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BRUSH AND INC.

Corporate art

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The Airtel Centre in Gurgaon has a six-storey-tall tree-of-life mural

Corporate art collections are an established tradition in the West, with Deutsche Bank boasting more works than the world's most famous museum, the Louvre in Paris. As the trend slowly gains ground in India, banks, hotels and software firms are dressing their office walls with Bharti Kher's bindis, Raza's bindus and Souza heads (not the nudes, though). TOI-Crest talks to collectors and curators about art in the office and finds out that PowerPoint and Pyne can co-exist.

When Deutsche Bank, which has in its corporate art collection more works than the Louvre in Paris, reopened its renovated, energy-efficient headquarters in Frankfurt this year, it devoted two floors to Indian contemporary art. While Shilpa Gupta's Gandhian see-no-Wevil photos preside over meetings on one floor, Dayanita Singh's aerial shots of an Indian city at dusk, with traffic rushing like blood through dense urban tissue, energise the walls of another. Business houses in India, the Tatas being a notable exception, have rarely bought art or nurtured collections. But over the last decade the number of corporate art collections has grown. For years, sombre portraits of dead owners, devotional calendars and corny motivational posters from the HR department passed off as office decoration. It's a wonder people ever dragged themselves to work. Now - with art being valued as an asset and with industry wives increasingly showing up at auctions - that is changing.

Oscar Wilde said that through art alone "we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence". It also does wonders for the view. At the sprawling HCL campus in Noida, where technology czar Shiv Nadar's wife Kiran has created her own little Louvre in a gallery carved out of cafeteria space, employees can feast their eyes on F N Souza's magnificent Red Road which cuts through the green fields of Goa and Ram Kumar's jewel-like Benaras. Spread across 15, 000 sq ft, the museum has 48 works, and that's not counting the collection of younger talent showcased inside the HCL building.

The response to this artification of the workspace has been amusing. There are employees who use the paintings as a route map. "Step out of the lift and turn left at the Ram Kumar, then right at the Broota, " which serves everyone quite well until the collection rotates. Other staff members engage with the works, and even though Souza may be a bit mystifying for software types, the weekly guided walks organised by curator Roobina Karade provide context and backstories which help bring alive an otherwise indecipherable work on the wall. "Members of the staff even bring along friends and family for tours, " says Karade, who plans to introduce Canvas Day soon so that employees can try their skills with a brush.

As for the calendar pantheon, the gods still find pride of place in Shiv Nadar's office, though they're original Raja Ravi Varmas picked up at auction.

CULTURE MEETS COMMERCE


India's corporate collectors are a small but growing tribe. If Reliance bahu Tina Ambani's Harmony Art Foundation has livened up Anil Ambani's heritage headquarters at Ballard Estate with Souzas, Irannas and Sunil Das bulls, Religare's Malvinder Singh recently set the auction market abuzz with his Rs 9. 6-crore purchase of an Arpita Singh mural. Chairman of RPG enterprises Harsh Goenka turns his beach bungalow into an artists' residency every year, while sugar baroness Rajshree Pathy is planning Coimbatore's first private museum of art. There are, of course, many others who buy on a more modest scale.

Most corporate affairs with art are driven by the passion of a single person. The legendary scientist Homi Bhabha is solely responsible for the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research's museum-quality collection of art which includes a stunning Husain mural titled Bharat Bhagya Vidhata and rare Tyeb Mehta prints. If the tall Air-India building at Nariman Point is full of art, it is only because of JRD Tata. Elizabeth Kerkar, an interior decorator with the Taj Mahal Hotel, was one of the biggest buyers of contemporary Indian art from the 1960s to the '80s, kickstarting many an artist's career. Today, many luxury hotel chains boast of substantial art collections (see story 'In bed with a master' ).

Globally, banks have been big players in the art world, although in India most restrict themselves to offering art investment services. Deutsche Bank has been one of the few serious collectors of Indian art. Housed in the elegant, white baroque building that was formerly the Tata Palace, the DB headquarters in Mumbai have some of the most sought-after names in Indian art, including a Ravinder Reddy head-turner and a 5x5-ft Raza that makes visitors stop and stare. Ravneet Gill, who is head, capital markets and treasury solutions, says that whenever a new branch opens, part of the budget is set aside for art. "We showcase a mix of local and German art across the country, " says Gill, who admits he's been bitten by the collecting bug thanks to all the magnificent art around him.

