India Art Fair: The Report Card

This year the India Art Fair, that opened at the NSIC Grounds in Okhla, had an interesting mix of national, regional and international concerns with big names. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei caused a splash with his upturned tree-root and porcelain Vase titled ‘Journey’. While there were interesting projects and booths that commented on the phenomenon of geo-political refugees, the question on many lips was, ‘Did the India Art Fair generate income for the galleries who invested their money and time into the fair?’ We ask this, especially keeping in mind the general slowdown of the economy, due to DEMO (Demonetisation) and GST (Goods and Services Tax). What with several prominent galleries like Gallerie Maskara and Lakeeren Gallery in Mumbai shutting down. In Delhi, it was Latitude 28 that downsized, and Arts and Aesthetics (AAA) that shut shop during the tough months due to the unaffordable rents in the coveted Lado Sarai area.

Did the IAF provide the shot in the arm needed to support a buoyant market? We did some digging, speaking to gallerists, artists and art-pandits across the board.

“I would say that the Indian Art Market is holding well. Given that the pool of buyers is a small one, and that the market itself is specialised, it is too small to be affected by the general economic slowdown that we witnessed over this financial year,” says Ashish Anand, the director of Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), who never ceases to wow audiences with a large curated booth at the annual Fair, featuring a good selection of the Moderns. Sightings are of particular relevance, given that the Indian art market has been valued at $223 million, and it is just a fraction of the nearly $56 billion global one according to a report by KPMG-FICCI. “I would still say that art is an asset class worth investing in.” This year at the Fair, we saw DAG focus on J Swaminathan and F N Souza, two firebrand artists who were known for their highly political and controversial stands.

Roshini Vadehra, who represents Vadhera Art Gallery reported a ‘very successful’ innings at the Fair. “A lot of the major works in our booth were placed within the first day of the Fair itself. The energy was great, and most collectors came with the intention to acquire which translated in good sales for us,” says Vadehra whose booth had works by Aprita Singh (whose major retrospective is currently being hosted at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art). They showcased the works of fairly obscure artists like Madhusudhanan alongside well-known Modern masters like SH Raza and Ram Kumar. Works by the subsequent generation of senior artists like Gulammohammed Sheikh, Rameshwar Broota and leading contemporary artists including Atul Dodiya, Shilpa Gupta, Anju Dodiya, Nalini Malani, NS Harsha, Jagannath Panda and Praneet Soi, that hit all the right notes were also present at the booth.

Contemporary galleries like Chatterjee and Lal are a little more circumspect. “Every year we get excited about the Art Fair especially when there are sales, and we hope that this is an indication of a spike in an otherwise slow market,” says Mortimer Chatterjee. However, he points out that for contemporary galleries to truly get their wind back and recover their costs and make a profit, it will take a more sustained growth. “We need more events like the Art Fair all year round, to sustain the excitement and participation of the general public, and collectors to remain invested in the art market,” says Chatterjee.

Anders Petterson, who is known for bringing out the ArtTactic Report providing in-depth market analysis, believes that even festivals like Serendipity Arts Festival and the Kochi Biennale which are not targeted at sales, are important to bring excitement and interest into the art world. “We have been doing a very thorough documentation of the art market, but over the years we found that to be a dry analysis which quite frankly, even I got bored of!” Petterson suggests with an approach that looks holistically at the art world rather than in segments. “Cutting edge projects are as important for the growth of the art market as is saleable art,” avers Petterson.

The Art Fair has been a steady space for some like Bhavna Kakar. “Sales-wise it was steady but revival is not a word I would use. For us, the sales were better last year. We got a great response in terms of appreciation for our artists, but international visitors and patrons including museums were few and far between. This tends to happen during the year of the Kochi Biennale because many international viewers cannot come to two big events spread out over such a long interval,” she explains.

Vadehra believes that the current growth spurt, brought on by the Art Fair is a sustainable one: “People are buying with the intention to collect, and not merely invest,” she says. However, one will have to keep a close watch on the auctions to see if some artworks purchased at the Fair don’t turn up at the auctions in the subsequent months of September-October.

“The Art Fair achieves its goal of bringing the buyer and the viewer face to face, and that goes a long way in bringing transparency into the art market,” says Tunty Chauhan, director of Threshold Art Gallery. “As everybody is on the same platform they can easily compare notes. Subsequently, the buyers are far more confident of their choice,” she explains.

While many galleries have gone home with a feel-good vibe, it finally comes down to India’s political climate and the upcoming elections. According to Renu Modi, “the people who are willing to buy a nine lakh diamond necklace will also have the disposable income to pick up artwork, and they are not really affected by the economic slowdown. I think the real results will only be out after elections,” says Modi. According to her, people are still being conservative in their buying and the true revival in the art market depends on the election results.