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Fresh canvas: Will India Art Fair be a turning point for the desi market?

It’s been a tough few years. But collectors are now resurfacing, and young talent is beginning to find takers.

art and culture Updated: Feb 05, 2017 09:47 IST
Georgina Maddox
Woven Chronicles by Reena Saini Kallat at the India Art Fair. The four-day event opened at the NSIC Grounds in New Delhi on Thursday.
Woven Chronicles by Reena Saini Kallat at the India Art Fair. The four-day event opened at the NSIC Grounds in New Delhi on Thursday. (Saumya Khandelwal / HT Photo)

Walking through the entry door at the India Art Fair (IAF) that opened at Delhi’s National Small Industries Corporation (NSIC) Grounds on February 2, one is greeted by a wooden shack, plonked in the center of Gallery SKI, with a signboard that says “God is envious of my mortality.” What is interesting about this artwork is that it does not have a label to identify the artist – part of the gallery strategy to make viewers curious about it.

What has been noticeable over the years is that the IAF has become a space to see fresh faces, new artworks and galleries sporting, if not visibly, then at least covertly, the ‘affordable art’ sign.

The India Art Fair, since it launched in 2008, has been a place to be seen and noticed. It has been a ground for networking and making one’s presence felt for galleries across India, especially now with a focus on South Asia. The primary focus of the Fair, as declared by its founding director Neha Kirpal, is ‘sales’. However, the economy taking a bashing in late 2016 due to the demonetisation drive implemented by the prime minister, has had a detrimental effect on the art market. Day-to-day transactions at art galleries have slowed down considerably.

The Indian art market began its meteoric rise in 2002, when Tyeb Mehta’s work, Celebration, was sold at Rs 1.5 crore at a Christie’s auction in New York. He became the first living Indian artist to command such a price at auction. There were celebrations all around at the time, although Mehta who was alive then dryly commented that while he was happy with this market recognition, he wouldn’t make any monetary gains from the sale.

When others like FN Souza, Manjit Bawa and MF Husain began to join what was called the ‘crore club’, there was talk of giving artists 2% on the sale of works sold in the secondary art market. However, since many of the Moderns like Mehta, Souza and Husain were in their twilight years, and some had passed away, a committee who sat on the proceedings decided it would be difficult to decide who to pass the funds on to.

Visitors mingle with sculptures at the IAF booth dedicated to Modern Master SH Raza. Since the downturn of 2008, bankable names have been getting most of the business. (Saumya Khandelwal / HT Photo)

From 2010 onwards, even Contemporary artists like Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Atul Dodiya and Jitish Kallat began doing very well, featuring in auctions and being sold to international buyers. That was until the market crash and global economic downturn of 2008. Contemporaries faced corrections in prices. It began to be said that the market was too speculative, and that many investors who did not understand the nature of the art market had driven up prices and made them unsustainable.

Gallerist Ranjana Steinruke of Mumbai gallery Mirchandani + Steinruke called it a bubble that would finally burst.

Understandably, collectors found it safer to invest in the Moderns. Blockbuster artworks held sway. Raza’s Saurashtra sold at Rs16 crore in 2010, followed in 2013 by a VS Gaitonde that fetched an unequalled Rs 23.7 crore at Christie’s debut auction in Mumbai. The late artist broke his own record in 2015, when an untitled work sold for Rs 29.3 crore, again at Christie’s in Mumbai. Works by the likes of Souza set cash registers ringing; his 1955 painting Birth fetched over $4 million at auction in New York in 2015. The Moderns were doing well and the Contemporaries were slowly recovering from the corrections of 2008.

That was till the demonetisation drive. “Artists who are not in the top league are finding it very hard to sell. There have been many distress sales where artists and galleries have sold works at a solid discount,” says Tribhuvan Deo, an artist-curator.

The question on everyone’s lips is: will the Art Fair give a shot in the arm to the wilting market? Malini Gulrajani, owner of gallery 1X1 in Dubai, has been coming to the India Art Fair since its inception, and says that on returning to the Fair after a two-year sabbatical she finds that there is an interest in art, provided the pricing is right. The sweet spot appears to be between Rs 50,000 and Rs 12 lakh, she adds.

An installation by Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha, from her Intersections series, at the Aicon Gallery booth. (Saumya Khandelwal / HT Photo)

“Most of our collectors are NRIs in Dubai, so during demonetisation we were not directly affected. However, at the Art Fair we decided not to showcase our Moderns like Souza and Raza, but display our Contemporary artists,” says Gulrajani, who showcased young artists like Sachin Bonde, Poonam Jain, and a few mid-career biggies like Chitrovanu Majumdar.

In an encouraging development, Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai had sales right on the opening day. “December 2016 was really bad for the art market, which hit an all-time low. But things appear to be picking up slowly,” Gandhi says.

Renu Modi of Gallery Espace has also reported good sales. “I am not going to be ecstatic, but I am happy that there has been an effort to bring in international collectors by the Art Fair team this year. That has made all the difference,” she says.

If one were to go by the trends at the India Art Fair, it appears that there may be a reemergence of Contemporary artists.

The Fair is seeing quite lot of interest in photography too.

“The market for photography is certainly smaller than the market for painting, but photography has greater room for growth,” says Devika Daulat Singh, whose booth Photo Ink displays prominent names such as Pablo Bartholomew, Roger Ballen and Prabuddha Dasgupta.

According to Dinesh Vazirani, director of the auction house SaffronArt, the Indian art market may have a new era of growth in 2017. “I think this is definitely going to be the year for growth. Moderns are going to continue to be strong, mostly the works that are well documented and already in demand. By the middle of the year we should also see a growth in demand for the Contemporaries,” he says.

In a time where buyer sentiment is still low following demonetisation, one big thing the Contemporaries have going for them is that they are more affordable. Collectors are finding this a good time to buy because prices have become even more accessible.

Renu Modi has reported sales for three artists of her seven at IAF, Gandhi of Chemould has sold five of seven, and Shampa Sircar Das whose work was displayed by Art Positive has sold all three works that were on display.

Rajeeb Samdani, a collector and founder of the Samdani Art Foundation and Dhaka Art Summit, says that while non-commercial events in the region, including the Dhaka Art Summit, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and the Colombo Art Biennale, are important, “what is vital for the growth and survival of the art scene in the region is a fair, a marketplace and a collector base.”

Neha Kirpal looked busy at the Art Fair and so do the gallery owners. And that is surely a good sign.