Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Art of the Market of Indian Art: an interview with Jasmine Shah Varma

Years ago when I was growing up in Vadodara - I used to knock over the sculptures made by my parents' friends and hang upside down to try and figure out what they were trying to say in their paintings. I developed a huge fondness for art as a way to communicate and interact. Through small epicenters like Vadodara and areas of major metropolis' in India, contemporary art continued to grow on the fringes and refine its voice.

But it was the economic boom in India that spun it into the mainstream. The boom has powered the art scene in India for years - growing it at an estimated 30% every year. The Indian Art market is currently valued at roughly Rs 1,500 crores - and it connects a diverse multitude of Indian artists with a global set of fans eager, appreciative and willing to purchase art.

Jasmine Shah VarmaJasmine Shah Varma used to be a journalist who covered visual arts. In 2004 she started working on her first curatorial project 'Still Waters Run Deep', which ran in January 2005. She's been doing this ever since.

Her latest project - CARD-O-LOGY - features sixty artists from various generations and all over India (some of my favorites are in there). Oriented towards first time buyers looking to connect with and own Indian art, the exhibition features original art on postcards (4x6 or 5x7) from the artists. There are a lot of genres (abstract, landscape, figurative, conceptual) and techniques (photography based, water colors, drawings, etchings) to explore here.

While Jasmine was putting the show together (it opens September 4), I invited her to tell us more about how the market of Indian Art and how to go about making smart decisions when purchasing.

(All images below from Jasmine's new exhibit)

Aashna Jhaveri Hi Jasmine, welcome to the Drift. I’ll give you one tweet (140 characters or less) to tell us what a curator does and why she is indispensable.
Jasmine: A curator is like an editor who edits opinions within a chosen, relevant context. Her function to whet what’s exhibited is indispensable.

Apurba Nandi Let’s talk about artists. When you decide who to work with, what factors do you keep in mind? (What is your evaluation process like?)

Jasmine: I look for originality, relevance of their concerns, concept strength and the ability to show all this without having to verbalise it. Technical aspects, sound academic background, clarity in thought and process are also important factors. All said and done gut feeling plays a crucial role in deciding who I work with.

Asit Poddar Is there competition among curators for certain artists? How do you negotiate that?

Jasmine: Which field doesn’t have competition! Curators, artists, gallerists all walk around with secrets under their skin. On a serious note what is important is that there should be a good vibe, comfort and trust between the artist and the curator. In my dealings for 25 shows that I have curated I have seen that when the vision matches and an idea is constructive artists want to work with you. I’d say idea is king and a few pinches of charm work a long way.

Awanti Seth Patwardhan Outside of artists, who else do you have to know and work with?

Jasmine: Gallerists, other critics. As an independent curator I must make sure that the artists I represent are showcased in an appropriate environment.

Karishma Dsouza Have you ever told an artist something like: “You know if you stick a cute yellow baby ducky in the right corner, I could get you double price for that”.

Jasmine: Sure and that artist would definitely tell me to stick it myself! Good old constructive criticism and a healthy exchange of ideas may be appreciated. There are artists with a vision and then there are craftsmen who do what you tell them to do.

Kim Kyoungae Information is king. What is the information that is most valuable for you to know in your job?

Jasmine: What has been done, what is coming up and who is doing what are all important.

Lalitha Lajmi Ok, let’s say I’m an aspiring artist. I come to you and say: “Jasmine, I am working on a post-modern Manga piece called ‘The judging of Sita’. Would you be interested in selling it?” Would you:
(a) Laugh out loud, say ‘good one’ and go back to reading India Uncut
(b) Look me in the eye and then roll both of yours
(c) Say: ‘Bring it on! I can sell anything!’
(d) Other: _______

Jasmine: Option B is tempting but I’d totally ignore and not spend a moment of eye space on this sort. There is too much bad art corrupting and crowding one’s sight. Save your sight space for quality art.

Malavika Rajnarayan You handle a lot of work by artists – sometimes expensive pieces. This must be a big responsibility. Have you ever done something silly – like accidentally drop some wine over a Rs 5 lakh painting? Did you have to pay them back?

Jasmine: Now where did you get this idea from! Has it ever happened to anyone… I want to know.

Nikita Parikh Time to help people who want to collect art: I’ll pretend to be Mr. Starter Art Collector. How much money do I need to get started?

Jasmine: As you’d see in my forthcoming exhibition CARD-O-LOGY even as little as Rs 5000 is enough to start buying art. But more than X amount of money I’d say you need to have the inclination to spend time, be patient and eager to see what’s happening on the art scene. Every time you want to purchase a cell phone, or any electronic equipment most people spend lot of time researching which model to buy, what the reviews are, which vendor is offering the best price. Calculate the time and effort you spend on such purchases and spend at least 5 times more time to put your money on art. Art is for keeps, invest time and passion in it.

