Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Death of Indian Art Galleries

(An STD Booth in India)

In early 1990s, India underwent a total revolution; a revolution in telecommunications. Sam Pitroda, a visionary technocrat who came into the national attention with Rajiv Gandhi’s ascension to power was the chief architect of this revolution. Perhaps, Pitroda was the man who rang the death-knell of the Indian post and telegraph service, inadvertently. Indian people knew that a new change was in when they all could get a landline connection provided if they had the right documents and right connections. Another revolution was on via kitchen where millions of women belted out the sighs of relief when cooking gas connections became a reality; once again with the right documents and right connections. The ‘license-Permit-Quota’ Raj that had become the hallmark of Indian politics was refusing to go. People knew the communication revolution was in when they could make calls to their near and dear ones (even if against a racing ‘pulse’ rate) from the vertical and narrow yellow boxes sprang all over India. These boxes were called STD booths. These extremely poor cousins of Britain’s royal pay phone booths in red were low in style but high in demand.

The abbreviation, STD in the medical parlance was not something to be flaunted with pride. But when it came to the telecommunications, it attained a new status. Like many Indians who just do not know the expansion of certain abbreviations yet use them lavishly, the new STD too got currency in daily parlance without most knowing what it stood for (I just took the help of google to know what it is. It is Subscriber Trunk Dialing). But these booths that once played a pivotal role in changing India’s social as well as economic life fell defunct with the advent of cellular phones or the mobile phone by the end of 1990s and the unprecedented proliferation of it in the Indian sub-continent thanks to the competitive allowance of the private service provider companies in the market by the relaxation of government rules (which caused phenomenal corruption cases in Indian politics). The market for cellular phone became so expanded that even in the remotest areas in India, today it is difficult to see an STD booth. It was not just a communication revolution but the introduction of a new job sector. The collapse of it however brought in a new job sector providing jobs to millions of educated and semi-literate people with adequate income.

 (Sam Pitroda- the architect of Indian communication revolution)

This preamble is however is not to go further into the details of India’s growth potential in the mobile phone sector nor do I want to delve deep into the nuances of new age communication leaps that are fast making the existing communications systems rather crude if not defunct. But this example could be used to understand the gallery system in India and elsewhere. In our country, after the global melt down in 2008, the art market has not substantially gotten back to the tracks. Though there has been continuous soothsaying during the art fairs and auction days that the market has finally here, the truth is this: the market for Indian contemporary art is abysmally low all over the world. If you ask, I would say, this scenario has not affected the artists though it has affected the scale of the art that they have been doing. The real victims of this market collapse are the galleries. Though we could say that the better days would bring them back on track, my observations tell me that the gallery system in India or elsewhere will never be the same as before. Exactly the way the STD booths went out of existence, the galleries also would perhaps cease to exist. It is not really a doomsday prophesying but a reality check. Let me explain further.

Galleries are a 19th century phenomenon and it is intricately connected with colonial power, economics of looting, growing of aesthetic finesse of the old time pirates and the post-industrial individualism and proliferation of capital that enabled the upper middle class and the middle class buy works of art for keep sake. The participants in the colonial project of various kinds had collected arts and artifacts from their subject countries and also had commissioned artists to make interesting works of art. These were shown to their guests in the galleries. The collapse of monarchies made the palaces into veritable museums where the art collections amassed for opulence and private contemplation were thrown open to the public. Galleries got their names from the architectural components in the palaces where the works of art were displayed in those days. Exactly the way, the sculptures liberated from architecture became ‘modern’ independent sculptures the galleries when plucked out of the museum parlance became commercial outlets from where one could buy the works of art based on personal choice. Buying art was at once a cultural partaking and an expression of aspirational behavior. Art as an investment came much later.

(An 19th century salon in Paris)

The establishment of galleries as commercial outlets invariably brings out the fact, in fact the other side of it, that galleries could exist only when there are buyers. If we see the same through the basic market logic, galleries are the results of the demand-supply logic. People wanted to buy art and they did not know where to look for. To cater to this growing demand, entrepreneurs started private salons where they could show the works of art to the prospective clients. The salons that are freed from larger organizational structures or the state itself became controlled private affairs where people could see and buy works of art at their own pace and leisure. The very same entrepreneurs soon understood to cater to the demand they need a steady supply of the wares/works of art. That was why they started looking for the alcoholic, deranged and even mad artists who lurked in the shady parts of the city (most of them could not afford to live in better places as they were not economically productive. Even today we could see why artists are gravitated towards economically viable areas as in a city) and converted them into real ‘modern’ artists. In those days, artists who were devoid of their erstwhile royal patronage and also less anchored by the doubts they had about religious and political establishments, they were also like the writers who did ‘economically unviable works’.

