Building a gallery business
THESE days there are formulas to build businesses and formulas to triple your investments and formulas to almost everything in life like the baby’s lactogen formula, but way back in 1983/84 it was strange, a bit crazy and quite reckless to start an art business. There was art, lots of it, but it was not anybody except the artists’ business. There were only a handful of aficionados and even fewer collectors in India. Antiquities were collected and revered but contemporary art no! It was only at the periphery of a bohemian life.
It was at such a time after a bachelor degree in Art History that I looked around wondering what to do with my life. I liked art but was not quite sure of which part of it or what I wanted to do, only that it had to be interesting. I was done with convent education and the nuns, so I toyed with the idea of pottery in Japan or restoration in Italy or bronze casting in Tamil Nadu.
I settled for training in sculpture with a practicing sculptor and soon abandoned him when I realized he wanted to copy my copies of Giacometti. Disgusted with his attitude I thought I could kill another couple of years going back to an MA in Art History (God knows why) till I was told by my most unpopular lecturer in sketching that she would not give me a seat since I was a ‘rebel’. (Obviously she did not like spirited people.)
Not allowing this disillusionment or rejection to get to me, started getting serious about something to do with art. I was naive, fun loving and untrained. I had nothing – no investment fund, no business background, no focus, no history, or no friends in the art world. What I did have though was a lot of recklessness, a sense of adventure and a ‘never say die’ attitude.
With whatever positive attributes I had, and still think I have retained, I set about planning an art gallery. I did not have any standard to live up to or anyone to prove a point to; so anything was fine.
What I did not realize at the time was that my sense of adventure, exposure and background also gave me a liberal sense of style. The enthusiasm and energy I put into each show was soon to become my ‘signature’. I loved styling the shows, creating a mood and designing quirky invitations and meeting different people. I wanted to enjoy the entire experience, since I did not know if it was going to last beyond the current show.
Those days in the early eighties there were hardly any buyers. My family and friends indulged me. Some bought paintings for few thousand rupees while others carried flower pots for my display and some helped by hanging the paintings and kept me company during exhibitions.
One of the first shows I did was on horses, and Husain and Sunil Das gave me their works. At the show, race horse grooms welcomed my guests. Subsequently, the show moved to the Madras Race Club where paintings were creatively stacked on bales of hay. (Today one would not even take note of such a gimmick.) For another show of Souza’s work, I set up one side of the gallery like a Paris sidewalk café and asked all my guests to come dressed in black and white.
I was all of 22 and having a great time. I was so excited that I would rush around with just ‘an idea’ without any research or business plan. I did not understand finance or business. I did not have a focus or a game plan.
I read Calvin Tomkins’ Merchants and Masterpieces and was very inspired. So off I went to the Smithsonian to see if my ‘dream’ could be a museum. I soon realized ‘that was a long shot’. After a couple of summer internships I saw enough to bring a certain standard to my art shows. I was still quite green, and my inexperience got me quite a few snubs. I took all this in my stride and went on regardless. I once went all the way to Gorakhpur to see if I could persuade Victor Egan, Amrita Sher-Gil’s husband, to get me some of her work for an exhibition of Women Artists. Needless to say that it was a failed mission.
And so life went on; I did not have my own space and I did shows whenever I could find a venue. In those days no one took art seriously and there was little method to anything. There were hardly any works, even less books on contemporary art in India. I decided I needed to learn to write better so I went off to do a writing programme one summer at Harvard University.
