Art in America- India Art Fair

A piece for Art in America

India Art Fair Gains Major Dealers, Courts Collectors

by shoba narayan 01/24/12

“Once you exceed 100,000 people, it’s not a numbers game anymore. It’s about bringing high quality collectors in,” says Neha Kirpal, 31, founder of the India Art Fair, explaining to A.i.A. her strategy for the fair’s fourth edition, which takes place at the NSIC Grounds in New Delhi, Jan. 25–29. Last year, some 128,000 people visited the fair—that’s London’s Frieze and Art Basel Miami Beach combined, by some estimates.

This year, 91 galleries from 19 countries have signed up to show at India’s largest-and only-contemporary art fair, half of them Indian and the other half international. These include White Cube, Hauser & Wirth, Gallery Continua and Grosvenor Gallery. Among the participating Indian galleries are Gallery Ske, Sakshi Gallery, Naturemorte, Tasveer Arts and Apparao Galleries, showing marquee names such as Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat and Subodh Gupta.

This year the fair adds a performance workshop called KhojLive, hosted at Blue Frog, a nightclub and performance space. Performa biennial founder RoseLee Goldberg will deliver the introductory lecture, after which 13 Indian artists, including Pushpamala N. & Mamta Sagar, Vivan Sundaram, Mr. Dotty and Madame Potty, will showcase their performance works.

Each gallery pays Rs. 18,000 (about $359) per square meter to rent a booth. This income, along with corporate sponsorships, is the main revenue for the fair. At $4, or Rs. 200, the entry ticket is priced lower than the cost of a “Bollywood movie ticket,” according to Kirpal. Last year, artist Anish Kapoor was a speaker, along with Homi Bhabha, dean of Harvard’s school of humanities. India’s Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi, visited the booths, swarmed by security.

Kirpal and her team of young art management professionals (mostly women), work through the year for the four-day event. The logistics aren’t easy. Last year, a leak in the roof just weeks before the opening meant organizers had to waterproof 11,000 square feet of roof. “No other organization would do that in India because nobody else shows art on this scale here,” says Kirpal.

After returning to India from London in 2007, Kirpal wanted to do an art fair along the lines of Frieze and Basel. “Nobody even knew what an art fair was,” she says. “Everyone said that it wouldn’t work in a chaotic country like India.” She wrote a business plan on an airline sickness bag, borrowed about $500,000 from a private investor and founded the first Indian Art Summit, as it was called in 2008. Only 10,000 visitors attended and the Indian art establishment predicted that the venture would die. It didn’t, partly because Kirpal made some smart moves like synching with the Jaipur Literary Festival, held a week before the art fair, and partly because, like the Jaipur Literary Festival, the art fair was treading on virgin ground. Once the fair’s organizers got the formula right, the celebrities began coming. Oprah Winfrey is in India now to attend the literary festival, and organizers hope she’ll visit the art fair as well. Visitors come “by private plane or two-day train rides,” says Kirpal with satisfaction.

“What makes the India Art Fair compelling relative to other Asian art fairs are the numbers,” says Malini Gulrajani, owner of 1×1 gallery, Dubai, who has participated in the fair since its inception. “We did in Art Stage Singapore and there were about 20 to 30,000 people.” Even the Hong Kong International Art Fair (Art HK), arguably the region’s biggest, recorded 63,000 visitors last year.

Earlier this year, Sandy Angus and Will Ramsey, who co-founded Art HK (which was acquired by Art Basel last year), bought a 51-percent stake in the India Art Fair. Kirpal used the cash infusion to repay her start-up loans and has used the fair’s success to work on easing government regulations on the import and export of artworks.

This year, for the first time, the Indian government has designated the fair a “temporary museum,” which allows galleries to import and export artwork duty free; they only pay duty on works that are actually sold. In previous years, law required they pay duty upfront, regardless of whether a work was sold. The Indian government charges 14- to 17-percent duty, compared with Dubai’s 5 percent. “I spent a lot of time lobbying with the government to convince them that the country will make more on cultural tourism through events such as the art fair than they make on import duty,” says Kirpal.

She also is working on developing a collector base in an immature market. This year, she has launched a “Collector’s Circle,” which will provide lectures and art walks for its members. “I want to use the art fair as a catalyst and tool to develop the art scene in India,” she says.


India Art Fair 2012

Here is the piece in Mint

  • Columns
  • Posted: Fri, Jan 27 2012. 9:51 PM IST
Why art needs to speak a simpler tongue
The India Art Fair is in full swing; and Delhi feels like it is at the centre of the universe. This is the trick that geography plays. When you are part of an event, part of its intellectual mindspace, you get drawn into its “reality distortion field”

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

One of the questions facing all organizers of large events in light of what happened in Jaipur is this: How much of a broad base of support do you need to build for an event that is essentially (or has become) an elitist pursuit?

