Saturday, August 15, 2009

The art of recovery in a slow market

Source - Economic Times

You know times are hard when the usually circumspect representatives of the Indian art market speak out of their combined pains. Until recently,they struggled to accept the arrival of a slump in the market, ostrich-like even as world over bellwether auctions registered tepid bidding and pivotal art fairs saw poor attendance. However, at a recently held panel discussion in Mumbai on ‘Growth strategies for a recovering art market,’ two points were driven home: that the Indian art market is not out of the woods yet and that passiveness is unacceptable.

Sree Goswami of Project 88, a gallery dedicated to upcoming contemporary artists, says there was a period recently where for four months the gallery had barely any footfalls. Contemporary art coming out of emergent art markets like Indian and China that in the boom time fuelled a feeding frenzy, has today become the global art market’s fall guy. Confidence levels in the contemporary art market have fallen 81 percent since May 2008 and may take between three and five years to recover, according to a global survey by research company ArtTactic.

“When an event causes a seismic shift you must react,” says Ranjit Hoskote, curator and art critic, “only the paranoid survive.” Paranoia could mean brutal cost cutting or selling at discounted prices, as some dealers quietly resorted to. For Maithili Parekh, deputy director Sotheby’s, paranoia is better channelled into reflection, readjustment and eventually regrouping. “We will have to re-look at prices,” agrees Shireen Gandhy of Gallery Chemould in Mumbai.

There’s room for introspection for both artists and dealers. “During the boom you’d hear of artists spending as little as a month producing works for a solo show,” laments Gandhy. As were there dealers who, far removed from their role of regulating supply by careful selection and editing, were pricing art so aggressively that it was inevitable that prices should fall back sharply. “Careful thought needs to be paid to how one builds and manages value in a rush to raise prices,” says Hoskote.

Amid despair there have been a few heartening signs. Kolkata is to have its own Museum Of Modern Art modelled on the lines of MOMA in New York. The National Gallery of Modern Art is pursuing a process of reinvigoration. And there is the India Art Summit (Aug 19-22), for which the panel discussion was a precursor of sorts. In its second year, the venue has been expanded three-fold with 54 participant galleries as compared to last year’s 34. Several dealers are pinning their hopes on the buzz they hope its marketing machinery will create.

One of the more lasting impacts of the summit will be its International speakers’ forum that will bring together artists, scholars, museum directors et al to discuss the most pertinent issues surrounding the global art scene. “As an emerging art market we have to sustain a knowledge infrastructure which will have multiplying effects beyond the economic actors,” says Hoskote. For that, all agree, India needs more art journalism and more art in the public domain in the form of museums and art schools, and that’s where the government can come in.

One subject that will find its way into the Summit’s discourse is that of common guidelines for fair practises. Over the past few years, the line between the activities of galleries and auction houses has become increasingly blurred with criticisms being raised about auction houses also playing in the primary market, sometimes sourcing directly from contemporary artists. Internationally, Christie’s acquisition of London art gallery Haunch of Venison raised an outcry. China and India though are emerging markets where these boundaries haven’t been defined, so efforts to impose ethical standards may be harder.

Of course, there is every chance this bottoming out will do a great deal of good, not just for the examination of the complex dynamics of an emerging contemporary art market but also the quality of art. “People say some of the worst art was created in the boom of 2005-06 because artists were overproducing,” says Gandhy. “So perhaps the best art will be made in 2009-11?
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