These pre-fine-tuned and pre-sophisticated days of galleries make one thing clear to us: if there are no buyers the very idea of supply collapses rendering the producers absolutely ‘useless economically’. The logic of existence as far as a gallery is concerned is based on the demand created by the buyer/collector and if the buyer/collector reduces the demand or rather finds other avenues to procure his wares, then gallery as an intermediary becomes automatically defunct. If we go by the telecommunication revolution logic, we understand that people have not stopped communicating with the advent of mobile phones, on the contrary the communications became multi-dimensional and paved the way for a very vigorous economic activity around it. The same is applicable in the case of art and galleries. The buyers and collectors have not stopped buying or collecting art. They are still doing it is the fact. But they have migrated to new interfaces from where they collect better products. One may doubt this argument citing the fact that now the contemporary artists are not selling that much as they used to during the market boom days. But the reality is different. During the market boom days, the investment potential of/on market was shown exaggerated therefore there was an increased activity in the economic side of art, which definitely was beneficial to the contemporary artists. But the increase in the number of galleries in those days was just an outcome of the increased demand not a natural growth in the organic state of the galleries (of such organic nature ever existed). 

(Lado Sarai, Delhi's art district)

Catering to the demand cannot be a reason for assessing the durability of any market for two basic reasons; one, the demand could dwindle at some stage, two, the demand could exist but its focus could deflect. For example, there could be an added demand for pineapple due to various health reasons or some new scientific finding that makes pineapple a very covetable fruit. Automatically there will be an excessive production of pineapples all over the world. New products and new outlets will come up. But this is possible only till the allure of the health benefits lasts. Over a few months someone irked person would come out and say that he did not get anything out consuming pineapples. In the worst scenario, another scientific establishment that wants to create a market for apple could trash the benefits of pineapple consumption and could prove that apple is better than pineapple. The systems that have been created for selling and buying pineapple cannot be used for selling apple though some kind of adjustments are possible for a short term basis but the sustainability of it is always questionable. That’s what exactly happened to the STD booths; they stayed on for some time before saying it quit. If galleries are staying on in India now it is because some economic activities are happening around them still.  

Ask a gallerist, she would say things are not bright. It is not her problem. It is the natural growth of the market. If understand the historical dynamics, then we would understand how the galleries have been getting out of use and purpose. Imagine a scenario with such outlets that could sell not only pineapple and apple but also all the kinds of fruits with proven scientific credentials. That means, to buy a bunch of strawberry, you perhaps would not go to an exclusive strawberry store. You would better go to a well-known supermarket with a lavish fruit section in it. In the worst case scenario or for convenience sake, you either buy from home deliverers or from the peddlers. Now, if you just jog your imagination a little, you could understand why people prefer to go to private museum to make choices and also to enjoy works of art. Or rather why they look at the auction results and instead of going to the single shop send a word around in the secondary market. What happens here is those galleries that could not upgrade themselves as little museums would eventually turn into peddlers and home deliverers, but with a difference.  We have seen suited and booted peddlers who sell knick knacks from the pavements by making themselves distinct with their attire. It is almost like big shops set up their temporary stalls in the streets during the festival times in India.

(Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi)

Private museums are fast replacing the galleries in India and elsewhere. These larger than galleries are not really commercial outlets but more prestigious art hubs where a single patrons whims and fancies works as the logical thread of the collection that one sees at a given point of time. Definitely the single patron employs experts and curators to choose, display and negotiate with other museums, always to push the level of quality and brand up. This is an international phenomenon now. There an inter-museum exchange and also intra-museum exchange of ideas and artifacts. This has created a new scenario in which what is outside of these exchanges could look like less authentic even. If an artist’s work is collected in a private museum, then that artist’s value goes up then the galleries could do some business but with no negotiating power on its price or ‘aesthetical value’ as they used to do before because the benchmark is set by the private museums. In the hierarchy, you like it or not, the galleries are the new underdogs. Though it is not completely so, the galleries with a devoted client list still scrape through in business but in the demand-supply logic, the psyche of a client works in tandem with the graph of the brand value of the product. You could buy a Louis Vutton bag from an Indian showroom but when you say it that you bought from Paris, that makes all the difference.

