From conceiving, to labor pains, to successful delivery- NehaKirpal gets candid about her baby The India Art Fair


For years the allure of India’s culture and history has had many a traveller visit the country from far corners of the world. Although several unique occurrences have placed India on the global radar in the past decade, sadly, infamy has been the propelling factor in many cases. But amidst all the negative PR have been few influencers relentlessly balancing the nation’s disrepute and making the world stop and take positive notice.

Today people across societies are in the pursuit for positive experiences. “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel”, said Maya Angelou. Eager to capitalize on this theory was NehaKirpal, a flat-broke clueless 26 year old who set out to create something the Indian arts community had never seen before. Seven years later, as another edition comes to a close,Neha reminisces as she walks us through the inception of India Art Fair in a candid chat.

How did the idea of India Art Fair germinate in your head?

To be honest- I just wasn’t thinking! I had recently graduated from the University of Arts in London. I would look at the vibrant cultural scene in the city and wonder why we had nothing like it in our country. So when I moved back to India, the idea of doing something in the arts space was already planted in my head. At that time I started working with Hanmer MSL, a part of the PublicisGroupe, where I was running their events division for Delhi.  Couple of months into the job I went with the idea to my then boss and he bought into it. The starting capital he gave me was of 60 Lac to launch the IP and that’s the only loan I’ve ever taken till date.

What were the primary guidelines you were playing by?

I was clear from the start that whatever my initiative may be it would have to match international standards. I was not going to use India as an excuse for mediocrity as what the general Indian mind-set seems to be.

I was motivated to create a platform for the arts in India and also recognized that while there were several art fairs around the world there was nothing close to that standard in India. I was intrigued because India had such a vibrant arts community and a 5000-year-old arts history but no contemporary arts platform that allowed it to surface. I realized that the world was increasingly looking towards India and its culture so I saw it as an opportunity going forward, not just to contribute to the arts but also as a business opportunity in terms of developing the Indian art market, giving it international exposure and creating a world-class event property in the bargain.

How did you know it was the right time to launch when you launched in 2008?

It was the worst time ever. Economic recession was in all its fury;Leeman Brothers had just collapsed days before the art fair was launched and then onwards markets across the world were down for the next few years. I was an outsider to the arts market; I knew no one from the industry and had jumped in headfirst with absolutely no planning. One of the reasons we are credited today is because we started at a time when the art market needed a consolidating, aggregating force the most. In fact, most people held on the art fair as a business model because it showed them the prospects of a better market during trying times of the recession. Surely, if it hadn’t been for an oblivious, idealistic 26-year-old, things could have never materialized.

Did you ever envisage the fair would blow up to what it is now?

Well, the vision existed from the beginning but it required tremendous holding power, ability to sustain, guerilla marketing and basically hacking it as we went along to ensure we retain a degree of quality and continue to scale. The early few years have been hard as it took a while before we broke even after the fourth edition, which is usually the case with most startups, but we’ve been growing significantly well since.

Nearly 50% of the fair is international which proved very crucial as it gave a sense of global validation to the end product. We are one of the most successful emerging market art fairs in the world today, the second most attended art fair globally and, albeit a trivial six years into this space, I think we’ve inarguably carved ourselves an impressive niche.

What worked in your favor?

Compared to a lot of art fairs around the world whose markets are stagnating by now, commercial future is limited and the end is inevitably near, we were lucky to be betting on the Indian domestic market that can boast of a promising future. In that sense the opportunities here are more long-term. That being said one must understand the difficulties of doing business in an unregulated, unorganized and fluctuating events industry in India. To be able to sustain ourselves in such an environment has been our strength and we’ve continued to capitalize on it.

What are the main revenue streams for the Art Fair?

Revenues are mainly from sponsorships, stall sales which go at Rs 21,000 /sq ft. and tickets which is a relatively smaller component. We do not take any commission from the sales of the art.

When did the fair’s title sponsor Yes Bank step into the picture?

Yes Bank came on board three years ago. This year we’ve added a few more partners including BMW, Panerai and a few more. It’s a slow process but brands are increasingly viewing the arts space as a lucrative platform.

Does one need to have an inherent interest in a specialized area of focus to be able to launch a corresponding IP?

To my mind, one would launch an IP for two reasons- One, if you have a strong interest in that space, and second, if you are highly convinced that it is a profitable thing to do. In my case I did not quite look into the profitability aspect of it but I was passionate, less about art and more about creating a world-class property from the ground up in that space. To answer your question I don’t think domain knowledge about a sector is critically important as long as you have an interest to learn and a commitment to follow through. The art fair is a shining example of this philosophy as we started off with very little money, no contacts or network in the industry. I bought out my boss who had pumped in the initial capital to get the ball rolling and subsequently brought in international partners with a minority share in the company who brought with them tremendous domain expertise to the table.

Given the success the art fair has attained, are you planning any other IP’s in the near future? 

We are closely planning another event property to do with all things collectible- design, art, cars, cigars, wines etc. It will be a high-end collectibles fair for which we plan to bring in international design galleries. What we are clear on is that we would not be doing any run-of-the-mill exhibitions and will remain within the luxury and lifestyle space. We are also looking at art properties internationally where there would be a focus on South Asian arts since we’ve established a strong network in that space.

What we are also doing is assuming the role of thought leadership in this space. For example the India Arts Counsel has been launched this year that comprises of an advisory body of top collectors and industrialists. It is essentially a top down approach to be able to educate, regulate and do more in this space with the active support of influencers.

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