Now that the year is spooling out, is it time to do a review of how art fared in 2012? Certainly, the market doesn’t seem to have picked up, though there’s some talk that we’re edging towards the peak of 2008. But four years later and Rs 1,000-1,200 crore as the defining worth of the market seems to say little for the infrastructure and spin machinery that has gone into the creation of art fairs (there are several now, online and offline), auctions (their number has been growing within India with new entrants Pundole’s and Art Bull, and Saffronart adding punch across more categories, while Sotheby’s is opting for caution and has decided to eschew its March sale of Indian art from the 2013 calendar to concentrate on the June and September ones), gallery shows (less ambitious, and less frequent), and media coverage. All that should have doubled the market size, but the buzz has been lacking for some while, though most reckon that it’s on account of the moribund economy, and the moment the Sensex shoots up (in 2014?), art could sizzle again.
Art buying doesn’t seem to have stopped. Art buyers, though, appear to be hedging their bets, spreading their spends across multiple works rather than any one prominent buy. Does this impact the market? To the extent that big-ticket sales are on hold, yes — and this will change only with a growing confidence in the market. But the good news is that the contemporaries, who had languished for a while in the shadows, are emerging again to reclaim a slice of the bazaar. While the interest in masters will always be there, to an extent, the strength of a country’s art standing and measure depend on contemporary practice. Any revival in it should, therefore, be welcomed.
If there’s one trend that has been visible, it is of a sharp increase of interest in spiritual (or religious) iconography. Buyers (as distinct from collectors) are commissioning large works, mostly directly from the artists, eliminating middlemen, dealers and galleries — a trend, many say, that damages the health of the art industry, for these are the segments that add to the longevity of artists by packaging and documenting them. This remains a “hidden” source of wealth and its size is difficult to calculate, especially since those who are commissioning these works may not fall into the known category of art buyers. Given India’s — and particularly businessmen’s — inclination to turn spiritual and genuflect before the gods before signing any deals, you can be sure that this could be a lucrative market for artists who work in this genre in the years to come.
Another discernible development is the inclination to bargain — and bargain hard. Buyers and collectors who are negotiating within the current scenario are driving a hard deal, knowing they can probably derive the benefit of the morose environment to seal the pact at a price that would have been laughable a few years ago.
The reality is that this rationalisation has brought back collectors who had stopped spending on art because it had crossed the threshold into unaffordability. Competitive pricing has attracted newer buyers, though they are hesitant still about taking a large bite of the glamourous art buying club in which, as yet, they lack confidence. Perhaps that is the reason 2012 will end without the kind of records we had seen in the past, including last year, but you can be sure that should the overall fiscal environment improve, the market will surge to heights that, currently, remain only in the breadth of imagination.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated