Fair Play: Jagdip Jagpal

Photograph: Sharad Shrivastav

Fair Play: Jagdip Jagpal

When I met Jagdip Jagpal aka Jag at her office, the skies were set for a delightful first down-pour of the season. We barely began our conversation about her journey and the India Art Fair 2020 of which she is the director when thick sheets of rain sweep her cabin walls – the backdrop is a canvas clean, new and nourished with promise. Jagdip Jagpal’s India Art Fair is born to new hope and impartiality, devoid of past baggage, social string-puppetry and the who-knows-who ways of the Indian art world. ‘I really don’t care what they say,’ she’s clear – which is why we care all the more for her vision.

What’s your first memory of art?
It’s two things, actually. I’ll tell you one. It was the plasticine models that one took to Sunday school. You were given the plasticine, you took it to school and you made a model out of it and took it to be judged at the competition. I won in the under 5 age, two years running! The other thing was this piece of art I saw – it looked like one of those photos but it could have been a painting. It was only in recent years that I realized that people pay lots of money for these things. I was lucky enough to be taken out to see art right from the age of 4 or 5 since I was state schooled. In Britain, what works is that there are lots of spaces to see art without having to pay for it, including by school groups. That makes an enormous difference. Also, I was a brown person growing up in a very white space in the late 60s and 70s. It wasn’t the easiest place to be in, especially being the only brown family in the area – it was North London. So, you tend to turn to things like radio, music or something else to try and take away from the fact that you are living in this kind of a hostile environment for no reason of your own. Britain was a deeply racist country in the 70s and all that was acceptable. Also, you got to see one thing as you got older – during the 80s you had a lot of artists who were making a great name for themselves – there was this generation that had a lot of African and Asian artists but only much, much later in their careers did they get any recognition, and the reason was obvious. The great thing now is that people are bringing them to the fore – it’s about time, really.

“Our aim has been to make the fair a one-stop shop – an entry point.”

When did you know your life was going to be about the arts?
I think it’s about schooling and education– I wanted to study history but I studied law – because law would then turn into a potential vocation. Of course, it was much more difficult to achieve but that also helped get me into the circle. I’ve always been interested in culture and media but if you have to earn to live, you’ve got to get a job to give you the money to. So what I tended to do was to work in publishing that was as close as I could get into culture, and then I moved to being a lawyer. There I worked in international property. So I had a nice mix - I had artists for clients. Publishing houses for clients. Writers for clients. Later I went on to work in BBC radio and I stopped working in the legal field. And then I’ve also been on the boards of theatres. So I always knew what I wanted to do but I also wanted to gain more knowledge and understanding of how public institutions in Britain run their boards. I have worked in both commercial and non commercial roles, and when the opportunity came I pretty much found myself in the centre of arts.

Let’s talk about the fine balancing act that is art and enterprise.
The reality is, all the artists and art, even in museums, need funding. Any exhibition that you put on needs resources and managing those resources – whether it is human resources, physical space or money. I think people who are committed to the arts and artists are those who also have a commercial sensibility about how to achieve that.

Has there ever been a point of dilemma you’ve been faced with – one versus the other? 
The dilemmas arise in situations such as this one time someone said, let’s get a tobacco sponsor. That’s certainly something we are not going to do. The dilemma is usually that everyone has different tastes and views when it comes to art. It’s to keep the standards high, because for us the purpose is to get the galleries in, sponsors in, then for galleries to sell, for the sponsors to get the better fit for their brands. But, it also happens to be the biggest exhibition of that array of art. So sometimes we have dilemmas about whether some art is of the right quality or not, if the right art- ists are represented or not – we have to talk to the galleries and say we want the younger artists who have not shown at the fair – we want a mix. At what point are people going to say, ‘I’m not coming because we haven’t gotten the big names.’ Also, a lot of people in India are not well-known artists but are well paid for, for whatever reasons. Sometimes I come under pressure to show their works. But it really doesn’t make sense for them if they haven’t been judged by the same process that other artists have had to go through. The fair is not just space for sale. And that won’t change while I’m the fair director. The biggest thing is that artists have really supported us because we are not pushed by galleries to tell us which artists we should feature. We make our own choices. That’s how it should be. And, I don’t have the baggage that some people have to carry. 

“It’s not about the moderator or the curator, it is about the artist.”

What are your learnings from the fair?
I’ve learnt a lot. A large part of the time is actually spent on the nuts and bolts and plan- ning the details. We’re trying to train a development team and it’s amazing how much they’ve progressed. I’ve learnt that if I can do something myself, I’ll have a better under- standing of what someone else is going to do for me. Every single thing has an impact - how tall a wall will be, how a particular wall will look or how much people traffic it will get in.

How has the fair evolved and what is new?
I have a strong team with a great level of knowledge that people have acquired - every single member of the team has an interest in Indian and South Asian art, has worked in galleries and auction houses. This is a whole new team and that makes a huge difference. We want people to be passionate about what they do as opposed to it being a role that pulls people into these high social circles. The first thing we did was to build a whole new forum space. One of the things about the earlier setting was that there were a lot of seats but people felt like they couldn’t leave because they got squashed in, and if you took a picture it wasn’t really focused on the subject. So we thought, let’s create a space that’s best for people to focus but also to make them feel like they could come in and sit and walk out with ease – so I’m glad we did the black box space. It’s not about how many numbers you get in; it’s about what people take away from it. So it’s amazing how we get young people, some of the old gods of the art scene, and we mix it. If an artist is happy to do their own presentation, why do we need to give them a moderator? Because it’s not about the moderator or the curator, it is about the artist. And they’re happy to speak if we make it the most comfortable experience for them. I must especially mention the interest of younger people and children in the fair now. We’ve also had a lot of performance artists. To create a market you have to create a larger audience first.

