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Published: Verve Magazine, Features, August 2008

Over 100 artists, 34 art galleries, critics, curators, collectors, delegates and speakers from across the world will come together in the very first art fair of its kind and biggest art exhibition to date in India this month. Sitanshi Talati-Parikh constructs a discussion between some of the top attendees, in an exclusive Verve sneak preview

For all the people out there who get intimidated by art galleries and their mysterious interiors that presently abound with pots, pans and acrylic that sell at stupendous prices, and for all those who don’t, comes the leveller of all levellers – an art fair in Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. Reminiscent of melas and tousled gatherings of intellengisia on hot dusty evenings, the ‘fair’ is somewhat a more accessible term. And accessibility is the aim of the Indian Art Summit 2008, put together by Hanmer MS & L.

Going Public
Dr Robert Storr, Dean, Yale University School of Art, USA, who is one of the people flying in specially for the occasion, is interested in the “opportunity it affords to make crucial distinctions between commercial formats for showing art and exhibitions and formats such as museums, alternative spaces, biennials and the like.” He elaborates, “I have nothing against dealers and galleries, but they primarily reach an already engaged segment of the public – collectors especially – whereas large exhibitions and small ones in venues more readily accessible to the non-art world public represent the long-term hope for Indian contemporary artists – or for contemporary artists anywhere – of making a lasting mark on their country, their culture and their time.”

Why Now?
What makes it the right time, keeping aside the fact that art is the new mantra and one of the biggest money-spinners? Renu Modi, of Gallery Espace admits that about a decade ago, she had tried to bring about such a fair at Pragati Maidan and it fell through then. She believes it is the right atmosphere for an art market – it is happening elsewhere in the world, why not here?

The Outcome
Renu Modi feels that such a summit that brings together like-minded people discussing issues and ideas will automatically see things and trends materialising. That is not to say that there haven’t been seminars and symposiums in Delhi, where not much has come out of the discussions – it is important to implement these ideas in the long-term, stresses the gallery owner. Echoing her thought, Dr Storr believes that “just getting a group of active, committed people in any field into one room – artists, art professionals in this case – can throw sparks and have a profound catalytic effect on the scene if everyone comes prepared to listen as well as to speak.”

Philip Hoffman, chief executive, The Fine Art Fund Group, considers the Indian art market to still be in its emerging phase. He specifies that the size of the market has grown from $2 million to approximately $400 million in seven years alone. “An art fair could really help boost the growth rate by directly involving galleries and artists alike, getting collectors and investors on site and by generating general interest.”

Going Global
Dr Hugo Weihe, international director, Asian Art, Christies, sees Indian art as becoming increasingly global, India and all things Indian occupying a new pride of place, while Peter Nagy, Nature Morte, feels that the best of Indian art is already truly global, but also thinks that Indian culture, as a whole, is becoming more relevant and important to the entire world. Nagy deliberates that while this also has to do with economic and political influence, interest in contemporary Indian art is also a natural extension of the increased globalisation of the art world.

Philip Hoffman, who agrees with Nagy in the sense that the Indian art scene is already global, believes that modern and contemporary Indian art has long been undervalued as compared to other areas of the art market, and with the boom of the financial markets, real estate and all other asset classes in India, many new art collectors are establishing themselves and purchasing works from artists of similar heritage. “We believe there is a high level of creativity and talent in India, which is going to make this market move even further, and with continued global exposure in 2008, we think that this is the right time to invest in Indian art.” He continues, “Prices are continually rising and are much higher than they were, say, five years ago. However, when compared to the Western contemporary art market there is clearly potential for an increase in prices.”

