New Delhi: If Gagan Vij had been an industrialist, a threefold increase in the cost of his materials could well have meant the end of his business. But for Gagan Vij the bronze sculptor, the market looks good, despite soaring metal prices and a sluggish art market.
Sculptors in media such as bronze and stainless steel find that an increasingly knowledgeable base of Indian buyers, who buy more and buy more often, is helping soften the pinch of expensive materials.
Even as the art market as a whole has slowed, the sale of sculptures has forged ahead. Tunty Chauhan, director of the Gallery Threshold in New Delhi, estimated that there has been an increase in the sales of bronzes by at least 100% over the last two years.
“There has been a revival of sculpture,” said Prima Kurien, an independent art consultant in New Delhi. “Galleries have commissioned limited-edition bronzes despite high prices, and there have been more bronze shows in the last two or three years than in the couple of decades before. In fact, even some painters have turned towards working with bronze.”
Five years ago, when Vij started out in sculpting, his raw bronze cost Rs125 per kg. Now he buys his bronze for Rs380 per kg, and he observes a rise of Rs3-5 almost every week.
No heat: Sculptor Gagan Vij working with molten bronze. He says the market is getting better and, for artists, it will not make a difference whether the price of raw bronze goes up or down. (Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint)
“The saviour here is that the market is getting better, and for artists, whether the price of raw bronze goes up or goes down will not make a difference,” said Vij, a Faridabad-based sculptor.
A typical Vij bronze stands around 4ft high, and he casts 50-80 kg of bronze into such a sculpture. Accounting for some wastage, that involves roughly Rs40,000 of material input into the bronze. Including other costs such as equipment, fuel, and the labour rates of his six-person team, a bronze sculpture costs Rs1,000-1,200 per kg to create, and he has to cast at least 30kg of bronze a day just to break even.
“A senior artist once told me to price a piece by multiplying the cost of inputs by 10,” said Vij. He is able to sell his work only at a multiple of two or three, but even at that rate, he says that profits are better than they were a couple of years ago.
Stainless steel, another emerging medium, has also experienced sharp fluctuations and sudden rises in price, because of the underlying volatility of nickel on the world metals market. Nickel forms 8% of the highly refined 304-grade stainless steel, a popular choice with sculptors. The price of nickel reached a peak of $52,000 per tonne in May 2007, having risen from $25,000 in 11 months. Three months later, that price crashed back to $25,000, and it has since risen to $33,000.
Vibhor Sogani, who designs installations in stainless steel, has observed wild price fluctuations often within the course of a single day. In God & I, an ongoing exhibition at the industrial-chic The Stainless Gallery in New Delhi, owned by the Jindal family that runs several steel companies, Sogani largely uses 304-grade stainless steel to fashion wall mounts and floor installations. “The price of the 304-grade stainless steel that I buy has nearly doubled in the last two years,” said Sogani. The cost of a 12-gauge sheet measuring 8ft by 4ft now runs between Rs15,000 and Rs17,000, depending upon its finish.
Sogani pointed to one particular installation of his, on display at The Stainless Gallery, to illustrate the economics of stainless steel design. Titled The Kink Within, the installation consists of ankle-high, pyramidal hillocks, out of which grow tall, intricately wrought stainless steel flowers with shiny centres. “That installation needed 10 eight-by-four sheets, as well as around 500m of wire,” said Sogani. “That includes wastage, mind you. For every unit of stainless steel that ends up in the finished work, twice that amount will be discarded, since it is such a difficult material to work with.”
The Kink Within consumed roughly Rs3 lakh worth of stainless steel, and Sogani further retains a team of 10 to cut, bend, and craft his steel into installations. The final price of the installation, Rs15 lakh, takes all those costs into account, said Sogani. “The high price of material does naturally have an implication for the cost of the art.”
Educational institutions say it’s been easy to adjust. Pankaj Narain, a visiting faculty in materials exploration at New Delhi’s Pearl Academy of Fashion, said higher prices had changed nothing, and that students and teachers are only being a little more careful in how they use metal. At the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Pradyumna Vyas, head of education, said expensive stainless steel would only affect utilitarian products such as hospital beds.
“For many products, there are always alternative materials that can be used just as effectively. Exploring that is in itself sometimes an educational challenge,” said Vyas. “But art is a different prospect. It is already a luxury commodity, and Indians are buying art if it is of high quality.”
The market for stainless steel art remains limited in India, about 10-15% of the entire market of art buyers, said Sogani.
But individuals and companies are certainly showing more interest, and with the firm optimism of artist, Sogani said: “If somebody falls in love, they’ll buy it. No question.”