Arun Vadehra, 48, was wearying of the family construction business. So he diversified into interior decoration. From paint to paintings seemed the logical next step. The Vadehra Art Gallery opened in Delhi in 1986. Turnover in the first year: Rs 13,000. Official turnover a decade later in 1996: Rs 2 crore. Declared profits: Rs 15 lakh. Unofficial estimated profit according to "in-the-know" artsies: Rs 75 lakh plus. Book value of his personal collection of Husain, Gaitonde, Ram Kumar et al: Rs 30 lakh.
Radhika Chopra, 36, worked variously as secretary, saleswoman for 15 years before she started earning Rs 15,000 at her last job. Last March, she chucked it all up to start her Mirage Art Gallery in Delhi in partnership with painter Damyanti Sharma. Earnings from her very first exhibition: Rs 42,900.
Harish Chaganlal, 60, Bombay-based owner of Legend Diamond jewellery and longtime art collector, is a different kettle of fish. His reason for opening the Legend Art Gallery in Delhi's Hauz Khas Village this month: he wants to "trim the fat" off his 30-year-old painting collection valued at Rs 50 lakh. Besides, "Where can I rent such space for Rs 10,000 in Bombay? More important, Delhi has the money and the market for art."
Which accounts for the rash of art galleries opening in Delhi: 46-odd in the last decade alone, including the multi-crore Art Today facility at Connaught Place. Four more have joined the fray between just January and March this year. The figure does not include institutional galleries a la National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Rabindra Bhavan, All-India Fine Arts and Crafts or what art critic Suneet Chopra calls "room space galleries" of which there are at least another 20. Premier example: the so-called Ribbons Art Gallery at Vasant Lok market which is just two grubby walls in a basement shop that has the ambience of a yard sale. Indeed, serious painters, collectors, art critics aver that today, Delhi, not Bombay, is the hub of the Rs 30-crore art market expected to grow into a Rs 100-crore market within the next five years.
Why Delhi? "Because the city has the space to sell paintings, the money to buy them," explains Chaganlal. "In Bombay, I'd have to spend Rs 2 crore on buying space to have an art gallery this size. Nothing is available for rent. Premises I pay Rs 10,000 per month for here would rent for lakhs there presuming they're available. In terms of sales, the art scene is more active because the new money is here. Exporters flush with dollars are eager to learn, buy, build collections," he adds. Vadehra elaborates: "Buying paintings is a class thing here. Our buyers are second generation business kids. Their parents were the Planning Commission generation who earned to build solid assets. This generation is splurging: using large disposable incomes to buy rarefied stocks like paintings. Stock with added value. Snob value". Art critic Suneet Chopra agrees: "Owning a gallery gives you social prestige. Also tax exemptions. List your gallery as trust property earmarked for 'artistic and cultural promotion activity' and it can receive 'gift' money from your business. " Not finance alone. "It's fashion too. At a recent society wedding the couple was gifted paintings by friends. You didn't hear of such things earlier," says Chopra. Vadehra offers another reason for Delhi's emergence as a major art buying centre: "Bombay's great art collectors acquired their collections years ago dirt cheap from today's masters who were yesterday's strugglers. They are intimidated by their current prices, have neither the place to keep them nor the guts to buy them unlike Delhi's space and rupee rich exporter varieties, unaware of yesterday's prices. They are not buying art alone. They're buying aristocracy."
And creating an aristocracy of gallery owners in the bargain. "Investments are low, returns high in this business that is as much about selling paintings as it is about selling pedigree." What do you need except a good space, clean walls, good lighting to set up a gallery? asks Vadehra. "Goods come on consignment, sales come through social connections. Prices are zooming. Even Atul Dodiya who sold for Rs 5,000 a decade ago now sells for Rs 1,50,000 and is booked a year inadvance. People are willing to pay anything for one of Anjolie Ela Menon's rare crow series. In this situation you can't lose". Except in the short run since real estate is tied up in the venture. That "real estate" can be lavish or pitiful depending on the owners. Art Today is located on a Rs 50-crore property in Connaught Place, Gallery Mansur in a Lajpat Nagar garage. "But what you lose in rent you make up in sales commissions, and if you are smart, art investments. This is a long term business," says Naresh Kapuria, artistic director, Urusvati Gallery.
