Various attempts to build a robust market for contemporary art have seen sporadic initiatives in recent years though their success cannot as yet be easily measured. Why has the market been so resistant to its appreciation and growth? Globally, the contemporary market is on an upswing, but in India — where art appreciation continues to be a huge lacuna — this weakness is a result of its crash in 2008 and subsequent disenchantment with what was largely an investment-driven opportunity.
Whatever the historical reasons for that hiccup, there is no gainsaying that it is important for the contemporary market to consolidate itself, if for no other reason than that it will cost Indian art a major gap in its narrative. Art is a reflection of society in the now and present, and (art or other) historians, scholars, researchers, curators or museums in the future will be hard-pressed to explain the loss of patronage and a vacuum in relevant art practice in what may come to be termed the missing decades. It represents important voices that need to be heard — now as much as in the future.
The Delhi Contemporary Art Week offered a tiny glimpse into the practice today — too limited by space to prove even a teaser — and the International Ceramics Triennale in Jaipur’s Jawahar Kala Kendra had some interesting installations and other works despite some rather obvious misses and gaps. But these are by no means the only milestones in an attempt to re-establish the market for the contemporaries. Galleries and other events have been doing their bit to endorse emerging talent as well as more established contemporary artists whose names have a marquee recall internationally, but it is collectors who need to make the big leap. In a country with such a large young population, it is imperative that they provide the patronage for it to flourish. Artists cannot work, create or prosper within a constricted environment: the idea of the struggling artist in a garret is too much of a cliché to even bear consideration.
The last decade has built up considerable pressure on the market for the moderns. Around the world, the masters continue to command record prices, but in the absence of other alternatives in India, and younger, uninformed collectors who tend to merely chase signatures, works of poor quality are unfortunately being upscaled. Those collectors would be far better served in acquiring works by younger artists while also encouraging the growth of a segment that is essential. And it will encourage far greater experimentation, which is necessary if contemporary art is not to be perceived as being derivative. In any art market, there are only a few who have the talent and strength to stand apart and build a practice around their work. Everyone cannot be at the top of the game, and an elaborate market requires representations at various levels.
India’s continuous tradition of art making has shown the way assured collectors relate to antiquities, the moderns and the contemporaries within the same space, finding common linkages between each. It is this viewing/collecting mechanism that segues different periods and styles seamlessly. Unless Indians begin to see both modern and contemporary art as part of a larger, more ancient tradition, this sense of continuity is likely to suffer, thereby underserving the strength of our heritage as well as current trends. More and continuous attempts to grow and consolidate the art market — minuscule today — are required, irrespective of the segments they serve. It is clearly time for some bold initiatives to build a market through a sense of consensus in which the contemporary need no longer be an apologetic intervention.
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