The art palate varies from firm to firm. The new Mudra House in Mumbai's Santa Cruz has contemporized tribal Warli art on its walls and even the office upholstery sports the delicate, stick-figure motif. Sunil Bharti Mittal's telecom giant Airtel recently armed a thousand-odd employees with a pen and brush to create, under the guidance of artist Manav Gupta, a sixstorey-tall tree-of-life mural representing the five elements for the Airtel Centre in Gurgaon. The paint-fest has created a bond between the employees and their masterpiece. Gupta says he has three other corporate art projects though he wouldn't name his clients.

MONEY SLIPS INTO THE PICTURE


Indian art isn't just moving from top floor to reception, it is also showing its global ambitions. This May, India will have its first pavilion at the prestigious Venice Biennale (the Oscars of the art world) and, just last week, plans were announced for a Kochi Biennale in January 2012. "It's going to have some big stars and hopefully put India on the international art map, " says Riyas Komu, who is organising the event along with fellow artist Bose Krishnamachari.

Also creating a buzz around art was the India Art Summit, whose third edition saw 128, 000 visitors in three days and sales almost three times the 2009 figure of Rs 26 crore. As one fashionista admitted, art collecting is the new shopping and art fairs the new luxe malls. Instead of Pradas were Picassos (six were snapped up) and instead of food courts champagne brunches. There was also the ego trip of trophy-hunting in public, a pleasure often lost when a deal is swung in the privacy of a gallery.

Within days of the art fair winding up, the Marigold Fine Art gallery parked some big European names in the lobby of Delhi's snazziest mall. Just a few feet from the Fendi and Armani showrooms were Rodin statues and Damien Hirst butterflies. Be it clothes or canvas, Indians do like their brands.

Those who aren't collecting are talking about those who are. You know things are getting seriously arty when the conversation at parties veers from Bollywood to Balasubramaniam (a Bangalore-based artist who has shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York).

But who's splashing the cash? Young, affluent professionals, says Ranjana Steinruecke of Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke. Her clientele includes investment bankers, lawyers and even doctors. Steinruecke, who is in touch with a few companies for site-specific works, says the pool of buyers is getting bigger. It's also getting younger. "My 12-year-old son Felix has already set his heart on a black-and-white photograph by Dayanita Singh, " says Steinruecke.

PRETTY PROFITS


Newbie collector Shamit Khemka has livened up his software firm's office in Noida with works of art. "I started buying only in 2002 but now I am totally hooked. My collection includes a Jamini Roy, Murli Cheroth, Viveek Sharma and several others, " says the 36-year-old entrepreneur who did some shopping at the art summit as well. So, does he view it as an asset? "For me, it's like buying property. I don't buy to sell but I do hope it will be a valuable inheritance for my children. "

With art often providing better returns - and more pleasure - than equities, it has emerged as an appealing option for high net worth individuals. The World Wealth Report 2010, an analysis of investing trends and habits among the rich by Capgemini and Merrill Lynch, describes art-buying as a passion investment. Its report says that investors in India, China and the Middle East have become increasingly attracted to art as a hedge against inflation and predicts that the demand for art will continue to rise as the rich recover from the recession - a trend already in evidence in global auction rooms where Russian and Asian collectors are putting the boom back in the bazaar.

Such bullishness inevitably brings skepticism. The art market is opaque and largely unregulated. While auction houses like Christie's, Sotheby's and Saffronart report prices paid, they are a secondary market. In the primary market of the art gallery, information is as inscrutable as a Gaitonde abstract. No one knows what the prices are or who the buyers are. And then there's the nagging worry that this year's boom may be a bubble waiting to explode.

"There is no shortcut to making money, and art certainly isn't one. But for buyers who do their homework, it can be rewarding both aesthetically and financially, " says Archana Jahagirdar, CEO of Espace Corporate Art Initiatives. Above all, don't go into it blindly. "There are a lot of people who are buying A-minus work. If it's not quality, it isn't much of an asset. "

Today, to be known as an art collector is to proclaim one's social status, says Priya Jhaveri, who runs an art consultancy with sister Amrita, and recently helped Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) restore the magnificent collection acquired after taking over software firm CMC. The restored works, which include some delicate Somnath Hores and works by Bawa and Krishen Khanna, have been displayed at a gallery at the TCS House. The genesis of these works is in the art camps organised in the '70s by the late Dr PP Gupta of CMC. But such art patrons are a rare breed now. "Collecting has become about amassing trophies rather than supporting careers of young artists. " Louis Vuitton, Lexus. . . Laxma Goud, anyone?

Additional reporting by Purnima Sharma

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