When Charles Saatchi complains that collectors today are “comprehensively and indisputably vulgar”, you know the art world is in danger of eating its own tail. As the paterfamilias of the phenomenon he lambasts, Saatchi cannot have been surprised when he found himself accused of chutzpah. Nevertheless, he has a point. Anyone who witnessed the jamboree that was this year’s Venice Biennale can testify that parties are a more powerful temptation than pictures today.
The surrender of traditional values has not been entirely negative. The astonishing popularity of art from emerging nations testifies to patrons with wider horizons than before. (Saatchi’s own space has hosted exhibitions dedicated to contemporary art in China, India and the Middle East.) How interesting, then, if it is these regions who nip the tendency to decadence in the bud while the hemisphere that gave birth to Leo and Gertrude Stein, Peggy Guggenheim and Saatchi himself confines itself to lamentation.
This week, a group of influential patrons, collectors, curators and artists gathered at the British Museum for a two-day conference devoted to the issue of art and patronage in the Middle East. Meanwhile, in India, concrete steps are being taken to nurture more discriminating taste. To be launched this month in Delhi, the India Art Fair Collectors’ Circle aims both to enlarge and educate the country’s cadre of potential Saatchis.
The scheme was the brainchild of fair director Neha Kirpal, and its seeds were sown as she observed the success of her venture. Now in its fourth year, the fair has seen numbers multiply more than ten times since its first edition welcomed 10,000 visitors. (Last year the 84 galleries were visited by 138,000 people, equivalent to Frieze and Miami Basel combined.)
Witnessing the influx of people “many of whom had never been to an art fair in their lives”, Kirpal was convinced that this “hunger for art” should be channelled sensibly if India’s art market was not to become another superficial merry-go-round. “We have had businessmen come to us and say, ‘Give us a list of the top 10 artists in the world and by the end of the year we want our wives to go and buy them,’ ” she says.
Such short-sighted acquisitiveness is, as Saatchi pointed out, by no means an Indian prerogative. In India, however, it is flourishing against a backdrop that is different from its western counterpart. Although the Indian art market has fallen from the dizzy heights it reached a few years ago, when a rash of art funds resulted in frenzied speculation, India’s still-booming national economy has ensured that a vast untapped source of potential art buyers still exists.
Yet the dearth of state-run infrastructure for modern and contemporary art has left the sector dependent on the initiative of private collectors, such as Anupam and Lekha Poddar of the Devi Art Foundation, who put their works on public display.
Although younger artists such as Subodh Gupta – dubbed the “Damien Hirst of Delhi” for his knowing installations assembled from recycled saucepans, cow dung and rickshaw bicycles – have grabbed headlines, contemporary art is still struggling to emerge from the shadow of India’s dextrous modernist painters such as MF Husain and FN Souza.
“We realised there is a curiosity around contemporary art but no platforms to access it,” explains Kirpal, adding that the art world in India is “small and intimate” because trade is still generated mainly by the diaspora.
Through the Collectors’ Circle, she hopes to snare the interest of those Indians who “are already engaging with the luxury lifestyle sector” yet feel “intimidated by art, which they feel requires a certain kind of knowledge.”
This group, many of whom grew rich on India’s IT boom, already buy cars, designer jewellery, and fashion. Enormously houseproud, they value “a beautiful home with beautiful things in it”. Contemporary art is still foreign territory yet they know “it should play an important part in their lives”, says Kirpal.
To track them down, an octopus-like strategy has been employed. India’s leading banks, for example, have been offered the chance to extend invitations to the fair to wealth management clients. Partnerships have been created with associations such as the Young Entrepreneurs Society, the Young Presidents’ Organisation and Bangalore Black Tie, a gourmet dining club. Foreign embassies and cultural bodies such as the British Council and the Goethe Institute have agreed to contribute expertise.
A glittering tier of patrons should give the Circle magnetic appeal to aspiring connoisseurs. Top collectors involved include the Poddars, Rajshree Pathy, chairman and managing director of the Rajshree Group, and advertising executive Swapan Seth.
Ordinary members are charged a fee of Rs7,000 (£130) or Rs10,000 for couples. In return, they are invited to a roster of events including seminars, lectures and visits to artists’ studios and private collections. The hub of the Circle is the fair itself, where, as well as access to the VIP preview, members can also partake in curated walks, talks and discussions around themes such as building a collection, training your eye, provenance, restoration and preservation.
Yet isn’t there a risk that budding buyers could sacrifice their own instincts to satisfy the criteria of a nebulous ideal collector?
Swapan Seth, whose own collection ranges from the poetic Indian artist Atul Dodiya to the late US photographer Herb Ritts, thinks not. He points out that it is better for those new to the game to be shepherded by other collectors rather than gallerists. “[The Circle] will provide clarity of counsel and an enormous amount of experience. I don’t think it aspires to replace instinct or aesthetics. It aims to direct rather than instruct.”
One of the Circle’s chief goals is to encourage people to buy for love, not money, and thereby stabilise a market that has grown volatile in its post-boom years.
“Suddenly, there was a whole breed of people who looked at art as an investment and only that,” says Kirpal. “When the market crashed, people rushed to liquidate stock.”
She perceives the explosion of the bubble as a force for good. “When prices shot up, it caused a lot of alienation. Ordinary people couldn’t afford to buy art.”
Now she hopes to attract those from less privileged backgrounds. (One seminar at the fair is entitled “You don’t have to be a millionaire to collect art”.) Important, too, is an outreach programme that aims to spread a passion for contemporary art beyond Indian’s big cities to less cosmopolitan centres such as Ludhiana in the Punjab, Cochin in Kerala and Pune in Maharashtra.
If previous experience is anything to go by, they can expect a rapturous reception. Two years ago an experimental event was held in Bangalore on the occasion of a gallery show by contemporary star Bharti Kher, whose effervescent visions are assembled from bindi, the dots that decorate Indian women’s foreheads. “We invited 100 to 150 people to come and hear her talk in a nearby hotel,” recalls Kirpal. “For some of them, it was a life-changing experience because when you just see art [it is one thing] but when you engage with the artist, and hear why they made it, that is a whole other experience.”
Inspiring rather than overly instructive, such encounters are essential if the Collectors’ Circle is to flourish. Asked whether he wishes he had taken advice when he started his collection, Swapan Seth replies: “With hindsight, no. The wonderful lightness of experience and the heavy responsibility on the uninitiated by instinctive eye was quite lovely, thank you.” The line between ignorant hedonism and child-like wonder may still be finer than Saatchi thinks.
India Art Fair, New Delhi, January 26-29 www.indiaartfair.in