Sharmistha Ray, “Indian contemporary art: Young artists lay new foundations,” | The Economic Times (Delhi edition), 10 March 2010

The art markets may have crashed following the financial debacle in autumn 2008, but that may turn out to be a good thing in the long run, especially for young artists. During the market’s highs between 2006 and 2008, extrinsic, commercial values were completely out of sync with intrinsic, artistic ones. There was a lot of mediocrity, but people bought it anyway. Demand was way beyond anyone’s control. Supply ballooned and the core quality of uniqueness that sets objects d’art apart from other commodities was a detail that was simply blotted out.

There was an upside however: the top Indian contemporary artists finally had their heyday. Artists like Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat, NS Harsha, Nalini Malani and Shilpa Gupta, after a decade or more of struggle, were able to scale up their ambitions and stand on par with their international counterparts. With exhibitions across the globe at galleries, museums, biennials and art fairs, these artists have progressed to an international playing field and are being represented by some of the finest art galleries in the world like Hauser & Wirth, Yvon Lambert and Haunch of Venison.

Certainly, the Indian domestic market has responded to the global market crisis by buckling down on high-value contemporary art works. “It’s going to take some time for contemporary art to get readjusted to the new price points,” says Geeta Mehra, director of Sakshi art gallery in Mumbai that is credited with discovering many of India’s leading contemporary artists.

As a result of the ongoing downturn, curtailed wealth and caution in matters of fiscal spending, the Indian contemporary art market contracted at the top-end while it expands out at the bottom. Since high-value art works by contemporary artists have become a challenge for galleries and dealers to sell in the domestic market, demand is naturally trickling down to lower value art works by younger artists. This will not only have the impact of broadening the market horizontally, but will also create vertical depth within it. Sree Goswami whose gallery Project 88 in Mumbai’s Colaba district has focused on young experimental artists like Baptist Coelho, Shreyas Karle and Hemali Bhuta since its inception in 2006 concurs with this view.

Mumbai-based architect Ashiesh Shah, a young art collector who started buying during the art market boom, suggests that young collectors are far more discerning now and know what they want. “I am interested in buying work that has a thought out process and materiality. Now I have a large choice of what to buy and there’s better quality work out there,” he says.

The stark return to a collector’s market has raised the quality of the art being shown in galleries. “It takes a few years to establish a young artist and their values in the market,” offers Renu Modi of Gallery Espace in New Delhi who has always worked with young artists. “I want young artists I can work with for a long time but it is increasingly difficult to find them.”

While veteran galleries like Gallery Espace consolidate their programming and take on just one or two new artists every year, Shalini Sawhney of Guild Art, another veteran gallery owner in Mumbai who has supported young artists like Prajakta Potnis Ponmany and Balaji Ponna foresees that the rapidly growing pool of talented emerging artists being created will far exceed the number of galleries in India. “During the boom, art was seen as a real career prospect so more young people went to art school. They are generally more informed about the world, they are well travelled and they’re making work that is more relevant and intelligent,” she says. “But we don’t have enough galleries to support them or India’s size. We need many, many more galleries each with their own program and with their own artists.”

While Sawhney is astute in her observations, new galleries have in fact opened in the major cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata in 2009. These new spaces offer a fresh new perspective that aligns with the changing needs of the art marketplace. Mumbai art galleries Chatterjee + Lal and Gallery Maskara have been pioneers in that space. Nikhil Chopra, India’s most significant contemporary performance artist, was a find of Tara Lal and Mortimer Chatterjee, the husband-and-wife team behind the gallery that bears their monikers (they opened their current space in August 2007).

Abhay Maskara, a collector turned gallery owner in Mumbai, has put on some of the city’s most conceptually challenging exhibitions since Gallery Maskara opened in March 2008. “I am looking for artists that are going to make a difference in the next decade,” he asserts. “There are some excellent artists who have not been shown or are under represented. I want to create a context for those artists.” Maskara has exhibited Canadian, Brazilian and Belgian artists and opts to show young Indian artists like T Venkanna and Shine Shivan who question existing cultural, social and political strictures.

Gallery BMB and Volte are two Mumbai art galleries, both which house a library and café, that opened in October 2009. Bose Krishnamachari, an artist and curator, crystallised his curatorial vision and practice with Gallery BMB. The current exhibition Her Work is Never Done brings together women artists, photographers and designers with diverse practices and backgrounds and overlaps them. Krishnamachari, who has long been a major catalyst in the development of young artists, brings to the fore new talents like Charmi Gada Shah who constructs architectural fictions through 3D models and photographic documentation as well as Nivedita Deshpande and Sonia Jose. “The way you present a show and provide a context to the artist makes a big difference to the way the artist is viewed,” comments Krishnamachari, but he laments: “We don’t have enough writers on visual art and enough young curators.”

Volte’s Tushar Jiwarajka is another Mumbai-based collector turned gallery owner. Jiwarajka, who is from a prominent industrialist family, took up the gallery reins because he couldn’t find things that he wanted to buy. “Young collectors don’t respond to paintings that much anymore,” he insists. “They want things that reflect their life and their experiences.” Jiwarajka believes India will have a strong market for multi disciplinary and new media practices. Volte’s second exhibition Our Breath Concrete by Qusai Kathawala consisted of a coffee table with a 3D LED grid inside. Visitors were invited to have conversations over the table; their breath controlled the behaviour of the light. “Obviously we hope that a couple of our artists will make it really big,” says Jiwarajka. “We are thinking long-term and there will definitely be price development.” Other gallery and project initiatives for young conceptual artists in Mumbai include The Loft by Anupa Mehta and Lakeeren by Arshiya Lokhandwala.

New Delhi’s art scene for young and experimental art got a major boost with the opening of the Devi Art Foundation with new media exhibition Still Moving Image in August 2008. In Kolkata, Prateek Raja (whose brother is artist Kanishka Raja) opened Experimenter while Noni and Deepak Khullar opened up Harrington Street Arts Center, both in 2009, which has added a dose of experimental new forms to the city’s visual language and is providing new channels for young artists who want to explore unconventional modes in their art-making practice.

In Bangalore, the prohibitive costs of real estate combined with an absence of experimental art galleries (GallerySKE is the only gallery and it has a small staple of artists it represents) has given birth to alternative initiatives like Jaaga, a mobile plan for an art gallery that uses vacant lots around Bangalore to set up temporary art spaces for artists to innovate in. Sharan Apparao, proprietor of Apparao Galleries in Chennai, admits aesthetic tastes in South India remain conservative but she is noticing new trends. “I have many new and young collectors who are even looking at photography now which never, never happened before,” she says. “I sell at least a few photographs from every show.” But Apparao affirms that pricing is a key factor today.

If artists, galleries and collectors across India continue to exhibit the sensibleness they’ve displayed after what has felt like an eternal period of soul-searching and introspection, then all signs point towards the development of a sustainable new art market that has both breadth and depth. It won’t happen overnight, but assuredly the foundations are already being put into place. Eventually, we need an entire art ecosystem to thrive, which includes many more public and private museums, art schools, curators, critics, magazines, and so on. For now, a fresh breeze is beginning to blow through.

(The author is an artist, curator and art advisor who lives in Mumbai and New York)

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