Neha Kirpal of India Art Fair tells how her personal and professional lives are entwined

The journey of Neha Kirpal runs parallel to the path the India Art Fair (IAF), her brainchild, has taken. Soon after the Indian art world’s biggest extravaganza began to take shape in the form of India Art Summit back in 2008, Neha got married. Now with the Fair into its fifth year, backed by corporate sponsors and ensconced in a larger global art fair network, Neha has moved on in her personal life yet again. Her baby will be around four months old when IAF kicks off on January 31t. The success story Neha scripted as the founder-director and co-owner of IAF, with art as the protagonist, is as much about woman entrepreneurship as it is about Indian art.

Like every year, Neha says, this year too, it has become better and bigger and smoother too. “There were a lot more challenges when we started. This year I am feeling very confident. IAF is on the world art calendar and that can’t be changed to suit my personal life. And then I don’t think that for a woman work and family can’t co-exist. They can, and there needs to be a harmonious relationship between the two. I am a hands-on person and I will be at the site for long days and hours before the Fair kicks off, and my baby will be with me,” says Neha over the phone from Kochi, where she is attending the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and her daughter Ruhi is with her.

The daughter of a Delhi-based businessman never thought art was for her, and that too a platform like that — not until she saw a gaping hole. Visiting museums, galleries and fairs in London, the absence of a world-class art event, something that would put India on the world map, started to bother the young woman. And with her skill set in management — she studied Management in London —Neha started to push the idea. An outsider like her with no background in art and no contacts in the art world was not taken seriously. “Something like this hadn’t happened before, so people didn’t believe in the idea. People thought I was being too idealistic and ambitious. But being an outsider helped because then I could look at things dispassionately without any biases for any particular gallery or artists. I came with a skill set which could be applied to art. Being a woman entrepreneur helped 100 per cent because they wanted to give it a chance.”

The 33-year-old says the same critics who had rubbished the idea initially have come on board and that only validates the whole effort. With no Indian model to follow, Neha had to create a distinct model for itself, loosely based on international art fairs like Frieze in London. But in an art fair in a country like India, where awareness about art is a real concern, outreach and art education had to be packed in suitable measure. So year after year, art students, scholars, and seminars, lectures and other such programmes come to form an equally important component of the package just like everything else — VIP visits, collectors from different parts of the world, a galaxy of art galleries from India and abroad, and visitors.

Divestment of 49 per cent stake to two stakeholders, Sandy Angus and Will Ramsey, co-founders of the Hong Kong Art Fair, was a milestone in the journey of IAF. While that happened in its last edition, in its next edition IAF has yet another significant partnership to boast. The Fair has YES Bank onboard as presenting partner. According to Neha, while divesting helped the Fair to become more global, the partnership will only aid its growth as a world-class event. “We have just broken even and we will be able to have a world-class art fair in India. As a proud Indian, I used to feel bad about certain stereotypes we have about India, that we have a chalta-hai attitude. I wanted to create a product that we can be proud of and we have that too, without much financial backing.”

On different fairs and art events that have come up post-IAF, Neha says, “We feel we have made a contribution in some way because earlier properties like these didn’t exist. We helped put India on the world map and that has encouraged different platforms. We need a Kochi Biennale because it is a not-for-profit initiative. It’s not a gallery-based programme but a complementary model. And we need all these platforms to co-exist.”

India Art Fair 2013

The 5th edition of IAF will be held from January 31 to February 3, 2013, at the NSIC Exhibition Grounds, Okhla, in New Delhi.

Showcasing a range of modern and contemporary art by over 1,000 artists, this edition will feature around 100 galleries from India and across the globe.

The fair includes a three-day speakers’ forum, art projects, performances, book launches, curated walks, an art bookstore and much more.

The art fair will include 106 exhibitors from 24 countries in the general exhibition area and solo projects.

The speakers list features a global mix of experts including Adriano Pedrosa (Curator and Director, PIESP-Programa Independente da Escola São Paulo, Brazil), Chus Martinez (Chief Curator, El Museo del Barrio, New York City), Akiko Miki (Senior curator, Palais de Tokyo, Paris), Amin Jaffer (International Director of Asian Art, Christie’s), Sandhini Poddar (Independent Curator and Art Historian, Mumbai, and Adjunct Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), Barbara London (Curator, Video and Performance Art, MoMA, New York) and others.