Private museums do not directly enter into the market. However, they invigorate both the auction circuit as well as the secondary market. If a private museum bulk buys an artist, you could imagine that this artist and his works coming back to the scene mostly via some international private museum and through the established auction houses. This process sets the ball rolling in the secondary market where the dealers like rag pickers scramble through all the available and known collections to eke out the said artist’s works. To sustain themselves, the gallerists also join the gang, literally shutting down the activities of the galleries and rendering most of their devoted artists jobless and less of income. It was against this scenario the international acclaimed artist Damien Hirst decided to give his work directly to museums and auction houses rather than sending it via galleries. When art is turned into a pure economic activity, its sanctity has to be maintained at some level; that’s why most of the private museums are opened to the public, mostly free of cost because the works have to be in the ‘public domain’ before they turn into a commercial product. So the art viewing now has become more of a ‘seasoning and validating’ act of/by the public which reminds one of the marriages all over the world. Marriage is a private act between two individuals and their families. But the whole community is called to witness it because the sanctioning the sexual relationship between the bride and groom should not be questioned and shamed by the public. So public viewing of art in the private museums is a public witnessing ritual that makes certain nexus socially permissible.

 (Delhi Art Gallery)

If so what are these galleries going to do? To find an answer let me go to the opening example of the STD booths and mobile phones. As I said before, the people have not stopped communicating. They have started using new ways of communicating. Similarly, people have not stopped buying art or seeing art. Nor have the artists stopped making art. Things are happening as usual. But to make the economic activities stronger and faster, the galleries should find new strategies. The art scene itself has found new strategies and unfortunately the galleries have failed to catch up with these changes. People are looking at art as their desire to have something meaningful and beautiful will never cease to exist. But they are looking at different venues. They are looking at art in the virtual space; they are looking at the art in the social media. Via these new platforms, the buyers and collectors are coming into direct contact with the artists. The works are seen online and if need be, the buyers and collectors do not hesitate to travel to the studios of the artists or when they are showing in artists initiated exhibitions. They look at the auction results and buy from the secondary market. When they feel the need to collect art, they even get a few of the artists in camps. Industrial houses are still buying contemporary art via direct commissioning. Bulk buying is still done. More than before, the artists are at peace with themselves for there is no pressure on them from the greedy gallerists. In the meanwhile, galleries are getting closed.

Is there any future of galleries in India? I say there is but in an absolutely different way. A gallery in India would thrive only when it behaves absolutely like a sophisticated car show room. In a car show room, the owner would never come down to explain why this particular brand is good or important. The client relationship is handled by experts educated in client relations. An engineer is employed to tell what exactly the engine does. A wellness manager is employed to take care of the client needs. The brochures are written by the experts. The front desks are managed by smart young men and women. You get a complete experience when you come out of a car show room whether you buy one or not. Now you just imagine a contemporary art gallery. When was the last time someone greeted with you a smile when you visited an exhibition? I don’t say much, you make your own mental comparisons. I would say only this much, the collapse of Indian galleries are caused by gallery owners who instead of becoming good sellers became the ‘makers of aesthetic choices’.  They killed the experts in the field; art historians, critics, art writers, business experts, trained front desk handlers, archivists and so on. India has moved on. Indian art collectors have moved on. But the galleries stand where they have been thinking that their little spaces are the cradles of a civilization. Delusion has never been so strong before.



arjuna said...

Makes sense. Well written.

Rajesh K. Baderia said...

Nice article...! Gallerists in India are generally indifferent and have attitude! Fortunately Internet has brought pride for artists and they can no more be ill treated by so called greedy gallerists!

Vikesh Ghosh said...

Very well written ...... damien hirst directly approached the museum and auction houses was new to ... being a contemporary art practioner i get very pumped up reading ur article... thank u sir

Vikesh Ghosh said...

Very well written ... damien hirst approach directly to the museum and auction houses was new to me ... being a contemporary art practioner your article always an eye opener to me ....

Sunita Lamba said...

Very well written