Explained: As India Art Fair returns, a brief history of art fairs and their importance

The India Art Fair (IAF) opening on April 28 in New Delhi after a year-long hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is the biggest event for Indian art and artists, besides the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which, unlike the fair, is not intended for trade. This will be the 13th edition of the show.

The history of the fair

The IAF was conceived in 2008 by Neha Kirpal, a political science graduate from Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, who worked in public relations before studying marketing at the University of the Arts, London. Kirpal persuaded his employers to give him a loan of Rs 1 crore for what was initially known as the India Art Summit, and planned the first edition in just four months.

When the announcement was made at a hotel in Delhi, much of the Indian art world was skeptical of the business model Kirpal offered, but it still managed to get around 30 galleries on board.

The summit started at Pragati Maidan, mainly as a business platform where the public also interacted with artists, and workshops and interactions aimed at informed discussions.

While Kirpal sold its majority stake in the fair in 2016, over the years the event has grown in size and impact. The 13th edition, which will run until May 1 at the NSIC Grounds in Okhla, will feature more than 70 exhibitors, including arts institutions, museums and private foundations.

Role of fairs in art

Focused on commerce and networking, an art fair is essentially a business platform. Art galleries and businesses rent booths to display their collections, with the aim of selling to multiple categories of customers.

Organizers generally do not interfere with what a gallery chooses to exhibit, with the exception of collaborative sections where they may make curatorial interventions. For example, at the India Art Fair, besides booths, there are live performances by artists, outdoor projects, organized walks and book launches.

The other major format of a cultural arts event is the Biennale, which, compared to fairs, is more focused on cultural exchange and discussion, and is a showcase with a curatorial vision.

Art fairs in history

Religious festivals are considered the oldest precursors to art fairs. These gatherings, often annual, focused on religion and trade, saw the representation and exhibition of rare objects, often from distant lands. Festivals of this kind were held in the Roman Empire and under the Greek and Han dynasties.

In medieval times, one of the first art fairs took place in 1460 in the courtyard of the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp, where manuscripts, paintings, sculptures and illustrations were exhibited. The 17th and 18th centuries saw the rise of sample fairs intended to advertise and promote new items.

The birth of the modern art fair can be traced back to the Cologne Art Market, launched in 1967 by two gallery owners based in Cologne, Germany. It was designed as a trade fair where German galleries set up temporary booths to display works.

The following year, a similar event began in Basel, with the participation of international galleries. Since then, their number has only increased. In 2015, the European Fine Art Fair Market Report estimated that art fair sales were around €9.8 billion in 2014, or 40% of total dealer sales.

The biggest art fairs in the world

The first art fairs opened in Europe and the United States, but according to UBS’s art market report, there were nearly 300 international art exhibitions in 2018 across all continents, with around 52% of fairs taking place in Europe.

While the annual Armory Show in New York has showcased modern and contemporary art since 1994, Art Basel in Switzerland is widely regarded as the premier contemporary art fair. Art Basel established Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002 and has also expanded into Asia, with Art Basel in Hong Kong since 2013.

London’s Frieze Art Fair expanded to New York in 2012. South Africa has Art Rio, and major art events take place during Singapore Art Week and Art Dubai.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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