Even in the short term, earnings are high. Sculpture and ceramics 'don't move well', hence most galleries prefer to sell paintings. Gallery owners make handsome 33 per cent commissions on every painting sold, as much as 50 per cent on every painting by struggling young painters they may exhibit and sell from their outlet. Commissions range from Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakh per show depending on the artist, sales prices and actual percentage of sales. And every gallery has at least five to six shows every year. Unless, of course, it is Art Today. "We've done 17 exhibitions since we opened in February last year and in spite of high investments and overheads have sold enough to justify our existence," reveals Keya Khullar, manager, Art Today. "Stuart Robertson, priced between Rs 2,000 and Rs 30,000, was a sell-out because he was cheap but we also sold 60 per cent of our Satish Gujral works priced between Rs 50,000 and Rs 4.5 lakh". Acknowledged masters pay only 10 per cent commission to the gallery. But then 10 per cent on Rs 2,00,000 that a master's work may fetch is substantively higher than the 33 per cent earned on the Rs 20,000 that a lesser known painter's work may sell for.
Sales are surprisingly steady in a market where tastes are shaped by carefully orchestrated painter promotion campaigns, often by collectors anxious to push up the demand for and therefore the value of the works of painters in their collection. Insider gossip would have one believe Times of India supremo Samir Jain engineered the bid that netted a price well above Husain's for an Ela Menon canvas at the 1989 Safdar Hashmi Memorial art auction. His payoff: the value of the Menons in his collection zoomed. The Biggest and the Best have allegedly resorted to unethical ploys: the hottest art bazaar rumour pertains to Husain setting up good friend and wealthy Bombay socialite Parmeshwar Godrej to bid Rs 10 lakh for one of his canvases at his 70th birthday auction. The tradeoff: she received three Husains gratis. Allegations like these gain credence in the light of Chaganlal's candid admission that three well-known painters (who he understandably refuses to name) whose works sold in the Rs 40,000 range approached him before the Asprey's auction in Bombay to buy them up for a lakh per canvas. He bought up one painter's work for that amount. "Quid pro quo. Subsequent to the auction purchase he gave me three canvases free. He got into the Rs 1 lakh league; I got four paintings for the price of one," he reveals jubilantly.
Factored into the art boom is hardcore politics. "Mrs Gandhi's socialistic policies created a parallel economy. Black money funnelled into art caused prices to spiral in the late '70s," points out critic Chopra. Chaganlal elaborates: "Black money finds its way into charity auctions. Tax exemptions for donations to charities are availed to launder black money. Charities give you a receipt for money received. Paintings are not mentioned so you're free to resell them. Most times for a substantial profit". Media hype fuels art buying. So do notions of good taste, aesthetics and status symbols propagated by subtly manipulative gallery owners. Most of whom are cashing in on what Delhi-based painter Ajay Desai calls the "new craze for art".
Chopra's is a case in instance. Investment in buying and renovating her tiny gallery under the Defence Colony flyover: Rs 8 lakh. Commission from the first exhibition: Rs 42,900. Income from the second exhibition: Rs 50,000 plus. She's onto her third exhibition which she's got the Hyatt Regency hotel to defray the publicity and opening party's cocktails costs for. Her steadiest customer has been her brother: a 40-year-old garment exporter fed up of blowing up money on cars and clothes and discotheques. Over a period of nine months, he's bought 13 paintings worth Rs 1,50,000 which have earned her Rs 49,500 in commissions. She dismisses obvious allegations of filial loyalty motivating his purchases. "If that were so, why would he also be buying from Art Today and Gallery Ganesha, both my competitors?" Chopra recently clinched a deal with American Express under which winners of their reward schemes would be gifted a painting from the gallery. "I convinced AmEx that people have other needs besides eating and drinking and would appreciate such a novel scheme." Expected profits in the first year of operation: Rs 3 lakh. She's planning a public relations client-meeting blitz. "You can't sit and wait for clients. You have to go and get them to come, to see. There's lots of business out there," she says.
Also competition. Art Today has allegedly spent Rs 50 lakh on just renovating its prime space. Chaganlal is spending Rs 2.5 lakh on refurbishing his Hauz Khas space, proprietors of Urusvati and Jain Marunouchi galleries in south Delhi have also splurged over Rs 2 lakh on interior design. Anticipating competition, the newly opened Yamini and Arpana Art galleries in the Siri Fort area, the artist-run Gallery Steps in Alaknanda, the Kairali gallery in Mehrauli, the non-commercial Eicher Gallery in Greater Kailash II and the established oldies a la Art Heritage, Little Theatre Group and Shridharani galleries near Mandi House.
