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Lunch with Benedict Floyd at Rivington Grill, Dubai

1 March 2015

Sandra Tinari talks to Art Dubai CEO Benedict Floyd over mackerel salad and Welsh rarebit ahead of the 2015 edition of the art fair this month

Hands up. I confess. I had definite preconceptions about meeting Benedict Floyd, the CEO of Art Dubai, the company behind the art fair of the same name, as well as furniture and design fair Design Days, both of which take place this month. Having been told he rarely agreed to interviews, I prepared for an overly reserved lunch with the archetypical art type: the air slightly tinged with an avant-garde intellectual arrogance as we discussed the nuances of post-modernism. 

Yes, it’s fair to say I had pigeonholed the financier turned art-world trailblazer. Floyd’s choice of venue – the laidback, somewhat irreverent Rivington Bar & Grill at Dubai’s charming Souk Madinat Jumeirah – was the first clue that I might have been too hasty to reach any conclusions about him, and within minutes of meeting the co-founder of the Middle East’s preeminent art fair, I breathed a sigh of relief. Relaxed, jovial and self-deprecating, Floyd is a delightful lunch companion.

“It’s good old traditional British grub,” says the former Londoner when quizzed on the venue choice. “Not that I really know what traditional British grub is anymore, I’ve lived abroad for so long. I’m told it’s now curry?” For lunch he lingers over choosing shepherd’s pie but instead opts for a mackerel salad, followed by the Welsh rarebit. 

“I’ll have shepherd’s pie. That sounds good, it’s good, traditional English fare,” he says, before hesitating and then changing his mind. “Actually, you’ll stereotype me as an English fool so, no, I’ll have the Welsh rarebit instead…the blushing bunny!” 

Having lived abroad for 10 years now, Floyd is preparing for a visit home the day after our lunch, having just jetted in from Paris the day before, where he visited Art Paris. Such is the international nature of the art scene today, he is a seasoned and frequent flyer. He also spends a great deal of time at Souk Madinat Jumeirah, which plays host to Art Dubai each year. 

Now in its ninth year, the fair will run from March 18 to 21, with a diverse line-up of 90 regional and international galleries exhibiting across three core programmes: Contemporary; Modern, which is devoted to masters from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia; and Marker, a curated section of art spaces that focuses on a differing theme or geographical location annually. This year, Marker’s focus is Latin America.

While an investment banker seemingly makes for a surprising art fair CEO, it is Floyd’s business expertise that has seen Art Dubai’s fairs and education programmes expand, as he brings in best-in-class creatives and art and design professionals to Dubai to lead the organisation’s diverse schedule. “I’ve always been interested in the creative fields, but I’m always nervous to say I have an in-depth knowledge of the arts and design, which we deal with, because I’m surrounded by so many people who have so much knowledge, but it’s definitely something that I’ve always been interested in,” he says. 

An accidental Dubai resident, Floyd had originally migrated to Sydney, but he landed in Dubai not long after, in 2006. Drawn to the city’s opportunities and interconnectedness with the rest of the world, the then investment banker decided to stay on and work for the Dubai Gold & Commodity Exchange. However, with an appreciation for art and a simple idea, Floyd and London gallerist John Martin launched Art Dubai one year after the financier’s move to the UAE. 

Almost a decade on, the event attracts more than 25,000 visitors annually and has been credited with kick-starting what is now a thriving arts scene in the emirate and the wider region. “It was a very small little acorn of an idea,” says Floyd. “John and I were at dinner one night and looking across to the houses and all the construction on The Palm, we thought there must be a requirement for art… at its very basic level, for art on walls. There wasn’t an art fair here and we thought it would be a great place for galleries to come and sell their wares. 

“It really was right place, right time. The art market was beginning to look at the Middle East as somewhere to do business. Christie’s was starting up here. Suddenly the interest we had was from a much higher quality gallery than we’d originally set out to attract. Usually it takes a long time for an art fair to build up its roster of galleries, but we were receiving inquiries from people who we really didn’t think would be inquiring in the first year.” 

Floyd pauses as our meal is served. As well as the mackerel salad and the Welsh rarebit, chefs Scott Stokes and Martin Benson have prepared a couple of extra dishes: a prawn cocktail and the classic shepherd’s pie. Floyd is as taken with his mackerel salad as I am with the light, zesty and refreshing prawn cocktail. “This is really quite good,” he says. Salads devoured, Floyd continues, describing how Art Dubai later partnered with the Dubai International Financial Centre. 

