welcome to collectors mind

This is a forum for sharing knowledge, gaining insights and shaping opinions. We will not sit on the fence here or play favorites. The language of art has changed in a blink of a year– today there are market makers, power brokers, savvy investors, flippers, fakes and fund managers. Collectors are nearly extinct. Why? Because collectors can see and COLLECTORS MIND. So together, let’s take a small step to make today’s buyers into tomorrow’s collectors. The future of art depends on it!

Friday, July 16, 2010

The best galleries are risk takers

An abbreviated version of this interview by PRONOTI DATTA appeared in the July 3, 2010 Times of India, Crest Edition

Two months ago, Abhay Maskara announced that his gallery might shut as it wasnt profitable. It was bad news for art lovers.Gallery Maskara has been one of the few spaces in Mumbai to consistently show work thats frequently cutting edge, often perplexing but never dull ever since its opening show in 2008 by Canadian artist Max Streicher that featured inflatable figures. The gallery has since showed dust sculptures, graffiti on canvas and installations of found objects. The good news is that soon after considering shutting down, Maskara, encouraged by the art fraternity,changed his mind and decided to pull on despite financial difficulties. The issue of the quality of Indian art collectors has resurfaced with the threat of Gallery Maskaras closure. The art market continues to be the economic equivalent of a very rich, very hormonal teenager. It has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade but its tastes are yet to mature. Maskara discovered that selling dust sculptures to collectors hung up on Razas and Husains that could later be sold for more wasnt the best idea, especially after his last six shows went by without a single local sale. He tells TOI-Crest about the frustrations of showing challenging art.

When you started out, did you think it would be this hard to sell art in a market that was hungry for it?
It was always going to be challenging to put unfamiliar things out there - things that people were not sure about – our job was to encourage viewers to chance upon the ‘new’ and encourage them to seek out this uncertainty with a heightened sense of curiosity. I think at the time we opened, the market was too busy seeking out objects while we were more interested in creating experiences.

In your blog post, you said you’ve been an art insider for over 15 years. What did you do before becoming a gallerist?
Yes. I have been a student, a thinker and a serious collector of art for the past 15 years. I started with collecting Modern and Contemporary Indian art, then the brackets suddenly dropped and it became wholly about the art and my collection became free from culture specific or country-specific prejudice.

I was born into a traditional business family so went to business school both in India and abroad and then worked with Microsoft in Seattle, Washington for four years from 2000-2004. I was still moonlighting in art all this while - reading a lot, visiting galleries and museums in the US and wherever my travels took me. I was also collecting whatever I found radical and interesting.

After being soaked in the magic of visual art for six years in the west, I decided to return to India and convert my passion into a profession. It took me over a year to figure out how I could contribute and make a difference to the local art scene. In 2006 I started a blog http://www.collectorsmind.com/ and began sharing my thoughts on art with a wider audience. The urge to be closer to the creative process led to the gallery that opened to the public in March 2008.

Did you get a sense that Indian collectors weren’t ready for the sort of art you wanted to show? Or did you take a risk thinking that you could create a market for art that’s unconventional by Indian standards?
Risk plays a critical role in building great collections and I simply wanted to create the conditions that would allow people to discover first-hand the joys of unexpected art encounters and take a chance on their own eye.

It is also not like we were deliberately showing ‘unconventional’ art. We were simply asking the audience to make connections between what they were seeing and what they were feeling; and the only way I knew how to achieve this was to show work that I was personally touched and moved by – works that captured my imagination and challenged my preconceived notions of life. Once a work of art had that effect on me, I was compelled to show it and share that joy with others. That was the spirit with which I started curating shows at the gallery and it remains my primary motivation to this day.

Why do you think Indian art collectors shy away from such art? Are they too focused on resale values? Is it because Indians are by and large more conservative?
The bulk of the local art market is still characterized by buyers who are predominantly buying Indian art, so it is very nationalistic in that sense. Most of the demand is still for two-dimensional works and buyers are still prejudiced towards figurative and narrative based art which are easier to understand, collect, and display.

However, the profile of the collector is going through a gradual transformation and we have more young collectors taking an active interest in art than ever before; these collectors are well traveled, savvy and want to live with art that reflects their aspirations and their lifestyles. This shift ‘of looking at art as an extension of the self’ is happening but at a very slow pace. It is the job of the gallery to present pioneering and often unpopular art and help bridge the creative-collecting gap.

What were some of the reactions you got from collectors?
There are collectors and then there are those who buy art. The response from the handful of collectors who we have forged a relationship with has been very stimulating. They trust our program and our prices and we trust that they will do right by the artists they have bought.

