“We should fight for a society where charity is not needed”- Slavoj Zizek
United Art Fair is now free. And many ask, why? Are you going to do some charity work? Both Annurag Sharma and myself say that we don’t believe in charity because we are looking for a situation where the notion of charity no longer exists. When you hand down things, for the time being everyone respects you but in the long run the receiver of charity tends to hate you. So United Art Fair, now free for artists from all over the world, is not a platform that heralds the arrival of a few messiahs with a mission of charity. Here we are with a vision and a mission. And we are here to tell the world that this model is workable and feasible. And what is this model?
After travelling thirteen cities in India, which no other art fair has ever thought of doing, and meeting the artists and other art related people, after sharing dinners and cocktail with them in star hotels which were the venues of our artists’ meet, we realized one thing: Economic recession has frightened the artists community in India. It is not that artists do not have money at all. Amongst the artists most of them have a decent income but that income is not decent enough to invest in promoting oneself either through solo or group shows or through participating in art fairs like United Art Fairs. What we deduce from the conversations with the artists is this that they are frightened by the kind of economic ups and downs happening in our art scene. They want dignity today, not money.
Many asked us, why do you throw cocktail-dinner parties in the high end hotels when you know clearly that it might make artists feel that you are showing off? Annurag Sharma told them succinctly, “Artists are the people who command respect through their creative works. I believe that it is my duty to give them the best treatment.” We can proudly say that we did not discriminate artists at all according to their status. All the cocktail-dinner parties were thrown for the young and upcoming artists. Our documentation of artists’ meets stands evidence to our claims. In fact, each time we visited a city or an artists’ hub, we made it a point to meet and invite the young talents than the established ones with enough stardom.
United Art Fair started off as a space selling model. In all our thirteen artists meet we propagated the idea of selling space. We told the artists that the money (Rs.35000) that they invest in the United Art Fair could be a passport that ensured future presence and success for them. Many believed in our arguments and many took it with fair amount of scepticism. After our road trip, we made some reality checks and found out that there was a general hesitation with the projected amount. Then we got down to reduce the booking amount in three different slabs with affordable riders (25000/-, 20000/- and 15000/- with different commission and contribution slabs). We propagated this idea through our website and many were happy. Most of them went for the last slab of Rs.15000/-.
United Art Fair salutes all those artists who got together as they did not have sufficient funds, made groups and paid for joint stalls/booths. We respect them because they were the ones despite their financial problems responded to the calls. Someone said they even pawned some jewellery to raise funds for participating in the United Art Fair. And on 15th June 2012, after a day of deadline, we huddled up in the conference room of the United Art Fair office. The clock in the office always runs fifteen minutes ahead. Perhaps this is one way that Annurag Sharma tells his team, better hurry up. We sat in silence with Shreya Magon, Nita Dutta and Kamini Sharma, three vibrant young ladies who have been speaking to artists all these while over phone. None wanted to look into anybody’s eyes.
Time ticked away. We checked the facts. We found the response quite encouraging. Around 200 applications were already in; half had paid and half had promised to pay. Gaurav Deep Singh, General Manager and head of Productions presented the actual financial status. The office clock showed 6.10 pm. Against the huge amounts going into the production of the United Art Fair, the money that had come in was a paltry amount. And most of the applications had smell of sweat, tears and dreams.
At sharp 6.00 pm (now the office clock showed 6.15), Annurag Sharma looked through everyone and said, “We are making United Art Fair FREE. And RETURN the money to all those who have applied.” Then he looked at me. I knew what had been going on in his mind for the last few months. He was taking a huge burden on his shoulders. There was a sense of relief in the conference room as the girls had been having a harrowing time with the artists. When you don’t have money to pay, you compensate it with arrogance. Our girls had faced it several times. Some artists feigned ignorance about United Art Fair, some said they were having solo shows at the same time, some said they just HATED United Art Fair. Our team members had taken everything with a smile. We have a bowl of candies in our office. When you feel really bitter you pick up a candy and eat. Our three ladies had a lot of candies all these days.
Now United Art Fair is free. That does not mean that it is free for all. We still insist on quality control. We now handpick the artists from the vast pool of artists’ data that we have. The moment we declared it free, phone calls and emails started flooding in. Now they all want to participate. I am taking the whole responsibility of handpicking the artists out of the applications. And I am pretty sure that I do not choose bad art. My approach on behalf of United Art Fair is democratic and transparent. I am not looking for that kind of works of art that as a curator would launch me to a different league so that people could say, “Look, JohnyML has produced an international show.” Mark my words, my friends, I am not here to produce an international show. I am here to produce a show of Indian contemporary art which would be strong enough to stand at par with any international shows. I don’t believe in ironed out Internationalism and I don’t believe in hegemonic aesthetic homogeneity. I believe in our countries cultural variety and United Art Fair is going to be a platform that showcases this cultural variety.
Three hundred and fifty artists from all over India, most of them handpicked by me or suggested by trustworthy friends and team members will present their works and they would stand proudly with fifty established contemporary artists whose works will be presented in a special show titled ‘Mind the Gap Now’ within the United Art Fair, curated by myself. There would be a Masters Hall with fifty works from the Indian modern masters, a Tribute Hall where we would present Tyeb Mehta and M.F.Husain. Sculpture Park with fifteen huge sculptures is going to be another attraction. Video lounge will get you the best videos produced in India in the past years. And the 28th September 2012 is going to be ‘Dissenters Day’ in the United Art Fair; anybody who has a different idea and even a critique on the very working of the United Art Fair could come and speak to the public from our seminar platform. United Art Fair offers these and many more. In the second edition we are going to focus on South East Asian and European art along with the Indian contemporary art, and Annurag Sharma adds, “And it is the same model, FREE.”
(These huge Baby Heads by Chintan Upadhyay will be in the UAF sculpture Park)
Forget arithmetic. Let the UAF management do that and make it a sustainable model and of course a worthy business model also. We have plans, very transparent and democratic plans that would bring both the public and private agencies in one platform called the United Art Fair. And we still dream an artists’ society that thrives on the notion of NO charity.