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The first day of Sotheby’s three-day course on International contemporary art—the famed Sotheby’s Institute of Art’s first foray into Mumbai—paid homage to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. The early 20th century artist may have lived among the moderns, but his sensibility and response to the changing times and technology renders him the most significant artist of his century, and —though he’s no longer alive and making art—a contemporary artist.

Kathleen Madden, art historian and faculty at the University of Columbia, took an intensive day-long session on international contemporary art, delving into artistic innovations of the past centuries, such as photography and film, and Western artists’ responses to them. It was followed by visits to two art shows—the Piramal Museum of Art, and Gallery Odyssey, where a group show curated by Arshiya Lokhandwala is being exhibited. The participants included collectors, artists, gallerists, art writers, journalists and enthusiasts. The course ends on 3 September.

The lecture started off with Madden posing an important question—how does one define contemporary art? Leading the class through a series of artworks, including some seminal ones like Duchamp’s Fountain (the famed urinal, 1917), Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), Bruce Nauman’s photograph Self-portrait as Fountain (1966-67), Madden also touched upon the ways in which contemporary art was a form of “visual philosophy" that eschewed formalism and adopted multiple materials and forms to convey concepts in ways that were both, disruptive and intentional.

One of the participants who was a well-known collector and patron of the arts asked whether an artist was necessarily a creation of gallerists and collectors, adding that she still held the romantic perception of an artist existing outside, and often, despite the system. This led to an intense conversation about the art market and the role played by gallerists and collectors in generating an artist’s worth. Madden pointed out how more artists today have Masters degrees in Fine Arts, which wasn’t the case not too long ago. This indicated a shift in the way artists have begun to invest in themselves as professionals, and the art market has responded in kind. The art system, said Madden, has a process of filtration and doesn’t let everyone in easily.

One of the main points Madden also made was the gender bias inherent in the art market. She gave the example of her own class of 16 students with equal number of men and women, of whom all men were represented by a gallery at the end of their course, while only one woman received representation. “The only thing I tell people on how to correct this, is that more women collectors need to start collecting women artists," she said.

The London-based auction house established the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in 1969, and since the past 13 years, it has been independently owned by Cambridge Information Group. It has academic centres in London, New York and Los Angeles, and also offers online courses. The institute also offers post-graduate diplomas and degrees, besides short term semesters and summer courses. British auction house Christie’s also offers courses on different subjects related to the arts, including the international art market, Asian art, law, and luxury.

Yamini Mehta, international head of modern and contemporary South Asian Art, Sotheby’s, said the “bespoke" three-day course came about due to the suggestion of clients. “We wish to educate people about what is happening internationally, so that they can relate it to what is happening locally," she said. Part of the impetus is also to bring Indian contemporary art on the map—while neither Christie’s nor Sotheby’s offers a module specifically on Indian art, the three-day course does intend to delve into the Indian contemporary art scene, by bringing in speakers like Mehta, former gallerist Abhay Maskara and Tasneem Mehta, the managing trustee of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad city museum in Mumbai. Ian Robertson, the head of art business at the institute, will also deliver lectures on the international art market.

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