Art Basel parent company co-owns India Art Fair
The new partners Neha Kirpal and Marco Fazzone clarify what this tie-up means
The MCH Group, which runs the prestigious Art Basel fairs—in Basel, Miami Beach and Hong Kong—and India Art Fair have announced a partnership under MCH’s new initiative to create a portfolio of regional art fairs. As a co-owner, MCH now holds a majority 60.3% stake in India Art Fair, while Angus Montgomery with which the fair had tied up in 2011 retains 29.7%, and Neha Kirpal, the founding director of the India Art Fair, will own 10 %.
The parent company that runs Art Basel, which is considered the leading art fair brand in the world, had earlier in the year decided to strengthen its presence in the regional art fair network, and appointed Marco Fazzone as the managing director of design and regional art fairs. India is the “first region of focus” for MCH, indicative of the growing international interest in Indian and South Asian art, and the building of a strong cultural ecosystem in the region, from Kochi Biennale to Dhaka Art Summit.
While MCH insists that its participation in regional art fairs will remain separate from Art Basel, the benefits to India Art Fair from the association are enormous, especially in building confidence among global players in the art market and bringing further international visibility to Indian artists and galleries.
Neha Kirpal and Fazzone spoke to Mint Lounge about their new partnership and what it means for India Art Fair. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us why the first partnership in MCH’s new regional art fairs portfolio has been with India Art Fair?
Neha: Yes, it’s a big milestone in that regard.
Marco: We’re trying to bring together regional art fairs through a portfolio, trying to find strong local partners and organisations, have organisers of art fairs come together and develop new plans and also share synergy, resources, infrastructure. Bringing together regional art fairs means also to build a bridge between the region and the international art market. That means to elevate the regional art ecosystem. It’s not copy-pasting art fair models. It is respecting the regional identities in the art market.
Neha, it’s been eight years since you started the India Art Fair, and the vision has been to be an international art fair, isn’t it?
Neha: From our perspective, the art fair has gone through different phases in its evolution. When it started off in 2008, it was really born as an innocent experiment in the art market. The focus was on access, education and building a market from the ground up. Then, three to four years into that journey, the art fair reached a point of stability where we were providers of solid art fair infrastructure delivered in the international standard, had a great selection of Indian content and galleries present and became an interesting reference point or experiment for international galleries who wanted to get a sense of the Indian market.
Over the last two to three years, the art fair has been introspecting about what kind of strategy will give it its place globally. In an environment where the market is redefining themselves, content is coming out of new, emerging corners, there isn’t one or two centres anymore; there are actually several centres around the world.
So, it was an inward looking strategy where we decided that given the ecosystem that we have helped in building over the last few years and the explosion of cultural activity with all the biennales and everything in the region, this art fair really needs to be the commercial reference point and enabler for markets of the region, and command a place as a supporter of all the biennales and activities in the region that are to do with artistic practise, but help give it a commercial and international platform.
The idea was to find partners who can help in achieving our objective of internationalising the South Asian and Indian art scene, creating more value for us, both in a domestic and globalised art world. Also someone who has a long-term sustained vision for the arts, who also have a history, in this case with all of their art brands that go back four to five decades, but who respect the unique identity and the unique way of functioning here in India.
I appreciate that MCH has a a great sense of openness in collaborating and in accepting the differences in how a region operates. At the same time, there is the expertise, experience and the access that the group has globally. I feel this partnership has great strategic impact not just on the art fair but on the various stakeholders that are associated in South Asian art world, and also on how the rest of the world is looking at South Asia as a region. The fact that this is the first regional art fair that is being adopted by MCH and the fact that it has an ambition of creating an alliance of fairs, I see the next two to three years, as soon as that, a new art ecosystem developing globally, a network that gives each participant fair global access and a global leverage in a way that no individual region can have.
What are the these differences in regional art fairs that you are referring to?
Neha: Every region has its own dynamics and its own needs, it is in a different stage of growth and development as an art market. So in India we ‘re a developing economy, a developing art market. It’s all about new collectors, the next generation, education, further outreach, building an art culture.
Marco: Each market has its own DNA, its own identity. The main part of our strategy is learning, listening to and observing the DNA specific to each region. Outside of Switzerland, we run fairs with local partners, really respecting the DNA of the ecosystem. I think we can say a region gets the show that it deserves or needs. It’s not about taking a generic model of a fair and bringing it elsewhere.
In 2008, the economy crashed, and India Art Fair suffered as a result. Do you see a turnaround now?
Neha: In August 2008 Lehmann Brothers collapsed and August was the first edition of the art fair, But I think the effect was the opposite. The art fair may not have commercially gained from the situation, but what happened was that because everyone was so badly hit, the idea that there was one common platform where the market could come together and feel a sense of community worked positively in favour of the art fair. Over the years we worked together with various market players to reviving the market. Now this association will further that same focus. The idea is not to wake up a market that has collapsed; the idea is to build a new market, to deepen it, to go to the next generation, to different segments.
