Art Fair shows Indian galleries at par with international ones
Conversing with Jagdip Jagpal, the director of the India Art Fair is a lesson in straight talk. At one point, Jagpal tells me, in a tone that suggests she’s leveling with me: “The way I think is very audience facing. I am old, I read a lot, think a lot, see a lot. I’m 54, and I’ve had the privilege of seeing a lot of stuff.” Jagpal sure has. A London resident, Jagpal was international programme manager at the Tate, a trustee of The Wallace Collection, and collaborated on New North and South, a project which established a network of art organisations across South Asia and north of England to work together on commissions and exhibitions, before she relocated to Delhi in 2017 to direct the fair—responsible for, as her LinkedIn profile explains, “the strategic direction and raising of curatorial standards of and exhibition making at the India Art Fair.”
Over Mushroom soup and black coffee at the Indian Accent restaurant, Jagpal lays down her vision for the fair, which, as she puts it, “plays a key role in the primary market of contemporary art.”
Jagpal faced a mammoth task as she took over from fair founder Neha Kirpal, who had directed the fair since it first began in 2008. Now in its 11th edition, there are new additions to the programme, such as performance arts—“performance art is one of my favourite things,” she admits— and a new selection committee from the previous years. One of the biggest challenges she faced, said Jagpal, was getting stalwarts to change their thinking about the fair. Read edited excerpts:
This is your second year as the director of the India Art Fair. What are we to look forward to?
The main thing we wanted to do was make sure that we’re on top of events, like new institutions, museums or galleries opening up. For example, we’ve got a piece from the Bhubaneswar Art Trail (a public art project featuring works by 24 artists, which debuted last November) and Jagannath Panda, (one of) the curators of the art trail, will be speaking (at the fair). The Museum of Art and Photography, which is coming up in Bengaluru (it will open its flagship 42,000 sq ft space in 2020), will be doing a preview (its collection already boasts of 15,000 artworks dating back to the 12th century to present) at the fair. We have a very heavy programme this year, partly for people to gain knowledge, and partly for people to understand what’s happening around them. We’ve also introduced performance art this year, and we’ve got people like Sajan Mani and Yasmin Jahan Nupur. We’re also working on inclusivity and accessibility. We have commissioned five tactile works, including a tactile version of the David Hockney’s (1995 BMW Art) car.
Last year, you introduced some changes to the way the Art Fair ran. Could you walk us through some?
We (now) have a concept and invite applications. We give our new selection committee, which has Mortimer Chatterjee (Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai), Priyanka Raja (Experimenter, Kolkata) and James Green (director at David Zwirner, New York, London and Hong Kong), a general description of what we’re looking for. The previous committee members (Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road, Renu Modi of Gallery Espace, and Sunitha Kumar Emmart of GALLERYSKE) have become advisors to the fair.
We’ve got a strong core—people who are fair, even minded, with a lot of knowledge. We also wanted to make sure that not everyone on the committee is from Delhi or Mumbai.
What are the criteria for selection? Do you have a cap on participation?
We have capped international gallery participation at 30 per cent— 70 per cent of the exhibition space goes to Indian galleries.
The committee assesses applications against the criteria, which is a mix of things: the gallery should have a physical space; (we also consider) their annual exhibition programme, their outreach projects, their exhibition history. Obviously if it’s a younger gallery, we keep that in mind. We try to sift out anyone who is an art advisor. The fair is for people who are running galleries to bring a version of their gallery to the fair. We asked Indian galleries to bring at least one new artist who hasn’t been shown at the fair before. This was also one of the criteria we used when people asked for extra space.
Galleries’ performance in the 2018 fair matters — not sales, but the look and feel of their booth. Visual merchandising matters. Say you’re a gallerist who has put a lot of thought and effort about what you’re showing, and the gallery in the booth next to you is just piling things up. That’s not what we want.
The whole point of having higher walls and very wide walkways (a design strategy employed in 2018), which is something we haven’t compromised on (this year), though a lot of people wanted space, is that you can view the booths better. The exhibition making was particularly good last year. It was good to show that Indian galleries are on par with the galleries around the world. That’s a really important thing, because you have to deal with people’s perceptions. A lot of people have a perception of the fair from many years ago.
What are your learnings from last year?
Last year, we had to set the tone. It was a little painful for me. In the past, a large part of the programme was people saying, ‘I’m going to do this talk for you’. (I faced) loads of that and they didn’t even ask me what themes I’d like to cover (in 2018). It’s just getting people to shift their thinking from ‘I’ve been speaking at the fair for 10 years’, ‘I’m somebody wealthy, why aren’t I being given a slot’. Last year, I had to make that big decision: Do I just let it ride this year because I haven’t got the time? And I thought, no, I’ll take the pain now and start making the changes. It’s still a work in progress. So 2020, that’ll be the one.
The art world has had its own Me Too movement—has the Art Fair factored this in?
As a person who manages a team, this is something that we think about all the time. We have a committee in place, we have system set up. We extended the definition of harassment to incorporate any kind of bullying—because sexual harassment is an element of this behaviour—and the complainant can also include male and non-binary identifying members of the team. We have rules in place, so if the complaint was against me, I would automatically step aside, because I’m their boss. We also think about the social element of the jobs of my team members, who are working around the clock, at various events. We owe everyone the same duty of care.
I’ve been very clear about not showcasing the works of artists who have been accused of harassment—look, we’re not the judge and the jury. These issues are very complex. It’s not up to us to decide whether the allegations are true or not. But we are in a position to decide is whether something, which is in the public domain, might cause a disruption to the fair.
We’re going in knowing that the galleries won’t be showing anyone who has had any allegations made against them.
What To Catch At The Fair
Apart from viewing the exhibits of 75 galleries from India and abroad, here’s a selection of events that will occur at the fair:
New York based arts patron and angel investor Kent Charugundla will talk about his journey of building his private collection of M.F. Husain paintings
When: February 1, 3.30 pm
Hardeep Pandhal, a UK based artist, will speak about his experience of growing up as a Sikh man in the UK, and why his mother is part of his art works in a series called ‘What I Did Last Summer’
When: February 2, 2.30 pm
Performance by Sajan Mani to explore the growing politicization of animal and human relations in India in a piece titled, Art will die, but cow?
When: February 2, 3 pm and February 3, 12 noon
A panel discussion that brings together artists who have founded cultural spaces that engage local communities, including editors of Khirkee Voice, a community-led bi-lingual magazine
When: February 3, 12 noon
A discussion between curators of Remember Bhopal and Kargil Museum, on the importance of public and personal memory
When: February 3, 4 pm
Three digital art collectors from India will talk about what it’s all about
When: February 3, 3 pm
The India Art Fair will be on from January 31 to February 3 at the NSIC Exhibition Grounds, Okhla Industrial Estate. Tickets can be bought on-site, or online. Visit: indiaartfair.in