Putting Indian art on world map-Neha Kirpal

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Some stories never sound stale. They can inspire and amuse every time they are told. As one settles down in the cozy environs of Diggin Café in South Delhi to talk to Neha Kirpal, founder-director of India Art Fair who has just returned refreshed from a holiday in the Maldives, you cannot help but take her back to that memorable anecdote of 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,” she chuckles, “even though I didn’t know a soul in the art fraternity here.”

Understandably so, as she had studied Political Science while in college at Lady Sri Ram in Delhi and belonged to a business-oriented family. After her graduation, she worked in event management, marketing and Public Relations for four years before the momentous decision to study at the University of Arts in London happened. She recalls, “I did not grow up surrounded by art, but art and culture had always interested me. I have memories of being intimidated when I used to walk into art galleries here and perhaps that shaped my future vision of making art accessible for everyone. I feel being an outsider has helped me have a neutral point of view as far as art is concerned and I can view all artists and galleries equally.”

This is the reason why Kirpal refuses to name any favourite artists, even though she hopes “to one day afford buying an A. Balasubramaniam”. Yet, Kirpal is one of the most admired art entrepreneurs in the country and her brand India Art Fair – the biggest conglomeration of Indian and international art in the country – has successfully completed seven editions in January this year. “We had six sell-out booths this time,” she shares satisfactorily, “the largest number of buyers under the age of 35 and many first time buyers as well.” The seventh edition witnessed participation from 85 galleries which included 23 foreign galleries. Contrast this with the first edition in 2008 – the fair was then known as India Art Summit – when none of the Mumbai galleries had taken part. “I had only four months to plan and execute the event. There was skepticism in the market as I knew no one and no one knew me. Everyone wanted to wait and watch.”

It was only by the third year in 2010 that Kirpal was able to break even and then go on to make profits in the fourth. But by then, India Art Fair had firmly established itself as the single biggest platform for the Indian art community. The 2012 edition featured 91 exhibitors showcasing over thousand artists from twenty countries including biggies like Anish Kapoor, Damien Hirst and Marina Abramovic. This year’s fair closed on a high as well, with 80,000 plus visitors and sales recorded on an average as 25 per cent stronger than the 2014 edition.

Kirpal can safely claim that India Art Fair has been a catalyst in bringing about a perceptible and positive change in the Indian art scenario. India Art Fair was launched in the year when the Lehman Bros had collapsed creating an all-round environment of economic gloom and despair. Today, things have changed. With international museums, curators, collectors and galleries coming back to India, driven largely by the success of India Art Fair, the art sector in India has reciprocated as well. There are parallel art events like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, record-breaking auction sales, academically more art publishing and critical writing, and even the galleries have metamorphosed into a more quality conscious private sector.

There is no room for complacency though. Kirpal admits that as an entrepreneur, recognition and success has only meant greater responsibility. “When I started out, ignorant of the art market and all of 28, there weren’t any expectations of me. Today, I sense this huge task that lies ahead. The challenge is to build the art market from ground up, remain fresh and relevant, and above all, viable and profitable for our investors and participants.”

But it is not commerce alone that occupies her mind. Like any other socially responsible business entity, there is also a deep sense of commitment to the community. Her goal is that art should trickle down to the masses (hence the focus on several outreach programs in recent art fairs), her hope is that the Indian art world believes in itself and her dream is that someday art would be considered an important tool of cultural diplomacy. And to do all this, Kirpal does not believe that flying solo can help.

Cultural entrepreneurship can flourish only with meaningful collaborations and partnerships.

Along the way, there have been brickbats too. An unfair comparison with the two-edition-old Kochi-Muziris Biennale, for one. “We all have our reasons and space to coexist,” says Kirpal, “and we can only learn from each other.” Another criticism is that the number of participating foreign galleries has diminished over the last two years. “Art will always reflect global trends. When we started out, there was this huge optimism about India but then political and economic conditions changed all that. It would be unfair to expect big galleries to come here if they cannot sell. We, too, realized after chasing them for the first few editions, that we first need to grow our own market base to make the fair commercially viable for them,” she admits honestly.

The spotlight has now shifted to giving the fair a more regional focus and greater prominence to artists from South Asia. “We want to build a stronger network between India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh…after all, no one would want to come from abroad and find their own artists being shown here. Foreign buyers and collectors come here to see more of South Asia.”

It’s with this confidence that for the 2016 edition, Kirpal is putting together a Pakistan Pavilion. Till then, her team of four has to make several trips around the world scouting for galleries and artists. Maybe, another story remains hidden in one such journey.