Monday, September 22, 2008

About Art Collectors’ Dilemma and Other Things

On 20th September 2008 (Saturday) Bajaj Capital Art House organized a small panel discussion on the topic, ‘Colletcors’ Dilemma’ at the Art Positive Gallery, New Delhi. Interestingly I was one of the panelists along with the noted artist Sanjay Bhattaharya and the young art collector Anita Navani. Noted art writer, curator and organizer Sushma Bahl chaired the session, which was attended by around twenty five young collectors from New Delhi. Though I am not a market expert and financial analyst, Sushma Bahl asked me to open the session by giving a ten minute speech from a curator-critic’s point of view. As I said before, the topic was ‘Collectors’ Dilemma’, so I decided to make an extempore speech on the general dilemmas faced by the Indian contemporary art scene.

Actually after saying hello to the audience, I was in a real dilemma though I had done some mental notes. However, I started off with a sweeping statement that Indian art scene had always been in a dilemma. During 80s and early 90s Indian artists did not expect to get money from their art. What they wanted at that point of time was to get a chance to exhibit. If they were lucky they would have got some mention in some art critic’s regular column. And again providence was too much in favor of them, one or two of their works would have been picked up by some stray collector. Art collecting was all about sheer snob value, part taking the cultural heritage of one’s own nation. Then in the late 90s art market started showing kind of movement with the young ‘cool collectors’ coming into picture. It took another five years for many to actually understand that there was actually an investment potential in art. By then the scene had already changed with too many real and professionals playing their roles very well.

Now the collector is in a real dilemma. The financial analysts and the auction power houses say X and Y and Z are the best artists to invest. The galleries also play up to this scene. As these X, Y and Z are handled by a limited number of people, their works are not available in the market. Those who really want to have their works either do not get them or have to wait for many years by that time the complexion of the scene would change completely. Hence, galleries, consultants and curators together conjure up another set of artists and promote them to certain levels. The market then again gets into a panic mode to collect these artists. Speculation on certain names sets the pulse rate high in the art market. People like me get phone calls from the so called art collectors, asking whether ‘this’ artist’s works are available or not, only because this particular artist is picked up by one of the major galleries. If a very influential gallerist visits any artist’s studio located in any part of the country, there would be frantic phone calls for that artist’s works.

So I posed a question before the audience: Who is a passionate collector? Who is a passionate investor? A passionate collector is one who collects a particular artist or a set of artists for the sheer pleasure of collecting them. May be he/she wants to set up a museum in future. When he/she needs to find funds for collecting some other works, they may offload a few works from their collection in the secondary market. A real collector works in this format. A passionate investor is one who invests money on a particular work of art/artist, not for aesthetical reasons but for the financial possibilities that work offers. A passionate investor need not think too much about the aesthetical values of the commodity that he buys. At times he does not even need to see the work of art that he buys. The consultants and the galleries would apprise him of the situation and he goes by that. And like any other player in the field of economics, he knows well when to put this work back to the market and reap his profit.

The dilemma occurs when the demarcating line between the passionate collector and the passionate investor fades. These days the term ‘passionate collector’ is a stand in word for a potential dealer. He/she comes with a lot of passion, convinces somebody of their wish to have a ‘particular’ work. Then the next moment they hand over the same work to other three ‘passionate’ people like them and make their money instantly. The passionate investor too does the same at times, not even giving enough time for the work to sink in the public memory. There is no surprise these days when you see a work of art ‘collected’ from a gallery (primary market) appearing in an auction held within weeks. When the passion is only for money, we have to accept one thing that what drives the market is investment and profit.

A work of art has its aesthetic status only when it remains the artist’s studio. The moment it is brought into the public domain, it ceases to be an aesthetic object and starts off its journey as a pure commodity. However, the commodity value of the art is negotiated and enhanced through critical interventions, which these days, again are done with monetary gains in mind. It is a TINA (There Is No Alternative) situation. In this TINA situation, it is better to think about art as a point of investment, a cultural investment that would in shorter or longer terms would make profit. This TINA factor should not be disparaged or condemned. If we do so, we all become hypocrites. Artists may not agree that they are making their works for financial gains and their point also should be accepted for the simple reason that once their works move from the primary market, further gains (deals) are not shared with them.

Sanjay Bhattacharya underlined the fact that an art collector should go by his/her gut feeling and love for art. He also requested the young art collectors not to buy works according to the colours of their sofas and curtains. Art collector Anita Navani said that whenever she bought a work of art, she went by her instinct rather than the sellers’ opinion. However, Navani said that it is a Seller’s market and the buyers are often befooled. Sushma Bahl said that the buyer/collector also should do basic studies before they buy a work of art and they should be more intelligent than the seller.

This morning, when I write this piece, I ask myself, then what is the role of art writers and critics in this profit driven scenario? I have the answer; unlike any other commodity, art increases its commodity value through critical, intellectual and cultural negotiations. Though the prices are hiked by the auction houses, the real value is created through the histories and myths generated around the works by the critics and art writers. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the art world.

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