Fairs Market India

Fairs without dealers could make sense

Director explains why this month’s United Art Fair is moving away from the ‘boxy booth’ model

Photographer Selvaprakash Lakshmanan is one of the artists showing at UAF. Above, his Knife Sharpener, Bangalore, 2012, and Milk Seller, Bangalore, 2012

As around 300 artists from India and abroad convene for the United Art Fair (UAF) at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan (14-17 September), the question is whether this fair—which does not involve galleries—could be the best model to sell contemporary art in this now-struggling economy.

Founded last year by Annurag Sharma, the managing director of the shippers United Art Logistics, UAF shook up India’s volatile art market when it launched, albeit rather chaotically, last year. With exhibition space offered free, participants are required instead to bring a minimum of three works and to pay the organisers 50% commission on any sales.

Last year’s inaugural edition showed a broad range of work and, this year, the four-day event continues to stretch the boundaries of contemporary art. All forms of design, folk and tribal art, as well as textiles, furniture and ceramics, are included.

Dealer at the helm

UAF’s artistic director for its second edition is Peter Nagy, the founder of the New York and New Delhi gallery Nature Morte. Partly by breaking away from the dealer model of most sizeable art fairs, Nagy seems determined to establish an alternative way to do business.

“Typically, art fairs rent space to galleries but don’t much care what transpires,” Nagy says. “We are looking to create a more organic layout of diverse spaces where the works are mixed up. We want to get away from ‘the boxy booth thing’, so it will be more like a biennale than a fair.”

Sourcing artists presents few problems, he says. “Travel wasn’t necessary. All our team [have] many years of experience and a huge knowledge of what’s out there.

“In India, the gallery scene is small: artists without representation make up the vast majority. As a gallerist I am in contact with many artists but I can manage maybe only 12 shows a year, which means showing a very small percentage.”

Nonetheless, the fair is much smaller this year (last year it showed 600 artists). Moreover, though it is billed as “artist-­driven”, a number of last year’s participants complained of getting little logistical support last year.

In total, 2,500 items went on sale last year, with prices ranging from Rs20,000 to Rs15m ($330-$250,000). The organisers declined to give the final sales results.

This year, perhaps a reflection of India’s faltering economy (the country’s growth slowed to a ten-year low of 5% in 2012-13), works are going for as little as Rs8,000 ($130).

Room for two?

UAF’s main local competitor is the India Art Fair (IAF), a traditional, gallery-model fair that is due to hold its sixth edition in Delhi between 30 January and 2 February 2014.

Is there room for two art fairs in the city? India’s recent economic woes have reinforced Hong Kong’s position as the undisputed hub of the Asian art market. With 1,000 artists and more than 90 galleries from more than 20 countries, IAF is currently holding its own, but problems acquiring export licences and general fair-overload are among a host of reasons why some of the biggest galleries have pulled out, among them Hauser & Wirth.

This is not so much a reflection on the Indian art market, says Neha Kirpal, the founder-director of IAF, more the “trend of patronising the big fairs in Basel and Miami, and having to downsize for their own financial reasons”.

There is no real competition between the two fairs, she says, believing that IAF will retain its cutting edge, while UAF’s work will be more affordable and “locally based”.

Nagy also dismisses any competition between the fairs, “because our clients are not galleries”, he says. “We have other problems. The art market is tanking, the rich are haemorrhaging money, and the rupee has been devalued.”

He is struggling to be optimistic, but is hoping that, with its lower pricing policy, UAF will emerge as the more appropriate model for the times and, unlike so many of India’s art initiatives, survive. It might even effect the kind of price corrections that could ultimately boost an otherwise languishing market.

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