Art Dubai Downsizes Its 2020 Fair Due to Growing Concern Over the Spread of Coronavirus

Fair organizers will still stage a local program on Art Dubai's original dates.

Visitors stand in front of the work of artist Sergey Maslov during Art Dubai (2014). Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images for Art Dubai.

Another one down.

Art Dubai announced this morning that it is postponing its 2020 art fair scheduled to take place March 25–28 due to the spread of coronavirus in the Middle East. But the fair’s organizers are planning to go ahead with a slimmed down program of events and talks.

“Given the essential role the fair plays in promoting local and regional artists, we have made the decision to stage a program tailored to the local cultural community instead, including existing fair program contributors and thought-leaders,” the directors of Art Dubai—chief executive Benedict Floyd, artistic director Pablo del Val, and international director Chloe Vaitsou—said in a joint statement.

The news announced today, March 3, comes after a heavy week in the Middle East with new cases of coronavirus being reported in Dubai, Lebanon and in the regional hotspot Iran, which now has 2,300 cases. Saudi Arabia, which confirmed its first case yesterday from a Saudi man who had travelled from Iran, has suspended entry for pilgrims visiting the kingdom’s holy sites.

The new format Art Dubai is scheduled to run on the same dates and will include a selection of exhibitions, talks and events, the details of which are due to be announced soon. Planned events include the Global Art Forum, and “Residents,” a display of work by African artists created during recent residencies in Dubai.

“The goals and ambitions for this re-configured program maintain our objective to deliver commercial, institutional and critical engagement with Dubai’s art ecosystem, a commitment of support to our local community that we felt an imperative to uphold,” the fair’s organizers said in their joint statement.

Tourists wearing surgical masks on a beach next to Burj Al Arab in Dubai. Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images.

Tourists wearing surgical masks on a beach next to Burj Al Arab in Dubai. Photo by Giuseppe Cacace, AFP via Getty Images.

The decision to cancel the commercial heart of the fair was met with understanding on the part of the local Middle Eastern art community. “In the present global climate the position taken makes complete sense,” says Charles Pocock, the managing partner at Meem Gallery who is an advisor to the Barjeel Art Collection. He thinks it is the right decision. “Art Dubai has managed this situation well and shown a great understanding of the grave situation we are all facing as global citizens,” he says.

For international galleries due to attend the fair the news was not a surprise. Now they are calculating the consequences. “We agree with the decision and trust the team’s decision but it is difficult for us,” says Rakeb Sile, co-founder of Addis Fine Art of London and Addis Ababa.  “We had to disappoint five artists who have spent time preparing to show their work at Art Dubai. It’s devastating for our artists not to be able to come and not participate,” Sile says. The gallerist drew comfort from the fact that one of its artists, Tizta Berhanu, is in Dubai preparing for the Residents section. “We are happy that at least she can show her work.” Today’s news broke as Sile’s gallery is showing for the second year at the Armory Show in New York.

The fair’s postponement has left many asking how it will affect the wider Middle East region, which is already in the midst of a shaky economic climate. “Given the region’s weak economic situation, I’m not sure sales would have done well had it gone on. For others who may have been hopeful of selling something, it will be yet another lost opportunity,”says the Lebanese art collector Basel Dalloul, adding that it may be a “relief” for some dealers.

Dalloul thinks the fair’s organizers took the right decision. He suspects the postponement of the fair will have an adverse effect on an already shaky market, although he says he has no doubt that the strong artists will survive.

The current situation also signals an opportunity for the Middle Eastern art community and the world at large to find news ways to support the continuation of the arts during such periods of uncertainty. “As a collector and long time supporter of Art Dubai, I am saddened by the cancelation of the fair this year,” says the collector and lawyer Nassib Abou Khalil. He “respects” the courage of the art fair for making a difficult decision. The collector, who has an art-filled home in Dubai, fears the economic impact on the art market in the region “will not be negligible.” Khalil says that now more than ever “supporters of the arts in the region have a personal responsibility to support Art Dubai and the art world in the Middle East.”

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