SOFT FOCUS | Art

The artist and the art lover

Santhana Krishna and artist B. Venkatesan at the Asian Art Gallery   | Photo Credit: Shaju John

Two decades ago, Santhana Krishnan, an emerging tech entrepreneur in Boston, Massachusetts, made a promise to Mark Rathinaraj, an emerging artist, when their paths crossed in Chennai. Krishnan said he would showcase Rathinaraj’s work in the U.S. some day. After setting up and selling two companies by 2013, Krishnan thought it was time he redeemed that promise. “I thought now I must use the artistic part of my brain,” Krishnan says, reflecting on the founding of the Asia Art Gallery (AAG) in 2013 that aims to connect lesser known artists to art lovers who want to buy at affordable prices. In AAG’s social enterprise model, what does not go to the artiste is shared for charity and promotion of other artists.

Since then, AAG has signed up 35 artists from India. Most of them are in their formative years, but AAG has also brought works of senior artists who have never had sufficient exposure to the American art market. When K. S. Adimoolam died in 2008 at 70, he left a treasure of unseen paintings behind.

Last month, a print of a piece from his Mahararja series was auctioned at a fundraising event for the American India Foundation (AIF) in Boston for $5000. “The value of art is often decided by where it is seen,” Krishan says, explaining why some brilliant Indian artists never get the attention they deserve.

Being seen in the right place has opened a new world of opportunities for many of these artists. AAG began with a solo exhibition of Rathinaraj, where 90% of the pieces were sold. Chennai-based Rathinaraj’s and Bangalore-based Subra’s (G. Subramanian) paintings were seen by an American CEO of a $4 billion company at another Indian CEO’s house who had purchased them at an AIF auction. The American CEO subsequently commissioned works from both the artists. “AAG provides them a launchpad that they may not have otherwise. And they develop a following of their own,” says Krishnan.

The one-third model

The gallery has raised more than half a million dollars so far, paying $250,000 to the artists and $250,000 to various charities that raise money in the U.S. for their activities in India. “Eventually, we will move to a ‘one third for each’ model, where one portion will go to supporting struggling artists in India,” says Krishnan.

There are American galleries that showcase Indian art, but they work with established artists whose work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. For them, selling a handful of pieces a year is sufficient to sustain a profitable business model. AAG’s social enterprise model has a different approach to the art market. Not only in that it promotes lesser known artists, but in that it wants to make art affordable for a larger audience. “The buyer, the artists and the charities that benefit, all feel the deal was good,” says Krishnan.

Original works are sold in the range of $1500 to $10,000. AAG also organises two exhibitions in Boston every year. “Here again, the idea is to make the interaction between art lovers and emerging artists less intimidating and less formal than the museum environment,” he says. “We try to strike a balance by not pricing it too high to be unaffordable or two low to be exploitative for the artists. And we also keep the social purpose in mind.”

Thirty-three year old B. Venkatesan, who grew up in a modest Chennai neighbourhood, is one of the huge successes of the AAG model. AAG bought all the paintings that Venkatesan did over the last three years, and has committed to buying the art he produces in the next two years.

He was an instant hit at the India Art Fair in New Delhi this February 2017, where AAG showcased his work and Krishan hopes to have an exhibition for him in Boston soon.

AAG has now began offering limited edition prints of paintings too. Adimoolam’s Maharajah that auctioned in Boston recently was a 66” by 30” print of the 20” by 24” original. Digital reproduction of paintings allows various prints in any size without any impact on the quality. Museum quality printing and framing are all done in Chennai, and the pieces are shipped to buyers in the U.S. “Framing itself is an art, a delicate one,” says Krishnan.

Krishnan plans to enhance the charity emphasis by innovations that will optimise the link between social organisations, artists and buyers. Limited prints will be one key focus in the coming days, he said. “The idea is to have a few dozen prints, without losing the value,” he said. He also plans to start online auctions for a specific purpose—for instance, to raise funds for a particular charity project run by a particular organisation. “There are hundreds of extraordinary artists in India who have no access to the market. India has not done a good job of it. We hope to fill that gap in a way that benefits all,” says Krishnan. AAG also has plans to replicate the same model in Myanmar.

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Printable version | Oct 1, 2020 10:34:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/the-artist-and-the-art-lover/article18051048.ece

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