The India Art Fair is in full swing; and Delhi feels like it is at the centre of the universe. This is the trick that geography plays. When you are part of an event, part of its intellectual mindspace, you get drawn into its “reality distortion field”. A few hundred kilometres away, the same event becomes a forgotten footnote to the daily hazards of traffic jams, water shortage and what the chief minister did.


Eclectic : The art fair affords visitors the opportunity to stand before an original Raza as well as discover emerging artists.(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Eclectic : The art fair affords visitors the opportunity to stand before an original Raza as well as discover emerging artists.(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)


Politicians deal with these parallel realities every day, and perhaps this is why they are able to dismiss the censorship issues swirling around Salman Rushdie so easily. Blaming the Rajasthan government for cancelling the video link at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is to ignore the pragmatism of politics; or for that matter, event management. The greatest good for the greatest number, as utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham might have it. Not all the time, but at least till the show closes. Moral rectitude takes spine—Judge John Woolsey’s ruling in the United States v. One Book Called Ulysses is an oft-quoted example—but is easier done from a judge’s bench. 

At the art fair, people still talk about M.F. Husain and how his works were banned from the 2009 India Art Summit, as it was called then. At that time, the organizers issued a statement: “While we acknowledge the lifelong achievements and the iconic status of artists like M.F. Husain in Indian art,” it read, “we are unable to put the entire collective concern at risk by showcasing artists who have, in the past, been received with hostility by certain sections of the society unless we receive protection from the government and the Delhi police.”

Was that the right thing to do? As an art lover, it is easy for me to say, “Absolutely not”. But had I been part of the organizing team that worked all year to put up the fair, only to find it under threat at the last minute, I am not sure I would have done anything different. The “solution”, I guess, is to build up a diverse constituency of support for such events. This, arguably, is not part of the job description of an event organizer, but here in India, with its stark inequalities and divisive opinions, it cannot be escaped.

Artists and authors are society’s conscience keepers. They must speak their mind and follow their contrarian impulses. But as art and literary festivals move from the homogenous cultures (Art|Basel or the Hay Festival) to countries with heterogeneous populations with about as many opinions, they have to decide if they want to follow Immanuel Kant’s absolutism or Bentham’s utilitarianism.

Neha Kirpal, the founder of the art fair, at least for now, seems to have gone with Bentham. It is important to her to have a variety of art lovers visit the festival, she says. “We have people coming on private planes and others who take two-day train rides to Delhi to see art. The ticket price (Rs. 200) is less than the cost of a movie ticket.”

The strategy has worked. Last year, 128,000 people visited the art fair, much higher than the region’s juggernaut—the Hong Kong International Art Fair (ArtHK), which drew 63,000 people in 2011. The ArtHK people, incidentally, have taken a 51% stake in the India Art Fair and are themselves part-owned by Art|Basel. Contemporary art, at the end of the day, is a small community. Commercially, it makes sense to keep it so. You want affluent collectors to visit your booths, not the art student from Bihar who took a two-day trip to Delhi. Artist Subodh Gupta undertook such a journey a few decades ago.

What Kirpal and JLF co-director Namita Gokhale have accomplished is bold and path-breaking. To create a business or event that is bigger than you, and will likely outlast you, is the dream of any artist or entrepreneur. These women have accomplished both, and their success will likely spawn other dreamers. The India Art Fair is stunning. If you are a lover of contemporary Indian art, you must visit this playground of desire. Where else can you stand before an original S.H. Raza or discover upcoming artists that you love? I discovered several, and next week, I plan to write about them.

Kirpal told me that she spends a lot of her time lobbying for the art fair and increasing community involvement. That seems to be the way to go. Art is an elitist pursuit, but here in India, it must be inclusive as well—for pragmatic reasons.

This evening, three artists—Jitish Kallat, Navin Thomas and L.N. Tallur— will duke it out for the Rs. 10 lakh Škoda Prize. “Tallur comes from a strong sculpture tradition with an interesting take on traditional motifs,” says Pooja Sood, one of the jury members. “Navin’s focus is on research and cutting-edge sound and technology. Jitish’s is an interventionist, with an intellectual interpretation of space.” I respect Sood, but “interventionist”? What’s that? This is the kind of talk one hears at the art fair.

Building a broader base of support for contemporary art, literature and music in India is hugely important, particularly if small fanatic factions can derail landmark events. It involves reaching out to larger swathes of our population and educating the general public about contemporary art and literature. Most important—and I say this as a logophile, and yes, the irony of using this obscure word in this sentence is not lost on me—it involves speaking a simpler tongue.

Shoba Narayan highly recommends a visit to the India Art Fair. Disclosure: She was a guest of the art fair. Write to her at


Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns


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