So we have a two-pronged model. The thing that the art fair needs to deliver to its clients is a broader, deeper, more engaged market, both international and domestic—going deeper to Tier 2 cities, newer collectors, professionals, really tapping into the wealth that is currently being spent on real estate and jewellery and other asset classes but not on art. So creating a culture for art, for collecting.
The second objective is the internationalising of the art scene here, which is to reach more collectors and patrons around the world. This alliance will add tremendous value in our reach and ability to bring global attention to India.
And when you’re talking about internationalising the art scene here and accessing newer audience, it has to do with, on the one hand, the access that MCH already has. It also has to do with this new access that they are now creating in different regions, all of which have things in common, because they are regions that are strong and compelling, with strong art fairs already. I know they will have many things formalised within a year or two. So we are not talking a decade into the future. Very quickly, there is going to be this alliance that we will each be able to feed off and exchange best practice, contacts, resources, experience and market potentials. So automatically, if there are six or eight or 10 fairs, it’s those many more markets that open up for us in a very direct, immediate way because it is part of a alliance.
Will we see the impact of the partnership in the next edition of the fair in February 2017?
Neha: I think a lot of the value additions that have been coming over the last two months are behind the scenes and they are to do with strategy, collector development, further effectiveness for us as an art fair. More tangible benefits will available over 2018 and onwards.
Marco: This is not a less important period of time. But not if you ask about visible changes like projects or digital projects that’s going to be the focus of the 2018 edition.
What are these digital projects?
Marco: We are thinking about—and we are not the only ones in the industry—digital platforms, a new forum for interacting with our clients, collectors, institutions. We will build a digital bridge between the different stakeholders in this ecosystem.
Neha: And I think the impact of the digital strategy is going to be in two big substantial ways. One is it just blurs all the borders of course. So content out of India as part of the alliance is as alive anywhere else in the world as in India and that gives our galleries and participants in the market a lot more reach. And the other thing is that it goes beyond the four days of the art fair. So automatically it gives you tremendous value and visibility globally.
This is one of the strategies to broaden the base domestically as well?
Neha: That is something that was already the thought process before MCH joined us, so the last two years we’ve actively worked on cultivating Tier 2 and 3 cities. Its meant identifying key constituents through our sponsor network, gallery network and through collectors, but from cities that nobody imagined— for instance,four to five cities in Rajasthan, four to five cities in Punjab, a few cities in Andhra Pradesh. How do you take that one gallery and make their programme available to newer, younger, nameless, faceless people from around the country? We now have on our database a lot of intelligence on our clients—we understand their buying patterns and who they’ve been largely buying with. Given that there’s so much activity in the South Asian region, we also want to do that across borders.
Did MCH’s idea of supporting regional art fairs emerge from the Art Basel Hong Kong experience?
Marco: It has nothing to do with the Art Basel strategy. It’s impossible to develop an art fair on that scale. It took 48 years to develop the market for Art Basel so it’s not done in one or two years. The origin was more that MCH took the decision to be more visible in the art market in general, to do something for the regional art markets . But it’s a separate market segment (from Basel), and a separate approach.
Neha: The right way to look at this is the idea is not to have a stamp model of Art Basel around the world. That doesn’t serve anybody well. On the one hand, we have internationalised art fairs, destination fairs like Art Basel has, where the global art community gets together and those are large format fairs that are not focussed on one individual market or one region. And then you have interesting regional fairs that have a strong practice and command over their region, and it’s about taking that region’s focus to the rest of the world, not the other way around. The idea is not to aspire to become an Art Basel or grow into that brand. It’s very important for us to retain our identity, retain our brand and to work with a global partner who understands that. Each fair in the alliance will have its own identity, it will benefit from the group association with MCH and the experience and legacy that they have, while retaining that individual essence.
Marco: We keep the local brand, we do not have a huge mono-brand strategy. We keep the local identity, while bringing the quality to an international level; it’s bottom-up and not top-down brand strategy.
What are the other partnerships MCH is looking at?
Marco: We have no restriction from geography. We are in discussion with potential partners, but there are no signed contracts yet. It’s a plan that will be realised over the next two to four years. We will take our time; the more we analyse and understand the partner region, the better it is for the partnership.
Neha, you now retain only 10% stake in the company. What will your role be from now on?
Neha: My role will be absolutely the same as it has always been, which is to nurture it, develop it and look at a new strategy with new partners. So I think the approach from an entrepreneural perspective has not changed. Equity is one part of my relationship, but for all practical purposes, I will remain as active, as involved, as committed for this new partnership.