Pause for thought
This year’s smaller edition of the India Art Fair posed questions about the long-term health of the market on the subcontinent
The India Art Fair that has wowed Delhi each spring since 2008 has become the subcontinent’s biggest art event. Crowds flock to the giant exhibition hall to take in the work of past masters, including Picasso and M.F. Hussain, as well as the avant-garde from home and abroad. This year, however, the fair seemed noticeably smaller.
Has the art bubble in India finally burst?
Far from it, say gallery owners, artists and art experts. They explain away the reduced size of this year’s renewal as a move to present a more “curatorial approach” that balances international participation with both established and emerging art from South Asia.
While the fair may have become more focused, others involved in the art world say the market is still expanding.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a steady increase in Indian and South Asian artists exhibiting at world-class museums around the globe. We’re also seeing more activity on the home front with the emergence of a number of significant biennales and art festivals,” says Wol Balston, director of Flint PR, which has offices in London, Istanbul and Delhi.
“This increasing cultural activity is matched by a growing collector base across the subcontinent, with new and younger collectors finding more opportunities to engage with contemporary art. I believe this will continue to develop over the next five years, and that we can look forward to an increasingly dynamic market.”
British artist Alec Cumming has experienced the maturation of India’s art scene first-hand. He first exhibited at the India Art Fair (then the India Art Summit) with his UK-based gallery Art 18|21 seven years ago. The market was geared then toward buying art by Indian artists, he says.
“As the market has been exposed to a wider variety of art from across the globe, I feel there is more diversity within collectors’ tastes. They are also becoming more discerning. They understand what it means to buy what they like and are more confident,” says Cumming.
“In the past,you got the impression collectors were lumbered with art they were told to buy for a quick profit. But they were then sometimes left with artworks they did not care for and that could no longer hold their value.”
Cumming this year held a successful solo exhibition at the Stainless Gallery in Delhi as a collateral event for the India Art Fair.
“I’ve always seen exhibiting in India as a great launch pad for the whole of Asia; it’s a mid-point between Asia and Europe, and in the past year we’ve seen interest from Australia, India, Hong Kong, Israel and the US,” he says.
It’s not only international art stimulating the Indian market; as with all creative pursuits, increased exposure and interaction is cross-pollinating.
Cumming reports that increased sales of works by Indian artists such as V.S. Giatonde, Tyeb Mehta and K.G. Subramanyan at major auctions helped collectors to engage with abstract art, which boosted interest in his paintings.
At this year’s India Art Fair, two of the most talked about artists included Nepali Sunil Sidgel, who satirized Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and homegrown talent Sudarshan Shetty, who reimagined the Taj Mahal as a glittering silver sculpture of souvenir-sized mausoleums with a video inside showing the dome up in flames.
But while impressions of the India art market remain almost universally upbeat, some do question whether the slimmed down India Art Fair bodes well.
Israel-based Bruno Art Group, which has galleries in Tel Aviv, Singapore and the Turks and Caicos Islands, have been involved in the India art market since 2013. They have held several exhibitions in Delhi, which attracted substantial interest, and expect the market to continue to expand. They also exhibit at the India Art Fair, but with growing reservations.
“In India, many of our clients are collectors familiar with buying art, but prior to meeting us they bought local work,” says Linda Skalsky, project manager at Bruno Art Group.
“It’s a shame to see a decrease in participation of international galleries [at the India Art Fair]. This could be due to several reasons; logistical challenges, bureaucracy and the policy of the fair. I personally think that it would be advantageous for the Indian art market to be more exposed to international art. As for us participating next year, it depends mainly on which art we would be allowed to exhibit.”