Has the India Art Fair transformed in terms of quality and quantity? Has it become a spectacle and ritual than being a real business platform for the Indian art? With the culmination of the eighth edition of the India Art Fair, a very prestigious brand created by Neha Kirpal in 2008, we need to ask some disturbing questions and also need to find some futuristic answers. During the first three editions, India Art Fair was India Art Summit and as the name suggests the thrust was on the ideological and academic discourse of the Indian contemporary art. It was an egalitarian platform that sought critical and art historical discourse to provide adequate philosophical and spiritual backup to the works of art so that they could be converted into pure commodities. Art is fundamentally a commodity that is patronized by the rich and the affluent but that commodity part is always played down deliberately by all those people who involve in the art scene. It is a very egalitarian view because certain things have to be understood rather than spoken about. Art is one of them. A work of art gains its value in a collector’s drawing not because of the amount that he or she has paid for acquiring it but because of the cultural value involved in that unique piece finer human expression. The money is always understood but never overstated. If someone does, then just be sure it is all about the speaker’s ill-confidence, snobbishness and the lack of refinement.
Since 2008, our discourses of art and its market have considerably been changed. The academic involvement has become one of the complimentary and supplementary events within the main narrative of the India Art Fair. The move was clear and unapologetic when the Summit adopted the name fair with the deserving flair. The India Art Summit moving from Pragati Maidan to the NSIC Grounds in Okhla was not only a locational shift but also it marked the shift in the ideology of the fair and its directors. Neha Kirpal started speaking about the kind of art that she was presenting and the kind of market that these art forms were creating. There was a clear aspiration to become international than cherishing a national identity. The move was right as far as the market realities were concerned. Involving the same company that made the Frieze Art Fair pavilion for making the India Art Fair pavilion itself was a potential statement of it growing to the international standards. The money in the art market was allegedly focused on the South East Asian countries and the arrival of the European galleries, in hind sight was their effort to cash in on the market existed there. Ironically, though it was said, China was leading in the Asian market for Art, it was not taking much interest in the India Art Fair. Despite the repeated visits of the Chinese delegations, neither Chinese art nor the Chinese artists become so big in the market this side of the world despite the influence that many Chinese artists had exerted on the Indian artists.
(Neha Kirpal, director of the IAF)
The shift in focus which was forced upon the India Art Fair during the last two editions and becoming more concentrated on the ‘south east Asian’ parlance (though the organizers flaunt it as a gain) reflects a very grave market reality; that is, the international art scene or art market is not really interested in the contemporary art from India or other countries of this region. Hence, it is necessary for this region to develop its own fairs and market for survival. While the international market cater to the Indian modernism or rather the modernism from the sub-continent, may be because of crass repetitions and imitations, the contemporary art has fallen out of favor in the international art market. Deliberation in inflating the prices of Indian contemporary art works during the boom years definitely is one of the reasons why today our mid-career artists (erstwhile heroes) relegated to small time galleries as just paintings and custom made works. Anyway that falling from grace cannot be used as a stick to beat the contemporary artists; they were part of the system that exploited them and their works for monetary gains though they were willing participants to this game of exploitation. So what we see today in the India Art Fair is the last ditch effort to prop up a market for the contemporary art from the South East Asian region. We have to accept this fact with some amount of humility.
Most of the people who visited the India Art Fair 2016 were talking about the spacious lay out of the fair. Spaciousness directly translates into the reduction in the number of the participating galleries. From the 90 odd galleries in the last two years, the number has considerably come down to seventy and most of the European galleries and some of the Indian galleries have expressed their unwillingness to participate in the India Art Fair. That does not mean that they all have grown hostile to the India Art Fair. They all remain friends with the India Art Fair but the market realities make them opt out of the present fair. The platitudes like they are preparing for the fair in Dubai or Dhaka should not be taken for face value. It is the sheer lack of funds and it is like saving for the harder days. The chest thumping and posturing of these non-participating galleries who still behave as the patrons of the India Art Fair is pathetically funny. They can openly say that the India Art Fair is not getting business for them. And accepting that would help the fair to plan it differently and realistically.
