27-30th September 2012. May be most of us have forgotten these dates. These were the days when young artists from all over India travelled to Delhi, many of them to participate and many others to see, cheer and be a part of that euphoric event, which had created a landmark in India’s contemporary art map. This event was called ‘United Art Fair’. Started by Annurag Sharma, Director of the United Art Logistics Private Limited, a Delhi based packing and moving company that specializes in handling art works, I was the Project Director of this mega event. Newspapers and the visual media hailed it as an unprecedented event. They were surprised at the kind of footfall that Pragati Maidan, the Industrial Expo venue of Delhi, received during the four days of the art fair. Galleries took a wait and watch stance and majority of them were sceptical about it. There were covert moves to thwart it from the very beginning as it could pose a challenge to the vested business interests in art marketing. They felt, it was reported openly and secretly, that the United Art Fair did behave like a huge temporary gallery, which put the artists directly to the buyers and collectors. They also feared that such efforts could minimize the role of the middlemen, an assumed position of the galleries today, therefore they wished all ‘failures’ to the United Art Fair 2012. Annurag Sharma and myself had taken all efforts to reach out to the galleries telling them that we were against the existing market system and we posed no challenge to anybody. On the contrary we invited them to be a part of the whole project by picking up and supporting at least some artists who were featured the first edition of the United Art Fair. Though I had made some declarations beaming with self confidence that I could help the artists to cross a desert without the help of a camel (more about it in the coming chapters), my intention was to create a bridge between the artists who were not represented by the galleries and the mainstream galleries. I conceived the UAF 2012 not only as an one point shopping plaza for a variety of art works but also as a pick up point for the galleries. But galleries were sceptical about it. But they could not resist once the fair started; most of the galleries came to ‘pay a visit’ and were flabbergasted by the sheer scale of the fair and the huge body of good works. But things went wrong once the first edition of United Art Fair was over. Annurag Sharma ran into a huge financial loss. I walked out of the organization.
It sounds very simple. But the story of the United Art Fair 2012 is very complex. Complex stories always have some dramatic beginning and more histrionics filled endings. Let me start this series on the United Art Fair 2012 with a couple of dramatic scenes.
(Annurag Sharma , Photo. Gireesh GV)
Location: The conference room of the United Art Fair office at the Gopinath Market, Delhi Cantonment.
Date: 3rd October 2012.
Purpose of meeting: De-briefing the pros and cons of the United Art Fair 2012.
Till 25th September 2012, this conference room was one of the most active places in any of Delhi’s private institutions. But on that day a pall of gloom loomed large over everybody’s head. Annurag Sharma accompanied by his wife (one of the directors of the United Art Fair 2012) sat in absolute silence which was more frightening for the rest of the team members than comforting. On the opening day itself of the fair complaints were pouring in. Some artists did not find their works at all in display. Most of the people who came for the opening, including the press reporters found the absence of labelling quite baffling. The immediate verdict was this: The fair is good but there is a huge organizational failure. The media that has been supporting the UAF 2012 with half page articles turned around and became bitter critics. One of the online art journalists literally trashed the fair (more about it in the coming chapters). While the participating artists, at least majority of them thought it was a very successful event, the galleries heaved a sigh of relief as it could not make any money. The model that the UAF 2012 forwarded, an artists’ driven art fair, had proven to be a non-feasible model, at least they thought.
The general verdict was reflected on Annurag Sharma’s face too. He bumped out a cigarette from the packet which was lying on the oval shaped table and lit it. I too followed the suit. One could hear the heavy breathing of everyone else. Nervous team members rolled their eyes at each other. Some toyed with their pens and note pads. Some looked deep into their lap top screen wishing that they could disappear into the digital world at that instant never to return to that office again. Finally Annurag Sharma broke the silence.
“I am in complete debt today,” said Sharma, quoting a figure, which ran into crores of rupees. “Somebody has to take the responsibility. Now I want to analyse the situation. According to me, the infrastructural and logistic arrangements were fool proof. And the curatorial part was in a mess,” Annurag Sharma stopped. I waited with my muscles going tight all over. I clenched my fist and controlled my breath. “I want to congratulate Mr.X, who handled the infrastructural part efficiently. And also I want to congratulate Mr.Y, who did the logistics part without any flaw,” he paused. “Now, I want to know why the curatorial team failed miserably.” Annurag Sharma stopped and waited for the concerned person to answer.
