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Original art is not just for the rich,say organisers of Asia’s first affordable art fair. Should you buy the theory?

Original art is not just for the rich,say organisers of Asia’s first affordable art fair. Should you buy the theory?

We have heard of mad scrambles at Zara and Mango sales,or fairs where one is willing to brave the claustrophobia of crowds to grab a good deal on books,home décor and electronics. The latest in the genre of “everything-must-go” fairs is the Affordable Art Fair (AAF) that comes to Asia for the first time this year. From November 19-21,an F1 pit in Singapore,that shopaholic’s dream city,will host an art bazaar,where nearly 8,000 people are expected to come bargain-hunting.

India is taking part in the AAF but not with too much gusto: two lesser-known galleries have signed up for it,Himalaya Arts,Mumbai,and Calcutta Arts Club. Neither can boast of curating big artists,nor have they made a mark in the Indian art scene. The artwork to be exhibited is in the price range of Rs 50,000-Rs 3 lakh. The artists showing at the fair are no big names either.

Back home,though,affordable art is gaining a following. Mumbai-based curator Sunil M Mehta has started an organisation called Art4All,to promote affordable art,mostly landscapes. JW Marriot in Mumbai hosts Friday art evenings with Gallery Angel Art,where the jet-set are tempted with affordable art. The India International Art Fair recently held in Delhi exhibited art by newcomers,that was easy on the pocket and attracted new buyers. Anupa Mehta,who owns Gallery Loft in Mumbai,agrees that the popularity of affordable art is growing. “An increasing number of people are becoming conscious of the need for aesthetics in their surroundings. Value and return on investment,however,still play an important role for the Indian consumer,” she says.

“If art is available for less,buyers don’t seem concerned. They simply respond to a work and buy it,” says Ranjana Steinruecke,co-owner of Galerie Mirchandani+Steinruecke,Mumbai. Steinruecke,who has curated artwork by many new artists,says art priced between Rs 15,000 and Rs 35,000 draws a lot of new collectors. Some artists who exhibited at the first AAF held in London in 1999 are favourites of celebrities like Jude Law and Christiana Aguilera; Indian artists are hoping for similar “success”.

The AAF was started by self-taught abstract artist William Ramsay,who wanted to offer people the opportunity to buy contemporary art,and show them “that you don’t need to be a millionaire with a doctorate in fine arts to buy it.” The AAF has been in cities all over the world,including Amsterdam,Brussels,New York,Sydney and Melbourne. With more than 60 galleries from Singapore,Asia,Australia and Europe taking part,the AAF will showcase contemporary artwork priced between 100 and 10,000 Singapore dollars; 75 per cent of the art will be below 7,500 Singapore dollars. “The myth that original art is just for the rich needs to be debunked,” says Camilla Hewitson,AAF Singapore’s director. “Indian contemporary and traditional art is wanted around the world,but the price of work by contemporary artists like Sudharshan Shetty and Riyas Komu has soared so high that they are no longer affordable. We are providing a platform to up-and-coming artists,who have a fresh perspective,” she says.

That said,it is fair to say that it is only bland,drawing room art by Indian artists usually end up with the “affordable tag” and shipped to such shows. It doesn’t always have to be so,though. Cutting-edge art,too,starts out as affordable. Reputed galleries in Mumbai (Chemould Art Gallery,Galerie Mirchandani+Steinruecke,Project 88,Abhay Maskara’s Warehouse,Chatterjee & Lal) and Delhi (Gallery Espace,Threshold Art Gallery,Latitude 28,Exhibit 320) have shown works of emerging Indian contemporary artists and offered them at affordable prices.

In the West,where collectors are less risk-averse and more of trend-setters,affordable art can lead to unexpected discoveries. Collectors like François Pinault and Jack Shainman invested in Subodh Gupta,when he was just another Indian artist.

Quality is a concern for many Indian buyers,given that a lot of overpriced and mediocre art is termed “affordable”. Says Renu Modi of Gallery Espace: “Affordable is a relative term and it’s about fitting into an individual’s budget. There was a point when I was selling (GR) Iranna and Subodh for Rs 30,000. One needs a vision while buying art and one should go to galleries with a good track record,not fly-by-night dealers.” For young collectors,though,she advises prints,etchings,drawings and photographs by established names,rather than a large canvas by an unknown artist who might have no future in the market.

The one way to make sure you do not get stuck with bad art is to do your research and avoid impulsive buys.

Making detailed enquiries about the art and the artists allows one to take informed risks.

Ranjana Steinruecke agrees that affordable art can be a good gamble. “Generally,people buy art that excites them. Investment is the second consideration. But if it’s a toss-up — say you love a piece of affordable art made by a famous artist,and you’ve also discovered something new and fantastic done by a relatively unknown artist — buy both and spread your risk. Chances are the latter will increase in value. The former could also become very valuable with time,” she says.

Prabhjot Sohal

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