Why Indian Galleries are Planting Firm Roots at Art Fairs

by Deepika Sorabjee

Apparao Galleries Booth at Art Futures section at Art HK 2011, Image courtesy: Bhavna Kakar

The India Art Summit took place on the 20to 23 of January in New Delhi. On its third run it had 84 galleries from around the world participating.  An unprecedented footfall of 128,000 saw business soar from the previous year. It’s at fairs that real business seems to get done and in the last few years, Indian galleries have been increasingly making their mark around the world.

Art critic Geeta Kapur in her interview with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Khoj Marathon pointed out the failure of repeated attempts by the art community to convince the government regarding establishing credible art institutions. Yet within 3 years, an independently run art fair in India, the most venal aspect of the art world, has taken its place centre stage. She decried this phenomenon.

Art fairs can be less than soul lifting.  Crammed into booths, it’s a bit daunting to encounter art away from its pristine setting in an art gallery or museum. The artwork has to hold it’s own surrounded by hundreds of other works perhaps not in its genre. The focus is strongly on the commercial aspect and can put off many an art aficionado. Yet art fairs have taken a firm root in the art calendar. Why?

Looking outwards

When you are a gallery in India but have a growing market abroad, or show the kind of art that appeals mainly to foreign buyers, what do you do? Open a branch abroad, like the erstwhile Bodhi Art Gallery did, and blazed a fiery but shortlived trail across Singapore, New York and Berlin? This is not an economically viable option for most galleries. Instead, they are increasingly hopping onto the art fair bandwagon.

As is independent Indian cinema outside of the Bollywood mainstream. From Berlin to Toronto, Venice to Cannes, it is reaching out to a wider global audience through film festivals. The appeal of this stream of cinema is limited as yet in India, so filmmakers look towards festivals abroad for buyers and distributors. Vikramaditya Motwane’s ‘Udaan’ fresh from Cannes secures a surer home release; Dev Benegal’s ‘ Road, Movie’ from Cannes and Tribeca gets world and U.S. distribution, both firsts for a Hindi film. Literature festivals and fairs too, from Galle to Frankfurt, seem to be the place to nab a publishing house for your debut novel. A parallel can be drawn for contemporary art looking outwards.

While the market for the Moderns among Indian buyers flourishes in India post the 2008 downturn in the economic markets, the contemporary market with just a dedicated small collector base languishes. Observes gallerist/curator Arshiya Lokhandwala who re-opened her gallery Lakeeren, after 6 years away from the market, “the mindset of the domestic buyer has not changed that much in the intervening years” and she still finds it a difficult market for contemporary art. Most gallerists realize that a large section of the contemporary art market lies abroad; in museum acquisitions, and in Western and increasingly Asian collectors outside of India.

Are the galleries also cashing in on Indian art being the new trend after Chinese art? Are Western collectors looking at Indian contemporary art as more reasonably priced than similar art in the West? Does the market for an Indian artist go up domestically if a Charles Saatchi or Francois Pinault buys their work? Do Indian buyers seek validation from the West.

Subodh Gupta is an artist who found his place among Western buyers through a Geneva based gallerist Pierre Huber, who first showed him in Armory in 2002 and in Frieze Art Fair in 2005 and Art Basel in 2006; in those years his price points went from USD12,000 to USD 1 million as collectors like Pinault acquired his work. Subsequently his market among domestic buyers grew manifold.

Indian artists have been included in prestigious biennales, as well as at ‘documenta’ in Kassel. These selections are curator driven which is a benchmark for recognition and important in an artist’s career. But increasingly, artists realize the parallel world of the market they now live in; that it is a gallery that provides the artist career sustainability. Sales don’t happen at biennales, they have to be at the fairs as well.

Local Fares at International Fairs:

Leading the way to major international art fairs were Peter Nagy/Bose Pacia at Art Basel in 2006 and GallerySKE at Frieze in 2008. By 2010, a record of 5 Indian galleries were at the biggest fair of them all; Art Basel.  Nature Morte/Bose Pacia (in the prestigious main section), Chemould Prescott Road (CPR) and Sakshi Gallery (in Art Features), Chatterjee & Lal and GallerySKE (in Art Statements).  Between them they showcased now regulars-at-fair artists like Atul Dodiya, Thukral and Tagra and T.V. Santhosh to newer young artists like Nikhil Chopra and Sreshta Premnath.

