As Annurag Sharma gears up to deliver the second edition of United Art Fair, he shares nuggets about his journey so far with Shailaja Tripathi

The bylanes of Gopinath Bazaar in the sleepy cantonment area of Delhi , Delhi Cantt, seem an unlikely location for an art space because the art world hasn’t moved beyond the plush galleries, cultural centres and museums of South and Central Delhi. But then, what would this world be without surprises! The second edition of United Art Fair (UAF) worth Rs.10 crore is being churned out from this nondescript address, which until last year was just the office of United Art logistics Private Limited Pvt Ltd (UAPL), an art logistic company and UPEX, a courier company founded by Annurag Sharma. With UAF slated to begin on September 14 in Pragati Maidan, the space is abuzz with activity. As two young artists wait after submitting their art work to be displayed at UAF, Annurag Sharma, the brain behind the fair, makes a hurried entry.

“I haven’t slept in days. My life has turned upside down. I am struggling with finances and since September 2012, I haven’t gone out with my family a single day,” says Annurag, settling down on a chair. But the struggle hasn’t dampened his spirits, for the fair, he claims, is bigger than last year. “The number of artists might have come down from 500 artists to around 300 artists but in terms of disciplines and mediums, it’s vast. Year after year, it will only become better,” he says.

The stress of managing such a grand affair and of improving on the areas the first edition lacked in has brought positive results overall. Annurag has begun to paint. “One day I just started to sketch and I realised it’s a great stress-buster, and interestingly I only make faces.” A few of his creations adorn the conference room.

From courier boy to art fair owner, Annurag has made some giant leaps in his life. Growing up in Gopinath Bazaar, where he went to Kendriya Vidyalaya, Annurag never expected to put in front of people an art fair, that too a model considered radical for the times.

Positioning itself as an artist-driven fair, UAF does away with galleries and allows a direct participation of the artists. Furthermore, it has gone beyond the established names to include the young, the upcoming and the unknown.

Ab billi ke gale mein galli main kisi ko to ghanti bandhni padegi. This corrective measure had to be attempted by somebody who is from the industry but outside the closed art circuit. There are 90-odd galleries doing serious work in the country and they constantly work with a set of artists. An art exhibition at max showcases 15 artists but what about those hundreds of students who clear their BFAs and MFAs every year? So, there emerge a handful of names which get pushed by galleries. People like you and me aren’t part of that art circuit because it’s closed and inaccessible, so is it going to create an impact? No, I don’t think so.”

UAF, he says, scouts for artists in every part of the country. While last year, he did it himself, this year it was an expert panel of curators — Alka Pande, Ram Rahman, Meera Menezes, Heidi Fichtner and Mayank Kaul — headed by artistic director Peter Nagy, which scrutinised 4,500 artists. “We didn’t just look at the art work. There were several other parameters like how far the artist is willing to go. Is he/she committed to it? We have somebody from Andaman and Nicobar. We have tribal artists and we found a craftsperson in Ranthambore, who just paints on furniture and turns in some really exquisite work. And don’t think that because they are cheap, they won’t be good. They aren’t cheap because I have spent a lot of money on selecting them. The artists have been shortlisted and handpicked by some of the most respected names in the field,” says Annurag.

It was in 2012 that Annurag mounted the first edition of United Art Fair with Johny ML as the artistic director. It acquired an image of a radical model opposed to the system. There were apprehensions about its sustainability and feasibility, but Annurag didn’t get deterred.

“I don’t want to just eat fruits, I want to plant trees as well. There is no government support, no private support but I am still doing it. Next year, I might just surprise you by going global because to organise the art fair outside India, would be much more cost-effective for me,” says Annurag, who came into the contact with the art world through his art handling and shipment for others’ companies and then his own, UAPL which was launched in 2001. But before that he was a courier boy with Blue Dart, earning a salary of Rs.1,825 per month.

Without formal training, he learnt the tricks of the trade on the job.

“I may not understand the technical language of the artist but since one lakh art works have passed through my hands, I can value a work very easily. And that skill has come in very handy here. If an artist wishes to price his/her work Rs.1 lakh, we ask them why.”

A part of the industry but still considered an outsider, Annurag says he is focusing on the path ahead. “It will be there. I am not seen in page 3 parties either so that’s another thing.”

And the path ahead is even more challenging than earlier because Annurag has to set many things right. “Last year, people accepted, ignored my mistakes but this year they won’t. I wasn’t convinced of how it was handled. Somehow, it became very easy for artists to participate. It might be a free fair but it doesn’t mean that the artist won’t be screened. I became very over-confident and misunderstood so many things. I don’t want to repeat those mistakes this year.”

United Art Fair, 2013

United Art Fair is slated to happen from September 14 to 17 in Halls 9, 10, 11 of Pragati Maidan. 283 artists working across genres of painting, sculpture and photography, design (including graphic art, fashion, textiles, furniture, and ceramics), architecture, will participate in the fair. The fair will also have forms of folk and tribal art, crafts and ritual arts.

The total worth of the work on display would be Rs.2,500 crore.

The price of art works would range from Rs.5000 to 1 crore.

Peter Nagy, Artistic Director on UAF, 2013

On being part of UAF

The reason I signed up to be a part of the second UAF is precisely because it is a new model for an art fair. And because it is not soliciting galleries to sign up for booths, it is not competition for the India Art Fair, something I was criticised for. I think there is enough talent and there should be a large enough market in India for both models to exist. Certainly, many cities already have multiple contemporary art fairs. But the first UAF already was a very inclusive platform; actually I think I’ve made this one even more inclusive by extending the parameters of the art shown into the realms of design, crafts, and tribal art.

On filtering the artists

We were always working with an approximate number of 300 artists. I think we have 283 at the final count. There were no parameters, really. Each of the six curators (including myself) were free to sign up any artists they wanted, but I did ask that we were not getting artists through galleries and not trying to get artists that are represented by galleries to give us works without the galleries’ involvement. While most of the artists in the fair have certainly participated in group shows or have had solos with galleries, none are “exclusively represented” by galleries. In only a very few cases, we did get works via galleries. I was conscious that we would not be stabbing the gallery system in the back but rather providing an opportunity to artists who are not yet incorporated into the gallery system.

Highlights of UAF, 2013

The highlights of the fair will be its diversity and its rather unorthodox exhibition design (at least for an art fair). There are going to be so many artists and such an incredible diversity of material, in many different mediums and price points, that it’s impossible to say who will do well. Hopefully most will. Some artists have only three or four works in the fair, while others will be represented by large bodies of work, presented as solo shows within the fair. But it’s funny how the press is always asking me to name the “top ten” artists to look for in the fair. I am always against turning the art world into a horse race.