Art fairs may primarily be commercial events, but every international fair worth its salt has attempted to add intellectual heft to its presentation and create “The Art Event" through curatorial intervention. In its seventh edition this year, the India Art Fair finally decided to follow suit by appointing writer and curator Girish Shahane as artistic director—a first for the fair. Shahane has previously helmed Art Chennai and was one of the advisers to the now defunct Škoda Prize for Indian Contemporary Art.

For the fair, starting later this month, Shahane has curated the Artistic Projects segment—which features works by Francesco Clemente, Atul Bhalla and Daniel Buren, among others—and tied this to the Speakers’ Forum, which has panels featuring some of the artists, as well as curators like Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of dOCUMENTA, and Sheikha Hoor al Qasimi, director of the Sharjah Biennale and curator of the UAE pavilion for the Venice Biennale later this year.

Shahane speaks of his attempt to improve the projects at the India Art Fair, the need for better museums in the country, and why government patronage is important for the arts to flourish. Edited excerpts:

When were you approached by the India Art Fair?

The first conversation with (founder and fair director) Neha Kirpal happened in January 2014, if I remember correctly. The India Art Fair is the most important annual event in the Indian visual art calendar, and I was happy to associate with it as artistic director. While the fair has built a very strong brand, it had never previously had an art expert on the team. Having seen past editions, I felt I could help improve the special projects and the layout of the fair. The projects could be better organized, some weeding out could happen, and the conference could be tied in with the projects.

In most international art fairs, an artistic director has control over the overall presentation. Why is your role limited to two segments?

I am in charge of the special projects, the Speakers’ Forum, and the Spotlight Series, which is a new addition to the talks programme. Beyond this, I have contributed substantially to the layout and was consulted on gallery selection. I don’t consider this a limited role.

Does having a theme work at an art fair, bringing a unity, so to say, to the presentations?

I don’t think a theme would work well, because art fairs collaborate with participating galleries, each with its own roster of artists. It’s very different in a biennale, where curators have a large budget and can choose any artist they like, and therefore build an expansive thematic display. I have chosen work that I believe will interest laypeople as well as informed spectators.

The selection focuses on interactivity, site specificity, and temporality. The first term is self-explanatory, the second indicates works that are unique by virtue of being created for a particular location, and the third refers to works that change and develop in time. I have interacted with most of the artists, but the degree of it has varied. In some cases, the suggestion for a project came from me, in others from galleries.

How different has it been to curate the India Art Fair and Art Chennai?

The two assignments were very different, apart from the fact that both involved long-distance work. Art Chennai is spread across the entire city, and is more challenging in that respect.

The India Art Fair has been the only art fair to thrive in this country. What do you think is the reason for this?

Working with Neha Kirpal, I have seen at close quarters how driven and single-minded she is, and how passionate about building the fair. It’s always the people behind an organization that are the key to its success. Business models hardly vary from one company to another. During the dot-com boom, a number of art portals were launched, but only Saffronart survived. That was because Dinesh and Minal Vazirani had the passion, vision and ambition that others didn’t.

What are the highlights of the fair this year?

The Delhi Art Gallery has an absolutely massive booth, and they plan to cover most of the major movements in modern Indian art. I believe the outdoor projects will make a big impact, with the street artist Daku, the world renowned Francesco Clemente, and locals like Vishal Dar and Veer Munshi in the mix. The conference has been integrated with the exhibition for the first time, so 10 artists featured in our special projects will also participate in Speakers’ Forum panels.

Do you see the art market picking up in the near future? What can motivate this change?

It will certainly pick up if the financial markets remain strong. The two are strongly correlated.

What needs to happen in this country in terms of building infrastructure for the arts?

We need many more museums, and better ones. And better teaching of art in school. A lot of people address the (state of affairs in art) in terms of the market, whether it will go up or down. That is a shallow perspective. That is because there are not many interested in art itself. The field of art in India is underdeveloped and under-patronized.

Development is not limited to the art market. The depth comes from instilling in young people the conviction of the importance of art. And that can come from schools and museums. That is what happens in Europe, where museums have school tours, and from a young age they are given the conviction of the importance and relevance of art. People in Europe buy art primarily for the love of it, not as an investment. In India, it’s the opposite; people buy as an investment. This attitude can only lead to booms and busts.

Is there real global interest in Indian art or is it limited to the big names at auction?

I think the interest from abroad is geared more towards innovative art than sticker prices.

Are more people in India beginning to collect art now?

I wouldn’t know, though I suspect not, at least not in substantial numbers. When I first became interested in art, all collectors bought for love, even if the price wasn’t substantial. At one point the boom started and genuine collectors were priced out or they too started buying into the idea of art as investment. Art as investment is a dreadful idea. It’s only good investment if buyers buy for love of the art.

The India Art Fair, for instance, started during the recession. The Europeans felt things were going down for them while they were looking up in India. That’s when they showed interest in India. However, the art market in Europe recovered better than in India. We were burnt out. That’s because Europeans are traditional buyers, they buy for the love of art; they had stability.

Is patronage for the arts dwindling in India?

It’s not exactly dying. Kochi (the Muziris Biennale, currently under way) pulled in a lot of private sponsorship. However, every big event—the India Art Fair is primarily a private initiative—and even private museums need government support, in terms of land and taxes. In Kochi, for instance, the government was the biggest sponsor. But the government needs to deliver on its promises. Unfortunately in India, it seems that we have all the duty and the government has all the rights. They promise and don’t deliver, and there is no accountability. That’s the downside to it.

What happened with The Škoda Prize?

This is connected to the size of viewership, as opposed to the scale at which they invest. When the spectatorship size is smaller, media interest is smaller too, and they cannot reach the level they want. I hope the Škoda art prize will be revived by another sponsor, though the chances of it happening diminish with each passing month.

The India Art Fair will be held in New Delhi from 29 January-1 February. For details, visit www.indiaartfair.in

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