Shireen Gandhy’s Chemould Prescott Road first travelled to the Dubai Art Fair in 2007 and has subsequently been to the Hong Kong Art Fair, FIAC in Paris, and Art Basel in Basel and Miami. It’s been worthwhile despite all the administrative hassles. She stresses though, that to build on visibility and clients “it’s not good enough to do it once, but to keep doing it year after year. That gains client confidence and establishes the gallery’s credibility.” This is the most important factor, she feels, in garnering clients to make confident and repeated buys.

In 2009, Sree Goswami’s Project 88 was the first Mumbai gallery to be invited to London’s Frieze Art Fair FRAME section. She showed Sarnath Banerjee’s works and they were bought by a corporate collection and Neha Choksi got to share space in the Sculpture Park with heavy weights like Paul McCarthy and Teresa Margolles.

But it’s not just the big galleries that are going to the fairs.

This year, Volte’s Tushar Jiwarajka took a mix from the gallery’s program, Rajkamal Kahlon, and Ranbir Kaleka as well as etchings by Anish Kapoor to Art Stage, Singapore. He sold well; a full set of 12 Anish Kapoor etchings as well as two video painting works by Ranbir Kaleka. He says “we did not sell to Indians, rather to expats in Singapore and a large Singapore based corporate collection. Also, Singapore Art Museum is considering a Ranbir Kaleka work at their next acquisition meeting.”

Abhay Maskara of Gallery Maskara says 70 per cent of his artists’ works are sold to foreign buyers. So what was his next step? Artissima, a comparatively smaller fair in Turin, Italy, but one known to show edgy younger artists. He showcased Mumbai’s Narendra Yadav, Baroda’s Mansoor Ali and T. Venkanna.  He made modest sales but that did not deter him participating at Art Stage, Singapore.

Experimenter was chosen for the FRAME section at Frieze in 2010. Run by Prateek and Priyanka Raja they were still in their first year of opening; constrained by frugal budgets, it was an invite they could not refuse. Their efforts were well rewarded; a solo display of Naeem Mohaimen works sold well as did Sanchayan Ghosh’s installation in the sculpture park. Talking of the experience Raja says, “For the sculpture park, which was a truly ambitious project (especially for a first time fair) we got tremendous assistance. We applied to the sculpture park saying we would participate only if there was sponsorship. So they paid for shipping, installation and even part of the production work, which was really great for all of us, including the fair. The work stood out and was picked out by many curators, critics and publications. ” Bought by an European collector the artist will travel this summer to the collector’s residence for the installation of the work.

Condensing gallery spaces and programmes into a booth

The Guild booth at Art HK 2011, Image courtesy: Bhavna Kakar

Apart from commerce, which is the raison d’etre of being in a fair, each gallery has to stand out among the hundreds of booths and more care is being taken in their curation. It could be a solo presentation as was Sarnath Banerjee’s works by Project 88 at Frieze; or a group show with works playing off each other as was Gallery Maskara’s at Artissima.

Gandhy specially commissions new works for the fairs and tries to use one “recognizable” name from within her stable of artists who western audiences are already familiar with and pair them with perhaps newer artists. For Prateek Raja “A fair for Experimenter is another well curated exhibition rather than an all-out assemblage of available works, and not just a commercial venture, it’s like planning an additional show. So it’s a lot of work in addition to the six shows a year we do.”

Galleries are realizing that fairs are where you can attract a large audience to your artists’ work. Shilpa Gupta chose the India Art Summit to show a display piece of ‘Singing Cloud’ now in the permanent collection of the Louisiana Museum in Denmark; she realized the sheer numbers that attend an art fair she would not get in any gallery space or museum.  Roshni Vadhera, her gallerist comments, “Our gallery produced the work (the artist proof) so that it could be shown. However, the work generated tremendous interest from collectors and curators and we have some serious interest in acquiring another version of the work. Shilpa is now working on the possibility of that….”

Cost vs Coverage

Taking part in an art fair needs some muscle apart from the grit of sitting in a booth selling wares. The cost of the space itself is often prohibitive and shipping and installing charges all add up. Depending on the size of the booth which varies from 30 – 40 square metres it could cost between US$10,000 and US$25,000 from fair to fair. Dealing with Indian Customs unaccustomed to the variant nature of contemporary art can be tense as is transportation of works. In past years these factors kept Indian galleries away from participation in fairs abroad.

But costs of transporting works can be innovatively cut. Dorrie Younger’s Kashi Art Gallery in Cochin, has already built up a large online viewership. At ARCO in Madrid in 2009, she “created a short video visually highlighting our grass roots role in the Indian contemporary art scene. The focus was on the kind of activities we promote…public art projects, opportunities for emerging artists and curators, residency programs, contemporary theatre, etc.”  Subtitled in Spanish, it pulled in viewers.

