Saturday, 12 January 2008

Art Dubai, CSR, Arts Education and START!

I wasn't actually in Dubai at this time last year so I missed the first ever Gulf Art Fair. It has now been renamed Art Dubai and although it won't happen until March, I thought I might as well kick off the publicity now! The other new kid on the art fair block is Art Paris-Abu Dhabi which I posted about here.

I have to say that I regard Art Fairs in general as little more than large corporate events at which commodities are exchanged often for vast amounts of money. The growth of international art fairs does reflect an increase in demand but it is also the result of an effective promotion of art as a component of a diversified investment portfolio! Given that a stable market requires a degree of product homogenisation I think the long term effect of this is actually damaging to creativity and originality. It effectively excludes work that does not fit the market model.

Despite this personal gripe, I have to say that I do find art fairs fascinating . The often seriously grim gallery owners, the weird and the wacky who wash up at opening nights and the inevitable background muttering about money laundering are always highly entertaining. So I will definitely be trying to secure another sneaky press pass for Art Dubai in March!

Art Dubai last year did something which made it much more interesting than your average large corporate event. It demonstrated that it had a conscience and promoted its corporate social responsibility (CSR) credentials by making the Al Madad Foundation a major partner. A longstanding affiliation between the fair organisers and the UK based charity was used to raise funds, highlight issues of deprivation and ultimately to launch a brand new programme based in Dubai called START which is:

“ ….an initiative to use the international language of art to heal, educate and enrich the skills and opportunities of children and young adults in devastated areas of the world.”

Essentially START links arts education to social development and serves as one of the only comprehensible means of therapy for children traumatised by conflict. For this reason its initial focus is on the Middle East region, particularly Lebanon and Palestine. One programme is under way in Beirut and there are plans for a programme in the Nahr Al Bared refugee camp.

Local artists are trained to teach the programme so the potential long­-term result is a much stronger connection between art and community and all the benefits that brings in terms of developing local creative expression and arts infrastructure. Given that one of creators of the programme was a huge art fair, there is the added advantage of a permanent link back into an international platform.

Interestingly START is also running projects in Dubai itself. The crazy thing about art and HERE is that the new fairs generate massive publicity, there are galleries sprouting up everywhere and it seems everyone wants a piece of the action. At the same time, there is almost no arts education in the national public school system and local native artists are almost invisible suggesting a danger of exclusion from their own nation’s sudden creative boom!

An awareness of this dilemma is beginning to take shape and START is ahead of the game where it has already run a few workshops involving local artists teaching local children in Dubai. It has also run programmes for children with special needs and for the Dubai Autism Centre including exhibitions of their work in cafes and other public spaces.

Hopefully, arts education can develop if an accessible skills base appears .. ... and it will be good for the artists to get out more!!