Nepali artists are worried about the declining prices of their paintings in Kathmandu. "Works that have taken years to finish are being sold at dirt-cheap prices," artist Kiran Manandhar told Kantipur this week. "[gallery owners] do not understand that once the prices are lowered, it's hard to raise them again."
The report indicated that Manandhar and other artists were expressing their anger at the way Srijana Art Gallery had carried out its recent clearance sale of paintings. The sale, meant for raising overhead expenses by attracting price-sensitive Nepali buyers, included works by both senior and junior artists.
Fortunately, from a business point of view, the market for paintings in Kathmandu is no different from elsewhere in the world. The art market here too bows to the laws of supply and demand.
Supply: In recent years, Kathmandu has seen a proliferation of art galleries, from Patan and Naxal to Thamel. In Lazimpat alone, two excellent galleries have come up in the last year. More galleries mean more space to display paintings. And more display space encourages artists to supply paintings for exhibitions and sales. This is good for buyers who now have choices in terms of subjects, prices and types of paintings.
But more paintings in the market also means the price of each painting goes down, even to such an extent that sooner or later a few galleries are forced to hold clearance sales to turn excess stock into money, which they can use to pay bills. This problem is compounded all the more by a general economic climate that does not encourage people to spend money on art.
Reputation: A painting is a risky investment. A serious collector wants to make sure that the painting bought today goes up in value over time-the artist's critical reputation must increase and appreciate in future. Unfortunately, in Nepal, one can never really be sure about how good a particular Nepali contemporary artist is or gauge their potential. Some well-known artists, even from within the baristha fold, could be mere media stars with fawning press coverage for everything they do, despite work that is predictable and pedestrian-something their Nepali friends and colleagues are too polite to tell them.
And so, in the absence of art-related journals, critics and experts who can assess the work and offer informed judgement, serious collectors, Nepali or foreign, rarely want to take chances on the work of contemporary Nepali artists other than as an expression of goodwill, friendship and charity-hardly the foundations on which to build a thriving art market.
What, then, can an individual contemporary Nepali artist do? He can start by accepting that the market for art is a highly volatile one. He can then lower the supply of his paintings while looking for ways to signal his critical, as opposed to popular, reputation to the marketplace.
Failing that, he can take inspiration from Vincent van Gogh's life: Van Gogh sold nothing when he was alive. Other artists who sold much more are largely forgotten today. But aided by the work of historians and critics, Van Gogh's reputation has become such that his paintings, the supply of which is fixed, are now sold for millions of dollars.
For Nepali contemporary artists too, rather than complaining about the wildly fluctuating current prices of their paintings (that could be resold for higher prices later on), the more pressing challenge is to look for ways to establish a critical reputation so that their paintings continue to pull in money long after they are gone.