Running a gallery surrounded by art and working with artists you admire is a great job. No question. At the outset, there is the thrill of co-piloting an artist’s career during take off. Then, over the years, you have the privilege of watching as each artist’s practice evolves and deepens. Why, then, is opening a gallery in Mumbai seemingly such an unappetising prospect?
India was home to a vibrant modern art scene as early as the 1940s, possessing a large complement of artists and collectors who were aware of international art movements. It is therefore ironic that there were actually no commercial galleries with artist rosters until the early 1960s, when Chemould and Pundoles were finally established. Indeed, even then, the pioneering promoters behind these ventures were, in actual fact, accidental gallerists. This reluctance to open galleries extended over the next forty years which saw no more than a slow trickle of galleries open until, in the early to mid-2000s, there was a sudden surge of new entities. For five or so short years, everyone wanted to be a gallerist. 2009 saw a massive correction to the contemporary art market, and that put paid to any new galleries coming onto the scene.
Fast-forward to 2018 and young would-be gallerists, instead of opening spaces, seem to be veering toward one of the many new non-commercial visual arts organisations in the country (many of which featured in last year’s South Asian Art Market Report).
The question is why.
Entry costs to the gallery community are very high: you either need to own a space or have the ability to keep up with the crippling rental prices; you need to be prepared to travel to where your artists are exhibiting, and, if need be, participate in art fairs which, often, might be very expensive branding exercises with precious few sales to show for your trouble; and you need to have the resources to ride out the monsoon period when no artist wants to show and no collector would be seen dead in the city.
The city’s gallery culture has always been perceived to be clique-ish but this is sure to be felt more acutely if you are a young person living in an India that, increasingly, looks to arts and culture to break down long-held hierarchical systems. At present, the level of engagement of galleries with communities beyond their collector base is almost non-existent. The Mumbai Gallery Weekend presents only one honourable attempt to rectify the situation, but, still, it is once a year and last for all of four days or so.
Technology is developing faster that galleries are evolving. If you’re young and interested in art, it is unlikely that you are looking to instagram accounts of Mumbai galleries to get your daily art hit. India’s superstar interior designers and architects are the undisputed tastemakers as far as the visual arts are concerned. One post of an artist’s work by any one of these influencers will do more for demand than any number sent into the ether by that artist’s gallery. The gallery scene needs to be far more visible online, in particular on a visual-led medium such as instagram.
Going forward Mumbai galleries need to think hyper-local. With the help of digital platforms, the gallery can have global reach and, arguably, greater global credibility by concentrating first and foremost on developing world class programs for their local audiences. There will soon be an inflection point where the measure of success is not how well an artist has done at an art fair outside India, but how much she is being discussed on social media by Indian influencers. You can’t get this kind of visibility unless you are extremely active on the ground, constantly curating events that complement the work of artists that are being shown at the gallery. And these activities need to be aimed at wide and diverse local audiences.
The Mumbai gallery community will also need to address the question that is facing so many others globally: is a gallery still a gallery without a space? Does it make sense to organise popup exhibitions as an alternative to operating from a bricks and mortar space. I think it is too early still in the Indian context. We have barely created a regular gallery going community and it will simply wither if there are any fewer settled gallery spaces than exist right now. But galleries soon won’t need to be wedded to the South Mumbai area of Colaba in the slavish manner that has held the last fifty years. There is a big city out there to explore.