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August 30, 2016

Dissecting India’s Vibrant Art Market

Text by Huzan Tata

Sotheby’s, Christie’s and other internationally renowned auction houses are coming to India, giving an impetus to the country’s rapidly growing art industry, even as fairs and million-dollar sales create a vibrant local market, discovers Verve

At the last Christie’s auction in Mumbai, a V. S. Gaitonde sold for a whopping 4.4 million dollars — the highest ever for a painting by the modern master. It may have only been the auction house’s third sale in the country, but the turnout proved that Indian art has become a force to be reckoned with, among local and foreign collectors alike.

World view
“Burgeoning art ecosystems are always interesting and attractive as a means to find new audiences as well as fresh inspiration and ideas…. This is why India, with all its diversity, has a natural pull for the international community,” explains Priyanka Mathew, ex-regional director of New York-based Sotheby’s in India. Mathew, also the senior specialist in modern and contemporary South Asian art for the international organisation, is responsible for expanding the collector base in the region. She adds, “India is an economic and political powerhouse on the global stage. The developing economy promises to offer a platform of support for cultural growth, and that is additionally attractive.”

It’s not just Indians working abroad who are looking homewards in an attempt to boost sales. Only last year, the former international director of Asian art at Christie’s, Hugo Weihe, became the new CEO of Indian auction house Saffronart. After this giant leap from USA to India, Weihe hopes to display the wonders of our local creations to the world. “I looked at the opportunity that classical Indian art represents, which from my point of view is greatly untapped. We are looking at sourcing and rethinking the catalogue format in order to help educate and make art approachable to new collectors. It is time to shine a light on this great heritage which represents an extraordinarily undervalued category. There is also so much we can do to expand other categories, such as folk, tribal and design,” explains Weihe, about his new role. “India is now marketing itself in the world through the ‘Make in India’ campaign. Culture acts as an ambassador for any nation and India’s own incredible culture is its greatest asset. So I hope we can also play our part to get the message out.”

Foreign exchange
There are now ample opportunities for investments, as seen by the increasing number of fairs and auctions in the last few years. Explains Roshini Vadehra, co-founder of New Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, “The audience for contemporary art has grown substantially. With events like the India Art Fair (IAF) and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, there is an increased interest from domestic practitioners and collectors, as well as international visitors who are coming in and becoming stakeholders in the Indian scene.”

“The IAF attracted different galleries from outside the country; we at Christie’s were co-sponsoring it. It brought energy into the field. The Kochi biennale again put in a lot of oxygen — there was a very global crowd coming in. It gives the local patrons a lot of confidence to understand that it’s not just us but the world that’s taking notice,” agrees Deepanjana Klein, international headof the department of South Asian modern and contemporary art at Christie’s. The industry is seeing a slow and steady rise, and this gives incentive to curators, galleries, collectors, institutes and artists to have a base in India.

Creative emissaries
The number of shows, especially solo retrospectives of work by artists of Indian origin in foreign galleries, has been growing consistently, and could be another factor for increased interest in India. Earlier this year, New Yorkers could visit The Met Breuer to view Nasreen Mohamedi’s creations, which was preceded by a Gaitonde retrospective at the Guggenheim that was later moved to its Venice gallery. Meanwhile, a Nalini Malani show is set to open at the Centre Pompidou in Paris next year. Contemporary artists, like Jitish Kallat — who inaugurated a permanent installation in Austria last year — and Bharti Kher, who has been awarded with the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government, are keeping India in the limelight. “The West is now looking East, because India is on everyone’s mind. The V&A in London is working with the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago is working with Kolkata’s Indian Museum. There are a lot of museum initiatives and curators coming in from the West and discovering that India has art that is world-class,” Klein explains.

It is still early days for serious foreign interest in Indian art, but it’s safe to say that it shows no signs of decline. And we can’t wait to see which artist will break Gaitonde’s record at the next international auction.

Diana Campbell Betancourt
Chief curator of the Dhaka Art Summit and artistic director of Samdani Art Foundation

On foreign engagement in the subcontinent
“There has been an unparalleled interest in South Asia — which initiatives like the Dhaka Art Summit have helped grow — as serious curators realise that collections and exhibitions are not complete unless they consider one of the most populous regions in the world.”

On the Dhaka Art Summit
“It was founded in 2011, from the need to show that South Asia is not limited to India and Pakistan. Sri Lanka has an extremely vibrant art scene, as does Myanmar, and, as patrons and initiatives grow in these countries, they will join Bangladesh as new hubs for contemporary discourse within the region. It is not a surprise that so many galleries and auction houses came to the summit to look for collectors and artists from elsewhere in the region.”

Susan Hapgood
Founder, Mumbai Art Room

On foreigners venturing into India
“The Indian diaspora extends all over the world, and gallerists are participating in key fairs throughout the Middle East, other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States. So, there is a huge amount of transcultural exchange going on.”

Founding Mumbai Art Room
“From the moment I touched down in India, I learned about the art scene through the artists, who could not have been more welcoming towards my requests for studio visits. At the same time that I was absorbing how much interesting work was being made, I found that there was little opportunity for me to curate exhibitions in the country because I was not a known professional in India. So the organisation was born through a great deal of hard work in collaboration with a handful of dedicated, passionate art lovers in the city, and with the goodwill and assistance of the Maharashtra charity commissioner’s office. It is wonderful that it continues to go strong today, led by the creative and innovative vision of Nida Ghouse, its current director.”

Facilitating trade
“If the rules for lending modernist masterpieces from India to foreign institutions were made a little less difficult, and if the high duties on importing foreign art into India were lowered, it would lead to greater cultural exchange. The more familiarity and appreciation there is, the more the business will flourish.”

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