When the India Art Fair, erstwhile summit, was announced in 2008 at a hotel in Delhi, it was received with skepticism from collectors and connoisseurs, artists and art dealers. Twenty-something Neha Kirpal, a postgraduate in marketing creative industries, had famously written its business blueprint on an air sickness bag in an airplane. She had convinced her employers to give her a loan of Rs 1 crore, and planned the first edition in four months flat.
At the time, it was difficult to convince even 30-odd galleries to participate in the summit. Eight years later, the fair, last week, saw participation of 70-odd galleries, institutions from across the globe, from Spain to Sri Lanka. Its focus, over the years, has shifted from three-tier cities to representation from the West and to build it into a subcontinental affair.
While the organisers are still counting the final sales figures and sifting through the feedback forms, the question still remains, is India ready for an art fair? What purpose does and will the fair serve? The answer possibly lies in the history of arts fairs and the geo zones in which they have mushroomed – perhaps reflective of the strengthening of art economies in those countries. After all, its underlining purpose to facilitate trade and art education is also a means of initiation.
In 1967, two Cologne-based gallery owners conceived the Cologne Art Market – a trade fair where German galleries set up temporary stalls to exhibit their stock. The next year, a similar event started in Basel, with the inclusion of international galleries. The rest is history. The number of fairs now reportedly stands at 260 plus, with major ones spread from March to December, starting with The Armory Show in New York and ending with Art Basel Miami Beach.
Nearer home, there are fairs in Hong Kong, Dubai and Singapore. And though some might complain about the “fatigue” setting in, moving from one fair to another, there is no arguing that art fairs do make the process of viewing art more democratic. The uninitiated do not find art intimidating here (unlike galleries and museums) and there are no curatorial concepts to grapple with. More so, they are not under scrutiny of gallery owners who might not find them “worthy” of being shown the masterpieces, depending on their ostensible buying power.
That does not mean that fairs are for the proletariat. Business is integral to the survival of these fairs. Numbers will soon be out on trade at the IAF this year, but we know one thing for sure: fairs are the new marketplace, a single roof under which works from the world over can be brought together. Collectors are increasingly gathering at international art fairs, providing stiff competition to the traditional gallery model.
According to the 2015 The European Fine Art Fair Art Market Report, art fair sales amounted to an estimated EUR 9.8 billion in 2014 – 40 percent of total dealer sales. It is unquestionable, therefore, that art fairs are changing the way the art market operates. As American art critic Jerry Saltz stated, “Do we need art fairs? I don’t. But for now and for whatever complex reasons, we do. That’s how the art game works right now.”