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10 years India Art Fair: How a small art fair became the focus of South Asia's cultural scene

Published on 2/1/2018 by Christoph Spangenberg

With a business plan written on a paper bag, Neha Kirpal organised the first India Art Fair in Neu Delhi in just four months. That was ten years ago. Since then, the art fair has become the focal point of South Asia's cultural scene and actively promotes art throughout the year. For the anniversary edition, Jagdip Jagpal joined the team as the new Fair Director. In this double interview, Kirpal and Jagpal speak about the founding and development of the Fair, the Indian art scene and, naturally, this year's highlights. International top galleries will be participating this year for the first time, from 9 to 12 February.

Congratulations on 10 years of India Art Fair! What can we expect at the anniversary edition oft he show?

Jagdip:2018 is a landmark moment for India’s art scene; we’re not alone in our anniversary – with Gujral turning ten, KHOJ marking 20 years, and DAG (Delhi Art Gallery) turning 25, there’s a real sense of momentum – we’re hoping to capture it.
India Art Fair, popping up for a few days every year, becomes a unique access point to South Asia’s cultural scene, from its galleries and artists, to private foundations and artists’ collectives, collectors and philanthropists, national institutions and arts festivals. The 2018 edition will celebrate all of these elements, but as is my first fair, I’m taking advantage of this opportunity to test new ideas, experiment, introduce new programmes, and refresh the architectural design.

"Our gallery lineup is achieving significant international attention"

Our gallery line-up this year is exceptional. We’ve had a hugely positive response from Indian galleries, and are welcoming back India’s biggest players from Experimenter to DAG, Chatterjee & Lal to Chermould Prescott, and Tarq – which is achieving significant international attention right now. Blue-chip international galleries from Europe will also participate for the first time including David Zwirner and Blain | Southern – introducing works by contemporary artists like Yayoi Kusama, Yinka Shonibare and Kerry James Marshall to Indian audiences.


Highlights from our reimagined events programme include an exhibition of Hetain Patel’s recent commission ‘Don’t Look at the Finger’ which premiered in the UK last year, a panel on collecting in India featuring influential names from across India, and an introduction to this year’s Kochi-Murizis Biennial programme.
Going forward, we will be looking at the role India Art Fair can play in creating professional development and learning opportunities for locals. We are testing a new professional learning programme on the Monday, featuring talks by industry experts on art law, conservation and tax.

Neha, what motivated you to found an art fair in 2008?

I was returning to India after studying in London, totally enamored by the dynamic art scene there. There were thousands of galleries and hundreds of art fairs and I just could not fathom why we didn’t have something similar. It was an ambitious dream but I wanted to create a world-class art event in India. I wrote out the business plan of an art fair on the back of an airsickness bag, even though I didn’t know a soul in the art fraternity here. Those are just the specifics, more than that, I had seen our country’s traditions and heritage with the arts, and wondered why we had nothing that was taking all that glory to other parts of the world or even other parts of the country to begin with. It was a time when I had personally experienced, art and culture being entrenched in peoples everyday lives, and I wanted to be able to offer that kind of access, to young students, emerging artists and existing players back home.

It was very difficult to penetrate through a market that we knew very little of, we were a very young team and contrasting our current situation to the first edition, we only had a handful Mumbai galleries, besides fluctuating participation from Delhi and four months to execute everything. As we progressed, it did not get any easier, the challenge was to build the art market from ground up, remain fresh and relevant, and above all, find a way to be viable and profitable for our investors and participants.

What was the first India Art Fair (called India Art Summit in the first years) in 2008?

Neha: We founded the fair in 2008, the year Lehman Brothers collapsed. We were building a business when the economic sentiment worldwide was bruised. We needed to make sure that the art fraternity in India saw this as a step in a forward-looking direction. India Art Summit was strategically positioned in a way to test the willingness of the market for a platform like ours. Since no formal government support or organized sector for art existed back then, we as a start-up had to maintain a careful balance in establishing the commercialization of this entity as well as make sure we did not alienate artists, curators and other enthusiasts, some of who may still look at art from a purist perspective.

When we did make the shift from being called Summit to Fair, it was done to establish a spot on the global calendar, we had created a certain confidence in the Indian Art market, and were ready to be seen from a more inclusive, collaborative and global standpoint. The fair then positioned itself as a South Asian fair, bringing forth diversity in content and programming, which was welcomed both in India and internationally. While art continues to be an unorganized sector in India, the art fair plays an increasingly important role to bridge this gap by providing a unified platform for varied interest groups and audiences.

How has India Art Fair changed over the past ten years? What have been the most important changes? Your personal highlights?

Neha: From back in 2008, the fair has garnered its support and encouragement and grew to being a pivotal platform for not just the art fraternity but also an amalgamation of design, luxury, business, collaboration and education around the arts. The fair has grown from being a showcase to a 20, exhibition, the number of visitors have increased close to ten times, every renowned artist not just from India but the subcontinent has been represented at the fair and collectors and museum groups from over 35 countries have visited the fair in the past. Not only has the fair invited participation from within the industry, but also outside of the arts landscape; India Art Fair’s engagement and outreach has spread over 15 geographies worldwide, and in the last 4-5 years, the fair has seen active brand partnerships, from returning global corporates and Indian conglomerates. Most importantly India Art Fair has become a celebrated reference point to the cultural landscape of the region and the country. As India’s market doesn’t have too many international platforms the fair is also taken by some as a representation of brand India Itself, we see an increased attendance of International guests and renowned global visitors, thus boosting tourism and permitting global connections for domestic players.

