Houston: Atul Vir’s day job revolves around washing machines, refrigerators and dishwashers.
That explains the various paintings and photographs of people doing laundry decking the walls of his appliance company’s offices. But a 3,000 sq. ft gallery called Shangri-La that fronts his appliance business in west Houston underscores his latest venture: bringing contemporary Asian art to Houston.
In recent years, major international art galleries, auction houses and collectors have been stocking up on Indian and Chinese art, pushing prices for some pieces into the millions.
Visual treat: A Subodh Gupta work on display at the Armory show in New York on 25 February. The growing economies of China and India have led to an infusion of new money and appreciation for art.
Locally, a few galleries are treading the trend, driven by more than just a recognition of a growing mainstream interest in Asian art. Houston’s increasingly affluent Asian population is buying fine art and giving generously to museums.
“It’s a business opportunity,” Vir said. “I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but there is an opportunity to create something of lasting value.”
The growing economies in China and India have led to an infusion of new money and appreciation for art, experts said. That new wealth is also being reflected in the art.
Locally, contemporary Asian art got a boost from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s recent exhibition titled Red Hot —Asian Art from the Chaney Family Collection. Houston’s Chaney family shared their collection with the museum, and local galleries carried works by some of the same artists in the Chaney collection for sale.
The museum has also announced plans for dedicated Asian art galleries. The first one, dedicated to Korean art, will open next month. Indonesian, Chinese, Indian and Japanese galleries will follow.
The museum decided to open the galleries because its Asian collection has grown in recent years, in part, because of new patrons that either have business interests in Asia or are from Asia.
“It’s a reflection of the tastes and values of the people that make up this part of the US,” said Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
“As the Asian population has increased, it’s very encouraging to me that collections are expanding, because it means the collections are remaining relevant.”
The Chaney exhibition spurred a relationship between McClain Gallery and Chinese Contemporary, a New York gallery that shows contemporary artists such as Zhao Bo and Zhang Dali.
Both artists are among those stocked by Houston’s McClain Gallery and come from a young generation of artists that grew up in a time of relative political stability and economic prosperity, which is reflected in their work.
Bo’s work, for instance, includes illustrations of traditional architecture next to fast-food restaurants and often is infused with pop culture references.
Scott Peveto, director of the McClain Gallery, says he gets calls from around the world, including from dealers and collectors in China, looking for contemporary Chinese art.
“Some of the work we have has become very desirable over the last three to four months, so they’re trying to get it wherever they can get it.”
Deborah Colton Gallery, which sells to collectors and museums, has seen much more interest from museums for the contemporary art, Deborah Colton said.
“It gives a humanistic side of what this rapid expansion does to the human element of society,” said Colton, who started as a virtual art dealer in 1997 in Bangkok, Thailand, before moving to Houston in mid-2000.
When Colton opened her local gallery in 2004, she knew she wanted to represent Asian artists. But she waited to establish herself as an international dealer before having any more Asian exhibitions.
“I didn’t want to be just an Asian art dealer because it wouldn’t give the artists as much strength,” she said. “I wanted to be able to give them a strong showing being regarded as an established international dealer before bringing them into the Deborah Colton Gallery.”
Though the Chinese art scene has exploded, the Indian one is just starting to gain steam.
Works by India’s top-selling contemporary artists such as Atul Dodiya and Subodh Gupta can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Tyeb Mehta’s work led the way across the million-dollar mark in 2005.
And now, arts of older modernists such as M.F. Husain or F.N. Souza can also fetch a million dollars at auction houses.
Bendetta Roux, a spokeswoman for Christie’s, said art from both countries has witnessed enormous price increases in recent years.
“Chinese art has been offered for sale for a longer period and has been recognized to a larger degree by the international audience than Indian art, which also explains the higher prices,” she said. “But Indian art is catching up quickly now.”
Shangri-La, being new to the art scene, will focus on Indian art ranging from $800 (Rs31,520 ) to $5,000. Vir also hopes to add contemporary art from other emerging markets, including China, where he has also hired a buyer.
He acknowledged it will take time to pick up locally because many Houstonians know of Asia’s traditional religious and village art but aren’t as aware of the contemporary art.
“It will be an education process,” Vir said. “But I think we’ll get there.”
©2007/THE NEW YORK TIMES