India’s red-hot art scene

NEW DELHI, India — Inside New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan convention center, workmen with electric drills, staple guns and masking tape rushed to hang paintings, power up video installations and position sculptures for the public opening of India’s largest art fair today.

The atmosphere was frenetic, and the exhibitors were harried, but the excitement and optimism was palpable.

“It will take a few more years to get established as a significant international art fair, but I’m very optimistic about it because of the circumstances and focus on India,” said Gigi Scaria, an artist with several works for sale here. “The world is turning toward India, so that momentum is crucial.”

In its third year, the India Art Summit, which opens to the public today, is staking its claim as the next big art fair on the international calendar — hoping to compete with London, Miami and Basel within the next decade. Lured by India’s red-hot art market and growing number of art buyers, some 75 galleries will participate, top experts will speak on art in emerging markets and an education series will be conducted to inform buyers.

But even as more and more contemporary Indian artists cross the $100,000 threshold and experts predict the market will grow more than 10 times by 2018, artists and gallery owners are concerned that India lacks the institutions needed to build a strong body of serious, knowledgeable collectors.

“That’s down the road,” said Deepak Talwar, whose New York-based Talwar Gallery promotes several prominent Indian artists. “The amount of time it takes to get there will not just depend on the [Indian Art] Summit or any one factor. The biggest factor that will influence that is even some small interest from the government in terms of giving a little more attention to the art institutions, creating some new ones and improving the ones that they have.”

Indeed, India’s public art museums are in dismal shape. There are only a handful of institutions, their permanent collections are small and unimpressive, and the state of curating is dismal. Until its renovation last year, for instance, viewing the permanent collection at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art felt like stumbling on a few paintings in the basement of a college library, and even post-renovation, the ongoing show of the impressive works of sculptor-architect Anish Kapoor is marred by haphazard organization.

“Do they have any independent curators there? No. It’s one bureaucrat making all the decisions,” said Talwar.

That absence of state-run institutions has raised the stakes for the summit, which has to play a larger role than a typical sales-focused art fair. In a sense, it is emerging from the vacuum as a kind of focal point for the developing art scene, helping to create critical mass for budding domestic galleries and a host of disparate private initiatives aimed at creating institutions whose concerns run deeper than tracking the auction prices at Christie’s.

Apart from the 84 galleries that have taken booths at the fair, displaying some 500 artists, most of the New Delhi-based galleries have timed openings to coincide with the summit. On Wednesday night philanthropist Kiran Nadar launched a stunning private museum in the heart of the city’s shopping district. And Czech carmaker Skoda will announce the winner of its new prize for contemporary art on Friday evening — as the art summit opens to the public.

Essentially, three years after its rather humble beginning, the Indian Art Summit has created a reason for everybody interested in the future of Indian art to be in India in the same place at the same time.

Since the first Indian Art Summit, in 2008, the number of exhibiting galleries has tripled, the number of visitors is tipped to grow from fewer than 10,000 people to more than 60,000, and the value of works sold at the fair is expected to reach nearly $10 million, compared with less than $2.5 million in its first year.

Moreover, the number of international galleries attending this year — while still modest at only 34 — has doubled since 2010. And even though the bigger names, such as London’s Lisson Gallery, are here promoting top Indian artists such as Anish Kapoor, smaller and hungrier international galleries are dipping their toes in the water to see if India’s burgeoning art collectors can be tempted to look beyond Indian art. That means that works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dali and Damien Hirst are on the block, but also a host of lesser known artists from the U.K., Europe and Asia.

“With the Indian GDP booming and the number of Indian millionaires on the rise, a section of the international galleries are interested in exploring the potential of promoting their program to the Indian collector base,” said Arvind Vijaymohan, a consultant who advises art buyers. “The Art Summit is the most viable platform in the current context for anyone interested in connecting with Indian collectors.”

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