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7 things we learnt from the 10th India Art Fair

There was much to celebrate about the recently-concluded India Art Fair, and this is what we took away from the country's premier art show

The layout was spacious and easy to navigate. Increased aisle space in booth areas allowed for comfortable movement, even in peak hours. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
The layout was spacious and easy to navigate. Increased aisle space in booth areas allowed for comfortable movement, even in peak hours. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The tenth edition of the India Art Fair (IAF) successfully concluded in New Delhi on 12 February. It has grown both in stature and size in the past eleven years, and remains the first, and, so far, the only initiative of its kind, bringing significant modern and contemporary art from various parts of the world under one roof. The fair has activated the local art ecosystem with several collateral events. This year, the list of the events that run on the sidelines of the fair was expanded further. Partnerships with Khoj and Khirkee Festival added curated walks in Khirkee village, providing an additional attraction for visiting art enthusiasts and collectors. “There is a lot that can be achieved with interactive walks to educate locals and visitors. And these must not be limited to the fair venue alone," says Jagdip Jagpal, IAF’s new director. This was the first edition of the fair lead by Jagpal and her team since the 2016 takeover of the fair by the MCH Group. The group owns and manages significant global events including Art Basel at two global locations. It was only natural for the art fraternity to watch this edition of the India Art Fair with enthusiasm and hope for a new direction, and participating gallerists were cautious and optimistic about how the event would pan out. Lounge looks at 7 things we learnt from the fair.

Life after de-cluttering

The layout was spacious and easy to navigate. Increased aisle space in booth areas allowed for comfortable movement, even in peak hours. “The MCH experience of managing large shows was evident," said Jal Hamad, Director, Gallery Sabrina Amrani. The Forum area for talks had a more contemporary and inviting feel, which significantly reduced the sense of intimidation and inaccessibility of art for the layperson. “From the time we came to set our booth, there was a sense of order and calm. It felt a lot more professional," said Sunitha Kumar Emmart of GallerySKE. Simple things like a lack of disproportionate space allocation for any one entity, and higher walls had a positive impact on the quality of the fair’s infrastructure. The fair’s organizers were supportive, and the increase in the number of volunteers was appreciated. “We were able to change the placement of art work in after hours based on what we learnt with the initial display, something that was disallowed in past," said Pooja Mishra, Director, Gallery Art District-XIII.

Focus on collectors

An art fair is a commercial space, and transactions are important for the key clients of the fair—the galleries. Almost all the galleries I spoke to confirmed that they were satisfied with the business they generated in the 4 days at the fair. Chatterjee & Lal and Jhaveri Contemporary were two returning galleries this year. “We are pleased to have engaged with new collectors at this edition," said Mortimer Chatterjee of Chatterjee & Lal. Visiting museum personnel and patrons from abroad allowed for increased opportunities for international placement of works of art. “It was heartening to see interest from foreign buyers," said Rasika Kajaria of Gallery Exhibit-320. The core team of the fair has the tough job of continuing to do more on this front, and not just during the event, but also in the run-in. “Building interest with international visitors happens as a run-up to the fair," said Emmart. However, there were concerns around distractions caused by events and parties outside the fair. According to Jagpal, the collector group is made up of responsible people and they are well aware of what needs to be done. “It’s a misplaced thought that we need to tell the visitors how to spend their time. The fair is open for 9 hours every day. As a matter of fact, often they like to get out only to get a breather. They end up discussing things with other colleagues and return with a fresh perspective," adds Jagpal. A potential way to address the issue could be to carve out a banquet area at the fair grounds that could be used to host international visitors. The fair management is well positioned to influence the calendar of events, and a creative solution would help with more time being made available with the visiting collector community.

Photo credit: Shantanu Prakash

Tighter curation, better aesthetics

According to Jana Suhani Soin, Associate Director, Aicon Gallery, the overall quality of art was more befitting of a contemporary art event. However, more can be done with respect to the curatorial vision as the fair continues to grow. This has become particularly important as new galleries from smaller towns participate. Their natural instinct would be to play things safe and showcase beautiful and excessively garnished art. However, artist Ashok Ahuja warns that there should be a limit to editing art. “Aesthetics is subjective. There will always be works you love and works you hate. What is important is to keep a wider spectrum albeit within the framework of what the fair stands for," he explained.

Variety is the spice of life

There was an increased diversity this year, both in terms of art pieces and price-points. New galleries from metros and smaller towns showcased younger artists. It was a Debutant gallery Art Centrix, for instance, showcased new artists Ankon Mitra, Ekta Singha, and Sangam Vankhade. Anant Art and TARQ have been part of the fair for a few years now, but showcased younger talent this year, like Ravi Chunchula and Rithika Merchant, respectively. The works of B.M. Anand, the modernist artist, were shown at a non-commercial space and was supported by a talk at the speakers’ forum. Photography, tribal and folk art was well represented. Video and performance art were presented at the Forum series. An experimental project by the artist duo, Thukral and Tagra, called Pollinator-Collection Bureau, was a hit. However, large-scale installations were missing. Contemporary art events remain somewhat incomplete without larger-than-life experiential works, a long-standing tradition at the event.

Photo credit: Shantanu Prakash

The Art Projects space

This was clearly separated from the booth area, although some more effort to create awareness about the space might have resulted in greater footfall. Traditionally, this section included works that were exploratory in nature and wouldn’t fit in easily in the commercial booth space. The works needed to be new, or at least never displayed before, and not meant for sale. “We tried something new. As a first step, we had to create a separate space. Now that this is done successfully, we will evolve the purpose of the space itself," said Jagpal. It would be interesting to see how this section develops while retaining the core purpose of a sponsored space for non-commercial art to complement the booth areas.

Power of the region

It is imperative to continue to have healthy participation from international galleries. Many feel that western contemporary art can help in educating viewers about newer trends. “We cannot develop a mature audience by just showcasing local art. People have to be aware of the global discourse to broaden the understanding," said Chatterjee. An increased focus on art from South Asia will help grow the business of art, a stated goal of the IAF in the future.

Photo credit: Shantanu Prakash

Support to galleries and art students

Galleries that aren’t as well funded as the bigger ones get discouraged due to prohibitive costs to take up space at a fair like this. Creative ways to provide space to such galleries could dramatically expand the ecosystem and broaden the net. Possibly, a large space for a curated group show of artists represented by such outfits may be an option. An active programming for art students seemed like a missing link. Art students in universities would gain immensely if their engagement with the IAF’s activities is facilitated. Partnership with Penguin for workshops for children was a welcome initiative.

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