The art market is slowly bouncing back and gaining strength, and with it the punters are returning. Despite the somnolent summer recess in India (the action during that period having shifted to the West), the last few months have seen some of the euphoria of 2005-08 being revived, with entrepreneurs sniffing an opportunity and eyeing art as the big-ticket prospect for their futures. While existing players continue to be cautious in terms of growth, a mid-year review shows some big gains in art prices at the auctions; tie-ups with international galleries for exhibitions in some of the world’s leading art capitals (prepare for announcements over the next few months); at least one more auction house being added in Mumbai; K-MOMA on schedule for Kolkata; and existing galleries consolidating their hold on their collector bases with branches across the suburbs or in other cities on the cards. And while the international market may have detoured from the Indian to the West Asian (or Islamic) art bazaar, that fling is likely to be a short-lived affair.
It’s an environment ripe with entrepreneurial plans. Enough new blood is backing it, and this time the buzz isn’t about traditional businesses or art funds as much as about newer opportunities that will drive the market into untapped areas and pockets. These (mostly) youngsters are dipping into capital resources seduced by promises of profits based on PowerPoint presentations, strategies and deliverables — Wall Street jargon that makes an uncomfortable alliance with the creative world that artists inhabit, no matter how market savvy the younger generation may be said to be.
Still, there’s a stumbling block to their ambitions that are based invariably on “younger artists” or “emerging stars”. “Who,” I’ve been asked by at least a dozen hopefuls in the last dozen weeks, “will the next Raza and Husain be?” The corollary to that question is always, “Who will identify these new Razas and Husains?”
That question — or those questions — mark the transition phase of Indian art from talent (“isn’t it assumed?”) to the market where value alone is king. In asking where the next batch of masters will be hatched, these youngsters are anticipating not a new blitzkrieg of genius but returns on their investment. To state the truism that the next batting order to follow will be from the already acknowledged middle order may appear somewhat obvious, but what these market players want is for someone to identify — and hand over to them on a salver — a list of names from among those who have just started to practice their craft. In other words, a surety that the kid who walked out of art school yesterday but will be the equivalent of Picasso by 2030.
This short-circuiting of the perseverance (and pain) and performance (and experimentation) of art created credible harm at the turn of the millennium when contemporary artists were lauded not just as the next stars but ranked and valued on par with or higher than the proven masters. The recession burst the art bubble and became a fortunate excuse for a market that might have found egg on the faces of promoters who had created false values and unsustainable markets for artists with barely a decade of art practice behind them.
As the Indian art bazaar announces its second coming, collectors and art-lovers should be cautious they don’t let investor hype and avarice impair their vision and repeat the mistakes that only recently put the future of an entire generation of contemporary artists in jeopardy.
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.