New corporate initiatives push artistic talent in India By Madhusree Chatterjee

New Delhi, Aug 5 (IANS) A handful of initiatives that have brought big business houses to promote visual art with incentives and new platforms is trying to open an alternative door for Indian art in the face of shrinking government support and a market slump.

Two new ventures - the Skoda Prize and the Avani GenNext Award 2012 - are trying to tap into the creative potential of young artistsbelow 45 with cash awards and opportunity for foreign residency to hone their art practice in a global environment.

The awards are sponsored by the European carmaker Skoda, a subsidiary of the German Volkswagen Group and the Kolkata-based builders Avani Group. The Skoda Prize, instituted in 2009 by Skoda Auto India and 70 EMG, carries a cash award of Rs. 100,000 for the winner, Rs. 50,000 for a breakthrough artist and residencies for the runners-up in collaboration with the Swiss Arts Council.

In Kolkata, leading builders Avani Group has tied up with the city-based Aakrti Gallery to award a "Gen Next" artist under 40 with a cash purse of Rs 100,000 this year. The artist will be chosen from among the participants of the gallery's annual GenNext exhibition in October by a jury of "four visitor-judges" and an outstation judge.

"In the 1980s, corporate houses took interest in art but they probably looked at it as a business opportunity. When the markets slid, they probably realised that arts did not have enough to give back to businesses. Prizes, on the other hand, encourage young artists to work better," art auctioneer Vikram Bachhawat, director of the Aakriti Gallery, told IANS.

Anirudh Daga, the managing director of Avani Group, believes that as corporates "it is the responsibility of the business houses to breathe new blood into art by drawing young artists out to exhibit their work". "I don't think visual arts have received enough corporate support," Daga told IANS, adding that "to support art, one must have an understanding and appreciation of art". A collector of old and young art, Daga said his business group was "committed to supporting young artists".

Corporate support for visual arts in India battles a perception block that art exists for arts' sake, fanning debates.

"In such a diverse creative field as contemporary Indian art, there are bound to be hugely diverse opinions - including arguments for and against maintaining the purity of art. Frankly, the more opinions expended on Indian art, the more relevant it becomes," said Martin Da Costa, CEO of Seventy EMG, the force behind the Skoda endowment for art.

"India is crying out for a modern cultural renaissance as the success of the Jaipur Literature Festival and the India Art Fair have shown," he maintained. For long, corporate support to Indian art has been confined largely to collecting. The Taj group of hotels and later the Maurya group had acquired a large body of original Indian art works as lobby and interior decor. The Imperial Hotel in the capital has the largest collection of "British Company Art".

The economic boom of the early 2000s saw corporate houses investing in Indian art for profit. A spate of initiatives by business houses like Reliance, Religare, Emami, Jindal and the Shiv Nadar Foundation have broad-based the exhibition platform for emerging artists across mediums and developed the market for a wider section of buyers with education and guidance.

"We have taken a slightly different approach to art. Our focus is on the development of Indian art and the market," says Amit Swarup, president of Religare Art, which owns a sprawling art display-cum-education space in an upscale south Delhi mall.

The financial investment company which diversified into art five years ago "is reaching out to new buyers like corporate CEOs, who have the money to buy art but have not traditionally bought art. They need someone to guide them through the whole process with art appreciation courses. We have been conducting art appreciation classes for a couple of hours every alternate Saturday for the last five months for new buyers. Our clients are mostly financial investors," Swarup told IANS.

"We do not want to target the 200-300 established collectors in the country. We cannot operate in a restricted environment," Swarup said. Corporate collections of Indian art had become a casualty in the meltdown of 2008, with plummeting prices triggering large-scale sell-offs. The biggest favour that corporate organisations can do to Indian art now is to "cut down on the lavish decoration of receptions and boardrooms and redo them with original Indian artworks," says Ajay Seth, founder and chief mentor of Copal Art.

"We rarely find any original works of art in corporate offices. Just think of a M.F. Husain, Raza or a Tyeb Mehta in the boardroom. I want every Indian corporate entity to invest a portion of its surplus cash in the acquisition of original Indian art," Seth told IANS.

Copal Art has been lobbying with the government "to allow corporate investment in art as deductible expenditure in their balance sheets", Seth said.


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