Delhi Art Fair Looks for New Owner

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Delhi’s annual India Art Fair was a success last weekend, even though its Swiss owners have put it up for sale. It brought together a focused collection of 75 Indian and international galleries that reported substantial sales, plus other displays, though the organizers shied away from revealing attendance figures.

The fair is becoming significant for inspiring fringe events, which this year included gallery exhibitions of leading artists such as Arpita Singh, an under-recognized painter now aged 82, and the opening of an art museum at the Old Delhi’s Red Fort with four galleries of works tracing India’s history that is attracting thousands of visitors.

Ayesha Kidwai with Grandma, oil on canvas by Arpita Singh at the Kiran Nadar Museum

The past year however has not seen strong sales in the Indian modern and contemporary art market. This was confirmed by ArtTactic, a London-based analysis firm, whose 2019 South Asian Art Market Report recorded only a 6.8 percent increase in sales of seven leading auction houses during 2018 compared with 17 percent a year earlier.

The report highlights a trend that has been evident throughout the year and reported on this blog – that Christie’s and Sotheby’s are being beaten on sales by Indian-based auction houses, notably Saffronart but also Astra Guru, whose sales rose 63 percent.

Overall, art market sales rose 7.7 percent to an estimated USUS$240m with gallery sales rising 9.1 percent. This included a revival of the flagging contemporaries, whose sales doubled to USUS$5.82m. But, as ArtTactic emphases, the auction market is still dominated by a handful of famous names led by Tyeb Mehta (USUS$15.4m sales), S.H. Raza (USUS$15.2m) and M.F. Husain (USUS$10.8m), with the top 25 artists accounting for 87 percent of the auctions’ total.

A Krishen Khanna bandsman and F.N. Souza painting on the Dhoomimal Gallery stand at the art fair

ArtTactic also produced a report on South Asian Art and Philanthropy, focusing on a growing number of public art initiatives that have more than doubled in the past ten years with over 30 new openings.

The latest of these is the Red Fort project where the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), building on its reputation for substantial expenditure on shows, has taken over a 27,000 sq. ft. three-storey barrack block for a year.

It has four historical exhibitions with patriotic themes covering three centuries of art, the most stunning of which are portraits by British and Indian artists of people ranging from grand maharajahs to a self-portrait by modern artist Paritosh Sen, and a collection of works by India’s nine “art treasure” artists including Rabindranath Tagore and Raja Ravi Varma. There is also a remarkable collection (bought intact by DAG from a London owner) of all the 144 aquatint prints produced by Thomas and William Daniell after they traveled around India at the end of the 18th century.

Restored by the government’s usually lethargic Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the colonial era barrack is part of a revival project supported by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, who is encouraging the development of patriotic and nationalist museums. He opened galleries in two barracks at the Red Fort last month, including the DAG’s and one devoted to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a prominent political leader who sided with the Japanese against the British during the second world war. Two other museums follow the theme critical of the British covering the 1857 army uprising (mutiny) and the 1919 Amritsar massacre.

According to the ASI, about 4,000 people visited the museums on February 1. Some 1,500 of them went to DAG’s galleries that were only just opened, a figure that rose to 2,500 two days later. This is presenting a challenge faced by all such public shows in India – how to make people aware of the remarkable works they are viewing.

I was at the DAG museum on February 1, and many of those I saw seemed to have no comprehension of what they were looking at. Walking quickly, they glanced briefly at important works, thus reducing the value of the exercise. “The visitors are mostly ill-informed about art. Most would never have seen an original work in their life, so they will not know quite what to make of what they are seeing,” acknowledges Kishore Singh of the DAG.

A similar point is made by Peter Nagy, who runs Nature Morte, a gallery in Delhi and is the curator of an impressive sculpture park in the Madhavendra Palace at Jaipur’s 18th century Nahargarh Fort. This is the first such exhibition in India and, while it is not part of the art fair program, it was linked to the annual Jaipur literature festival last month. Displaying the sculptures in the grand setting of the palace, it is another example of the new ventures mentioned in the ArtTactic report, in this case a partnership between the Rajasthan state government and private philanthropists.

