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Girish Shahane: The price of art

Girish Shahane 

Day One of the India Art Fair, and everybody’s looking exhausted. Gallery owners have been run ragged setting up their booths, sending out invitations, and attending exhibition openings, collateral events and after-parties. The Art Fair is more professionally organised and better laid out than ever, having moved from Pragati Maidan to a massive triple tent in Okhla. Its founder, Neha Kirpal, has attracted not just India’s best galleries, but top international names like Hauser & Wirth and White Cube, as well as smaller exhibitors from unexpected places like Iran and Latvia. Local dealers have put in plenty of effort to coax substantial new works from artists they represent. At the VIP preview, however, excitement and anticipation mix with jadedness. The art fair concept has grown central to the trade over the past decade, and now members of the in-crowd are beginning to feel they’ve criss-crossed one grid of booths too many.

Kiran Nadar, perhaps India’s most sought-after collector, rests for a while at a London gallery’s stall, while other dealers hover nearby waiting to get her attention. Nadar, founder of a private museum, has two shows opening during Art Fair week, one in Saket and the other in Noida. She also chairs the jury of an art prize and features on a panel at the Speaker’s Forum, the niche that secures the Art Fair’s intellectual credentials. Little wonder she’s having trouble focusing on the catalogue of images being flipped before her by a solicitous gallerist. In a nearby nook, an artist bemoans the bright, even lighting that flattens her delicate, layered compositions. She wasn’t aware that Art Fair lights aren’t aimed at enhancing the visual quality of individual works so much as helping buyers ascertain they’re not purchasing damaged goods. The idea is to inspect and gather information rather than absorb and ponder.

On Day 2, the ticket-buying crowd arrives and livens up the space, though it isn’t the throng witnessed at Pragati Maidan the previous year. With the India Art Fair trying to build an international brand, those who come have relatively little easily-accessible, decorative stuff to view, raising the question of whether the Fair will manage to strike a balance between global tastes and local mass appeal.

By the second evening, dealers have a feel of the way the Fair is going, and the verdict’s mixed: there’s a lot of interest, a few sales, people nibbling rather than gobbling. A number of foreign institutions and private collectors are looking seriously at Indian art for the first time, but they cannot yet provide the strong, fresh breeze of buying needed to propel the market out of the doldrums. Sales of Indian contemporary art are lagging far behind their 2008 peak despite the nation’s economy doing relatively well, while art prices in the US have recovered substantially even as its economy continues to struggle. What explains this divergence? It’s simple: an obsession with the market. During the boom, Indian art was in the news mainly for auction records. As a corollary to rising prices, exhibition openings grew lavish and hip artists featured in the society pages.

Unfortunately, most new viewers were attracted mainly by the price of art and the prospect of profiting from a continuation of the positive trend. Those acquiring work purely as an investment through instruments like art funds constituted too high a percentage of buyers overall. This was apparent to all informed observers, but few had an interest in drawing the correct conclusion. Near the peak of the boom I wrote, in a column in Time Out magazine: “The rise in art prices has been congruent with a global boom, and the crash is also likely to be triggered by global factors, as yet unknowable. Once the tipping point arrives, developments intrinsic to India will take over and probably make the correction deep and painful. Since few buyers are purchasing for love, people holding stock will want to cut their losses immediately, feeding supply even as demand fades. There is the additional dimension of mushrooming art funds to consider. These funds usually operate for stipulated periods, and will have to unload their wares even in a declining market, exacerbating the slide.”

Paradoxically, a stable market for art can only develop when the market ceases to be the primary preoccupation of buyers, and when most sales are made to collectors acquiring work they like, want to live with, and can afford. The India Art Fair can help this process if visitors are intrigued enough by what they see to be drawn to galleries, museums and art books. I hope, though, that the glut of fairs does not lead gallery owners to ignore the mounting of coherent, optimally displayed exhibitions that encourage visitors to linger and introspect. It would be a shame if people sought a deeper engagement with art after visiting a consumer fair, only to find opportunities for such engagement drying up because dealers were too preoccupied with consumer fairs.

The writer is a Mumbai-based critic

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First Published: Sat, January 28 2012. 00:02 IST