“Once you exceed 100,000 people, it’s not a numbers game anymore. It’s about bringing high quality collectors in,” says Neha Kirpal, 31, founder of the India Art Fair, explaining to A.i.A. her strategy for the fair’s fourth edition, which takes place at the NSIC Grounds in New Delhi, Jan. 25–29. Last year, some 128,000 people visited the fair—that’s London’s Frieze and Art Basel Miami Beach combined, by some estimates.
This year, 91 galleries from 19 countries have signed up to show at India’s largest-and only-contemporary art fair, half of them Indian and the other half international. These include White Cube, Hauser & Wirth, Gallery Continua and Grosvenor Gallery. Among the participating Indian galleries are Gallery Ske, Sakshi Gallery, Naturemorte, Tasveer Arts and Apparao Galleries, showing marquee names such as Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat and Subodh Gupta.
This year the fair adds a performance workshop called KhojLive, hosted at Blue Frog, a nightclub and performance space. Performa biennial founder RoseLee Goldberg will deliver the introductory lecture, after which 13 Indian artists, including Pushpamala N. & Mamta Sagar, Vivan Sundaram, Mr. Dotty and Madame Potty, will showcase their performance works.
Each gallery pays Rs. 18,000 (about $359) per square meter to rent a booth. This income, along with corporate sponsorships, is the main revenue for the fair. At $4, or Rs. 200, the entry ticket is priced lower than the cost of a “Bollywood movie ticket,” according to Kirpal. Last year, artist Anish Kapoor was a speaker, along with Homi Bhabha, dean of Harvard’s school of humanities. India’s Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi, visited the booths, swarmed by security.
Kirpal and her team of young art management professionals (mostly women), work through the year for the four-day event. The logistics aren’t easy. Last year, a leak in the roof just weeks before the opening meant organizers had to waterproof 11,000 square feet of roof. “No other organization would do that in India because nobody else shows art on this scale here,” says Kirpal.
After returning to India from London in 2007, Kirpal wanted to do an art fair along the lines of Frieze and Basel. “Nobody even knew what an art fair was,” she says. “Everyone said that it wouldn’t work in a chaotic country like India.” She wrote a business plan on an airline sickness bag, borrowed about $500,000 from a private investor and founded the first Indian Art Summit, as it was called in 2008. Only 10,000 visitors attended and the Indian art establishment predicted that the venture would die. It didn’t, partly because Kirpal made some smart moves like synching with the Jaipur Literary Festival, held a week before the art fair, and partly because, like the Jaipur Literary Festival, the art fair was treading on virgin ground. Once the fair’s organizers got the formula right, the celebrities began coming. Oprah Winfrey is in India now to attend the literary festival, and organizers hope she’ll visit the art fair as well. Visitors come “by private plane or two-day train rides,” says Kirpal with satisfaction.
“What makes the India Art Fair compelling relative to other Asian art fairs are the numbers,” says Malini Gulrajani, owner of 1×1 gallery, Dubai, who has participated in the fair since its inception. “We did in Art Stage Singapore and there were about 20 to 30,000 people.” Even the Hong Kong International Art Fair (Art HK), arguably the region’s biggest, recorded 63,000 visitors last year.
Earlier this year, Sandy Angus and Will Ramsey, who co-founded Art HK (which was acquired by Art Basel last year), bought a 51-percent stake in the India Art Fair. Kirpal used the cash infusion to repay her start-up loans and has used the fair’s success to work on easing government regulations on the import and export of artworks.
This year, for the first time, the Indian government has designated the fair a “temporary museum,” which allows galleries to import and export artwork duty free; they only pay duty on works that are actually sold. In previous years, law required they pay duty upfront, regardless of whether a work was sold. The Indian government charges 14- to 17-percent duty, compared with Dubai’s 5 percent. “I spent a lot of time lobbying with the government to convince them that the country will make more on cultural tourism through events such as the art fair than they make on import duty,” says Kirpal.
She also is working on developing a collector base in an immature market. This year, she has launched a “Collector’s Circle,” which will provide lectures and art walks for its members. “I want to use the art fair as a catalyst and tool to develop the art scene in India,” she says.