Witnessing history of Indian contemporary art

Elīna Zuzāne


Holly Brackenbury is the  Director for Indian art, Sotheby's London, and has been a key figure at developing the London and New York sales. During our conversation at the India Art Fair, which Sotheby’s is proud to support, Holly admits that she has always had a fascination with this region… But it was during her first visit to India when the love affair began, and it’s been going on ever since.

We would be very interested to know your viewpoint on India Art Fair. How do you regard the fair and what are your personal highlights of the new edition?

The India Art Fair is in its fourth edition (previously the Summit) and it is interesting because each year it has obviously grown and taken on more of an international characteristic. It is very much a reflection of where the market is moving.

I think that the fair is successful in the way it brings together all different aspects of the art world - curators, artists, collectors, gallerists and the auction houses, allowing them to exchange ideas on a platform. And by having the Speakers’ Forum and Collectors Circle, in addition to the galleries exhibiting here, it is a form of education and exposure to the different fragments of contemporary art. It is very exciting to be supporting such a wonderful event.

How would you describe the national identity of Indian art? Does it exist?

The national identity of Indian art is something that has been a concern for some artists since India's independence. In some cases, the way modern Indian art evolved was by trying to find a voice or an identity. Some looked at taking on aspects of Western art and some looked at returning to traditional forms of Indian art, but using it in a new way to form a language.

I would say that today, as with the rest of the contemporary world, a lot of the contemporary artists have a common international language. It is very difficult to pinpoint and say that this artist has a national identity. The nature of the world that we live in is very global. By being exposed to the internet and all the media, artists are in a very different situation now than what they were in forty and fifty years ago. It produces more of an international form of art and artists are often speaking a common language. This also appeals to international collectors. I feel that artists are no longer striving for a national identity. I don’t think that it is of paramount concern, as it was fifty years ago.

National identity, however, is also something that tells artists or regions apart.

If you now speak to a lot of the leading contemporary artists in India, they don’t like to be categorized. They just want to be seen as contemporary artists. The way the market has evolved, because it has obviously developed over quite a short period of time, it’s had to be categorised initially, and that is why we have had designated Indian art sales. We had to do that because that is how these markets develop. But what we have seen is that some of the artists, already designated to Indian art sales, have now moved into the international contemporary sales. I think that this will probably happen more and more.

Artists are now exhibiting all over the world. I don’t think that they necessarily want to be labelled as “Indian art”. It is interesting that lately, in the West, a number of exhibitions have been organised where the big names of Indian contemporary art are put together. A lot of these artists would like to be presented on their own, or maybe with some Western artists, and actually just be there for their art, rather than the fact that they are Indian.

But auction houses do put these labels on.

They do because that is just the way the market is. The international Indian art market really only started in 2005. We had our first sale of modern Indian art in 2000 and there were private collection sales at the Herwitz Collection just before that. It’s a very new market and you can’t have these artists just placed in the international scene. It has to develop through these categories.

How has the Indian contemporary art market transformed since 2005, when Sotheby’s held the first Indian modern and contemporary art sale?

From 2005 through to the end of 2007, we saw a lot of growth over a very short period. Obviously, with that amount of growth, there has to be a period of adjustment. Things have to level out. Today the collectors have become more selective about what they are buying. They are interested in creating balanced collections. They are no longer just looking at Indian art, but other sale categories as well.

Not only has the behaviour of the collector changed but also the location. When we first started out, a lot of our buyers were non-resident Indians and they were based all over the world. In the last couple of years, the buyers are primarily from India. In terms of the top tier works that we sell, they are now sold to clients in India. This has to do with a number of factors.

Globally, there have been difficult economic situations but India remains very strong. The collectors in India have also started to become exposed to different forms of art. Private art institutions have formed in India and they are now having a dialogue with other international institutions. There has generally been more exposure and obviously, the increase in economy has meant that collectors in India are now very excited about collecting art.

Taking this interest from resident Indian buyers into consideration, will Sotheby’s be opening a new branch in India?

We are constantly monitoring the market, but having our sale locations in London and New York currently works well for us.

We feel that by bringing highlights for various sales to India is our best way of marketing, at the moment. Previously, it has included not only Indian art, but also contemporary art and jewellery. In 2008, we brought the Damien Hirst sale. We enjoy bringing things over and being involved in something as great as the Indian Art Fair, which is also a form of reaching out to new collectors and educating the existing ones.

Could you share your insights on what Indian art collectors are interested in buying?

At the moment, there is much focus on the modern. The market has seen a period of adjustment and, since early 2008, a lot of the collectors have become very selective and are focused on the top-tier modern artists. The same cannot be said about the contemporary art, but we are starting to see that change. There are very encouraging signs. The India Art Fair is the ideal vehicle to promote contemporary art to collectors.

Currently, the biggest emerging art markets could be named India, China and Russia. Where does India position itself in relation to these other markets?

It is interesting because, if you sit down and look at the figures – and you can see how much China has been spending on art over the last five years, how much Russia has been spending on art… it is a lot more than India. It just shows that India has a lot of potential, but it still has a long way to go in order to catch up.

In China and Russia, there is generally more state involvement and investment in the arts. In India it is severely lacking. What we have in India is a number of private institutions, which have evolved in the last couple of years. They have allowed the public to view aspects of Indian art, which has been fantastic, but there almost needs to be more of that. Compared to Russia and China, the everyday person doesn’t have as much exposure to art. When the state starts investing in improving the museums and galleries as a priority initiative, then we will see the market and the interest go up. India has got the potential and it’s going in the right direction, but it’s not at the same level as Russia and China.

How do you see the future of Indian contemporary art?

I think the future is extremely exciting. Just by walking around the fair today, there seem to be very interesting contemporary artists. Leading international curators are now looking at Indian art and creating dialogues with what’s happening in India and in the West. This is a very exciting time to be involved. We are in the infant stages. We will look back at this time and see how it all developed, and it’s really great to be a part of it.

What would be your advice for people still considering whether or not to collect Indian art?

Nowadays, it is so easy to access information. There are so many different vehicles in terms of acquiring knowledge and that is the most important thing. You should learn about art and find out what you are really interested in. Do as much research as possible. I think that’s really the key. And, of course, enjoy it, because that’s what it is all about… art is there to be enjoyed.

Lately, there have been different approaches to buying art – investment, pleasure, or both?

Art should always be enjoyed because then, whatever happens in terms of investment, it is irrelevant because art is being enjoyed. To create a sustainable long-term market, you have to encourage and nurture collectors, not just investors. It’s to everyone’s advantage to create genuine collectors because then the market will carry on. If an artwork is purchased purely as an investment, this often tends to be a short-term gain. We all want to see Indian art grow in a beneficial way.

Do you collect art?

I can’t afford to collect the art that I would like to (laughs). The trouble with working in an international auction house, is that you get exposed to some incredible pieces and it means that you develop a very highbrow taste. I would like to collect art, but I can’t. I do it in a subtle way… I actually collect Indian textiles because that’s all I can afford (continues laughing).

Holly Brackenbury, the Director for Indian art, Sotheby's London