Indian art market a rosy picture

Shoba Narayan

Jan 23, 2012

The Indian art market is bucking a global trend of declining sales and hopes are high some expensive pieces will change hands at the India Art Fair in New Delhi this week.

More than 100,000 people are expected to attend the event, due to be held from Wednesday to Sunday.

Exhibiting galleries are hoping for robust sales and continued interest from wealthy domestic buyers, thereby fuelling the country’s art market, estimated to be worth as much as 20 billion rupees (Dh1.46bn).

Although globally art sales are down, India is showing surprising resilience.

“The Indian art market boomed very, very fast and is now more mature, more stable. Indians have the money and the potential to become serious collectors,” says As Bhavna Kakar, the owner of Latitude 28 gallery in New Delhi.

“In fact, galleries such as mine have survived the recession purely through selling to local Indian collectors. If the market can sustain us through local consumption these last four years, then you know that the Indian market has good potential for international galleries.”

Each gallery pays about Dh1,310 per square metre to have a booth at the fair, on which just under Dh7 million is spent on advertising and Dh14m on public relations throughout the year, done mostly “through barters and partnerships with media companies”, according to Neha Kirpal, 31, the energetic founder of the event, now in its fourth year.

The fair makes money through corporate sponsorship and the sale of floor space. This year, 26 museum groups from across the world are scheduled to visit. Half of the 90 exhibitors are Indian galleries and half are international – from South Africa, Latvia, Portugal, France and the UK, among other countries.

The event has come a long way since 2008 when fewer than 10,000 people visited and many in the art establishment told Ms Kirpal she was foolhardy to attempt to run an art fair in a poor, chaotic country with a minuscule art market.

Undeterred, Ms Kirpal, who has a master’s degree in marketing from the University of the Arts, London, wrote an initial business plan on an air-sickness bag on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai.

She took out a personal loan of about Dh150,000 and founded the fair. After losing money every year, she is “cash-neutral” this year, she says, thanks in part to an injection of funds from Will Ramsay and Sandy Angus, the co-founders of Art HK, an international event held in Hong Kong, who have bought a 49 per cent stake in India Art Fair.

Ms Kirpal used the funding to repay her loan.  It costs about Dh500,000 to organise the fair, she says. Sixty per cent of the operating budget goes towards renting the venue and 15 per cent goes to the production company.

Unlike mature art markets, many Indian buyers are speculators who come in with a lot of money but have little knowledge about art. The fair has launched a “collector’s circle” to interest and educate novice but wealthy collectors. Members pay a fee of US$200 (Dh735) and are invited to events and lectures throughout the year.

“The art fair is a wonderful platform because it has brought together galleries, curators, artists, museums, non-profit organisations and auctioneers – but it still remains very commercial,” says Maithili Parekh, the director of business development at Sotheby’s India.

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