The concerned person was JohnyML, myself. I was the Project Director of the UAF 2012. I was the curatorial head. I was not surprised as Annurag Sharma put the blame on my shoulders. I could see a sense of relief spreading across the room. Now at least there was one person to take the whole blame. I looked at my curatorial team. Five young girls (more about them later) looked at me; I could see agitation, disgust and anger in their eyes. A question raised to their team leader was as good as a finger pointed at them and at their integrity, sincerity and devotion to the fair. The girls looked at me expectantly. They wanted me to perform some miracle so that we all could be exonerated from the blame. I cleared my throat and spoke up.
In this brief scenario, I do not want to go into the details of what had transpired between the team members and myself on that fateful day. But the gist of what I said was this: I appreciate the infrastructural facilities created. I congratulate Mr.X for doing it efficiently. But the logistics team was too poor to handle such a grand scale project. They failed to classify the items they had stored well a month before in the storages. They failed in their assessment in delivering the works at the venue on time according to the requirements of the curatorial team.
To prove my point, I showed them the blue print that we had created at the conference room a week before. It had virtually created a full layout plan taking the number of works and their sizes into consideration. But the logistic team had miserably failed in following the blueprint. Mr.Y, who was the head of Annurag Sharma’s United Art Logistics Company with proven work efficiency, with his trademark Samsung Tab got up and said that there was no logistics failure in the United Art Fair 2012. He parroted the boss’ words: The failure was from the curatorial side. Annurag Sharma also did not like the way I put his efficient track record in logistic in the firing line. Mr.Y said, “Logistics never fails.” “Logistics could but curatorial team will never,” I retorted.
By that time I had decided to tender my resignation on the spot. I did not want to prove anything to anybody as I knew well that the whole of Indian art scene knew that it was my leadership with the lovable support given by Annurag Sharma brought an enormous number of artists together on a platform, that too within five months. FIVE MONTHS! But I kept my calm. Anger was raging in my heart. Annurag Sharma once again said that the fair had incurred a huge loss and what the team members were going to do for that. I immediately said that I did not want the salary which was due for that month. And I never took that money. That was the day I walked out of the United Art Fair office. A couple of times again I went back to that office, after the polite requests done by Annurag over telephone. But I found the whole situation suffocating. The people who were joking with me till the last week were now behaving like absolute strangers. Office politics was rampant. And some of them talked in hushed tones the moment I turned around. Enough was enough. In the second week of October 2012 I flew to Ahmedabad for teaching at the National Institute of Design. I suspended my facebook account temporarily. Well wishers were searching for me. Friends residing abroad even started calling me at odd hours just to know whether everything was okay with me. I assured them that everything was fine with me. Yet, everything was not fine with me. I was trying to swallow the blame and was trying to live up to the prestige that I generated by creating a brand, which in its third edition today has been bought by Indian Arts Resurgence Private Ltd.
(JohnyML, photo: Krishan Ahuja)
Date: Any date after October 2012.
I had already been getting calls from anxious artist friends. They wanted to know whether I was still with the United Art Fair. Hearing my negative answer they were worried about their works. Would they get it back on time? My answer was in affirmative. They will definitely get the works because it was with a logistics company. Even if it had failed in delivering works at the Fair venue, they would return the works to the artists. I had full faith in Annurag Sharma and there were very minimum reasons to hate him. If he was angry on 3rd October 2012 meeting at the office, I could understand, it was all about his pain at losing a lot of money. I called up Annurag and asked him to give the works back to the artists on time. He assured me that he would do so. My team members were still working in the office, most of them waiting to get their due salaries and then leave it forever. For almost five months I was continuously getting calls from the artists who had either not got their works or got the works in damaged condition. I am thankful to all the artists who participated in the UAF 2012 because had it not been their faith in me as a person and art curator and critic, they could have easily manhandled me for cheating them. They could have definitely done it because I have always been a person who goes around without body guards or security arrangements. Artists showed their faith in me.
