When MCH Group (Art Basel's parent company) took a 60.3% stake in the India Art Fair last year, it was more than just a strategic decision, but symptomatic of the ongoing battle for collectors and market share between auctions and galleries.
Globally, the auction industry has had a creeping influence on the art market, as they pursue their vision of a one-stop shop for art collectors. Their strategy has blurred the lines between the traditional roles of auction houses and galleries, as they expand their businesses into private sales, art advisories, curated exhibitions and management of artist estates— traditionally the domain of galleries and dealers. In this new market environment, art fairs have become a vital instrument for galleries, offering a united front against the competition from auction houses.
South Asian contemporary art has struggled to find a role in the increasingly conservative and modern-focused auction market...
Don't get me wrong, auctions are an essential part of a well-functioning art market eco-system. However, relying solely on the auction market to develop a sustainable and diverse marketplace is, especially in the case of India and other emerging art markets, risky.
When the India Art Fair launched its inaugural edition at the peak of the Indian art market boom in 2008, contemporary Indian art accounted for 44% of the overall auction sales total of South Asian art. However, as the global financial crisis unfolded in late 2008, the share of contemporary art fell to 12% by the end of 2009. Since then, South Asian contemporary art has struggled to find a role in the increasingly conservative and modern-focused auction market; last year, the percentage of contemporary art sold at auction had fallen to a mere 5%, according to ArtTactic's latest South Asian Art Market Report 2017.
Luckily, the auction figures say little about the actual state of the today's South Asian contemporary art market, which has evolved through new and alternative channels. Since 2009, the region has seen eight new biennials and festivals. These include the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (India), Dhaka Art Summit (Bangladesh), Colombo Art Biennial (Sri Lanka), Pune Biennial (India), and the Serendipity Arts Festival (India), with a further two biennials planned for Lahore and Karachi in 2017. In the absence of government support, private foundations are playing an increasingly active and important role in building an infrastructure for contemporary art and artists. Private museums such as Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (India) and foundations such as the Samdani Art Foundation (Bangladesh), Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation (India), and the Gujral Art Foundation (India) are among these important initiatives.
The India Art Fair has and is playing a critical role in the above development, acting as a platform for both commercial galleries as well as not-for-profit initiatives. This year's edition includes the likes of Britto Arts Trust (Bangladesh), Theertha International Artists Collective (Sri Lanka), Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (India) and Swaraj Art Archive (India), presenting and exhibiting alongside commercial galleries.
The great thing about the India Art Fair, is that it offers new and existing art buyers a broader and more balanced view of what is happening in the region, allowing the South Asian contemporary art market to present a different reality to the one currently offered by auctions.