03/20/2013 02:24 am ET Updated May 20, 2013

An Interview with Prateek Raja, Co-Founder of Experimenter Gallery in Kolkata, India, on the Occasion of His Gallery's Participation in Art Dubai

JS: When you and your wife Priyanka began Experimenter in April 2009, what gap were you trying to fill? What inspired to open the gallery in the first place?

PR: We started Experimenter with a very clear focus. At the time we felt that contemporary practice was being under-represented in the country. There were several major developments that were taking place in the art world and we in India completely engrossed with commercial successes that came with it and there was no real effort towards a curatorial programming. More importantly we opened the gallery to show artists who dealt with contemporaneity in a particular way, who caught the current moment within their work, made the viewer rethink and re-evaluate one's pre-determined notions and what challenged the boundaries that we set for ourselves. Contemporary art gives us a window to enter into a world where real impact could be possible and Experimenter was established to provide that window to artists and therefore to viewers.

JS: What had the two of you done prior to Experimenter that best prepared you to run a gallery?

PR: We are both not from the arts. We both have management degrees and have worked with corporates before Experimenter. I had quit earlier and spent a lot of time understanding the art world in India and the region. I enjoyed the conversations I had with the artists and went to a lot of studios. Most of the artists I know were friends first. Priyanka joined a year before we started the gallery. She quit her highflying corporate career with Procter & Gamble to build our dream together. We traveled all over the world for 6 months, looking at shows meeting artists and the rest of the 6 months we built the gallery. At the last bit of the trip we did the South Asian Contemporary Art course at Sotheby's London. That was fun. We had pre planned exhibitions calendar for 18 months in advance before we opened the gallery. So it was a thought out process. Having said the above, reading and seeing was and still is our biggest preparation for Experimenter.

JS: What were your expectations when you opened the gallery?

PR: We opened the gallery knowing that the program will be completely different from what normally one would be familiar with, so to be honest, other than expecting to out up some really stunning exhibitions, which we had control over, we did not have any expectations. I knew for sure that Experimenter would not be a regular gallery and that we would live up to its name of showing contemporary experimental practice. Beyond that there was no expectations.

JS: What's your process and criteria for signing on an artist?

PR: That's such difficult question to answer precisely. It's a whole lot of things. It's like alchemy when it all comes together. Of course the work is what draws us to artists first and then all the other factors come together. It's a combination of many things, including belief in the practice, understanding the artist's personality and requirements from the relationship, some amount of gut-feeling too that make the decision for us. We represent 12 artists at the moment and are quite clear that that number is a good number to manage at our scale. The most important thing about all our artists is that we are friends first and the relationship between artist-gallery are like marriages for us... so we step very cautiously. Although there could be some divorces in so many relationships, for us they are all long-term marriage like relationships.

JS: You describe your gallery as being "highly" exploratory. Why "highly?"

PR: We do not ever limit our program or what the artists propose to any medium, or commercial viability of what we show. In the past we have done exhibitions that transformed everyday, interventions in the gallery that meant the viewer became part of the exhibitions, ephemeral works that disappeared by the time the show was over... many things that have never been seen or experienced before and all to a hungry audience. So its been exploratory in that sense of the word.

JS: Would you describe both your multi-disciplinary approach as well as your desire to challenge boundaries? What, as you see them, are these boundaries? Are they commercial, social, political, artistic?

PR: All of the above and also psychological boundaries. These are boundaries that we as individual set ourselves within, sometimes due to social conditioning or at other times owing to expecting a certain kind of response to a certain kind of experience. We changed / challenge the experience so deeply that it alters the response and therefore hopefully shakes up some wires in the heads of the viewers in turn. When I see a work of art that I connect with, something that makes me think of things that are happening around me, it moves me. At Experimenter we enable an atmosphere to 'rethink' things.

JS: For those of us dozens of time zones away, please describe Kolkata's Gariahat area.

PR: It's a very busy junction in south of the city. There are long stretches of street vendors, and shoppers milling about and a sea of people all the time. We are in a building built in the 1930's. The gallery is located at the back of the building. The gallery has a central feature, a small courtyard that used to be open to the sky earlier. Artists use that space very innovatively. It's a depression right in the middle of the gallery and most artists love it.

JS: What's the most exciting art being produced in India at this moment?

PR: India is at a very crucial juncture at the moment. There are a lot of good artists doing very interesting work. A lot of explorations are happening in the public arts sphere because in India, when its public, its truly "public" given the number of people who interact with the art. The recently concluded Kochi-Muziris Biennial had close to 450,000 registered viewers, a number far lesser than the number of people who saw the public art projects at the time in the town! This is with keeping in mind that Kochi is a very tiny place and the Biennial was restricted to a certain quarter of the old city.

JS: Can you briefly describe what I call the economy of the Indian art world? By economy, I mean the relationship of galleries, museums, critics, curators, collectors, and the general public, and, last but not least, the government?

PR: The government is not very overtly active in the contemporary art world in India, but is slowly by surely recognizing its need to align itself with supporting contemporary art. The new public venues like airports, planned city developments are all ready to have a conversation that involves arts that was not the case even a couple of years ago. The galleries, museums, critics, curators, collectors is still very fluid in India given that the country is still young when it comes to contemporary work. The roles sometime overlap. Private galleries like ours sometimes need to take on larger educational roles like museums in the absence of public contemporary museum in India... so its not in very water tight boxes. We for example do the Experimenter Curators' Hub once every year. Its 3-day intensive where 10 curators come together to discuss and debate curatorial practice and their processes. The gallery has an amazing energy at the time. This has nothing commercial to do with the gallery but organizing the hub is like a responsibility we feel we owe to the artworld to co-develop its eco-system.

JS: I'm intrigued by your desire to facilitate a public dialogue. How, if at all, does criticism fit into this dialogue? What's the scope and nature of Indian art criticism?

PR: Indian art criticism like the whole art scenario is quite nascent in the country. The curators hub for example uses a public platform to critically think of curatorial practice in India. It's turning out to be a very important feature in the arts calendar for everyone. People look forward to it from months in advance. Criticism is important and is growing to be more specific and pointed which is great.

JS: In general, what's the value for a gallery to participate in an art fair? Specifically, what attracts you to Art Dubai?

PR: For us its new connections, new collectors, new relationships and meaningful long term dialogue that we can engage with in the region. Art Dubai is much more than just a fair. It's an entry point into a region that allows our artists to be seen by a larger audience and therefore builds their career.

JS: Finally, to pose that universal, old-as-time question, can you offer any advice to artists who want but can't seem to get gallery representation?

PR: It's the work that counts. Keeping true to your core practice is very important. A gallery provides a much-needed cover/cushion/protection but without it, work needs to stay true. Its not easy to make a living out of art but having said that in today's world, the opportunities are infinite, the possibilities of making a career out of art are more possible than ever before, so sooner or later there will be a right fit with a gallery for the artist. As I said, artist gallery relationships are like marriages Not only do they need time to connect but need work to develop and maintain like all relationships need.

Prateek Raja interview