Specialisation is one way of beating competition. Rekha Purie's Art Today banks on lavish display space apart from its chi chi social connections, Siddharth and Meena Tagore, proprietors of the newly-opened Art Konsult gallery at Hauz Khas village use patrician pedigree: he's the great nephew of Rabindranath Tagore, she's a relative of the great Ravi Verma, to flog their wares. Eicher Gallery has taken to organising whole seasons of theme-based exhibitions. Gallery Mansur, run by Palka Kapur, Maureen Liebe and employee Jane de Boer, has found its USP in traditional Indian painters; Shobha Bhatia's Gallery Ganesha exhibits mainly Bengal school water colourists; Chaganlal will provide portfolio acquisition, assessment, restoration and resale advice apart from selling at his gallery. This specialist trend will catch on, feels painter Bhupen Khakhar. "Genre, style-specific galleries will have to emerge. Only then can they survive," he says. Vadehra does not fear for his survival: "New York has about 2,000 galleries, Paris and London have a 1,000 each. We have no galleries in state capitals, the NGMA has a measly budget of Rs 30 lakh against ICCR's Rs 20 crore. We need at least 300 galleries to exhibit the works of the 3,000 art graduates we churn out each year. More galleries can do no harm."
Uninformed, glamour-struck, get-rich-quick artists-turned- gallery owners subscribing to unethical trade practices, however, can. "Uninformed owners purvey kitsch because its pretty. Because it sells. Good taste, discrimination, rigour, a sense of history is missing," says Ebrahim Alkazi, director, Art Heritage. That apart, many owners have been known to sell works at prices above those specified by the painter, then pocket the difference as well as the commission. Some are loath to spend money on invites or brochures for exhibitions, others insist on painters sharing costs. "It's their job. We pay commissions for this so why shouldn't they?" fumes an upcoming painter. Badly curated exhibitions of substandard work, a trader's attitude to art is what many painters ascribe to uninformed ownership. "I've seen decorators walk into the Dhoomimal gallery," reveals a disgusted painter "and say ' kucch blue or beige mein dikhaiye ' and attendants showing them canvases like retailers in a cloth shop. This breed of gallery owner is all too common". Vadehra being one example of trader-turned-gallery owner. "A painter as a bachelor in fine arts should only make as much as his non-artist bachelor of arts contemporary: Rs 10,000 a month," he states blandly. "A painter with a masters in fine arts is the equivalent of a business management graduate. Why should he expect to make more than Rs 1.5 lakh a year?" Not gallery owners alone: painters assisting them as 'advisers' are also the bane of fellow painters. These painter 'consultants' are often plain self aggrandising salesmen eager to promote themselves or their cronies. "Half the city's galleries have painters manipulating the proceedings: pushing themselves, sidelining the competition," asserts Desai. As proof of such practices, Khakhar cites the instance of 'adviser' Husain 'advising' Chemould Gallery, Bombay, to remove his work from the display.
But then money and malpractice have always gone together. "Gallery owners keep three prices," reveals another art critic, "one for the naive sucker who buys 'off the rack', another for collectors who are charged a low 15 per cent to 20 per cent premium and given deferred payment options, a third for gallery owners with whom they may have barter arrangements". Not galleries alone. Collectors, too, often make killings on their purchases. Art circles are all abuzz with the story of collector Mahesh Chandra who allegedly bought a Ganesh Pyne for Rs 27,000 last year and sold it for a whopping 3,800 pounds at the Christies auction a couple of months later. "You do strike gold sometimes," quips critic Chopra.
That notwithstanding, he cautions those clambering to join the Gallery Gold Rush: "There are no easy pickings here. Unlike 10 years ago, paintings cost the earth today. The Husain you bought for Rs 50,000 five years ago is sold for Rs 3,00,000, the Gaitonde you sold for Rs 1,50,000 now sells for double that. Paintings are tough to sell. Canvases you've bought up as sure-sell propositions may take months, years, to sell. You can burn your fingers. Which is why as many galleries open as shut down every year". Vadehra feels painters and galleries will have to become more professional if they are to survive. "There will be no room for dilettantes. Owners would need to educate themselves, galleries will have to develop identities, exhibition contracts specifying commissions payable to the gallery, period for which the artist will be bound to the gallery, services provided to artists, will need to be drawn up". At the rate the Art Mart is growing that seems inevitable.