He says the financial freezone’s investment has enabled Art Dubai to become a global event, which now attracts speakers, artists and personalities from across the art world, and has been credited with providing an international platform for the local and regional arts community. “Dubai’s art scene has grown organically. Some people have said that Art Dubai started the art scene here. That’s categorically untrue. There was an arts scene before we got here and a strong heritage culture, as there is in many cities. I think what we did was bring the focus on the contemporary art-side,” says Floyd. 

“There were already galleries here. The Third Line, for example. Christie’s started here the same year. So we all started at the same time and I think we all probably saw the opportunity. I think to a certain extent, we were quite lucky. Mind you, in the global crisis we weren’t so lucky, but it’s give and take. I certainly couldn’t think of a better city to start an art fair; it’s Dubai’s positioning, its place as a global hub that allows us to do what we do.”

While clearly comfortable and content with his lot, the businessman remains ambitious despite his easy-going nature. An entrepreneur, he says he is drawn to the creative side of business, particularly in the development of new projects. “It’s the creating that I enjoy. The word used to be entrepreneur, I think now they use ‘innovation’. Either way it’s creating something new, the being part of something new that I enjoy,” he says. 

“Very early on Art Dubai showed potential to grow, so I decided to say goodbye to finance. My background wasn’t the arts side, but my partner, John Martin, brought that speciality, that art knowledge. I’m not really sure what knowledge I brought, but I persuaded him to do it,” Floyd continues, laughing self-deprecatingly.

Surprisingly, he says that it was working in derivatives that introduced him to the creativity of business development. “It was actually with my job at Credit Suisse all those years back that I found the love for the creative side of growing businesses. The bank was really a pioneer in derivatives and the creative environment that I worked in I fell in love with. I know derivatives don’t have a great name now but at the time it wasn’t so bad. It was actually around 2004 when the creative, entrepreneurial side had gone out of the market that I decided I wanted to move,” he says. 

Floyd has since steered Art Dubai to a place in the top eight art fairs in the world in terms of content, and the event has forged a reputation as a fair of diversity and innovation. “Art Dubai attracts galleries from all over the world to the Madinat to show their artists. What makes it unique is that it’s the most globally diverse art fair of all the international fairs. We’re not as big as Art Basel but we are more diverse; I think we have 40 countries exhibiting this year, which very much reflects Dubai’s position as a global hub,” he says.

“Our model is to show great art by great artists and we’re not interested in showing art that you can see at other art fairs because if they don’t see something new, why else would people get on a seven to 16-hour flight to come to Art Dubai. You need to show people something different. We are different in that we are a fair of discovery.” 

With a strong community and education programme, through Campus Art, The Abraaj Group Art Prize, AiR Dubai and Art Dubai Commissions, Art Dubai’s philosophy is also to nurture and help grow the arts community in Dubai and the region, through investment and in providing an opportunity to showcase works. 

More than 81 collector and museum groups attended the event last year and received chaperoned tours of not only Art Dubai programmes but to many of Dubai’s galleries and communities to gain a sense of what is happening culturally in the region. The new creative-oriented Dubai Design District (D3) will be on the agenda this year. 

“If we are to grow the art scene here, we need to give back and to keep collaborating with everyone in the city. It would be very short term of us to not focus on helping to educate the next generation of artists. We are a commercial fair, like all other art fairs, so of course developing the arts scene here benefits us, but it also helps us to attract [people to Art Dubai],” says Floyd. 

The success of Art Dubai has proven a catalyst for Dubai’s weeklong Art Week, during which Floyd’s team also stages Design Days from March 16 to 20. Design Days is billed as the leading fair in the Middle East and South Asia dedicated to collectible and limited edition furniture and design objects. The event complement’s Art Dubai’s other large-scale fair, Downtown Design, which takes place each November in the heart of Dubai. 

For Floyd, the programmes and fairs presented by Art Dubai aim to be inclusive, and while obviously targeting creative professionals, he says anyone with an interest in art and design will find something for them. “If you look at Art Dubai and you look at what we do in that Art Week in March, including Design Days, you can expect the same audience as you would in a museum. There is something there for everyone – from the social occasion of the preview opening night, to the programme content that attracts artists, designers, museum directors, gallerists and just people who are interested in seeing great art. 

“Nobody should be put off that there’s some great art. People can come and enjoy the art and the rest of the programme across the week, which includes free commissioned public performances. People don’t have to come and buy art… although that would be nice!”

artdubai.ae 

The Bill
1 x Prawn cocktail (Dhs80)
1 x Mackerel salad (Dhs70)
1 x Shepherd’s pie (Dhs125)
1 x Welsh rarebit (Dhs35)
1 x bottled water (Dhs25)
2 x coffee (Dhs40)
Total: Dhs375

Images: Sandra Tinari 



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