We have had many visitors who come looking for predictable art but linger at the space for a while and often go back with more radical works from our gallery. Others are visibly perplexed by the encounter and leave quickly – almost out of embarrassment of not ‘getting it’. This is heartbreaking because I think one of the reasons people go to see art in galleries and museums is to get away from what is familiar and embrace the new and the unpredictable. That can be the most elevating and enriching part of the art experience.

Do you think that galleries should exhibit art that’s more radical and create a culture of appreciation?
The answer is a resounding yes. It requires a great deal of courage, conviction and resource to open a gallery and show cutting edge work that is in advance of the market and is not easily understood or collected. Gallerists come in many different shapes and sizes but all perform one basic function - they are in business to sell art – but that is also where the similarities end. The best galleries play a pivotal role in influencing trends, building careers, and enriching our lives with new experiences. They are risk takers, taste makers and cultural ambassadors. It’s an immense responsibility.

Did you decide to shut the gallery because it wasn’t lucrative?
As a gallery, our survival depends on sales from the artists we represent and from the exhibitions that are mounted at the space. This has proved to be a quite a struggle in a marketplace that often overlooks work of visual complexity in favor of more commercial considerations.

The situation became dire when six of our last shows went without a single work selling to any local buyer. It was almost like history repeating itself in front of my own eyes. In the 40’s and 50’s in Bombay it was the presence of certain Europeans like Emanuel Schlesinger (Austrian émigré and art patron), Walter Langhammer (Art director, The Times of India), Rudy Von Leyden (Art critic, Times of India), who supported the Progressives and their contemporaries by buying, critiquing and actively engaging with art and the artists that were considered avant-garde and radical at that time. Fast forward sixty years and now it’s the like of Charles Saatchi, Monique Burger and other key Europeans collectors without whom we would have been compelled to shut long ago. We are indeed grateful to these rare individuals equipped with intuitive eyes, yet no gallery can survive without local patronage. This harsh reality was compounded by some personal issues that demanded significant resources and we were literally out of breath.

What made you change your mind?
It was a democratic process of taking all the artists into confidence and sharing very openly the challenges that were before us. The conversation was about how we could find ways to re-invent ourselves without compromising on the program. Selling out to the market was not an acceptable option so it took several weeks to think things through. In the end it was the collective energy of the all the artists, encouragement from my family and the love and affection from the entire art community that provided the much needed impetus to keep going. I don’t think we fully resolved the financial problem so it was more a change of heart than a change of mind.

Do you also have a collection of more “saleable” works? Were buyers more interested in those?
This is a very important question because I feel that the word ‘saleable’ as it relates to art is quite misunderstood. With every show we encourage the audience to drop their prejudices and see the world (including the world of art) with more openness, to engage in a new dialogue with the work which in turn ignites new thoughts and new inspiration for life. It is this ideology that we are selling actually and the art acts as a means to that end. There are visionary artists and courageous collectors who are after the same things so it becomes a beautiful conversation but a greater proportion are still preoccupied with the practicalities of art.

Are you still as committed to showing the sort of art you did?
Yes absolutely. Our focus is on exhibiting and promoting emerging artists who work on the edges of creativity both from India and from other parts of the world. We have seen how this has played a catalytic role in opening up a new dialogue within the local artistic community and our commitment to contemporary remains unfazed by the unpredictability of market forces. We have never been pre-occupied with ideas of permanence or posterity so the day we have to make curatorial compromises will be the last day of the gallery. In my mind it is as simple as that.

What’s your personal collection like? Could you give examples of a couple of works that you’re particularly attached to and how you acquired them?
It’s an eclectic mix of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and new media works by both Indian and international artists.

It is very hard to play favorites but Suicide Self Portrait – Hanging by Neil Hammon and Evidence from the Evaporite by Jitish Kallat are right up there...I chanced upon Neil Hamon’s work at a gallery in Brazil. I had not known of the artist before but the work instantly spoke to me and triggered my imagination. The later was from Jitish’s first solo show in 1997 from Gallery Chemould and although ten years apart, it was almost the same set of responses – the same emotions that led me to buy both these works.

What was the first piece of art you collected? When and where?
It was a demonic head by F.N Souza painted in 1956. I bought it in 1996 from Sakshi Gallery in Bombay for a paltry sum. At that time there were more seminal Souza’s available than people cared for. Now that buying art has become a fashion and irresponsibly touted as an investment, the same people who once ignored these works are willing to pay absurd prices for them. It’s an interesting but irrational barometer of treating price as a proxy for quality and desirability.