"We want to arouse the interest of children in art and also encourage young buyers"

For me personally, I always wanted art to be accessible, I wanted it to trickle down to the masses, whilst we were concentrating on developing the demand, bringing in the right content, and encouraging attendance from collectors & museum groups, we were also focusing on how to push outwards and get rid off the alienation that educated Indian audiences felt towards art and emerging practices.

Over the last couple of editions, we have introduced activation for college and school kids building a curiosity right at a young age, introduced a year round children’s art programme, looked at specific access programmes for specially abled individuals, hosted workshops and conversations on collecting as a practice to encourage young buyers, also explored a mentor protégé model for emerging artists. It’s the community that drives the platform, so that was always a key focus for me personally. Besides that opening doors for collaboration and participation, looking at corporate patronage, bridging the gaps between public and private partnership are all aspects I have personally tried to instill into our strategy over the years, envisioning the fair to be an aggregator and catalyst for the fraternity in India.

Jagdip, before you joined India Art Fair as director in August you worked in the UK, China and South East Asia. Did you know India Art Fair already?

Yes, I’d attended the fair multiple times as a guest and admired the programme. It has built a solid foundation for arts in the country and played a crucial role in building greater international awareness of artists in the region.

What is characteristic of the art scene in India and its neighbouring countries? How has it changed over the past years and what is India Art Fair's role?

Neha: Over the past decade this region has seen an explosion of cultural activity with the establishment of major new contemporary art initiatives such as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the Colombo Art Biennale, the Lahore Biennale and the Dhaka Art Summit. In conjunction with this, contemporary Indian art has been increasingly prolific around the globe with major exhibitions at prestigious cultural platforms such as The Guggenheim, The Met Breuer, Tate Modern and the Venice Art Biennale.

The dynamic growth of the South Asian art market at a global level, supported by a buoyant Indian economy, has seen the strength and significance of India Art Fair grow rapidly over the past few years. The Fair has been able to give the contemporary art market in India significant exposure to the international community, resulting in both increased awareness of the arts as well as more specifically an increased number of collectors within the country. Over previous editions, India Art Fair has seen a tremendous amount of public engagement with art, more than there has been in India in the last two decades.

The art fair has served as a market builder and ecommerce generator for many Indian and international art galleries from around the globe, and enabled high value investments and business over the years since inception. Furthering the growth in the region, we have encouraged accessibility and community practices, such that audiences, both new and established are able to engage and participate with the arts. The fair has successfully opened up avenues and channels of interaction both within the industry and outside of it, and transformed the arts landscape in India that was once closed-doored and meant only for the elite, and that I would think is the largest contribution of the fair.

"We have a responsibility to support arts education and professional development"

Jagdip: For me, one of the biggest priorities in the coming years is working with our galleries and partners to ensure India Art Fair is the best place to see and discover artists from the region. We have unique knowledge and networks within the cultural sector here, and I’m looking to tap into that as much as possible with our programming going forwards.
I would like India Art Fair to offer visitors - local and international – a truly distinct cultural experience, unlike any other fairs worldwide. When visitors come to the fair – or to New Delhi during IAF week – I want them to come away with a better understanding of India’s thriving cultural scene, the historical dialogue between India and its neighbours in South Asia (also Europe and the Middle East), and perhaps with a greater respect for India’s hyper modern identity. For our regional collectors, we’ll be building programmes that help enable deeper access to the market here, helping signpost exciting new opportunities, looking to develop collecting habits further in India and South Asia.
Looking ahead to how the programme might develop, and our objectives post 2018, India Art Fair will always retain its strong focus and connection to India. We will continue to offer curated highlights from the region, including galleries, artists, artist-collectives. Representation of international galleries will always be carefully considered. We’ll encourage international galleries to bring work by artists who have never or rarely shown work in India. As one of the leading players in the commercial art scene, we have a responsibility to support arts education and professional development. I’ll be looking to expand our programming in this area year-round, not only during the fair.

India Art Fair 2018, information and tickets:

Jagdip Jagpal

Jagdip Jagpal is bringing over two decades of international experience in art and related industries from a range of positions based in the UK. She has been actively involved in a number of commercial and public projects in the UK, China and the South Asian region. Recently she collaborated on New North and South, a scheme spearheaded by Maria Balshaw, formerly the director of the Whitworth in Manchester and now director of the Tate. Prior to this, Jagpal managed international partnerships and programmes at the Tate. She is a former trustee of the Wallace Collection, and is a former governor of the London School of Economics and a member of the development board at the Royal College of Art.

Neha Kirpal

Neha Kirpal founded India Art Fair 2008 as India Art Summit. After spearheading the project for ten years, she has stepped down from the active operational responsibilities of the business to look at a more advisory involvement and continues to sit on the board of the organization. Neha will also be working with MCH Global for developing other platforms and initiatives as an advisor. In her personal capacity she will pursue other greenfield projects, of which currently she is exploring setting up an independent incubator fund for the creative industries that will bring on board Indian startups across creative fields offering mentorship and monetary support for potential and growing business ideas.

Image gallery India Art Fair 2017 (© Andy Barnham):
India Art Fair 2017 (MCH Group)
Christoph Spangenberg

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