Detail of a mixed media painting by KK Raghava (2003) sold at a private home in Saratoga. Despite the growing population of wealthy South Asians in Silicon Valley, contemporary South Asian art is still struggling to get a foothold in the local art scene. (Photo: Courtesy of Ashish Nagpal Balram)
On a recent Saturday morning, a handful of people milled about a spacious private home in Saratoga, looking at paintings leaning up against the walls and hitched up on easels. The home's owner, clinical psychologist Anu Singh, has become a collector of contemporary South Asian art in recent years. With the help of her favorite gallerist in Mumbai, Ashish Nagpal, she now shares her passion with others by acting as an amateur gallerist.
"India has really changed," Singh says. "The culture is changing. The people are are changing, and the art is representative of that change, but people here in Northern California don’t have that concept."
She has a point.
It's unusual to see contemporary South Asian art in the Bay Area's museums and galleries. Most venues focus on the ancient, classical forms of Indian art, like temple statutes and 16th century miniature paintings.
But there is a small but buzzing market for South Asian art by living artists in the Bay Area, thanks to the population of wealthy individuals living in Silicon Valley with roots in the Indian subcontinent.
A Bay Area resident for 30 years, Singh is fairly new to art collecting. But she can talk at length about the art on show at her house. She points out several works by the abstract expressionist Chintan Upadyay of Rajasthan. There's a painting titled “Mutant” that's two things at once: two men joined at the side, and also a video game console. The work sold for $65,000.
"You see that?" Singh says. "Chinthan talks a lot about we are not using technology so much as technology is starting to use us."
The main customers at Singh’s art-viewing get togethers are her friends, like first time art buyer Anju Kalkunte. She spent $25,000 on a work by KK Raghava (also known as Raghava KK.) The artist splits his time between New York and Bangalore. Kalkunte fell in love with Raghava's painting of Ganesha, the blue Hindu elephant-headed god, dancing in a sea of watery green.
"I looked at it for a few days and I said 'This is mine,'" Kalkunte says. "And I’m very happy I bought it."
Cultivating A Bigger Market
It's not just the newbie end of the market for contemporary South Asian art that's attracting attention. Things are developing at the other end of the spectrum too.
"Honestly, we do business on a global level," says Deepanjana Klein, international head of South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s auction house. Klein says Christie's has sold roughly $100 million worth of contemporary South Asian art over the last five years. Klein says that number does reflect a recent uptick in interest, but not necessarily from the Bay Area. Most of the interest comes from the East coast, Klein says.
"The Bay Area has always been interesting to us, because there are a lot of South Asians who are doing very well there," Klein says. "We've done a lot of events there in order to cultivate collectors and potential collectors. However, we haven't seen much action in that region," Klein says.
The Bay Area is also home to some important patrons of new work like Dipti Mathur, who's lived in the area for 20 years. She's on the board at the San Jose Museum of Art.
Mathur says there have been a few major exhibitions of contemporary South Asian art, but the list is short, including just a few standouts like Roots in the Air, Branches Below at the San Jose Museum of Art in 2011.
"It’s not that it has not been done before, but not with any frequency and not at any scale," Mathur says. She adds that the tech crowd, with all its money, has been slow to the collecting game, even as technology is making it easier than ever for people to fill their homes with cutting-edge work from all over the world.
"A lot of Indian artists are represented by international galleries," Mathur says. But in the Bay Area, collecting has been slow. "And therefore support of the museums has also been slow," Mathur says.
There's something of a feedback loop between museums and collectors. Museums educate prospective collectors, who then may develop an interest and, eventually, a collection. But many museums don't have a huge acquisition budget for new art, especially art their curators and patrons may be unfamiliar with.
Mathur says it’s up to Bay Area people who love new South Asian art, and have the cash to spend on it, to spend it, and then donate some of that art to local museums.
Watch a TED talk by artist KK Rhagava to get a sense of his artistic development, as well as how he built a market for his art in the U.S.:
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