Maskara says he will continue to participate in fairs despite losses. “ I think fairs provide an excellent platform for increasing awareness about our gallery program, generating interest in our artists and expanding our collector base. We are trying out several different fairs but will ultimately commit to a few and participate in those regularly. Fairs are expensive to do and even though we did not recover costs, I am sure over the long run it will yield positive results.” So this is clearly a game-changer; galleries deciding that with the lack of institutional support within the country they will seek the collectors and curators at fairs; this despite not breaking even in the early years.

Galleries cannot rest easy on their entrance into the big fairs such as Art Basel or Frieze. Acceptance is not a guarantee the following year, it depends on commercial success, quality of work and layout and each year a new proposal has to be submitted. It’s easier to get into younger fairs and more young galleries work their way up from these now increasingly well-attended fairs.

Art Fairs: The New Grand Tour

FIAC, 2010. Image courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai.

Changing art practices have brought in a changing audience as well. Well travelled and increasingly young, new collectors are thronging fairs more than ever. Says Raja, “The experience of a larger, newer and at the same time a more relevant audience is an ideal situation for gallerists. From the visitor’s point of view the fair provides a single platform to see much of what is happening around the world in the art scene.”

Fairs have become the de riguer Grand Tour for curators, critics, artists, writers, auction houses, museum directors and the curious neophyte. Jiwarajka says of Art Stage, Singapore, “A genius move by Lorenzo Rudolph, the director of the fair, was to mount an exhibit of the most iconic works of Asian Contemporary Art at the Singapore Art Museum, borrowed from the top private collections. So he automatically got all top collectors of Asian art who lent their works to the museum to come to the fair. We had the Rubells, Poddars, Uli Sigg, Pearl Lam, Budi Tek etc at the fair.“

City museums and private galleries are structuring their best shows around the time of the fairs targeting this incoming audience. Opening last year with Art Basel, Basel’s museums exhibited top contemporary artists from around the world. Between Fondation Beyeler, the Kunstmuseum and Schaulager you could catch Jean-Michel Basquiat , Felix Torres-Gonzales, Gabriel Orozco and a superlative show of Mathew Barney. Fairs are taking cognizance of the fact that the audience is keen not only to buy, but to learn as well. Structured within the week of a fair are walkthroughs through major shows, conversations with artists and panel discussions ranging from the state of the market to current practices in curation. I think this strategy works; one needs the break of a show or talk outside of the fair hall and these ancillary programmes are a definite added lure to attend a fair.

So a typical art fair week can be frenetic: the desperate collectors eager to get in first, VIP passes to champagne breakfasts and after parties, art consultants who have to prove their worth in a couple of days, gallerists nervously awaiting sales, artists snotty, yet knowing that this is where the viewership of their work now lies. It’s a heady experience and in her book, Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton capturing Art Basel’s machinations well ends with, “ after a mind numbing day at an art fair, many art aficionados crave nothing more than a well thought out museum show.”

Art in the Market Place

John Berger, in his collection of essays ‘The Shape of a Pocket”, says: “Those who think that art is not important, or that art is a luxury, forget that in a money culture, art stands for the genius of the human spirit…. Art re-connects what the market place tries to separate.”

Artist Aditi Singh has a pragmatic balanced view about fairs. “It comes down to the basic act of seeing, about a certain rhythm. Just like going to a museum is about silence, a slowness of pace, a fair is about turning it upside down. Of collision.  In each case it’s about re-aligning ones senses to a different pattern of viewing. To sit alone in a museum can be curiously creative. I start thinking about spaces, of images I would like to draw from into my own work – a kind of reverie or meditation. Looking at art at art fairs calls for a different movement. There is much to take in one rotation. The senses are heightened; there are unknown encounters with artworks that make sense only when one has a certain distance from the whole process. I think both have their place and both can be exhilarating. Fairs should be treated as research labs, you put everything out there and wait for an explosion.”

For the art purist, art fairs as commodity trade points will always be ethical see-saws. But purists and critics apart, there are increasing number of fairs and increasing number of our galleries participating in them, with throngs of the art fraternity in attendance. For a while at least, will fairs be the new century’s new Mecca for art?



Deepika Sorabjee obtained her MBBS degree from the Grant Medical College (Bom Univ) and the Sir J.J. Group of Hospitals, and a diploma in Indian Aesthetics from Jnanapravaha, Mumbai. She is a writer based in Mumbai and is training to be an art conservator.


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