It’s not a time when most people would decide to splash out on a big investment in Indian art, even though art usually does well when stock markets slide. There are signs that prices are slipping. Galleries in India are reducing over-hyped prices and a recent Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong didn’t do well. It has been clear throughout the summer that, though some record prices have been achieved, most buyers are becoming more cautious and selective.
Yet a new and worthwhile art venture has just been started by Malvinder Singh, who heads the Ranbaxy pharmaceutical and Fortis healthcare family that has diversified into a financial services called Religare.
He and his people decided some time ago that modern and contemporary art had to be included in investment options that Religare offered clients.
Last year it set up the Religare Arts Initiative (arts.i) and in January this year it started a Rs11.5 crore ($2.5m) art investment fund. Two weeks ago it opened a massive 12,000 sq.ft. exhibition space on Delhi’s Connaught Circus that includes a café, bookshop and lecture space and is reported to be costing as much as 25 lakhs ($55,000) a month to rent.
Its opening exhibition runs till October 30 and is made up of 16 mostly young adventurous artists, many of whom will become famous in the future – three of their works are shown here. None of the usual names like Husain, Souza, Mehta, Raza, Gupta or Dodiya are anywhere to be seen.
“These are the new voices of contemporary Indian art,” says Alka Pande, the curator, who chose works priced roughly between Rs50,000 and six and a half lakhs ($1,100 to $14,500). “Younger collectors can afford to pick these works not only for aesthetic but financial value”.
Malvinder Singh says that Religare realised that the modern and contemporary arts scene was “unorganized, lacked transparency, and that valuations were largely subjective”.
The arts initiative would therefore “not just look at an art fund but also art advisory services, galleries, art insurance, residency programmes etc to institutionalize a sound, transparent, credible platform for the cause of art”.
This is significant because it is the first time that a leading company has entered the art world in such a wide-ranging way, and as a business. Many leading business families such as the Birla, Tata and Goenka have had collections for years. Tina Ambani, wife of Anil Ambani who heads one of the two Reliance groups, is a collector and runs the Harmony Art Foundation as well as a big annual exhibition of relative newcomers in Mumbai.
Delhi-based Bajaj Capital (no link with the Bajaj Autos family) has set up Bajaj Capital Art House to provide advisory services to clients. It had an opening exhibition of paintings in Delhi’s Habitat Centre last month. Bajaj is not setting up an art fund because, says Uttam Agarwal, executive vice president, “we believe in helping people to buy art rather than giving them a piece of paper”.
Neville Tuli, founder of Mumbai and Delhi-based Osian’s, would probably claim the same sort of dream as Religare – to broaden knowledge of arts while doing business. He started with art auctions, then a fund, and then an ever-growing collection that has expanded from modern and contemporary art to cinema, posters, old prints and other artworks. Osian’s gives art investment advice to Citibank and even has a literary agency and is into football sponsorship.
Some collectors complain that both Religare and Osian’s are blurring the boundaries of their activities.
In Religare’s case, it is an art gallery, collector, fund manager, and financial adviser, while Osian’s is all of that plus a big collector and an auction house.
Will the best works they find be put in their private collections, their funds, or an auction list? And how can an investor test the flimsiness of the Chinese walls are between the activities?
Religare has faced up to at least one of these criticisms by talking to SEBI, the Mumbai-based financial markets watchdog, about registering its fund, says Amit Sarup, a director of Religare Venture Capital. That follows a SEBI announcement in February that art funds should be registered as a “collective investment scheme”. This scheme was introduced in the 1990s for plantation companies and SEBI is now considering how to modify it for the art market.
Lack of regulation and transparency of course is not just a problem in India – the market is fixed all over the world – so there’s little likelihood of much being achieved here. But it would be good to see some increased transparency, plus exposure of practices such as galleries buying up and hoarding young and old artists’ works, fixing prices, and of course dealing in fakes.
Meanwhile, if you are in Delhi, go and enjoy the city’s newest and most spacious, airy, art gallery – it’s in Scindia House, where Air France used to be, at the top end of Kasturba Gandhi Marg fronting Connaught Circus. If he’s there, get Mukesh Panika, who’s in charge of arts-i, to show you round. The second show, next month, will display photographic art by Samar Jodha and watercolours interpreting the Indian Ragamala tradition by the American artist James McGarrrell.