For example we had Sajan Mani, he is a fabulous performance artist – of course we had to tell him not to bring the cow - only the dung as we did not want cops around! I’m glad that all of these artists got the attention that they deserve, and this time we’re going to mix some international artists in. This year we are also trying to make some of the performances take place around and outside of Delhi as well. We also bring in a lot of schools – the private schools have to pay and the state schools don’t because that money is then used to fund activities. Then, we bring in vulnerable groups and we got inclusivity access from Siddhant [Shah].

You invited artists to work on the fair facade this year...
It was crazy; it was canvas, and it was Delhi [after all]! One thing you would have noticed is that we took out a lot of things from the outside – there was a lot of sponsor created art but there was nowhere an artist that had done it. We can’t have street art inside the space because we are not allowed to do that, we are not allowed to do that even in the walk up and so this came out of various discussions - we put it out there for competition. Some people may like it some people may not, but we had to try it! Some people would say why didn’t you get an international artist to do it, but then I say we’re a fair and we can’t work with every single Indian artist but these are the activ- ities we can do to let them be a part of it. We also have a magazine this year that is not aimed at the sector but at the visitor – it is not technical language or anything like that. We made it a point to have Krishen Khanna’s photo right next to David Hockney’s just to make a point to people about where they stand. We do all of that to make it more accessible.

“Any exhibition that you put on needs resources and managing those resources – whether it is human resources, physical space or money.”

Can you briefly take me behind the process of planning and executing the fest?
The first thing is that we need to know just how much space we have, and if there have been any changes to the actual property. We reflect on how the fair went in terms of look and feel and quality and visitor levels, and navigation is very important because it is a large space. We started working very early on it. Also the small things – making sure we’ve got T-shirt designs, booklets, floor maps, plans; reviewing ticket prices; also we did a production debrief so we can reflect on some of the things we can change. We put out the applications online this time, both for international and Indian artists. While laying out the tone and feel for the year, we were clear we wanted to promote female artists. We wanted to promote transgender artists. We wanted to promote non-binary artists. Then, we had competitions for the curators. So there’s the resources, partnerships, design side as well.

There’s been a remarkable shift in the kind of galleries, artists and visitors we’ve seen ever since you came on board. What are the reasons?
Our aim has been to make the fair a one-stop shop – an entry point. If you’ve got a limited amount of resources, a limited amount of time, if you’re in the sector or if you’re a professional or if you want to buy or if you’re a casual observer - you get to see a mix, which you cannot by going anywhere else in India. We also got the message out that we were not like those places dedicated to selling jewellery and clothes – there are plenty of those around. One of the things I said was that we will use that space to sell something connected to the arts. The other side to it is that there will always be a social program, but the India Art Fair was primarily known as this social program and we wanted to make it more about the arts, about which it should really be. Whether you’re coming from Hyderabad, Noida or London, you must feel like you’re coming into a very cultural city with lots of things going on in different parts of it. So we thought of a diverse program.

We took some tough decisions for the first fair. I said, here’s a talk I’m going to give you – even though it’s painful, we actually wanted to get some new names and faces – not so new but new where they have not had the opportunity. Going through the same pool of people means there is a gap. We have a younger generation that is ready. We have very senior artists as well, but we have a space in the middle. Then there were things I questioned – like why would come if there wasn’t enough Indian or South Asian art? So we made the commitment that 70 percent of the space will go to Indian galleries and predominantly 90 percent will sell Indian art, and 30 percent is for international art because we wanted people to see that just because everyone sees huge price tags, Indian art is of no less caliber - and then we were able to pick and high- light the kind of galleries we wanted [with these things in mind]. We don’t allow art advisors to apply because if you’re a gallerist you’ve invested in the space and you’re working throughout the year on it, and it’s not right that art advisors should come in and be able to get a space.

Have you ever had to deal with the ‘outsider’ label or experienced any such hostility? 
Why should I care? My parents were Indians and I am still their child. Obviously I was born and brought up abroad but actually, it’s funny that there’s a joke about it that some- one once cracked – ‘You’re more proud of being Indian and your Indian narrative than we are!’ There’s lots of very difficult people around us but at the end of the day we stick to what we know to just do a good job. We do what we can do. You get used to it in the end. Also, English is the language of commerce in India and in that respect it’s handy for me. 

“In terms of visual arts, probably modern and contemporary, a fair is the key card to build- ing the contemporary market and that’s very important to secondary markets such as auction houses.”

What kind of art engages you the most, personally?
Performance art is my favourite. I love theatre but performance art is a completely different genre. The great thing about performance art is that you just don’t know what you’re going to get, but also it’s hard to do it well. We had Sajan Mani at IAF last year and we have Meenakshi this year who did a fabulous act at Serendipity last year. I tend to like different things. I like the Dutch Masters. I like contemporary works. I’ve always liked this thing about collage and different materials, and I’ve missed great portraiture. I’ve never called myself a collector – I’m a working person. It’s like if I like some music, I’ll pay for it and download it. I think if people purchase art they should put it out for people to see – in whatever way they can.

What do you think remains to be done for the Indian arts?
In terms of visual arts, probably modern and contemporary, a fair is the key card to build- ing the contemporary market and that’s very important to secondary markets such as auction houses. I would say that it is dynamic and fresh so it does not become stagnant such that all you’ve got is top names from the contemporary art scene - which means other artists are not regularly getting opportunities.
Also, to not let the visual arts be steered by a small group of wealthy individuals who may have different points of view – who need to understand that support in the arts is a really important venture, but also that it has to be done in a very professional way because you want to encourage learning. This is not to say that family driven groups are

Text Soumya Mukerji