Rumour mill was on in those days. I was getting calls from Annurag Sharma and another friend who positioned himself as a mediator between us. Annurag Sharma wanted me to be back in the organization. He said that I could continue as the Project Director but Peter Nagy will be there as the Artistic Director. Besides, there will be at least four other curators to do different sections. It was very difficult to eke out the names from Annurag Sharma as he was reluctant to divulge the names. But in Delhi nothing stays in its belly. Soon the names of the curators came out: Peter Nagy (head), Alka Pande, Ram Rahman, Meera Menezes and Mayank Kaul. I said to myself, “Peter Nagy and all these famous and influential curators took so many years to become JohnyML.” It has always been like that in my career. I start something and when the policy of the organization changes I leave it there and walk out. Someone takes my position, ruins it and leaves without leaving a trace or taking any responsibility. But somehow I was happy for the selection of curators because I thought they could prove or disprove me with the UAF 2013 (second edition). If they could pull it off efficiently, then I stand guilty of failing the UAF 2012 through ill-conceived curatorial aims. If not, I could stand holding my head high. Today, I am very proud of myself as I hold my head high especially when I think about the UAF 2013, which was reportedly a curatorial mess, poorly attended and made very minimal business, making Annurag Sharma lose his properties and high end private cars. Was I wrong or are these five curators wrong? By the time you finish reading this series on the UAF, you will have the opportunity to arrive at your own judgements.
One of the rumours went like this: JohnyML is ‘kicked out’ of the UAF organization. And ‘We’ did it. Rumours are supposed to travel at light’s speed. It reached my ears in no time. I knew the person who said it. But I kept quiet because I did not want to talk anything against a brand that I had created with the help of the artists in this country. Moreover, I have been so accustomed to this phrase ‘kicking out’. Many people have said it to me, sometimes as a covert threat, sometimes as a challenge, that they would ‘kick me’ out of the scene. In 2009, eight galleries under the leadership of Shireen Gandhi, the director of Chemould Gallery issued a veto order against me. The crux of the order was this that without their permission I should not curate any shows with artists from their kitty. I should take ‘permission’ from them to do my work. The memo signed by eight gallerists came to me by an email and I gave a very befitting reply to those who sent me the letter. The content of my reply was simple. Go to Hell. But I said it in elaborate terms. Nobody can stop an individual from doing his work in this democratic country. So I took the ‘kicking out’ thing quite sportingly.
The second rumour was in fact not a rumour. It was a fact file in the form of an email. It was not sent to everyone but to some selected people in the art scene. I happen to see one such mail sent to one of my friends in which Ram Rahman, who claims himself to be a crusader of truth, had listed out the ‘wrong’ things done by JohnyML to the UAF. As JohnyML had done such and such things and had brought a huge loss to Annurag Sharma, they have taken over the UAF. I have never seen such a mail filled with cowardice in my life. If Ram Rahman was truthful to his life and career, before he entered the ‘corpse’ of the UAF (killed by JohnyML) like a hyena, he would have taken a minimum professional decency to call me up and ask me the simple question: What exactly, JohnyML, happened in the UAF 2012? Why you decided to leave the organization? Even maid servants before they take up a work in some house cross check with the other maids who had worked there before about the working conditions and behaviour of the mem sahib and sahib too. But that minimum commonsense was lacking in Ram Rahman who today bays for a newspaper journalist’s blood for accidently putting his name in her report regarding the UAF 2014. Ram Rahman did not even care to look at the website of the UAF 2014, in which the director clearly speaks of the five curators who did or undid the UAF 2013.
United Art Fair was not my choice. It was United Art Fair’s choice to have me at its leadership. I was reluctant in the beginning. But once I took the plunge I did it with all my spirit. In the following chapters I would bring the whole history of the UAF 2012 and who all have helped in creating it as a brand. And like in a court I tell you, I say only truth and I will not say anything other than truth in this hi/story.