International Recognition
Dr Storr, who has an unmatched résumé in art as critic, curator, artist, academic and writer, chronicles the need for international recognition to validate art. “This has been true throughout the history of the modern era – which is a history of great powers and empires. Once upon a time, artists from my country went to Paris or London to get recognition. Now they stay home and the world comes to them. This will happen in India too – indeed it is has started to happen in measurable ways. The point is that the institutions in India must do the right things for artists so that when the world comes they see the best under the best circumstances, and that includes not just contemporary classics or hot new market stars but those artists who challenge art, art institutions and the public in the liveliest, most inventive and the most pertinent ways. Once that process starts – and Indian artists, critics and curators have started it already – there is no standing pat, and above all, no going back.” On the other hand, Peter Nagy, who made the move from New York to New Delhi in 1997, finds that, “the powers-that-be within India are still too timid and insecure about contemporary art to take many of the risks necessary to properly champion the avant-garde.”

“I think it is a great idea, and have backed it from the beginning. Galleries couldn’t get their act together to do this, so it is better to have a neutral agency taking the initiative. Like Hanmer’s Khushi art auctions earlier, one hopes that this will be managed to those same high standards. It is a young, enthusiastic team, which brings together good presentation, an interesting mix of people from abroad and India. Many of the top people in the art world have accepted the invitation to attend the summit. It is clever on the part of the organisers to have galleries taking stalls as opposed to individual artists. This event also brings together diverse publications on art under one roof for the first time.

The triumvirate of artists, gallerists and critics coming together is unique. Increasingly critics and curators add a theoretical dimension to the understanding of art, both interpreting and endorsing various trends. Gallerists represent the market. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is upon the creative genius of artists that the whole edifice actually rests.

One hopes that the venue (Pragati Maidan) will bring art to a wider public in a forum that is not intimidating, for those who are habitually drawn only to food, fashion and films! The summit will be an important milestone as young new artists will get a chance to be showcased along with the veterans.

Indian art has been around for a long time, it is only now that it is being accepted internationally. Today there are Indian galleries abroad dedicated specifically to Indian art. It is INDIA TIME now. India is IN and Indian art rides on the crest of this wave.

Indians do not buy international art in significant numbers. But it is equally difficult for our artists to enter the global market. It is largely expats abroad who buy their country’s art. The Indian art boom is fuelled by investors and NRIs and not so much by foreign buyers. More importantly, for the first time Indian art is finally being acquired by foreign museums. I was fortunate in being given a six months solo at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco last year and several artists have followed in various venues. It is a shame that the government has stopped sending artists to the Biennales and art fairs. Before the Venice Biennale last year, I went to see the Indian Government with the then director of the Venice Biennale, Dr Robert Storr. I just got a bureaucratic excuse, and no entry was sent officially. A wonderful opportunity for India was lost. It is the private players who have put Indian art on the map and this event will prove this beyond a doubt.”

“The summit is important in the sense that it shifts the focus from normal areas of art activity like the gallery circuit into a more public space. The place at which it is being organised (Pragati Maidan) is where industrial or government organised fairs are generally held and attracts hundreds of thousands of footfalls. It is the first time a summit of this kind is being held – it changes the level of exchange, where there is a social and public address rather than merely a controlled group of people. The summit will hopefully grow and become more structured, gaining authority over a period of time. It is also a way by which pressure can be brought upon government art and culture circuits to be more active in the field. I am very optimistic about the venture.

An event like this should be a public event, and that also depends on the marketing of such an event. Art shouldn’t be a traded commodity – or evaluated in terms of asset to the portfolio. It should be a means to enrich the public consciousness. Before this, there was no single event that rallied together critics, gallerists, artists, media and promoters. In that sense it is a step forward, a call to the world to come and take a look.

The current growth is a long overdue recognition due to the Indian art scene. It has to solidify, look at including better art education, institutions and also a professional gallery structure. There is no reason why the world shouldn’t be interested in Indian art, an art which draws from and is an amalgam of varied sources: literary, political, the social polity. Intellectually and artistically it will grow, but much more radical investment in institutional support is required. The place of art at the level that is societal and civilisational, must be better recognised.”