioned performances… dynamic dialogues and workshops with visionary guest speakers from the worlds of technology and science, addressing topics such as intelligence, environments, sustainability, and the role of the arts.” There will also be smaller breakout sessions where participants will have in-depth discussions about these issues.

In a statement, Wahler said he looks forward to creating “an immersive environment, a unique ecosystem in which critical issues such as sustainability and artificial intelligence are not approached as isolated topics, but instead as contingencies within a larger network.”

Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler presented the event as an opportunity for the art world to engage with leaders from other industries. “It is vital that those in the art world not only speak to each other about the art world, but rather discuss with a wider range of thinkers a broader range of topics,” he said in a statement.

Over the past decade, the United Arab Emirates has invested billions of dollars in cultural projects (and been dogged by claims of labor abuses), developing sites including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Manarat Al Saadiyat, and the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. Also still in the works are the Zayed National Museum and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

“This is a collaboration brought about by a shared passion for the arts, and a belief in their importance in driving understanding, progress, and innovation,” said Saif Saeed Ghobash, undersecretary for Abu Dhabi’s department of culture and tourism.

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