Nyela Saeed What should my starter strategy be like? Any tips from you? Is it better to buy mediocre oils than great watercolors? Should you follow artists or the color scheme in your house?

Jasmine: I would not select by medium, colour scheme or genre. People do not take it seriously, but the best way to sharpen your eye is to see a lot of art for a good period of time until you can tell A from B and recognise what it is that you appreciate and are willing to live with. Today medium, technique or process is not as important as the experience a work of art offers.

Santosh Morajkar Where all can I go to look for art to buy? How do I stay plugged in to cool stuff that might go on the market? Should I follow artists or curators?

Jasmine: Art galleries, select art websites. The way Indian art market functions, if you like specific artists you’d follow them wherever they show. If your are exploring, then you follow a curator’s vision and taste that you can trust. Follow galleries that have an identity, that showcase a steady quality and profile of art. Galleries that offer every kind of art like a bhaji market follow labels and brands which is not the way to appreciate art. But keep checking outside your favoured sphere to broaden your perspective.

Shruti Nelson How does art get priced?

Jasmine: Art pricing is extremely subjective and not a science, at least at the start of an artist’s career. I have seen emerging, needy artists price their works according to their immediate needs to pay bills. Popularity and demand, most commonly are an indicator of how to price works. The artist with the gallery / the artist representative / the promoter together decides the prices.

Sonatina Mendes People often call art an investment. Is there really a resale market for most original art that is being sold today?

Jasmine: This is not easy to answer because there is a lot going on under the label of art. So decorative art however lovely it is wouldn’t find secondary sale value. But in my experience a good, solid work of art that has the ability to move you over a period of time, without hype would find buyers any day.

Soumen Das

But art should not be bought like stocks to be sold at a later. Sometime back I read Paul Johnson’s article in Forbes where he said: "Art values are determined by unpredictable trends that are rarely linked to quality. And who's the arbiter of quality anyway? If you love works of art, read up on the subject and visit museums. Then buy because you want to possess certain objects and have them in your home to look at and enjoy. But don't collect in order to make money. You won't. And you'll have a painful, anxious time of it as well."

Vilas Bhad Final question, its mandatory on the Drift: can you fold a fitted bed sheet properly?
Jasmine: Never tried!

CARD-O-LOGY opens on Friday, September 4 and is on till September 18, 2009 at Hacienda Gallery, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai. But you don't have to be in town to participate - just send Jasmine an email if you are interested in any of the works.

Jasmine's picture taken by Uma Dhanwatey

Meena, thanks for helping me understand the art market and reviewing my questions


Mind Rush said...

Drift-guru, I bow my head in gratitude. This was a VERY educational interview.
Beautiful art!
However I am sorry to say that Ms. Varma came across as judgmental. I mean, would you not even see someone's work on Sita before condemning it! (Oh, the irony!)

musical said...

Lovely interview, and I totally echo Mind Rush!

Unknown said...

I'm so glad Jasmine did this for us. Mind Rush, she hadn't seen that drawing in all fairness. Not that she would have changed her mind. Remember she's talking about paintings not sketches :)

Anonymous said...

I agree it sounds a bit imprudent to decline the artist his prerogative to display. But, on the same note that is very true in the art world. I do not know about India, but Aspi in US they have something called freelancers group. It is a group of mixed personalities, people from all creative phases are part of it. It is a great place for upcoming artist to get feedback. I think something like that is missing for India. If there was a group of people like Jasmine, who would help not sell but channel the creative energy to right spaces, it will promote more people into buying the art and keep the creativity flowing. Right now the way it is, art is limited to the favored few.

Unknown said...

Anon, I'm with you in terms of where you want the market to be. But to create a viable market - in all practicality you cannot sell the long tail ONLY. You have to have a high end big hitting market. And hope that it will pull up all kinds of innovation with it precisely because the market is lucrative.

Its hard to see artists pour in a lot of energy into their work and live in a small kholi all their lives and not have enough money to be as creative as they want to be.

Teddy said...

Sorry Aspi, my comment is totally unelated to your excellent interview.

I just saw the trailer of Quick Gun Murugan, and I can't wait to see the movie. Looks hugely entertaining. Quick Gun Murugan used to be one of my favourite MTV characters back in the day.

Unknown said...

Hey, we all benefit from and thrive on being tangential around here.

I figured either that movie would be a hoot or it would crash and burn. Haven't decided yet - should I see it or not?

meena said...

hey Jasmine, thanks for some good insights...good point about some artists having the vision while some are excellent craftsmen open to shared ideas.

aur ab aspiji, aapko agni pariksha deni padegi :)

meena said...

aapki sita ko..I mean

Unknown said...

meena, brilliant thought - I have a related idea. Just like the fitted bed sheet deal - I'll ask every artist I ever interview about that sketch and see what they think. Should be fun.

meena said...

just like the fitted bed sheet question, this question also seems reveal something about the person thats a great idea
..and this can only mean you have other artists lined up to interviewwww...yay!