Indian Art Boom
A period in the early to late 2000s when the market value of Indian art rose exponentially, the Indian Art Boom was marked by the creation of an international market for Indian Modernists, the establishment of Indian auction houses, and record-setting sales of Indian art at foreign auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The Boom period established the careers of several emerging artists in India due to financial speculation on their work, which helped create a market niche for contemporary Indian art. It ended with the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing global recession. Much subsequent investment in art infrastructure — such as larger galleries, art NGOs, grants, art residencies and private museums — is credited to the establishment of Indian art as a market category during the Boom years.
The beginning of the Boom is marked differently by various scholars and commentators. The most conservative estimate states that the Boom lasted for two to three years between 2006 and 2008, when most of the highest-grossing sales and other investment in Indian art occurred. Other analysts believe it started in 2000, the year India’s two major auction houses, Saffronart and Osian’s Connoisseurs were founded.
The groundwork for the Boom was laid in the 1990s. The first sales of modern Indian art by Sotheby’s and Christie’s were held in New York in 1995. For most of the twentieth century, Indian art received little attention on the global stage until the economic liberalisation in the 1990s. Following this event however, foreign investors were able and willing to speculate on the newly opened Indian market with confidence after seeing the rapid commercialisation of Chinese art around the same time. This influx of foreign currency — cautious at first, then gaining speed by 2000 — encouraged curators, collectors and art institutions to take note of it and prepare art historical timelines for viewing and discussing Indian art. Between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, art writers such as Geeta Kapur, Gayatri Sinha, R Siva Kumar and Yashodhara Dalmia outlined the historical category of Indian Modernism, as well as its various schools and movements. The creation of such a framework for modern art in India allowed art dealers — particularly auction houses — to draft catalogues that introduced collectors to Indian art as an opportunity to invest in the cultural output of independent India. The biographical details of several artists, such as MF Husain and Subodh Gupta, were written about with as much emphasis as their work, giving collectors a sense that these were artists whose careers overlapped with key moments in Indian history, or whose lives and work represented an essential aspect of the Indian story. Such a conceptual structure helped to price artists’ work as well, placing them in hierarchies according to their position in the newly written history of Indian Modernism.
Particularly popular were paintings by the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), due to their close parallels with Western Modernists such as Pablo Picasso. PAG artists such as Husain, FN Souza and SH Raza were highly palatable to the Western art market, which was beginning to expand its definition of modernism to global proportions. Other Modernists with high sales included Amrita Sher-Gil, whose work was frequently compared to that of Frida Kahlo, and Arpita Singh, who was one of the few established women artists living in India at the time. To underscore this parity between Indian and Western Modernism, as well as to attract collectors, Saffronart’s early exhibitions were held in New York or London, where much of the art world’s sales were concentrated.
The auctions that were held at these venues began to see the first record-making sales of twentieth century Indian art. A notable example of this is Mahishasura, a painting by the PAG artist Tyeb Mehta which sold for over a million dollars at Christie’s in 2005, making it the first modern Indian painting to do so in an auction. Many of Indian art’s new patrons came from the Indian diaspora in the West and were drawn to the narrative of Indian Modernist history reclaiming its place on the global art market. Other collectors were interested in speculating on the rising value of younger contemporary artists’ work. This speculation made the careers of several key names in Indian art today, such as Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat and various emerging or mid-career practitioners at the time. India’s relatively few domestic collectors typically had more traditional tastes, and were initially cautious about buying into the increasingly expensive market for contemporary Indian art. A crucial factor in their involvement was the creation of funds — such as Copal’s Art Fund and Osian’s Art Fund — that were set up specifically for investing in and selling Indian art. Most investors in these funds had no history of purchasing art, but were encouraged by the new market niche for Indian art.
Several factors contributed to the end of the Indian Art Boom. While the general impact of the 2008 global financial crisis was softened in India, the crisis forced foreign collectors, institutions and non-resident Indians to stop or pull investments in Indian art. Osian’s Art Fund became a case study in hasty investment, poor planning and multiple legal oversights which led to its being forcibly closed down by the Indian government in 2013. Other factors that ended the Boom include a lack of infrastructure that could sustain Indian art outside of the market, such as contemporary art museums, robust educational institutions, and funding for artists. Indian artists had been carried through the Boom years mainly by market forces, and did not have a safety net of government funding or public support for contemporary art within the country. Lastly, Indian bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of channels to invest easily in art may have limited sales and other follow-up investments from foreign buyers during the Boom years.
The Indian Art Boom, revealing as it did the level of international interest in Indian art and the need for better infrastructure, was a catalyst for the creation of public-facing projects, funding organisations and generally a more adaptive support structure for Indian artists after 2008. This included expansions and renovations at major Indian galleries such as Chemould Prescott Road, Gallery Espace, Nature Morte, Chatterjee & Lal, Bodhi Art and several others. The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, India’s first private museum showing contemporary art, was opened in 2010. The annual India Art Summit (now India Art Fair) began in 2008, and continues to be a key event for seasonal sales for art in the subcontinent.
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