Art works are pouring into New Delhi as you read this. They’re headed for the capital by road and by air, from artists’ studios, galleries and warehouses. Customs are opening elaborately sealed crates, insurance companies are vetting them, various attendant staff are trying to make sense of them. Vendors have been engaged to complete wall texts and provide booth furniture, print catalogues and roll out the red carpet. Anxious WhatsApp texts are being exchanged about the availability of passes for the VIP previews and vernissage. Social diaries are ticking off the “must-be-seen-at” parties. The annual hoopla, India’s largest art jamboree, India Art Fair 2018, now in its tenth edition, opens in less than a week and as happens each year, there’s speculation about who’s showing what, the state of the art market, and whether the collectors are (finally?) coming.
An art installation at the fair Photo: Manoj Kesharwani
It is safe to assume that the more India Art Fair has changed, the more it has remained the same. But where consistency is desirable in the corporate sector, it can sound the death knell for an art fair plagued by boredom and ennui. It seems just the other day that the promoter of the fledgling India Art Summit (as it was then known) got it off the ground, personally visiting galleries to egg them on to participate, showing up in media offices to explain its concept, garnering an equal measure of cheers and jeers as it took off somewhat unsteadily at Pragati Maidan, the city’s creaky exhibition grounds. Founding director Neha Kirpal was fussy about the details and did surprise many with her level of professionalism, though was let down by the infrastructure. But the art summit/fair in rainy August was quickly adopted by the city’s social set, and the world sat up and took notice of India’s arrival on the global art scene.
Anila Quayyum Agha’s installation, ‘All The Flowers Are For Me’, presented by Aicon gallery Photo: Andy Barnham
Over the years, India Art Fair has moved to NSIC Grounds so it can be better organised, but the location and traffic there can best be described as chaotic. It has switched calendars to become a January and, now, a February event. It has battled the tedium of sameness and the challenges of a minuscule collectorati, changed its focus erratically from “international” to “Indian” to “South Asian” as overseas galleries opted out, citing prohibitive entry taxes and limited awareness for international art. Interest in it has ebbed even as its potential has remained unfulfilled. India Art Fair remains a work in progress, has been signed by the receptivity (and unfair comparisons) to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, but has held its own.
Among the more exasperating speculations around the event has been its financials. Galleries pay a handsome Rs 24,500 per sq metre to participate, but is it enough to cover costs and turn a profit? How much are its sponsorships worth? Do ticket sales add muscle to the collections? It boasted an impressive 90,000 footfalls in its previous edition, claim organisers — almost 30,000 visitors per day, leaving aside the opening, which would overwhelm the space, claim insiders, and is unfeasible. At Rs 500 per ticket, even half those footfalls would add up to a tidy sum, but the organisers have cited a dyspeptic economy since its 2008 founding to justify steep hikes in fee. While the math doesn’t add up, Kirpal sold part of the property to Sandy Angus of Montgomery Worldwide in 2011, and a majority 60 per cent stake to Zurich-based MCH’s Mark Speigler in 2016, retaining only 10 per cent of the company.
Rathin Barman’s ‘One, and the Other’, presented by Experimenter Photo: Andy Barnham
MCH, one of the most distinguished names on the art fair roster — it hosts the highly influential Art Basel fairs in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong — has been on a predatory path. New Delhi’s India Art Fair is the first of its “regional art fairs” to be acquired — it will not be renamed Art Basel New Delhi — and has recently picked up the prestigious and very luxe Masterpiece in London. In India, its presence at the 2017 outing was subtle and more in the role of an observer. In 2018, the changes are more apparent.
Neha Kirpal no longer helms the fair as director, replaced in that role by the feisty and sociable Jagdip Jagpal. Her delightful accent is just a tad difficult, and she’s prone to giggles, but Jagpal is quickly proving that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Coming from London, where she has been associated with galleries, museums and institutional collaborations, her arrival in August six months ahead of the fair has been considerably shorter than desirable. She’s as excited about India’s exoticness as she is fazed by its inbuilt prejudices, “something that I see coming from a Western society”, she says sagely.
Sudarshan Shetty’s ‘Taj Mahal’, presented by KNMA Photo: Andy Barnham
Already, therefore, she’s betting on the 2019 edition being the one that will bear her influence, though the baton she’s wielding has resulted in some changes in next week’s outing. For starters, the art projects will have a separate space and will be spun off as a separate entity soon; visitor information will be better disseminated; the talk spaces will include performances and installations as part of the programming and be geared for a more eclectic audience. And, from next year, she wants to add more heft to the moderns (something art fairs around the world are doing); diversify the kind of artists galleries represent to widen impact; make changes to the collector programme keeping in mind their interests rather than an imagined homogeneity; and make Indian galleries her priority. “For me, without the artists, there’s no art,” she says unambiguously, “without the galleries there’s no fair.” This is a departure from Kirpal’s hands-off approach from the art world.
Visitors looking at the art installations Photo: Andy Barnham
Among the victories, Jagpal has managed to notch up is the return of some Mumbai galleries to the art fair fold, among them Chatterjee & Lal and Jhaveri Contemporary. There’s excitement, too, around the debut coming of multi-geography-based David Zwirner gallery. Preceded by the Dhaka Art Summit, which gets a lot of international media attention for its non-commercial, intellectualised content, India Art Fair has now become an island around which the art community has built an impressive list of collateral events — openings, launches, art awards, talks. It may attract fewer collectors than expected, but it does get in representatives from global institutions and museums. But in a weak economy, with the after-effects of demonetisation and GST, its content has leaned towards the overtly commercial, something art fair organisers around the world struggle to regulate. In India, that struggle may continue a while longer.
What of Kirpal, meanwhile? The former founder and director who is said to be in a “mentoring” role, is managing the company’s new initiatives. These could include alternative fairs in the region, or — as is being speculated — bringing an edition of Masterpiece to India. If that happens, its mix of antiques and collectables could well be the second feather in her cap and add to her groaning shelves of awards collected as a woman entrepreneur. Famously tight-lipped, she prefers written communication for sharing her views on what was her baby. “I look forward to the tenth edition of the art fair with much excitement and anticipation as our newly appointed fair director, Jagdip Jagpal, opens with new energy and inspiration under the leadership of the MCH Group, Basel,” she texted me for the purpose of this feature. “I’m happy to have the most reputed global art fair organisers steering our fair in India, and I now remain engaged with them in an advisory capacity for the India Art Fair and for global art initiatives in the region.” She’s just as taciturn about Masterpiece. Confirming that it is to launch in “other geographies”, she notes, “We don’t have any other announcements to make at the moment.”
Maria Balshaw, director of Tate art museums and galleries, at a curator-led tour Photo: Andy Barnham
Watch this space for when she, and MCH, are ready.
India Art Fair will be held at NSIC grounds, Okhla Industrial Area, New Delhi, from February 9 to 12