Annurag Sharma who says that the double ‘nn’ in his name is not a numerological addition but a passport official’s mistake which forced him to change every document of his life, is a man with a mission. As the founder director of the United Art Fair, the first artists driven art fair in India walks with a sway and confidence. He connects with people in a special way. He just throws a question at a taxi driver in Mumbai whether he has some Bhojpuri songs with him and next moment you listen Bhojpuri songs in the stereo. A man who has been playing his presence down in the art scene is now under limelight. What makes Annurag Sharma special? To know more read on this conversation between JohnyML, the project director of United Art Fair and Annurag Sharma:
JohnyML: Till recently the name Annurag Sharma was not so familiar to the Indian art scene. Now after the United Art Fair road shows people have started saying that the name sounds familiar. The other day an artist friend settled in London called me and asked is he the same ‘Annurag’ who transports works of art. Are you enjoying this new visibility?
Annurag Sharma: That’s interesting. I thought most of the movers and shakers in the Indian contemporary art scene know me. In fact most of the gallerists, collectors, artists and whoever wants to move a work of art from one place to another without damage and with great confidence know me very well. But I am a person who chooses to play my presence down. I have been around as the founder and head of an art handling company called United Art Logistics Private Limited for the last ten years and within that short span of time I have earned a good reputation amongst the art community. However, I am a person who believes in modesty. Having a huge physical presence and imposing it in front of people are two different things, I believe. I am happy that now people recognize me along with the name of the United Art Fair.
JML: From United Art Logistics Private Limited to United Art Fair, it is an interesting growth or transition. What was the motivation behind founding a new art fair when we already have a few of them in different parts of our country?
AS: As senior artist A.Ramachandran said about biennales, the more the better, I think there should be more and more art fairs in this country. Let me tell you, I am involved in most of the art fairs happening in India as well as the fairs happening abroad like Hong Kong Art Fair, Miami, Basel and so on where Indian galleries participate, as the main transporter. I have been a part of the major shows like Anish Kapoor and Yoko Ono. Besides, all these five years of India Art Summit (now India Art Fair), I have been playing a very key role as a logistics partner. As a part of my profession I have been travelling a lot and seeing a lot of art fairs. Then I thought it was interesting to think in those lines and start and independent art fair in India with some peculiarities that are dear to my heart.
(Annurag Sharma with Diwan Manna, Chairman Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademy)
JML: There would be at least a few people who believe that you are ambitious and want to make hay while it shines. Also some could say that you have fallen out with the IAF and started a UAF. What is your take on that?
AS: First of all I should agree that I am ambitious. For any business man who started off from a very lowly position and climbed the ladder of success in the professional world ambition is an indelible word and concept. But founding the United Art Fair was not based on ambition or material success. I have been with the major fairs and I thought that it was time for me to experiment with my own experiences. My company, United Art Logistics Private Limited has been handling art and I have been earning my bread and butter from literally ‘handling’ works of art. It has paid me well even when a majority of artists in our country go hungry every day. The thought occurred to me immediately after the recession started. I thought all what I earned was from handling art and it was time to pay back. United Art Fair came to me as a vision and now it has become a mission of my life. You say that I want to create a legacy and go. Yes, I want to create a legacy.
JML: Shall I call you the Robin Hood of Art Fairs?
AS: That sounds good especially when I imagine myself in those interesting clothes, snatching goods away from the wealthy and distributing amongst the poor. But I am not a Robin Hood of Art Fairs. I am not here to take anything away from anybody. Of course, I have all the intentions to give away goods to the artists. But then you may ask why there is an entry fee of Rupees Thirty Five Thousand. It has an absolutely different logic and it is a business model. Besides, this is an artist driven fair where I have to stick to certain parameters.
JML: Could you please explain your logic of taking money from the artists and calling it an Artists Driven Art Fair?
