At last month’s India Retail Forum, the organizers took over the Renaissance Hotel in the Mumbai suburb of Powai and shrouded the hotel grounds in a large-hearted marquee that housed stalls selling shopping carts, shelves, design assistance and bar codes. Thousands came, and hundreds of orders were placed.

The quintessential trade fair is a long haul from what we consider the right space to showcase art. But art fairs, the trade equivalent of the art world, have suddenly become a popular spot for Indian galleries. Critics say they have become the New-Age equivalent of an old favourite, the art camp.

Nature Morte’s Fiac entrants are Rats and Generals in a Zoological Park by Probir Gupta

It would take many art openings to provide the audience that each of these fairs offers. Earlier this year, at Art Basel in Switzerland, around 60,000 visitors turned up to see an international selection of about 300 galleries displaying more than 2,000 artists; in September, the Asian art fair biggie, ShContemporary in Shanghai, saw more than 25,000 visitors flock to its stalls in four days; Fiac in Paris saw 88,000 visitors last year, while London’s Frieze Art Fair drew 63,000 visitors in 2006. “It’s a good business proposition," says Usha Gawde of Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery, which went to the Singapore Art Fair earlier this month and will show at Art Miami in December. “A crazy amount of people come to these things."

Fairs offer a unique blend of international collectors, buyers and viewers that a localized art opening in Mumbai or New Delhi simply can’t match up to. “French collectors, for instance, are very interested in Indian art, but it isn’t always possible for them to come here and buy. So when we are there, they can get what they want without the hassles of shipping, et cetera," says Peter Nagi of Nature Morte, which will exhibit at the Fiac art fair in Paris later this month and at Art Basel Miami in December.

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And even if the getting in is easy, staying power can be difficult to come by. International fairs are very expensive. A small-sized booth at a fair can cost up to Rs10 lakh for a three-day period; then there’s the cost of shipment of the artworks, travel expenses, hotel stay, and a long list of incidentals. “Airfare, hotels, bookings, plus we’ve got to eat," says Nagi. “The entire cost can run up to $40,000-50,000 (Rs15-19 lakh). For big fairs, we try to partner with other galleries and split expenses to keep costs down." And while you know well in advance how much you put out, there is no telling how much you will bring in. Sales are not always guaranteed, there may be one windfall, and then you may end up waiting for someone to turn up and buy. At ShContemporary, for instance, Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road reportedly sold Jitish Kallat’s Autosaurus Tripous to a British collector for $125,000. Often, galleries pre-sell even before the official vernissages. But still, “even if you don’t make up the money you spend, the exposure you get is too important to pass up on," says Modi.

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But not everyone’s in the mood to make do with the expensive but restricted facilities of an art fair. Mortimer Chatterjee of Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal gallery intends to bypass these fairs completely because they have limited offerings. They are super-expensive; show for just three or four days; are unaesthetic; and the nature of an art fair is not conducive for video and installation art. So, “we’ve forged relationships with like-minded galleries in the US and Europe for a gallery swap. For a month, they get out of their gallery and we take it over, and then they do the same here. It makes for a more meaningful exhibit," says Chatterjee. But then, no one goes to a trade fair looking for meaning.