A fair question

Written by Namrata Rao | Updated: Feb 3 2013, 07:11am hrs
In about half a decade, India Art Fair (IAF), which till a couple of years ago was known as India Art Summit, has developed as Indias most prominent and popular art fair. The annual fair organised in the capital has emerged as the choicest haunt for galleries, collectors and art lovers. The fifth edition of the IAF has seen over 100 participating exhibitors from 23 countries, showcasing around 3,500 works by 1,000-plus established and emerging artists from across the globe. But in its short journey, has the IAF been able to break into the club of the most sought-after art fairs globally Does it command the exhibitor, artist and collector interest as much as a more established fair, say the Frieze Art Fair of London, or Art Basel, or Asias major art fairs like Hong Kong International Art Fair, better known as Art HK, or even Art Stage Singapore

While its a little too soon to even start judging the worth of the IAF, say most galleries, its the potential of the fair and, of course, of the massive art market India can develop into, that is generating and driving their interest.

As far as the organisers are concerned, IAF has swelled over the years in terms of quantity as well as quality, with every edition attracting better response and interest than the preceding edition. Our focus is more on building the market. We are today among the top 10 art fairs in the world. There is tremendous growth and level of participation. We have grown 300%. The participation of galleries, collectors and artists has increased phenomenally, says Neha Kirpal, founder and director, India Art Fair. Kirpal adds that when compared to other fairs, IAFs objective is a little different since India can at best be described as a nascent emerging art market, unlike some other more developed art geographies globally. I think its a very different initiative. India is a very small player. But thats because there has been very little international exposure to Indian art. We are working towards promoting that art. Usually, there is a lot of cultural diplomacy through the government. They organise a lot of initiatives. Like China, for instance. In India, it is limited. Initiatives like the India Art Fair help the Indian art scene. The more non-Indians buy Indian art, the better it is, the more footing we will find, she says.

When we spoke to the participating international galleries, the most common response we got was that they are not constraining their exploration of the Indian market and engagement with it by sales expectations. Rather, it is more about investing in the potential that this emerging market seems to have. IAF is a work in progress. It is extremely difficult to compare it to a more developed fair in a more developed market. Even the objectives of such fairs differ from market to market, depending on the level of development and understanding of art. Our objective is to just meet and develop contacts with Indian collectors and artists, and for that, IAF is a great platform. As far as the market is concerned, its definitely a high-potential market but its too difficult and too soon to put any numbers to it, says Mylene Ferrand of Galleria Continua, from Italy, which is participating in the IAF for the second time.

Peter Femfert, owner of the Frankfurt-based DIE Galerie, which is making its third visit to the IAF, gets extremely enthusiastic while talking of his gallerys interest in India and the IAF: India Art Fair is a very young and new art fair and it will certainly take some time to develop. On the other hand, India is such a strong and growing country with a strong increase of the middle class and the upper middle class that there will be a big future art market in this country. India has approximately 1.2 billion inhabitants and I always say that if only one-tenth or even 1% of this population could be interested in art, it will become a huge market. There will be more collectors here than there are in Europe. DIE Galerie is showing classical modern art with some of the big masters such as Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Andre Masson and Salvador Dali, and is also showing some middle-field artists such as Corneille, Sam Francis and Igor Mitoraj.

Among the first-time exhibitors, the enthusiasm is palpable. However, sales expectations are not very high as its more of an exploratory sojourn for them. I wouldnt know yet if we can compare the India Art Fair with international art fairs. This is our first time here. So far, I can say it has very nice quality of work. The fair has been set up and organised really well. We visit the (United) States a lot and I must say New York is a lot quicker on decision-making, there are many people in between who purchase for clients, they have a different way of purchasing. Here, people take much longer. We very much hope to come next year. It doesnt really depend on sales but the reactions we and our artists get here, says Marcel Huisman, owner, Villa del Arte Galleries from Barcelona.

Huismans view is echoed by Yesim Taranli, founder-director of the Istanbul-based Pi Artworks. India has the potential to be a huge market and that brought us here. As of now, its totally experimental for me but people here seem attentive and interested in art. More important for IAF and for India is to have increased collaborations between international galleries and Indian artists and galleries. That is the only way to develop the market, she says.

Jagroop Mehta, sales director of London-based gallery SCREAM, lends an interesting perspective on how the novelty of the IAF makes for one of its major USPs. The buzz and the excitement at IAF have exceeded our expectations. The best part is that unlike more developed fairs and markets, there is no jaded cynicism here. The collector market is fresh and people are really enthusiastic. It is certainly more difficult to exhibit works in India due to logistical issues, but I feel weve really made a sensible decision by participating, she says.

But closer to home, for the Dhaka-based Samdani Art Foundation, IAF is a critical fair as it not only showcases the works of Indian artists, but also provides a strong platform for artists from other south Asian countries. As collectors, we have been coming here for years now, but as a foundation, we are participating here for the first time. I want Bangladeshi art to be on the international art map. And for that to happen, India Art Fair is the perfect platform. A couple of years ago, Pakistani art wasnt as well known but now you know a lot of Pakistani artists because India gave them a platform. I want the same for Bangladeshi artists too. Of course, there are a lot of international artists at the IAF but for south Asia, this is the place to be. You come here to discover India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lankathis regions artists, says Nadia Samdani, CEO, Samdani Art Foundation, whos also the founder and director of the Dhaka Art Summit.

The fair still has a long way to go, say most galleries. According to Harry Hutchison, associate director of New York-based gallery Aicon, sales is an area where the IAF has a lot to cover. We work with six fairs globally and India is a particularly important market for us as we are a south Asian gallery based in New York. As far as the IAF is concerned, we feel its still not quite there on the circuit yet. The organisers need to work harder to get buyers to the IAF. There is enormous amount of work here but sales have been weak. Of course, it is a matter of time also as five years is not a long time but more efforts still are required if this fair wants to be considered as one of the top global art fairs, he says. Like other galleries, Hutchison, too, declines to give sales figures even for the last edition of the IAF. They could have been much better is all I can say, he tells us. We bumped into one of Indias best-known artists, Subodh Gupta, as he walked around the venue, admiring and observing the art pieces on display. For someone who has worked with quite a few international galleries and is a globally renowned artist, Gupta feels that IAF has progressively improved over the years. It just keeps getting better with each edition. It certainly has a long way to go and it will take time to get noticed prominently at the global stage. I think more than looking at art through the price tag or through the business of art, India is at a stage where we should not have that kind of an outlook. Thats fair the IAF has done a good job, he says.