Downturn takes sheen off Indian art at Spanish fair

February 18th, 2009 - 1:40 pm ICT by IANS  

Madrid (Spain), Feb 18 (IANS) Special invitee India’s show at global art fair ARCO-Madrid 2009 was robbed of some of its lustre due to a wary market and a panorama section that had a narrow focuss on post-contemporary movements.
The highlight of the five-day ARCO-Madrid this year was the India Panorama, an exhibition of works by 54 artists from 14 galleries across the country, the guest nation in 2009.

But, despite drawing large crowds and hundreds of enquiries on acquisition and sale, it did not translate into brisk business at the fair that ended this week.

“I am sure India has a lot more art; I wish there was more space to display a bigger spread and variety. Last year, Brazil, the guest country at ARCO, was more comprehensively represented,” Pilar Baselga, a Spanish art historian, told IANS.

The India show focussed on the post-contemporary movements of the 1980s, 90s and this decade.

German art critic, writer and curator Heinz Schutz, a regular at the fair, felt the Indian panorama did not reflect a fixed identity because of two reasons.

“The exhibition was too small and there was too much pop art around. The artists were young and new. It would be good to go deeper into the history of Indian art,” Schutz told IANS.

Experts, artists and gallery owners at the fair attributed the slowdown to two factors. One, the acute recession in Europe which has dented the sale curves of quality artworks across the continent. Two, the unfamiliarity of the conservative and largely insulated Spanish market to trends in contemporary Indian art and the young panorama.

Art historians, reviewers, market watchers and auction analysts said Spanish buyers should have been acquainted through a well-documented showcase tracing the history and chronology of Indian contemporary art over the last 50 years and accompanying discussions on the country’s art history.

Spanish curators also rued that several Indian regions, especially West Bengal, often dubbed the cradle of modern and contemporary art, was not included in the Indian panorama. Even states like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu were ignored.

But the deepening recession in Europe was the primary stumbling block that crippled the pace of commerce. This downturn is seeping into the contemporary European art market as well.

At ARCO - which strategically did not put out too many exorbitant art works on sale - high-end Indian art did not find too many takers.

Two works by Jitish Kallat, one of the most popular young Indian artists in Europe, on display by the London-based Haunch of Venison gallery at the fair, lured throngs of curious art buffs and collectors, who enquired about the prices but refused to bite the bait.

The works, “Universal Recipient (showing a Sikh man with a turban)” and “Aquasaraus (a dinosaur-like water truck)” were priced at 100,000 euros and 300,000 euros respectively.

In comparison, another contemporary artist, Shilpa Gupta, whose installation works were priced at 50,000, 10,000 and 8,500 euros respectively managed to sell because of their pragmatic price bands and quality.

Photographer Dayanita Singh’s landscapes and figure studies - one of the highlights of the huge cache of limited edition photographic prints at the fair - were tagged at 5,500, 4,000 and 3,800 euros respectively. And they sold too.

The fact that museums - one of the largest bodies of buyers in Spain - are battling cuts in acquisition budgets further muddied the market dynamics at ARCO. Last year, Reina Sofia, one of the country’s most prestigious museums of contemporary art, spent 2.3 million euros at the fair, but this year its art spend had dwindled.

The commerce trends at ARCO are an echo of the greater picture of the art market across Europe.

In an auction held at Sotheby’s in London Feb 5, experts were unusually restrained in their estimates. Gone were the $10 million plus works.

On Feb 12, Christie’s figures for its 2008 global art auctions across 14 vends globally showed an 11 percent decrease over 2007 because of the bleak global economic backdrop. The amount raked in by the London-based auction house in 2008 was $487 million.

“But as we move into 2009, recent results give good reasons to remain positive about the global art market where demand remains strong for well-estimated, unique and sought-after works of art,” said Edward Dolman, the London-based chief executive officer of Christie’s International.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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