In the middle eighties I met Jehangir Sabavala and expressed interest in exhibiting his work. He offered me one leg of a touring show as the ‘opening’ exhibition in my very own venue in 1988. These paintings were priced at Rs 16,000 for a 4x4 ft work. A few years later, on one of my visits to Bombay, he asked if I could raise money for a film that director Arun Khopkar was making on him. He needed 15 lakh rupees. Despite not knowing even where to begin, I promised to try. I had to be at my creative best to come up with the money and the only way to do so was by selling some art. So I decided to raise this amount at the very next show he offered me. He wanted Rs 40,000 for each painting; I felt I could sell them at a higher price. He was sceptical; I was confident that his works were undervalued. I went ahead and priced each work at a lakh and a half and got him the money for the film. To me this was creative financial planning. I earned what I had to and Jehangir got his film that earned two national awards; one as the best biographical film and the other for best lighting.
In 2002 Raza was very keen to have a retrospective at the NGMA (National Gallery of Modern Art). Due to bureaucratic problems and the usual red tape, the NGMA did not confirm the show. Since we had already started working on the show for him we hosted his first retrospective at the Jehangir Art Gallery.
The Jehangir Art Gallery Trust graciously offered him the facility without any charge and I gathered the paintings from all the collectors I knew and ran from pillar to post to arrange the insurance. In those days insurance was a very big problem and the policy that existed was so skewed that in the case of a claim they would only pay material costs, despite charging a premium on the market value of the paintings. It was the most difficult thing to do in 2002. I managed to get a marine policy that covered the work of art for its market price and not the material cost of the canvas and kept all the lenders happy.
The second task in arranging this retrospective was to make the dreary auditorium gallery look like a million buck space. Of course, the selection of paintings did half the job. The other half needed all my dramatic ideas and everyone who came to the show was absolutely amazed at the transformation. The stage was a dramatic 30 foot triptych and some paintings were suspended in mid air. Even if Raza did not get the NGMA, the Jehangir show certainly did him proud.
What I did not realize at the time was that all these experiences were my preparatory education. Since I had to attract the attention of an almost non-existing audience, and pay the bills however small they may have been, it involved presenting and promoting each artist and exhibition in a way that it would make a mark.
Iwas not opinionated. It was my open-mindedness and spirit of adventure that allowed me to learn, adapt, change and move further. I met many artists, worked with some of them while allowing myself to be daring to buy and sell art in a non-commercial atmosphere, and promote artists with out of the way ideas. I learnt to support their spirit too and this took me to another level. Among others, I exhibited Souza, Sabavala, Husain, Raza, Anjolie Ela Menon and Laxma Goud.
At a time when few were aware of contemporary Indian art in Boston in 1990, other than the Herwitz’s, I made a presentation to my class at Harvard and gave them a glimpse of what was happening in India. Vishakha Desai, the current head of Asia Society was then at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and she acquired two Vaikuntams from me. All this made me realize that I could introduce contemporary visual art to audiences outside of India.
At this point in time there were no galleries interested in contemporary Indian art. I began to open doors for myself and meet and show the world outside of India what the subcontinent had in store.
It was after this that Sotheby’s and Christie’s among others, started looking towards the desi spenders and the new breed of non-resident Indians unleashed by the policy of liberalization and the upward spiral of India’s economy.
Along the way I learnt the meaning of multitasking, lateral thinking, curation, visual vocabularies, rooted idioms and all that. My somewhat inadvertent and frivolous foray into art turned into a passion and a ‘zest for life’ became my modus operandi. I went around furiously putting together shows, travelling, buying, selling, persuading, and promoting the artists I worked with.
Today after 23 odd years as a gallerist and curator, I put together an average of five shows a month across cities in India and sometimes overseas. I work between Delhi, Bombay and Chennai, in addition to hosting events in certain other cities. I have just set up an international residency programme and an on-line auction business. I am about to launch the final phase of my web-shop primarily aimed at the secondary market to provide a platform to trade in art.
I enjoy working with ‘new’ artists. I’d like to describe myself as an image builder of contemporary artists. My unconventional approach and solutions has aided some artists’ careers, while helping me discover a treasure of artists over the years. It’s been a long and eventful journey and I have hardly noticed time go by. I continue to be excited about what I do. For me there is more to art than just commerce, and that’s why I am still at it.