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“The Perfect Storm”: How Dubai’s Cultural and Tech Strategies Are Combining to Create a Global Hub in the Digital Age

Can Büyükberber (Turkey, 1987), Metafold X 2022, Video Loop, Editions of 3+1, Widescreen Version 4K. Courtesy Artemis Gallery

At the World Government Summit in Dubai in February 2023, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched the world’s first governmental future readiness index to assess Dubai’s preparedness to seize new opportunities and overcome future challenges. It is the latest move in Dubai’s ambition to be 10 times ahead of other leading global cities in all fields. 

When it comes to technology, smart innovation and the emergence of the digitised era, the city has long been preparing. In 2015, the government launched the Digital Dubai strategy, which aimed to transform Dubai into a smart city by 2021. Thanks to the city’s embrace of digital technology, combined with a robust economy, tax breaks and a central global location, this digital strategy not only transformed the lives of Dubai residents already but attracted a whole new community to its shores – those involved in cryptocurrency, Web 3.0 and NFTs. 

Digital adoption and adaptation was at its height in 2021 and happened quite naturally, so the aim of the Digital Dubai Strategy was a prescient forecast. Dubai Multi Commodities Centre’s Crypto Centre saw a 23% increase in annual company registrations during 2021 and it was also the year of the NFT – or non-fungible token – boom in art. This digital art boom was sparked by the artist Beeple, who skyrocketed to become one of the top three most valuable living artists with the sale of his photographic collage Everydays: The First 5000 Days for $69m at Christies. 

Although heavily derided by many at the outset, the art market is slowly adapting to the fact that NFTs are here to stay. This is most evident with the rise of institutional acquisitions of digital art as NFTs around the world. LACMA, the British Museum and Buffalo AKG Art Museum now all have NFTs in their inventories and in February 2023, Le Centre Pompidou added 13 NFT artists to its collection.

As the global art community scrambled to find their position on this new phenomenon, Dubai acted quickly. Dubai Virtual Asset Law came into effect on 11 March 2022 and launched the Dubai Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority, or VARA. On the very same day, Art Dubai opened to the public with a brand-new 18-strong gallery section dedicated to digital art, becoming the first art fair in the world to do so.

Alexis Christodoulou, All Things Must Pass. UAE NFT

Chris Fussner, Web3 consultant for Art Dubai and curator of the inaugural Art Dubai Digital says: “For any city that has any interest in growing its financial sector, it is in their best interest to support innovation and that is what we see in Dubai. As Dubai becomes a stronger economic centre, it continues to build a stronger cultural framework for crypto and digital art.”

Fussner also said that the fair’s introduction of the digital section was not just a reaction towards wide-scale digitisation but about the broader result of this digital art trend – the birth of a new generation of collectors.

“As we know, digital art and new media have been around for more than two decades but severely neglected as a medium because of the lack of a way to assign commercial value,” says Fussner. “Prior to NFTs, the main market for new media was through institutions or technology companies – private collectors were like unicorns. But NFTs solved some core issues in terms of ownership, authenticity, and even though it was eventually expected that new media collectors would eventually come into the fold, NFTs accelerated that process.”

This acceleration also echoes the speed at which things develop in the digital era, whether that be the fundamental technology powering the industry, the growth and strengthening of communities, or attitudes towards collecting intangible assets. Through blockchain technology, NFTs enable a digital file to be authenticated, have a record of ownership and transactions attached to it and, most importantly, retain its value.

Benedetta Ghione, executive director of Art Dubai, said the introduction of a digital section to the fair made sense in this environment, but that it was “important to get the balance right between following trends in the market and demystifying the space”. She added that the digital section was not formed to address the NFT medium specifically, but rather to take an annual “look at the digital art landscape and the key players and changing habits within it.”  Crucially, its remit is to go beyond the hype. “A particularly important element was getting the right balance between the more traditional bricks and mortar gallery models – who might be familiar with the way a commercial art fair like Art Dubai operates – and giving a spotlight to the DAOs [Decentralised Autonomous Organisations], artists and collectives, as well as the institutions and digital-first galleries that are impacting and breaking down the structures and practices of the art world,” she says.

This open-door policy to new creators, thinkers, engagers and collectors in the digital space mirrors the future-facing agility of Dubai as a city but also reflects the team behind Art Dubai, who have developed the fair into an institution over the past 16 years. Fussner says: “I’ve been going to Art Dubai since 2019 as an exhibitor and now work with them on the consultancy side so I understand the depth of the fair. They are laying essential groundwork, addressing not just the commercial aspects but the non-commercial aspects in the creative space. Now Art Dubai is the epicentre of Dubai’s Art Season, and the digital section shows the fair’s and the city’s position as a hub for the emergent crossover of art and technology.”

Raphael, Welcome, 2023. Animated NFT. Courtesy of MORROW collective

Perhaps, if it were not for the combination of all these things, Art Dubai Digital may not have happened. “It is sort of a perfect storm,” Fussner continues. “You couldn’t really do this in many other cities. First there is the base economic interest in the overarching industry of technology and then the strong cultural framework that the government has prioritised. I think only Dubai and New York have the ideal conditions to embrace the digital art movement.”

In 2023, as the initial tidal wave of NFT frenzy has subsided and the crypto market continues to fluctuate, it is the strong foundations of Dubai’s digital strategies around the virtual economy and its growing presence in the metaverse, that will ensure Art Dubai Digital’s survival. 

Clara Che Wei Peh, curator of Art Dubai Digital 2023 and founder of the art community and resource hub, NFT Asia, says: “In terms of what the section is able to achieve in bringing artists, collectors, and different art worlds together to appreciate digital and new media art, I think the fair is in a league of its own. In addition, many of the crypto-native events and conferences have been concentrated in the US and Europe, and only more recently have we been seeing some events and happenings centring in Asia and Africa, which makes it all the more important that Art Dubai has a clear focus on the Global South and can provide a platform to artists in these parts of the world.”

Art Dubai Digital 2023 included 18 presentations from cities including Cairo, Lagos, Tokyo, Singapore and of course, Dubai, embodying the fair’s DNA, that gives platform to organisations across the Middle East and the Global South. As cryptocurrency blockchains and Web 3.0 emerged from an ethos of decentralisation, it is fitting that an organisation with a focus outside the traditional nexus of Western power is taking the lead in championing the digital art community. As Dubai’s cultural heart continues to beat in parallel to a government commitment to embrace and enable the technology industry, its emergence as a global digital hub was perhaps inevitable and certainly definitive as the digital era continues to unfold.

© Brendan Dawes, Persian Dreams, 2023. Courtesy Gazelli Art House

Words by Anna Seaman, the curator and co-founder of MORROW collective.

She is also an independent arts writer, cultural journalist and recipient of the UAE Cultural Golden Visa for contributions to arts and culture over the past 15 years.

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