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Now, art promoters in ties!

September 06, 2007 12:19 IST

The Nehru Place commercial business district in New Delhi is not a place you normally associate with art, but somewhere in those choked lanes, an ambitious arts enterprise is taking shape.

It's true that enthusiasm rather than numbers and abstract ideas rather than actual programmes are all that the Religare Arts Initiative has to show for itself for now. But all that could change.

In a small room at Religare, a Ranbaxy promoter group firm, the starchy atmosphere one might associate with a financial services firm has been turned upside down on its head.

Men in formal clothes who might let out a private whoopee when returns outperform predictions, have literally loosened their ties and let down their hair to talk instead of artists whose names they might find hard to pronounce, but who they hope will make them more money than, er, real-state bonds perhaps.

At the centre of the entire strategy is Mukesh Panika who -- and he repeats this several times -- is "humbled" by the interest the art fraternity has shown in the venture.

"We are a very client-centric organisation," smiles Shachindra Nath, who is group chief operating officer of Religare Enterprises, "and for us art is a key product for our diversification."

The model is an ambitious one and, if Panika is to be believed, it beats anything in the country so far. Considering the art funds already in place -- including Edelweiss, Osian's and Crayon Capital -- and a market in which Johnnies-come-lately are promising assured minimal returns on an annualised basis on art investments, the Religare Arts Initiative could have been another me-too, knee-jerk reaction for investors demanding art in their portfolios.

Instead, its promoters are thinking big. While there is no word on the size of the corpus yet, it should launch its art fund towards the later part of this month, and by the end of the year it could have a gallery in a central location in Delhi (with a book store, café and souvenir shop) in place, to be followed by "franchisee-like" spin-offs in other metros.

It will hold physical and online auctions, collaborate with galleries and institutions internationally and nationally, launch an education and awareness programme for schools, have its own documentation and archives centre, an authentication lab and possibly even a conservation cell.

Expect advisory services as well as a residency programme for artists who would then be promoted "for better appreciation", says Nath, implying both exposure for the artist as well as a return on investment on their works.

For now, there is a small team of six people behind this effort, but Panika says more people will step on board as the programmes begin to go underway "as parallel initiatives, but also in a sequential manner". A large governance panel is promised, though only a few names are listed for now.

The list of advisors and consultants too will have to swell to incorporate the excitement of the Rs 1,500 crore art market in India. At this point, that counts for a mere 1 per cent of the international art market, but if Religare is able to push through its schemes with the passion that its loquacious team promises, it could make it a part of a more buoyant global industry.

"We want to use the art fund not just to make money but to put part of that money in building up the arts infrastructure for the next hundred years," says Panika. It's something artists (who want consistency), collectors (who want documentation) and support industries like insurance and banking (who want standardisation) will be watching out for.

But, mostly, says an analyst, "It is being closely watched by other corporates who may follow the initiative by launching their own programmes." That's consolidation in phase two in the art market where phase one was only about spiralling prices.

Kishore Singh in New Delhi
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