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Building value

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

Whether they build a corporate collection or endow an arts programme, companies that invest in art can also profit from it.

It is fitting perhaps that Tyeb Mehta, who came to represent India’s foothold in the global art market when his Celebration triptych commanded Rs 1.5 crore at a Christie’s auction in 2002, should trigger the market’s revival in 2009 with his Mahishasura pulling in Rs 6.27 crore at last week’s auction in New York. What many might not know is that the painting, like its predecessor, was consigned to the auction house by The Times of India group, which boasts a large collection of paintings of Indian masters, has an in-house curator, and has been raising funds to buy contemporary artists by auctioning or selling selective works — both testing the market, as a result, and continuing to remain invested in it.

The great surprise here is not that the newspaper group has chosen to invest in art, but that so few corporate houses have bothered with it. After a fashion, enough companies can boast of large enough collections — ITC, for instance —but ask them about the nature, value, accessibility, archiving details or even where the bulk of it is placed, and you might find that few records exist. Almost certainly, most companies with serious collections would not even have considered hiring consultants or curators to manage these.

There’s no gainsaying that any such collections are borne out of the interest of the company’s promoters or chief executives, and usually fade out of consciousness when the company’s reins are passed on into other hands. With that follows apathy and indifference, and often start-up collections are abandoned or frittered away — mostly, banks have been shown to be guilty of this: I know several that had announced collections in the nineties that did not survive beyond a few years, and almost no one will now remember where the works of art they had acquired then are to be found now.

This is not to say that all companies are guilty of this — on the contrary, there are too few companies that actually invest in art. In any other country, companies of the size of Reliance (choose your brother and company) or Infosys or Bharti, would have made substantial endowments to art and culture, a practice that has yet to take off in India. Endowments encourage companies to contribute to the arts without having to run a programme themselves, but which they can appraise annually, or over designated periods of time, thereby ensuring that the money is dispersed in the manner agreed upon, based on which it can continue to either contribute or withdraw from further contributions.

In India, instead, companies like to take on the onus of running any arts programme themselves — often because the chief or a member of the family evince an interest in it. It is as a result of this that the Nadar-promoted HCL has built up a collection that it now wants to house in a museum in Delhi, the process for which is currently underway. Or there is sugar baroness Rajashree Pathy who wants to build a large arts institution in Coimbatore, including a university and a museum. Already, the Lekha and Anupam Poddar collection forms part of the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon. These and a few others have begun the process of corporatisation of art in India, but it is at present a pitiable effort, especially since government institutions have made almost no inroads into promoting a contemporary arts culture in the country.

It is a point worth making again that the great civilisations of the world were known for (or because of) their literature and architecture and art, and if we are to make any impact in the world — as China has — we cannot ignore this aspect for too long. Perhaps the time has come, then, for the government to ensure that the private sector spends at least a part of its annual budget on art, something it might willingly do only if there was an incentive in it for them.

Since the government has rescinded its role in this vital segment of the nation’s long-term interests, it might best be achieved by levying a cess on companies. Since this is likely to rebound it might be best if it was mandatory for a percentage of the company’s profits to be ploughed back into the purchase of art. And while that might not be popular on the face of it, it could actually be ensured if the government gave such companies a tax benefit on the percentage on the express condition that it was invested in art or some form of cultural activity. Imagine the boost this would provide not just to the art industry but also to the art environment.

That the forced investment could in turn prove profitable, as in the case of The Times of India’s exceedingly lucrative returns at the Christie’s auction, might just be the cherry on top of the icing.

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First Published: Wed, September 23 2009. 00:55 IST