Now consider the spaciousness in isolation. It is fantastic; the viewers get enough room to see the works. The areas to sit and relax are also spacious. Three tents have more vacant spaces than the booths. That is not a good picture. Now let’s come down to the fact of the organizers of the fair distributing booths for museums in India like Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai and Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi. And look at the special projects jointly supported by the galleries and the IAF management. There were around 17 such projects. There is a huge space taken by the Delhi Art Gallery on the third tent (Hall number three). There are so many booths for magazines and other business partners. If you calculate all these spaces and compare them with the spaces actually sold to the galleries, one will get a very grim scenario. Almost thirty percent of the whole space is used for charity purpose. It is not a bad thing if we look at it from a humanitarian point of view. But from a business point of view this sheer ‘misuse’ of the space is not so rosy. The shrinkage is bound to increase in the coming editions provided the art fair organizers do some serious brainstorming about the future of the India Art Fair.
There are a few things that I would like to suggest for the sake of the public and if interested the organizers also could take some clues from my views for bettering the future of the India Art Fair. I was there on all the four days. The fair opened on a weekday (Thursday). There was a special preview (VVIP Preview) at 11 am. The visit was lower than expected. The auto major BMW is one of the prime partners of the fair and it had arranged plus BMW car for ferrying the VVIPs from the gate to the Pavilion. (One should know, this is not to provide a cosy ride to the VVIP clients, but it is a different way of marketing a high end luxury car by giving a short term feel of the qualities of the car through quick ride from one gate to the other). But I did not see these cars ferrying in VVIPs. The VIP preview was at 3 pm. The footfall was still not picking up. Towards the end of the day the halls were full of familiar people from the art scene, all having VIP passes (arranged, looted, threatened and taken, begged, forged and so on) and were high on wine. I did not see many VIPs moving around. Perhaps, I lack the eyes of identifying a VIP. On the second day the pull was a little more. I could see potential buyers walking in, making deals and bidding good bye to the artists. On Saturday, it was completely the ordinary man’s day. On Sunday people said there will be a larger haul. But at 3 pm in the afternoon (a time auspicious for the beginning of rush hours in such expos on the last day) the halls were still empty and the streets leading to the halls were scantily populated. At the reception desk and the ticket counter executives were yawning. The security men were sad for the lack of action.
What was the real reason for that? Let me start with the media in Delhi. People go for an event when it is adequately covered. The major newspapers in Delhi covered the India Art Fair on a daily basis. What they covered was however not exciting enough. Most of the journalists were either parroting the press releases or choosing the same works as the press releases said. Some journalists were looking for exciting pieces of work and they really did not have the eyes to make a choice. Some of them were highlighting some kind of radical art which unfortunately were not visually catching. In short the whole reports came during the three days of the events (four days including the curtain raiser) were full of details with non-exciting illustrations. The public were not pulled in. There were not many showman’s pieces. No huge names as in the case of last few years; Anish Kapoor, Ron Mueck, Subodh Gupta, Marina Abromovic and so on. K.S.Radhakrishnan’s works were exceptionally different and good. But somehow the newspapers failed in highlighting them. Even the large scale works of Paresh Maity did not get enough attention even if for the wrong reasons.
Moving from the news reports to the ticket price, I would say that the poorer sections of the art community stayed away from the art fair mainly because the ticket price was so high. There used to be a time when students from different cities came with their backpacks and waited for someone at the gate to give them passes or they could some how afford those ticket prices. With Rs.500 per ticket, most of the students did not even plan their trip to the fair. The northern winter cultural corridor extending from Jaipur (literature festival) to Udaipur Music festival to Delhi’s India Art Fair also remained sort of dry this year as I could not see many foreign nationals paying a visit at the India Art Fair. I could see a lot of Indian boys and girls trying hard to look like foreigners in their own land of birth and failing miserably. Another major drawback is the usual suspects in the seminars. Generally seminars are attended by the student crowd or the academic crowd. But who will pay such high ticket prices to attend the seminar. Once you are inside the venue of the India Art Fair, one cannot eat or drink because everything is priced sky high. Why should we pay tax for a glass of water? The local crowd and the student crowd will not only stay away but also turn against such venues if things go hopeless corporate in this way.
