2020, a year in Indian art: From virtual galleries to lost livelihoods and new artistic vocabulary, changes a pandemic wrought

Digital formats such as the online viewing rooms and virtual exhibitions, which were largely alien to the market here, have become part of a new way of engaging with the audience, and even doing business.

Ankush Arora December 30, 2020 09:46:49 IST
2020, a year in Indian art: From virtual galleries to lost livelihoods and new artistic vocabulary, changes a pandemic wrought

Representational image via Pixabay

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The year that upended our lives in unprecedented ways because of the COVID-19 pandemic is coming to an end. For India’s museums and art galleries, the year has been no less challenging because of the temporary, but prolonged, closures of the physical exhibiting spaces. And yet, they have demonstrated remarkable adaptability to the disruption of most aspects of normal life by moving their programming, such as exhibitions and outreach events, online.

Digital formats such as the online viewing rooms and virtual exhibitions, which were largely alien to the market here, have become part of a new way of engaging with the audience, and even doing business. The launch of such initiatives — mainly on gallery and museum websites, and their social media channels — reflects a strong showing of solidarity from the art fraternity during these adverse times. This has also been a major transformation in the way exhibitions are shown and artworks sold in India.

Of note are the National Gallery of Modern Art’s digitisation of its collection and virtual exhibitions on pioneering artists such as Raja Ravi Varma and Jamini Roy, to name a few; digital partnerships between galleries that resulted in the launch of ‘TAP India’ and ‘In Touch’; and the Saffronart Partner Galleries programme, where the auction house hosts modern and contemporary art exhibitions on its website. Many of these initiatives indicate the potential of exploring the online medium for sales and exhibition-viewing in the Indian market that has so far done a major part of its business through art fairs, auctions, gallery previews and walk-ins, etc.

2021 will tell us to what extent these online initiatives have been successful from the business point of view for the Indian market.

Art Basel’s mid-year survey of the coronavirus ’ impact on the gallery sector offers some cues, although from a global perspective. Some of the positive outcomes include an increase in online sales from 10 percent of the total sales in 2019 to 37 percent in the first half of 2020. More than 50 percent of the high net worth collectors reported that the pandemic has increased their interest in collecting, with many of them continuing to make purchases and even willing to travel locally and overseas for art events.

But this is just one side of the story. The other side is about the people whose livelihoods are directly connected with creating all the public-facing content, such as exhibitions, festivals, fairs, etc. It is a large community of craftspeople, designers/publishers, framers, carpenters, installers, material suppliers, etc. Many of them are self-employed. Another major concern during the lockdown period has been about the artists who either work independently of the galleries or rely on funding support or commissions for their work; many of them are struggling financially.

A few initiatives have been launched in order to address this disruption in the arts and cultural sector. UNESCO, which has referred to this scenario as a period of “cultural emergency”, has launched a global movement to mobilise the creative community in these times, while finding solutions to empowering the artists and other professionals through policy changes and financial measures. Experimenter gallery launched ‘Generator’, a co-operative art production fund for visual artists who need financial support to continue their practice or complete their projects. Another initiative, ‘Art Chain India’, allows artists to sell their work by tagging the online platform on social media, while encouraging them to buy works of their peers once they make a certain number of sales.

The pandemic has also hit the crafts sector quite severely, and as a response to this disruption, ‘200 Million Artisans’, the volunteer-run online platform and community, has been galvanising support to address the declining rate of artisans and the threat to their livelihoods. Because the arts in India have reportedly received no financial support from the government during the pandemic, unlike some western countries, these announcements are noteworthy, and represent the collective grit of the community.

2020 has also been a year of mounting losses for the arts and cultural sector’s scholarly and artistic capital. We lost many stalwarts: Akbar Padamsee, Satish Gujral, Zarina, Kapila Vatsyayan, Mukund Lath, Pandit Jasraj, among others.

As the year comes to an end, there is a wider sense of trepidation in terms of what 2021 will bring for us. In such a scenario, should we take recourse to Dhruvi Acharya’s hugely popular ‘Painting in the Time of Corona’ series, which speaks to our times through a vocabulary that suggests both playfulness and fear? Or should we ponder over a recent exhibition, by Prameya Art Foundation, that argues that the “hardening of cultural divisions” in the world has accelerated during the pandemic? Either way, it appears to be a bleak look-ahead, unless we take recourse to apathy or rose-tinted glasses, which rarely go out of fashion!

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