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Making art accessible: Interview with Neha Kirpal on the India Art Fair

India Art Fair’s Founder and Director Neha Kirpal sheds light on the contemporary art scene in India. This interview was originally published on Art Radar (24 January 2014). 

Image: Neha Kirpal. Courtesy India Art Fair.

With the sixth edition of the India Art Fair just around the corner, scheduled to be held in New Delhi from 30 January to 2 February 2014, Art Radar spoke to fair Founder and Director Neha Kirpal about the country’s expanding contemporary art scene and why missing Venice Biennale was a mistake.

Founded as the India Art Summit in 2008, India Art Fair set out with the aim of making art accessible to everyone, as well as providing Indian artists with an unparalleled platform to showcase their work.

Neha Kirpal’s decision to start the fair venture was a result of her exposure to art galleries and fairs, and her realisation of the relationship between art and social life during her time as a student at the University of the Arts in London. At the time, there were no large scale art fairs in India, but with Kirpal’s vision and determination, this was set to change.

The India Art Fair is now one of the most attended art fairs in the world. In an interview with ArtTactic after the fair’s fourth edition in 2012, Kirpal said that the fair’s international participation had almost doubled each year, proving the attractiveness of the Indian art market for galleries all over the world. With the fair having been attended by more than a total of 400,000 visitors in five editions, Kirpal’s focus has shifted to quality rather than numbers.

Neha Kirpal tells Art Radar more about the upcoming edition of the fair and the Indian art market.

The India Art Fair was founded in 2008 as an attempt to make art accessible to the general public. Would you say that you have achieved the ambitions you started out with?

Since the first edition of the India Art Fair, over 400,000 people have visited the event. We have reached out in a number of different ways, including a comprehensive regional, national and international marketing plan that targets a wide range of geographies, professions and sectors in India. We also have a student internship scheme, as well as a broad educational talks programme through the Speakers’ Forum. Over the last year, 150 world class speakers have imparted their knowledge and expertise to visitors at the Speakers’ Forum, providing tremendous insight and educational benefit. These are just a few of the ways in which the India Art Fair makes art accessible and, in that sense, we have certainly achieved many of our ambitions on that front.

What changes have taken place in the Indian art market and the Indian contemporary art landscape since 2008?

Since the India Art Fair began, there has been a growing level of engagement and participation in the cultural scene across a broader range of sectors, including corporate, design, retail and real estate. The art market has steadily grown, although of course there have been peaks and troughs. This can be seen through events such as new gallery openings and public art spaces, new auctions, the arrival of India’s first art biennale and the increasing presence of Indian contemporary artists exhibiting internationally.

How does the India Art Fair fit into the Indian art context? How do you feel it has contributed to the local art scene?

India Art Fair is a meeting point that provides a large canvas – 20,000 square feet – for discussion, discovery, collaboration and commerce. It is a major national platform that exposes a wide range of Indian galleries and artists to international audiences, collectors and museum groups. Conversely, it also provides international galleries with the opportunity to showcase their galleries and artists to the Indian community. This two-way exchange is echoed in the Speakers’ Forum, where a comprehensive series of talks and debates encourages cultural exchange, and increased awareness and education about the Indian art market. India Art Fair also serves to unite the local art scene with a coordinated series of collateral events around Delhi during what is becoming traditionally known as the country’s busiest week in the cultural calendar.

What do you think about the status of Indian contemporary art today? Was it a mistake to not attend the Venice Biennale?

Yes, it was a mistake. It was fantastic to have a pavilion in the previous Venice Biennale and a great loss not to have one this year. The vast majority of the contemporary Indian art scene is funded by the private sector – but they can only do so much. At the end of the day, the Biennale is a government-based proposition and it is up to the Indian government to support the country by funding a national pavilion. Regarding Indian contemporary art today, we have certainly had a difficult year, but there are plenty of positive signs indicating that the market is rising again.

Sachin George Sebastian, ‘The Fall’ at India Art Fair 2013. Image courtesy India Art Fair.

Is contemporary art in India receiving enough support? Are institutions gaining popularity and relevance or diminishing in importance?

Public support is very encouraging. We have had over 400,000 visitors to the fair alone over the last five years. As already mentioned, the private sector provides the main financial support for the contemporary art scene in India. Through its funding, art and museum culture is being brought into the commercial and real-estate sector, for example, the Phoenix MarketCity Art Mall in Chennai or the Maxity Maker Towers in Mumbai. However, the level of government support for contemporary art in India is severely lacking. Institutions are certainly gaining in popularity and if the government’s level of support was able to match the level of enthusiasm for the expanding cultural sector, it would change everything.

Has India Art Fair 2014 targeted artists or galleries from a specific region or those that sell a particular style of art? Does it have a ‘focus’ section, such as Art Dubai’s ‘Marker’ focusing on West Africa and The Armory Show’s ‘Focus’ spotlighting Chinese art?

India Art Fair has a very clear geographic focus – India itself. At least 50 percent of the exhibiting galleries have always been Indian, and one of the chief purposes of the fair is to build and cultivate the Indian contemporary art market, both internally at a domestic level, but also externally in terms of international cultural exchange. Whilst we do not have a specific market-focus, there are often specific countries worth highlighting. For example, this year India Art Fair is proud to announce an Indo-Chinese collectors programme, with a major delegation of Chinese collectors attending the fair to stimulate cultural exchange between collectors and museums. To supplement the delegation’s activities, there will be a number of talks at the Speakers’ Forum reflecting this.

You have repeatedly insisted that you “don’t know much about art.” How did this position as someone with a general interest in the business of art fairs help you start the India Art Fair and sustain it? Do you think it is important for art fair directors to be outside of the art fraternity and its fashions?

I did not grow up surrounded by art, but it has always been something I have found interesting. In fact, I was always fascinated, but found art galleries to be really intimidating places, so I didn’t think that art was accessible to many people in India. This is one of the main reasons I set up the India Art Fair: to make art accessible to people here, so we can all learn about it, appreciate it and support artists.

Being outside of the art fraternity, I would say, has been an advantage. As an impartial organiser, I can view the art world from a neutral point of view and therefore am equally invested to promote all galleries and all artists. It also means that I understand our visitors, who are not art specialists, but who have a thirst to see and to learn.

What role have international collectors played in driving the Indian art market forward?

Traditionally, Indian contemporary art was collected by Indians. One of the great benefits of the India Art Fair has been the international outreach, through both international galleries and museum groups, who over the years have introduced a significant number of new international collectors to the market. The fair’s partnerships with cultural institutions – such as the Tate, the Guggenheim or, for example this year, the Himalayas Art Museum and the Mark Rothko Art Center in Latvia – is paramount in facilitating these introductions and an invaluable addition to the fair for both the exhibitors and artists.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced in organising the Fair over the years? How have the responses to the Fair changed?

One of the biggest challenges facing the fair, and indeed the Indian art market in general, is securing the level of support from the government that would help the market realise its true international potential. We need to convince various government departments that contemporary art is good for the economy, good for India’s image as a country and deserves the government’s help. Red tape is a real issue and every year we work hard with our exhibitors to make sure that the fair goes smoothly.

With the Fair growing steadily each year, how have your goals and focus for India Art Fair shifted or developed? What’s next for the India Art Fair?

We are constantly working very hard to grow and improve the India Art Fair. I would like to see it grow into an unmissable event on the Indian cultural calendar, an event where young artists can launch their careers and where collectors go to expand their collections.

Kriti Bajaj