As galleries, investors or even genuine collectors watch the market in dismay over the crumbling value of their canvas’ and bronzes, many galleries have pared down their operations. The so-called investors are playing safe. And for artists, it’s back to the garret just when they were getting used to living out of poverty lines.
The art-ificial boom was being touted as the multi-crore blue chip, with lists published in the media and exhibitions galore with ‘investible art’ shows of ‘bankable artists’. In a highly subjective arena were players who couldn’t tell their Jamini Roy from their M F Husain — and with no inclination to find out either — as long as the blue chips soared.
They did soar. To the point of getting out- priced from the market itself. Financial backers and galleries representing specific artists pushed the boom. It’s known in the art world that artists whose prices were pushed into the charmed league of crores actually got only a fifth of the moolah their works earned. The remaining booty was shared by investors. The rest is hardly rocket science.
This actually brings the debate back full circle: Is art, then, an investible commodity? Like with most things in life, there are no black and white answers. The bottom line is art must be for its own sake. And good art may not gallop, but it will clock an increase. How then does one decide what is good art? By the artists or by their works? Where does one put the relatively newcomers? What about art placed in gallery spaces to provoke a reaction? What about the hype surrounding the artists?
It’s known that galleries like to push their artists, confusing the buyer further. Often galleries push lesser known artists to get higher profit margins than the usual 33 per cent. These lesser-known names are whispered as if they came with halos attached, trying to make the buyers feel inadequate if they are unfamiliar with them. It’s a classic case of the emperor’s new clothes. There are innumerable instances where galleries charge at least four to five times the price of the artist.
Another reason for choosing obscure artists is that buyers often connect with known artists to keep out the gallery. In the absence of serious art criticism, the buyer is forced to take recourse to either heresy or go by what the gallery suggests. Like critics, art consultants too are few and batting for favourites. Curators have turned art dealers. The nexus has grown stronger in the boom but is fast loosing its sheen.
This is not to say that all went downhill. Perhaps the most qualitative gain was that more people got genuinely interested in the arts. Artists who had outpriced themselves — shooting within days and weeks from the one lakh bracket to two- digit figures and claiming that they had run out of works — have come down with a thud. Paintings selling in double digits of lakhs and those touching the crore bracket are not moving as fast as earlier, for buyers are chary of touching them as they wait for corrective pricing.
But it is business as usual for the stable players — boom or no boom — for it is paint that courses through their veins as their life blood.