Spine of Spine by Savia Mahajan in the Madhavendra Palace Sculpture Park

“We get 5,000-6,000 people visiting the Sculpture Park every day during the October-March high season…..If we get 100 people per day paying attention to the art and being inspired to learn more about contemporary art in general, then I think we are doing great,” says Nagy.

The DAG is working on ways to improve the access to information and has hired staff and interns to guide visitors, while the sculpture park is developing an educational program.

“Once visitors encounter the artworks, they are engaging by reading our signs in both Hindi and English, taking photographs and asking questions,” says Noelle Kadar, the park’s director.

Arpita Singh


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India’s most prominent philanthropic collector is Kiran Nadar, who has two museums in Delhi and staged the Arpita Singh exhibition that is open for six months (video of the works and opening here). There are 109 oil paintings, watercolors, works on paper and sketchbooks on showing, as one writer has put it, Singh’s “carnival of images arranged in a curiously subversive manner” with an artistic approach described “as an expedition without destination”.

This was the first retrospective of an artist who hit the headline in December 2010 when one of her works, Wish Dream, was sold in a Saffronart on-line auction for USUS$2.24m, which was the highest price achieved by an Indian woman artist at auction and a world record price for an artwork sold online. Since then there has been a steady flow of Singh’s works in auctions but no spectacular sales. Experts suggest that is partly because owners have been seeking unrealistically high estimates and reserve prices, while auction houses have not been willing to risk reserves not being met.

Girls by Arpita Singh at the Kiran Nadar museum

That might now change, following the interest generated by Kiran Nadar’s show. It will be worth watching to see whether Arpita Singh now gains the same popularity in auctions that happened to Bhupen Khakhar, a provocative gay artist, after his retrospective three years ago in London’s Tate Modern gallery.

Most galleries are shy of revealing their sales, but there have been various positive reports from this year’s fair. Foreign galleries have had mixed results in past years, but the New York-based David Zwirner, which has branches in London and Hong Kong, was showing for a second year and said relationships it had built with Indian collectors had “really paid off.” Strong sales included a work by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama bought by a “major India collector”, as well works by other artists new to the Indian market. Zwirner also has a work in the sculpture park.

A poster in the DAG’s Red Fort galleries

Prajit Datta from the Aicon Art in New York said works had been sold by five of its seven artists on show. They included a sculptures by Rasheed Araeen, an influential British-Pakistani artist, and by the Algerian- French Rachid Koraichi, both of whom are collected by the Kiran Nadar museum.

Delhi’s Vadehra and Dhoomimal galleries reported sales ranging between USUS$2,000 and USUS$140,000, while Chatterjee & Lal from Mumbai put theirs at USUS$2,800 to USUS$42,000.

Fair buyers

With so much activity, it may seem odd for the fair to be up for sale, but the MCH Group of Switzerland, which runs the internationally famous Art Basel fairs in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong, decided last November to cut back its activities and abandon plans for a string of regional art fairs after it was hit by a fiasco at its key watches fair.

Mahbubur Rahman’s Transformation in the Madhavendra Palace Sculpture Park

It is selling the 65 percent controlling interest in the India fair that it started buying in 2016. Angus Montgomery Arts, a UK-based exhibition and events company that has been involved since 2011, has a 35 percent stake, which it says it is interested in expanding. Other rumored potential Indian and international bidders for the 65 percent include Sunil Munjal of the India’s Hero auto industry family, who runs the annual Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. Galleries and auction houses are being excluded.

MCH appointed a new CEO this week who will finalize valuations and a timetable. The group is being criticized by people involved in the fair for its inconsistency as an investor, and for bringing uncertainty to the event, though MCH says it will remain committed till a sale is agreed. It is credited with having sharpened the focus and raised the standards of exhibits under a new director, Jagdip Jagpal, who took over last year.

Whoever buys control will inherit a fair that is now well established, though the limited participation by foreign galleries – there were only 15 out of the 75 – shows that it is not yet fully recognized on the international art circuit. Aside from that, its real value is the way that important events are expanding on the fringe, broadening the opportunities for those with no knowledge or experience to view the best the art can offer.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.