AS: Let me put it in this way: I am giving away the booths or wall space free to the artists. Or I am asking them to register with a meagre amount and participate. Both the scenarios would bring a confused art fair into being. There would be a rush to participate and as it is free most of the people would take it for granted. The implementation of fee is based on cost effectiveness. Though for many of the artists Rupees Thirty Five Thousand might sound unaffordable. But as we are offering them all kinds of promotional activities, they should consider this money as their investment as professional artists to ensure a good career. If you consider your works would fetch you some money, then you should think about investing a bit for making that process smooth.
(Connecting with people is one strong point of Annurag Sharma)
JML: Why do you call UAF an Artists Driven Art Fair?
AS: Art Fairs follow different models. Some are gallery driven and some prefer a mixed model. United Art Fair wants the artists to be the stars of the fair. They could hire booths and present their works. They could negotiate with the art world personalities directly.
JML: Are there many fairs like UAF in the world?
AS: In a gallery driven art scene anywhere in the world, this is not a sustainable model. However, small scale artists driven fairs do take place in different parts of the world. But such a large scale initiative is something new. United Art Fair is going to take place in the internationally acclaimed expo venue, Pragati Maidan.
JML: Do you think that the galleries will keep away from this model and even fear that you are going to damage their business model?
AS: As I mentioned elsewhere, I am here to do my business not to undercut anybody else’s business. In fact, United Art Fair is going to be a positive change in our gallery circuit. First of all the galleries could take a backstage and support the young and upcoming artists by projecting their name in the art world. Let all the glory go to the artists as they are the prime producers of value in this scene. Besides, galleries could make use of UAF as a venue to pick and choose potential artists hailing from different parts of our country. Also it could be an one point meeting place for one and all including the international museum/gallery personalities to see a great variety of Indian contemporary art.
JML: Do you think this approach is sustainable?
AS: You are my project director now doubling up as an interviewer and you are quite aware of its sustainability. Like any business model, it is not imperative that we make profit in the first edition. United Art Fair is going to be a series of editions slated to take place in September every year and I can clearly see that in three years time it would be one of the most successful Fair models. And I am sure one day I will be able to invite artist without any entry free. I could just employ a panel of judges and select artists for the booths. That is my dream.
(Franck Barthelemy, JohnyML and Annurag Sharma in the Bangalore UAF Artists Meet)
JML: While doing the road shows we both heard that United Art Fair is poor artists’ fair. How do you respond to that?
AS: I am proud to be called the founder of a poor artists’ fair. But what do they mean by poor? Are the artists poor? Or the fair poor? Or it is a poor fair for poor artists? What is the parameter of judging poverty and richness? I just don’t understand this snobbishness of many people. Forget them and let us confront the reality. I am pained to see a lot of artists who cannot afford to participate in an art fair like this because they do not have money. I don’t call them ‘poor’ artists. They lack in material means. Most of the rich artists today were materialistically ‘poor’ once. Materialistic poverty is just a temporal issue. And what about ‘poor’ fair...hmm I am shelling out around Rupees ten crores to create a poor art fair with all international quality facilities.
JML: I have observed one thing when we were travelling in Baroda; you became emotional after seeing around hundred and fifty young artists who have not yet hit the bull’s eye. You even declared that you would make this fair a ‘free’ affair? Why you got so emotional?
AS: My story is a bit different from many art gallerists or fair personalities. I started off as a courier boy. At the age of sixteen, still in school final, I was forced to eke out a living by doing odd jobs. I went to the Blue Dart office and asked for a job. They liked my forthrightness. They employed me as a courier boy. I used to carry huge bundles on my shoulders climb those steep stairs of the buildings in hot humid afternoons. I was a quick problem solver (which still I am) and had a great acumen to find out business opportunities. This brought me into ken of my bosses. By the time I graduated I was almost heading the business operations of this company in Delhi. Then by the new millennium I thought it was time to try out something of my own and United Art Logistics Private Limited was established. The years followed were eventful and I have already started writing a book in Hindi. That would reveal all about my tryst with the art world.