When reminiscing about the distant past, promoters or families of artists sometimes say, “And that show was a sellout.” Compare that with the present when an exhibition recovers its price if it sells 20 per cent of the exhibited works, and is considered good if 30 per cent of it moves before the curtains ring down on it, and you can imagine how prices for art have risen. But for the third year running, the Indian art market has remained stubbornly sluggish. Stagnancy continues to blight retail, and despite the promise held out after the success of the India Art Summit in January, 2011 has been slow with few exhibitions and fewer auctions worth recalling.
Not everything has been bleak, though. The Pundole house sale of the Homi Bhabha estate in Mumbai registered strong prices — especially noticeable since the bulk of it consisted of dinner and tea services, furniture, jewellery, textiles and other household effects — in India considered tainted, and therefore unusual for commanding almost two-thirds more than most estimates. But this had probably to do with Parsi sentiment: honouring Bhabha, and raising support for the city’s National Centre for Performing Arts, which is to gain from the proceeds of the sale. Despite some criticism that it might have been better to have converted the palatial home and its contents into a museum, the auction of the effects — the second by Pundole’s — did exceedingly well.
Some signals that India is taking its baby-steps as an art destination of influence emerge from the corporate nod that art has been getting, and already Skoda, the title sponsor of the Rs 10 lakh prize money, has generated excitement in weaning down the longlist for the three solo exhibitions by contemporary artists to a shortlist of three, with the popular Jitish Kallat leading the way, though the winner will only be announced to coincide with the India Art Fair in January 2012. Also next year, an edition of Will Ramsay’s Affordable Art Fair (begun in 1999) will be held in New Delhi in September, and with the attendant marketing and PR blitz, it should generate some more buzz for the art bazaar.
But Indian art will continue to hemorrhage unless its promoters pull out all stops and pour money back into stronger shows. 2011 has had a dismal showing so far with few galleries pitching in with their financial muscle instead of self-flagellating themselves about the poor economic markers. Before the worldwide recession took its somewhat late toll on Indian art, most galleries had done exceedingly well, so it’s time to bring back some of those earnings to support the market that had generated this wealth in the first place.
Tragically, most gallerists were quick to denounce artists for their greed. With dwindling funds for international residencies, art fairs and workshops, these artists’ lust for global hosannas and hard currency earnings has since sagged. Having awakened to the realisation that they need to consolidate and nurture their Indian buyer base, they are now looking for the promotional and marketing assistance that Indian galleries need to provide them, but which are lacking.
The market in its current state seems ripe for international sponsors, promoters and gallerists with their exposure and experience to start moving in and taking over the local markets to make up for their losses on their own home turf. If the disorganised Indian art market succumbs to an emerging East India Art Company Inc, it will have only itself to blame.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated