The rush at the Fine Arts Faculty in Vadodara for a peek at the exam work of final-year students in May last year could easily match the recruitment frenzy at a B-school campus. The scorching heat, the riots in the city and the curfew could not keep away eager gallery owners from Mumbai and Delhi.
Many of these postgraduate artists such as Sonatina Mendes, Malavika Rajnarayan, Prantik Chattopadhyay and Kruti Thaker, have already put together their first successful solo show or participated in group exhibitions at influential galleries in Mumbai and Delhi.
It is not just the Vadodara school that attracts this kind of interest. Across the country, top art schools are swamped by talent scouts searching for potential genius. Now that the art market has turned sharply competitive, galleries are vying to be the first in queue to bag the loyalty of upcoming artists with lucrative offers.
Once, a handful of private art galleries provided a platform to a small coterie of artists, usually well established. Art graduates would struggle with random jobs for years, hoping that some gallery would recognize their merit and adopt them.
“Today the scene is more democratic,’’ says Nikhileswar Baruah, a 40-year-old artist who has been working out of Vadodara for 20 years now. “Earlier, you could survive on art only if you worked with a major gallery.’’
Prices of art works by established names have shot through the roof, making them inaccessible to newer and younger collectors. This means either waiting till they can afford this art or investing in younger artists. Galleries were quick to catch on to this fact and started catering to this growing segment of the market.
J.J. School of Art graduate Pradeep Mishra, 30, remembers a time when the scene was bleak for new entrants. Even graduates from his school, one of the most prestigious in the country, were ignored by Mumbai galleries. “There was no certainty about our future,’’ he says.
Mishra’s life has changed since his first break after postgraduation—a major two-man show with a new but ambitious Delhi gallery in 2004. Around that time, galleries had begun looking out for new artists with potential. Another artist to benefit from the talent search is Prantik Chattopadhyay. He completed his postgraduation in May last year, had his first solo show at Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai by August, and is now a significant presence at group shows.
Last year, Bodhi Art announced an award for final-year fine arts students from all national art colleges. Along with a prize of Rs50,000, the gallery offered to hold an exhibition at one of its venues in four cities.
The ones to benefit from this boom weren’t just young artists. The market began wooing older artists it had snubbed earlier. Artists Rajan Krishnan, Gopi Krishna, Zakir Hussain, George Martin, Sumedh Rajendran and Binoy Verghese, among others from Kerala, are doing extremely well with sold-out shows in India and opportunities to exhibit in New York and Europe. Bose Krishnamachari, who organized ‘Double Enders’ in 2005, introducing artists from Kerala to Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, among other cities, says, “The boom has solved many problems. The exposure the artists are receiving has given them confidence and they are doing well.”
Recommendations of senior artists and those who matter in the circuit are beginning to count a little less. Galleries are choosing to turn professional, hiring curators and art critics to spot the next big artist.
With connoisseurs open to investing in experimental works, artists who are willing to take a creative risk are also finding the market easier to operate in. Says Shalini Sawhney of Guild Art Gallery, which has been exhibiting established as well as emerging artists, “The audience today is more responsive to experimental art and respects artists who take risks.” For instance, the market is now quick to absorb installations by a few artists. There are galleries that are willing to showcase installations that are not even for sale. They do this to share an experience with the audience and provide creative freedom to the artist.
Delhi-based artist and photographer Samit Das says galleries have turned more efficient and open in their dealings with the creative community. “Many galleries buy works from the artists, instead of keeping them on consignment. Payments are regular,” he says.
Galleries are now happy to invest in catalogues, frames, transport, insurance and documentation—once considered unwanted expenses. Some are even willing to pay for the residential and studio needs of artists, in exchange for loyalty.
The dictates of the galleries seem to be driving the artists’ creative instinct. Says Baruah, “There was greater scope for experimenting when artists did not survive on art sales. It did not matter whether they sold their experiment or not as their bread and butter came from a job. Today they would rather continue to create what the market expects from them.”
India’s art economy is still in a transitional stage. The market remains short of qualified art historians, trained critics and curators. Galleries have not introduced scientific methods of authentication. There are a number of issues that will need to be worked on if the art market is not to turn into what Kerala artist Babu Xavier dismisses as a charade. “Commercial interests are the rule of the day. I’d say we still are in an immature art economy. Many developments in the field have less to do with art. It is more like a big tamasha,” he says.
Jasmine Shah Varma is an independent curator and art writer based in Mumbai . Write to firstname.lastname@example.org