The driving philosophy has gone fundamentally wrong with the India Art Fair. But there is still time to correct it. If you look at it closely, it is still working on the Brahminical basis. The well known galleries such as Chemould, Nature Morte, Vadehra, SKE, Lakeeren, Experimenter Kolkata, Grosvenor and so on are given the prime place (I do not know the economics of it. May be there is another economic side to it). Automatically people are supposed to believe that they show the best kind of art. And the best kind of art this time is also the worst kind of art. Most of the works of art looked not up to the mark. I do not know how many art collectors are going to buy the works of Shilpa Gupta, Michelangelo Pistelletto, Daniel Burin and all (I am not criticizing the gallery Continua from Italy). While these galleries occupy the prime place, the actual action is happening elsewhere. Smaller galleries make brisk business and most of the people are in those booths. Why so? Is it because the people in this country (including the buyers) do not understand the kind of art in the major galleries or the major galleries do not give any damn to such people because they are here to make contacts with corporate houses and museums that could accommodate those high end and large works?
While India Art Fair basks in the reflected glory of these few galleries and artists whose names are internationally known, the fair organizers forget to acknowledge the fact that if the people of a place reject a fair, however much financial back up it has, it will not be able to stand. In the US itself people have resisted the super markets like Walmart from their counties so they had to shut shop from there. It is unfortunate that the fair organizers think that these biggies represent Indian art. No, they do not. They represent Indian art and artists who are internationally known via an economic root. It is nothing else. Look at the Gallery Espace or the Guild Gallery. They have all the right ingredients and the contemporary artists. But they are largely neglected in whatever discourse of the India Art Fair. Is it because these galleries show the ‘bad’ art or bad artists? I do not think that they will agree with it. But it is unfortunate that contemporary art is still in the hands of a few, who in fact had contributed a lot in promoting the very same artists during the boom time and now reluctant to touch them with a barge pole. Further behind these galleries you see the smaller galleries with different kinds of works making good business. But their art is not talked about in the seminar halls or the discourse that the India Art Fair is instrumental in creating.
How do you balance this imbalance in the India Art Fair and the answer to that would help India Art Fair to move from this edition to the next. For this India Art Fair has to make the participating galleries understand that this is not a platform to sell but to showcase their kind of art. And in that showcasing there cannot be very huge discriminations. The idea that one really does not make a buying or selling on an art fair platform, would help the people to focus on working on the business relationship and establishing brands of their own. Unfortunately, Neha Kirpal has been repeating the same fault for the last few years. She has been saying that the sales have been good. It is definitely not for her to say this. This statement should come from the galleries. Even if it does not come from the galleries, the galleries should be able to present a white paper to the IAF management within six months after the conclusion of the fair saying that they could garner a particular amount of business through or helped by the platform of IAF. This could come from the all the galleries that participate in the IAF editions. Based on this the succeeding edition should be promoted. Neha Kirpal is a space seller in the fundamental sense. She cannot speak for the aesthetics or the kind of sales happening in different galleries. If she speaks she should be speaking equally about Subodh Gupta and Shampa Sircar. When she is not ready to do that, and still treats the small galleries as space fillers, the truth of the fair will go down. The best remedy is to sell the space and let the galleries make their business relations than the actual business.
