Second India Art Summit Sees Overwhelming Attendance, Modest Sales

Second India Art Summit Sees Overwhelming Attendance, Modest Sales
The second India Art Summit in Delhi turned out to be an extraordinary event. With 54 mostly Indian galleries showing both new and favorite artists, a sculpture park, and several side events, it became more than just a standard art fair.

For many participants, particularly art world insiders, the most engaging aspect of the Art Summit was the International Speakers’ Forum, spread across six sessions. Speakers, ranging from French art theorist Thierry de Duve to leading Chinese scholar and curator Gao Minglu and Tate curator Nicolas Bourriaud, talked with Indian art critics, artists, art historians, and curators, resulting in a vibrant discussion across three days. These sessions drew important international curators — such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, Lorenzo Rudolf, and Melissa Chu — but it was the summit itself that proved the real draw, with thousands coming in to check out the wares on offer, not with any intention of buying, necessarily, but just to look. And with many bringing along their children, the event had a younger median age than any run-of-the-mill gallery opening in this relatively child-friendly city.

This year’s summit felt very different from last year’s debut. That smaller event took place when the art market was still booming. Not so this one. Many of the galleries exhibiting this year said (rather reasonably) they were focused on linking up with audiences and introducing them to the art they handled rather than on making sales.

Peter Nagy, of the cutting-edge Nature Morte gallery in Delhi and Berlin, was unequivocal about seeing the summit as an opportunity to show people “what is out there.” And what about sales? “I’m not even thinking of them,” he remarked. “My focus is for visitors to learn about the artists we show, and understand them better.” As it turned out, not only was his booth crowded with visitors, but some of them even bought works on the spot. Proving very popular were Archana Handes paintings on cloth, which use folk art iconography in a contemporary context. They were priced at just under $2,000.

But art fairs are ultimately about selling, of course, and with booths priced as high as $15,584, a steep rate by Indian standards, clearly there were expectations. But these were not entirely dashed. In fact, conversations with galleries revealed two trends: inexpensive work by standout young artists was moving, and buyers were rounding off or filling gaps in existing collections.

One of the earliest sales at the summit took place in the booth of New York gallery Aicon, which sold three sculptural works from its Aicon Editions (a series of small sculptures made in small batches) at $1,000 apiece to Delhi collector Arjun Sharma. The news, heralded as a sign that the art market drought was breaking, was reported in a leading daily newspaper. The coverage acted as a sort of good luck charm for Aicon, which went on to sell a large Adeela Suleman sculpture made from flat steel industrial discs with perforations that cast shadows on the surface below. The work was purchased for the art collector Kiran Nadars museum.

Sharma went on to buy an Archana Hande work from Nature Morte and, at Mumbai’s Fine Art Company, a work by little-known Western Indian artist Nilesh Kumavat, whose most popular pieces simulate stacks of bookshelves arranged to create dynamic figures. A representative for another buyer bought a second, similar Kumawat almost simultaneously, while the young artist stood by and watched quietly and triumphantly.

Sales continued throughout the three-day summit. A well-reputed Mumbai gallery, Sakshi, attracted attention mainly for the dramatic El Anatsui work it had on display — a giant sheath seemingly woven out of hundreds of bottle caps and other scraps of metallic trash — but went on to sell two of three editions of Sunil Gawdes 2009 sculpture Heart Beat Beat Heart, a series of red hearts with nails in them, for $32,000 each.

Another well-known Delhi gallery, Espace, sold a life-sized paper sculpture of a bicycle by young, Jaipur-based artist Jagdish Kumar for $3,200, after it had been attracting lots of attention. Why did it go so cheap? “He is a new artist — people haven’t seen enough work by him,” a gallery representative explained, “so we have to sell him at these prices.”

Espace typified both of the leading trends at the fair: finding buyers for high-quality work by lesser-known artists and enhancing existing collections with established names, such as the New York–based Indian artist Zarina Hashmi, who has somewhat of a cult following in India. The gallery had six early works from the 1970s on display, each created from white paper and nautical rope, and managed to sell five of them, at $ 4,167 apiece. Of course, the gallery’s excellent reputation didn’t hurt, reassuring buyers at what is still an uncertain time.

Several galleries were able to use their booths to draw prospective clients’ attention to stores of works not on display. Delhi-based Threshold, for example, used an album and the Internet to sell a work by sculptor Ved Guptas “Frog” series, which was located a 40-minute car ride away, for $7,292. And Delhi-based PhotoInk, India’s leading photography gallery, sold works by emerging artist Ebenezer Sunder Singh beyond what was in the physical booth. PhotoInk also encouraged visitor participation by displaying photographs from an upcoming show of Punjab landscapes by Max Khandola, along with an accompanying book that visitors (many from the region) could flip through.

Shireen Gandhy, director of the Chemould Prescott Road Gallery in Mumbai, also elicited a fair amount of excitement with her large booth. “I don’t usually deal with emerging artists,” she explained, but although she had works priced up to $31,250 (such as a painting by Hema Upadhyay), she tried to offer less expensive works even from her most prominent artists, such as small paintings by Shakuntala Kulkarni, priced at just over $300, and Archana Hande’s versions of traditional wedding portraits, which were going for about $1,000.

Both sold well. “This price range is what is going briskly,” Gandhy said. By the end of the summit, she had also sold the most eye-catching work she brought: two paintings by Desmond Lazaro, a lesser-known artist whose work combines traditional Indian painting with Western studio sensibilities, which went for $6,250 each.

But of all the exhibiting galleries, a relatively young entrant, Bangalore’s Galleryske, best matched its wares with the summit’s audience. “We learned that last year, between 10,000 and 15,000 visitors were not gallery-goers,” representative Aarti Sridhar explained. “But we wanted to engage these people in any case.”

So although the gallery represents several cutting-edge artists, it displayed only works from its store, called Storeske, all of which are handmade by the artists but reproduced in larger or unlimited editions to sell at inexpensive prices. By the last day of the summit, the store had sold out its 24 sets of Sudharshan Shetty sculptures, featuring eyeglasses with melting lenses set in a box, at $300 apiece.