What would happen to the art market if all work was sold and acquired democratically? That’s a pretty controversial question to ask at an art fair. In its 9th edition Art Dubai (March 18–21) drew an estimated 25,000 visitors to view modern and contemporary art from 92 galleries in plush exhibition halls. The art market in the United Arab Emirates is about as old as the fair, but thanks to a solid gallery scene, some record Christie’s auctions, and easy import and export policies, Dubai is coming into its own as the cool new kid in art school, and is now beginning to be regarded as a global art hub.
Of course the whole object of an art fair is to ogle, critique, and (if one’s bank account permits) acquire work by established artists. This traditional order was turned on its head by RCA Secret Dubai, an event that took place in collaboration with Art Dubai, imagining a model in which all of the work cost the same amount, regardless of the artist. The concept, which has developed somewhat of a cult following in London, is facilitated to benefit the Royal College of Art in London, and presented some 3,000 postcard-sized works of art in a series of glass display cases installed beneath the palm trees planted between Art Dubai’s exhibition halls. Although entry to Art Dubai is exclusive (there were invitation only VIP and VVIP night openings) and requires an admission fee and registration, with one badly publicized free day, visiting RCA Secret Dubai was perfectly free.
Each of the original postcards was up for auction for just AED 500 (about $136 USD), but there was a twist—none of the works had artists’ names identified. The brilliance of the project was watching visitors play the guessing game of trying to match postcards to a list of participating artists.
From left: Najat Makki, eL Seed
The 2014 RCA Secret London sale had included postcards by Grayson Perry and Zaha Hadid. In Dubai, regional and UAE-based artists including eL Seed and Ruben Sanchez participated alongside Paul Smith and Emma Watson, as did Najat Makki, who is the first Emirati woman to attend art school and whose paintings will be showcased at the UAE Pavilion at the upcoming Venice Biennale.
From left: Yinka Shonibare, Hazem Harb, Emma Watson
More than 1,000 people registered to bid. A few stalwart collectors even camped overnight in the shadow of the Orientalist souk, just to be first in the queue. (Dubai collectors are not used to waiting for much of anything, so the lines were not particularly long, with most bidders rolling in as the sale opened at noon.) With a cap on four postcards per registered bidder, the auction became a game of choosing work one connected with, balanced with work that could possibly be of great value. Was the illustration of a balloon dog defecating, a famous artist’s doodle or a recent RCA graduate’s weak attempt at satire? In my case, sadly, it was the latter.
Imagine an entire auction that displayed and sold art this democratically. After watching the 40-year-old Lebanese painter, Ayman Baalbaki’s Babel auctioned off at Christie’s Dubai sale for a record $400,000 (the estimate was $150-200k), it doesn’t look like that will be happening here anytime soon.
The full list of postcards with revealed artists can now be found here.
(All images courtesy RCA Secret Dubai and Art Dubai)