Once the India Art Fair becomes a business interface where relationships are made (like Cannes Film festival and auto expos where the product is not really sold but business commitments are sought) then there will be no difference between the higher galleries and the lower galleries. The proposal for booking should be based on a white paper issued by the IAF organizers. If we go by it, the next edition will be featuring more and more moderns and the selling contemporary artists. If business is the aim, it should be based on real figures, not on speculations. In my opinion, India Art Fair should leave the platform open for the galleries to show whatever they want (I am sure they do it even now) but make them aware that the business they do is not directly proportional to the ‘sales’ they do here. Let’s go by the other industrial expos. Auto expo is the best example; the people who come to see the cars do not buy it from there. They make their choices and go to a showroom to buy it. Dealers strike deals with the manufacturers. Companies make MoUs between franchises. Governments sign MoUs between governments. India Art Fair should take such a turn so that this petty bickering of selling from there and selling the ‘right’ thing wouldn’t be a problem. It would make the fair more varied and full of surprises. Now it looks like most of the front row galleries are presenting works which are meant to go to some museums. The buyer is predetermined. What’s the fun in such art?
Lucky that there are not too many curators in this edition of the India Art Fair. Too many cooks spoil the broth. During the last few years where the project directors and curators were involved in the making of the shows, India Art Fair was a clumsy affair. Now it is really neat and clean. The other major factor that needs immediate attention is the seminars. It is a cruel thing to do seminars during the opening hours of the fair. In fact the seminars should be happening in terms of economics. It should be teaching the galleries and the buyers rather than discussing vague themes like ‘boundaries unlimited’, ‘partition experiences’ etc. It is a comedy that people discuss vegetarianism before a full non-vegetarian meal waiting to be consumed. What you talk there in the seminar halls should make some sense to the listeners when they come inside the booths. Most of the speakers are the ‘yes sayers’ of the market. It is ridiculous to see them pretending to be the soldiers of socialism.
The India Art Fair organisers could do one thing to save the grace of the speakers in these seminars. The seminars of the India Art Fair should start at least three days before the opening of the actual fair. It should be in one of the spaces like the NGMA or KNMA. It should be in democratically accessible places and there should not be any entry fee so that students and the young crowd could attend the sessions. Only because the BMW or Yes Bank or Absolut are the business partners and most of the executives as well as the artists come by car that does not mean that art is their property. It should be accessible to the people if the seminars are meant to be spreading democratic and humanitarian values. Bottles of water and basic tea and biscuits should be given free to the audience. The seminars should discuss the pointers of the ‘soon to be opened’ art fair so that people could engage with the works and the ideas discussed. There could be artists talk before the commencement of the fair. Academics should be treated with high respect and they should not be treated as jokers in a circus (now that is case. It is pathetic to see them grapple with ideas while people talk money in the next tent).
(booth of Gallery Continua, Italy at the IAF)
If that is the case, the booths in the fair could be much more liberal spaces, where immediate selling would replace business deals and also whatever is displayed becomes eye candy for the visitors. The galleries could show their best pieces and the viewers could connect with exhibits as they have some kind of an intimation about what they are going to see. The fake show off of being important in this world shown by art people should be completely wiped off by the sheer presence of the art loving people coming back into the tents of the India Art Fair. People should come to the booths and ask questions to the artists while the business deals could be struck on the white leathered sofas. People would reject India Art Fair because they are no longer able to see the Indian works of art. The foreign galleries are deserting this platform because they know that the business of their wares is not really here. If there is a market for the moderns as evidenced by the present edition of the IAF (and also by the activities of the auction houses), then that is a marker for the growing interest in the provincial and the regional, and even the national. People will take interest in the works of art by our artists if they do the art of this earth. This does not mean that they should be ‘nationalistic’ and narrow in a parochial sense. They should be global by highlighting their local traits in their aesthetical expressions. How long are we going to produce our own Jeff Koons, our own Chapman Brothers, our own Tracy Emins and Shirin Neshats and Marina Abromovics and even our own Yoko Onos? Make our own contemporary art. Make our own global art. And be proud of being world citizens. Make art a part of the people, if not, the India Art Fair is bound to fail.