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'But is it art, he said, is it art?'

February 04, 2005

Record-breaking auctions, record-breaking prices, Mr MF Husain's globally unique shenanigans, art funds, and on and on.

The hoopla surrounding Indian contemporary art continues, and prices are rising. Of course, like much in India, art prices have a long way to go before they could be called global.

But global is as global does and globalisation works both ways. In a globalised world thoughts, ideas, dreams, ways of living, ways of organising groups, ways of doing business get transmitted from one culture to another -- actually from one corner of global culture to another -- without necessary reference to who is richer or smarter or, indeed, 'better.'

I believe that some of the significant structural changes that are currently taking place in the international art market could well be driven by -- or are certainly a reflection of -- how our own art market -- small and disorganised as it is -- functions, in an example of what could be called "reverse" globalisation.

Historically, art was commissioned by kings and dukes, maharajahs, and corporate chieftains -- this was true globally and in India.

This process evolved to the stage where friends and associates of artists became art dealers, who would feed, clothe and stipend impoverished artists in return for some of their works and the opportunity to become 'connoisseurs' and taste-makers.

In most cases, dealers and artists built a wonderfully symbiotic relationship, which drove aesthetics, thoughts, and culture forward. This was -- and largely continues to be -- the structure globally.

In India, too, contemporary art moved from the realm of patronage to a more 'professional' structure where a small number of friends and associates of artists became art dealers; a few opened art galleries and between them became arbiters of taste.

However, over the past twenty years or so, in the rough and tumble of deregulation of the Indian economy and, indeed, the Indian mind, the dealer-artist nexus became inexorably weakened.

There are still a few artists, mostly of the very old school, who will only show through specific galleries, but the recent proliferation of dealers and galleries and, critically, the democratisation of art buying has rendered this old-fashioned structure more or less defunct.

Individual galleries, however well connected, can no longer provide artists with the exposure they need, and buyers, more educated by the minute and with a global reach are, like buyers of everything everywhere, ever more demanding.

Thus, the Indian model is getting even more catch as catch can, with artists, dealers, galleries and buyers becoming more and more a commingled whole.

When I first got involved with the art business in India, I thought that this almost anything-goes approach was bound to change and move in the direction of the more structured, global model.

But to the contrary, the Indian contemporary art market is moving towards even greater entropy  -- rather as predicted by the second law of thermodynamics.

And now I find -- unsurprisingly, on reflection -- that the hallowed global model itself is beginning to turn more laissez faire.

Artists -- or certainly successful artists -- still have exclusive relationships with galleries, but with globalisation, buyers have become more demanding, requiring better service closer home.

While some galleries do have representation in several nodal points of the global art market, maintaining this infrastructure has been getting less and less commercially viable.

This has led to a proliferation of galleries in different cities and the exclusive relationships that galleries enjoyed with artists have shifted to geographically limited exclusive relationships.

Thus, a Jeff Koons would have an exclusive dealer in New York, one -- perhaps, different  -- in LA, a different one in Berlin and one more in London, and so on.

Further, more and more big-time galleries are now finding it much more cost-effective to show their wares at art fairs, which are monster events, like Basel in Miami, with thousands of potential buyers shaking their credit cards hysterically all under one roof.

Hundreds of galleries are chasing these buyers, and as a result you could now quite easily find Jeff Koons available at five different galleries in the same venue. So much for exclusivity.

Another major difference between the Indian and global art markets -- and, while this may take longer, I believe that this too is the trend of the future -- is the democratisation of art buying.

In India today there are tens of thousands of (usually) young, upwardly mobile professionals who can quite readily spend, say, Rs 50,000 a year or more on discretionary purchases.

Just as these YUMPs are coming of age, art is becoming fashionable. On the other side of the transaction, there are dozens -- more like hundreds -- of artists, at best modestly well-known, who can make an excellent living selling paintings for Rs 20,000, or Rs 50,000, or thereabouts.

And in the growing mélange of the Indian art market, these artists and buyers are meeting each other -- still largely through galleries, of course.

As a result, there are today in India a large number of good, but modestly well-known artists who make, easily Rs 15 lakh a year, maybe Rs 20 lakh -- that's as much money as a mid-level executive in a multinational company.

This is a huge structural shift from the classic art market model, which is so deeply entrenched in the West, where artists and art dealers are either hugely successful and make huge money or are impoverished.

The artist (and, let's not forget, the art buyer) as an upper middle class economic entity is a new phenomenon, and one which will have a huge impact on Indian -- and, indeed, global -- culture.

The most important aspect of this new phenomenon is that it is not just about a few more artists making good money and many more people having art on their walls.

It is about many, many more people being involved in the definition of art, of taste, of culture. It is about democratising culture.

The author is CEO, Mecklai Financial

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