Rent, share, subscribe: Startups, e-galleries are making art more accessible
Last month, the e-gallery Ashvita’s hosted its first auction. The two-day online sale included paintings by artists from the Madras School — L Munuswamy and P Perumal, among others — as well as photographs of heritage structures in Chennai, prints, and collectibles like vintage Old Monk bottles and luggage labels from the erstwhile Hotel Connemara. Bids started at Rs 1,500.
Ashvita’s used to be a gallery in Chennai. The physical space didn’t survive the downturn; it shut in 2009. In its new avatar, it’s doing things differently.
“We want to reach out to a new generation of Indian collectors. Our target audience is the young buyer who shops online and is comfortable spending up to Rs 10,000 on items they have never seen. The kind who wants to buy a one-of-a-kind poster for their home, but doesn’t want to go hunting for it, or pay too much,” says Ashvin Rajagopalan, art consultant, curator and founder of Ashvita’s.
Similar start-ups, auction houses and online galleries based in Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru are offering art-for-hire, experimental works at affordable rates, collectibles and paintings on rent for the walls of offices, homes, clinics and restaurants.
In the other half of this picture are people like father and son Vikas and Siddharth Kulkarni, one a general manager with a construction company in Pune and the other a college student. A 2 ft x 2 ft wooden frame on a wall in their living room has a different occupant every month. The works are selected by Siddharth, 19. “We enjoy having art around, but don’t want to shell out Rs 30,000 for one piece,” he says. “Renting helps add variety to the living room. And friends and visitors are excited to see a new painting on our wall every month.”
This month, it’s an acrylic-on-canvas of a young woman twirling a multi-hued patchwork skirt. Last month, it was a serene image of the Buddha. The paintings are by mid-level artists who have exhibited at venues such as the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai.
For Rs 1,000 a month per piece, Dancing Walls, a Pune-based start-up, lets Siddharth pick a piece for hire from their catalogue. Launched in 2015 by artists Amol and Ashwini Nanal, the start-up has over 1,000 paintings available on rent.
“The rental model helps us make money from works that don’t sell at exhibitions,” says Ashwini. “It also gives artists visibility.”
A KPMG-FICCI report titled ‘Visual arts industry in India’, released earlier this year, found that the internet had emerged as major source for finding new contemporary artists and that the people buying these artworks were not experienced collectors but first-time buyers “who are spending their income and not their wealth to buy art”.
While Indian High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNWIs) have fundamentally driven high-end art sales, the report goes on to say, the more affordable segment is gaining massive traction among entrepreneurs, company executives and professionals such as doctors and lawyers.
This is encouraging the growth of e-galleries like ArtBuRt and Floating Canvas Company (set up a year ago), ArtEnthuse (launched in 2015) and Art Intaglio (launched in 2007), all of which offer affordable art aimed at young buyers, on sale, rent and subscription models.
“People who want the Razas, Tyeb Mehtas or Husains will always want the Razas, Tyeb Mehtas and Husains. Affordable art just means that a different set of people is gaining a degree of confidence to enter the market,” says art critic, curator and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote. “In due course, as their taste develops, as their financial capacity allows them to put aside more money, they might move in another direction. It’s an open door, and in a world often seen as strange and exclusive place, that’s a good thing.”
EASEL DOES IT
Most of the work on the affordable art platforms is by young up-and-comers, but not all of it. Art Intaglio, for instance, is selling SH Raza prints and has limited-edition Jamini Roy prints and reproductions from Tyeb Mehta’s seminal Diagonal series available.
As with most prints, these aren’t exorbitantly priced — they cost between Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000 — but the fact that they are on these platforms makes them accessible to a market that is typically intimidated by and tends to avoid the online auctions of major art houses.
Ravi Varma did the same with his prints of the Hindu pantheon, says gallerist Geetha Mehra. “Suddenly every home had nice-looking images of their favourite deities in their puja rooms. He became a household name. Likewise affordable prints will help familiarise the country with its artists and make it less elitist,” she adds. “Everything is going digital, so why not art?”
Affordable art is helping traditional buyers experiment with new forms of art too. A stylised photograph of a stag, antlers highlighted graphically amid blades of grass, hangs in the living room of a Bengaluru-based collector (who wished to remain anonymous). She’s renting it from ArtBuRt for Rs 8,085 a year (its selling price is Rs 32,340). She wanted to experiment with photography, but wasn’t sure she was ready to commit to a purchase.
A combination of online and offline perusing is what artist and curator Bose Krishnamachari would like to see. “Any art collector should spend time in a gallery, see the pieces, have a conversation with the gallerist, learn about the artist and their history and then pick a piece,” adds the founder of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. “Otherwise, you would be buying a beautiful, visually appealing artwork but you won’t be collecting history.”
An interesting result of this approach to collection and curation is that it is offering a platform to emerging artists from different streams. While Floating Canvas Company features work by illustrator and visual artist Sajid Wajid Shaikh and visual artist Aniruddh Mehta (he was part of the team that created the logo and title sequence design for the Netflix show Sacred Games), among others, ArtBuRt features multiple award-winning photographers including wildlife photographer SS Raviprakash.
On ArtEnthuse, you will also find works by artists from non-metros and towns such as Durgapur in West Bengal and Majuli and Dibrugarh in Assam.
Srujan Deshpande, a 19-year-old self-taught artist from Pune offers his paintings on rent via Dancing Walls, and has seen 15 works find takers over the past two years. “If you are not an established artist, it’s difficult to be noticed. Here, I get exposure and a steady income,” he says.
There are certain terms for renting an art work. Buyers need to pay a deposit and sign an agreement that states the charges – based on the nature of the artwork and rental tenure – in case the work is damaged, lost or stolen.
“We charge a refundable deposit at the time of order placement to account for any damages,” says Aagam Mehta, co-founder of Floating Canvas Company. Paintings also need to be maintained, so platforms like Ashvita’s also offer advisory services, from research on an artist to maintenance advice.
Its online auction raised a total of Rs 20 lakh from its 65 lots. TRP Mookiah’s painting, Mother & Child, fetched Rs 6.6 lakh (including buyer’s premium). Sepia-toned photographs of 1930s Chennai sold at Rs 5,000 each.
“Unlike a fine-art auction, where there are typically three or four bids per lot, this auction got an average of 16 to 20 bids,” says Rajagopalan. “We were expecting buyers only from Chennai, but received bids from Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and New York too. This shows that if you price the art correctly, you get more visibility.”
An upcoming modern and contemporary Indian art sale later this month steps it up considerably. Works by SH Raza, Manjit Bawa and FN Souza will be on the block, at estimates ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 6 lakh.
“Though we have curated high-end artists, the price points are lower to provide access to beginners and new collectors who wish to start small,” says Rajagopalan.