India Art Fair: Why do art fairs in India go wrong?

Why has the recently concluded 11th edition of IAF generated negative opinions? Apparently, because of the new players who are moneyed but disinterested in arts and rather keen on the commerce of it

Rana Siddiqui Zaman

Around 11 years ago, veteran artist Anjolie Ela Menon, art devotee and business person Neha Kirpal, personnel from Religare Care Services and I being an art and culture journalist, together brainstormed on how India's first international art fair should look like. After a session or two, I, having been employed somewhere, took a backseat to avoid conflict of interest with my institution. The others, with more or less people joining in, started the India Art Summit which got its name changed in last few years to India Art Fair -- IAF.

With teething issues in the first few editions, especially with logistics, wi-fi connectivity, art porters and packagers etc., through the years the fair rose to become India’s signature event on art firmaments. People would take selfies and post them on social media in a bid to appear as though they have fine tastes.

For the last two years, the fair has been witnessing mediocrity in several stalls. A stall by Art Alive for instance had displayed wooden horses (like that proverbial Trojan Horse) painted by artists and films stars like Salman Khan and Aamir Khan. The horses by artists were better painted than those painted by stars, for obvious reasons and this made quite a mockery of the art fair which is considered to have high artistic standards.

So, why has this 11th edition of IAF generated negative opinions? Apparently, because of the new players who are moneyed but ill-informed or disinterested in arts but rather keen on the commerce of it.

Pre-empting a further fall in the art market following a dip in the economy and complexities like the GST, perhaps the IAF director Neha Kirpal, was farsighted enough to have sold it off to a new player stating that she had wanted to do “other things”.

“My team did not handle it this year,“ says Neha Kirpal hearing the negative remarks. “Every person is new including the director and owners. I had started it and ran it for ten years, I wanted to do other things as well and I patiently went through identifying the best people in the world and brought them to India. I spent two years in this transition transitioning and provided them with all the support from 2016-2018 and only then I moved on. I had hoped the fair will be taken care of and given a big boost internationally by this change. And it would allow me to handover my first baby knowing it was well placed, so I could then move on. I hope the new owners and teams can do the right thing and take it to new heights."

India Art Fair: Why do art fairs in India go wrong?
Neha Kirpal, the outgoing fair director and founder

Notably, as an answer to the elitist and monopolistic nature of IAF in which galleries largely dictate terms and individual artists are not represented by any gallery, a new art affair was initiated in 2012. Rather democratic, this United Art Fair was organised by an art enthusiast and a shipping giant Anurag Sharma. Around 600 artists, 2,700 works, including paintings, sculptures, installations, printmaking works, photography and video art, were displayed liberally in two halls of Pragati Maidan. And yet, certain calculations went miserably wrong. It could not stop the flow of some replicas and shoddy works and eventually ran into huge losses.

The annual Delhi Art Fair, in its fourth edition now, is also a mediocre affair, with only a few good, old artists and sculptors as its saving grace.

So, the lesson learnt is, any art fair, organised by private parties, will and can never be a non commercial affair in India today. The government-run/supported art fair, by Lalit Kala Akademi, the first of its kind that took place at the open lawns of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) last year, was also a damp squib with poorly managed affairs. It had dirty cloth stalls, on uneven muddy grounds, covered with red and green carpets, stray dogs urinating on the sculptures kept in the open, covered with dust, made a mockery of this government's handling of an ‘Antarrashitriya Kala Mela’.

Lack of will and experts, indifference to art in general, yes-men, lobbyists and an undemocratic approach ruin most art fairs every year, especially in Delhi/NCR.

In a country where the budget for art and culture is abysmally low, and is often even returned after not being utilised, one can easily see that the arts and artists have to go a long way before a sustained support from patrons can protect them from falling it further.

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