Coronavirus Outbreak: Art world braces for pandemic's impact with online initiatives, social media outreach

In a dramatic Instagram post that resonated with the global art world, The Art Newspaper wrote: “When God closes a gallery door, [somewhere] He opens a browser window.” In another day and age, when nearly all forms of human activity would not have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic-related shutdown, feminists and gender experts would have spilled some (digital) blood over a public comment that masculinised God. But we are facing a far bigger crisis than sparring over gender binaries. It is when the slightest human contact could prove detrimental to one’s well-being and survival, and when art — for all its widely known therapeutic qualities — is having to face the worst possible scenario, that of en masse closures of the gallery door.

As art fairs, galleries, institutions, auction houses and museums all over the world announce temporary or prolonged shutdowns, activity on their respective social media handles has been ramped up. From Art Basel Hong Kong’s online viewing rooms to virtual gallery tours, online programming events, and clever social media campaigns such as #museumfromhome, the art market is leaving no stone unturned to offset the potential fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

From India, there are a few private galleries that have faced the direct impact of the pandemic, which led to the cancellation of Art Basel Hong Kong, originally scheduled for 17-21 March. The galleries are Mumbai-based Chemould Prescott Road and Jhaveri Contemporary, New Delhi-based Gallery Espace and Vadehra Gallery, and Kolkata’s Experimenter. As an alternative to physically exhibiting the artworks, Art Basel launched the first edition of their online viewing rooms in which more than two hundred galleries are participating.

 Coronavirus Outbreak: Art world braces for pandemics impact with online initiatives, social media outreach

Heavy social media marketing is being deployed by museums and art galleries, in an attempt to dilute the negative impact of dwindling walk-ins as cities go into lockdowns to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Image for representation only. Via Facebook/@ Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Even as a report in The Art Newspaper headlined “muted sales” in these online rooms, the situation may not be as grim as it looks, according to Roshini Vadehra, director of Vadehra Art Gallery, which has been a participant at Art Basel for many years. The online viewing room initiative has already opened with great success, she said, while adding: “We have had new collectors reach out to us through this platform and inquire about the works that we included.”

For Chemould Prescott Road, which is also a returning gallery at Art Basel, the inability to physically exhibit the works “limits the collector's perceptibility which results in delayed responses and acquisition”. Commenting on the responses to the online viewing rooms, gallery director Shireen Gandhy said, “Though we have received a few sales inquiries, it would be difficult, at the moment, to state if they will materialise or not. We hope they do!”

On Firstpost: A database of free books, performances, tours, virtual shows, courses available online in these times of social distancing

Back home, Bihar Museum announced the postponement of the Bihar Museum Biennale, India’s first museum biennale, from its earlier scheduled date, which was 25 March, to 29 June. According to a report, the biennale plans to show artworks from the collection of 14 public and private museums, including the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai; National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi; Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Delhi; Piramal Museum of Art, Mumbai, among other museums. Many of these institutions, along with monuments and museums protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, and several private galleries have announced temporary closures and cancellation of events such as exhibition openings and outreach events.

The upside to these circumstances is the heavy social media marketing being deployed by many of these institutions, museums and galleries, in an attempt to dilute the negative impact of dwindling walk-ins as cities go into lockdown. Given the magnitude of physical distancing and self-quarantines being practised these days, and given the noticeable spike in smartphone activity, the social media strategies are proving to be quite successful.

For example, Mumbai’s oldest museum, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, posted on its Instagram handle images of clay models — all standing apart from each other, and carrying these taglines: “greet people with a wave or a namaste; avoid public gatherings” and “maintain at least three feet distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing”. National Museum, New Delhi, has launched for the first time a virtual exhibition of antique objects, “Great Steppe: Time. Space. Culture”, which is drawn from the collection of the National Museum of Kazakhstan. The collection can be viewed on the National Museum’s Instagram account @nmnewdelhi. There are also posts by Instagram handles of The Heritage Lab, Mumbai’s Tarq gallery, India Art Fair, among others, that are engaging with users who are #workingfromhome.

It is a well-known fact that India, despite thousands of years of heritage, is not a museum- and gallery-visiting country. And yet, in terms of the number of smartphone and Instagram users, it is the world’s second largest market. For sure, the spike in social media activity owing to the shutdowns will have a positive impact on digital identities of several players in the art market, and as a result, it provides them an opportunity to boost their following. Even as the digital marketing aspect is taken care of, the larger art market will have to evaluate the economic cost of the coronavirus outbreak that has also affected the world’s biggest art centres: the UK, the USA and China.

With the number of coronavirus infections going up rapidly, along with the increasing panic that has gripped everyday life, it would take a long time for the art market to assess the entire situation. Reactions from some private gallerists in India, regarding the unfolding situation, have been mixed thus far. “Of course, this is going to affect all markets for everything,” said Peter Nagy, director of Delhi-based Nature Morte, which moved its most recent show to September from its original date of 21 March. The gallery was planning to take part in Art Dubai and Frieze New York, but the fairs have been either cancelled or postponed due to the coronavirus concerns. The gallery’s Neeti Bagh space in Delhi will remain closed until 31 March.

For Renu Modi, who heads Delhi-based Gallery Espace, the coronavirus pandemic is “undoubtedly having an impact on art” as it is keeping viewers away from galleries and museums. “The outbreak has played havoc on the economy and that will also have an impact on art buying,” she said. Roshini Vadehra, on the other hand, added that the gallery has not felt the slowdown in sales that is expected during these uncertain times. Joining the chorus of voices in favour of a rigorous digital media push as galleries face temporary shutdowns, she added: “Galleries and art fairs are also becoming more creative in offering collectors a virtual experience of exhibitions. Browsing may not lead to buying big ticket items, but people are inclined to buying well priced works.”

Mumbai-based Chatterjee & Lal, which opened its latest show of Mark Prime’s sculptures on 13 March and is open by appointment only, suggests the slow down has not prevented buyers from making enquiries about art. “Collectors are still talking to us about art and that the enforced slow down has allowed some to give attention to art where they may not have had the time previously,” said Mortimer Chatterjee, co-founder of the gallery.

For the Indian art market, the widespread shutdown as a result of the pandemic comes after a successful India Art Fair 2020, which demonstrated a renewed interest in South Asian contemporary art. Reviewing the fair, widely regarded as South Asia’s biggest, Artsy recently published a story which was headlined thus: “After a boom and bust, the South Asian Art market is finally maturing.” Quoting a report by ArtTactic, the review added that in terms of global rankings, South Asia moved up from 9th to 6th place in 2019, with “dealers...seeing increased buyer confidence in contemporary art from the region.”

But the long-term ramifications of the coronavirus outbreak have brought back the spotlight on the state of the Indian economy, which is forecast to grow at 4.9 percent in 2019-2020, with the COVID-19 outbreak expected to have an impact on the growth rate. Other than the slowing economy, in the recent past, the Goods and Services tax (GST), and the currency demonetisation have cast a shadow over the Indian art market. As the world at large stares at uncertain times, the coronavirus pandemic appears to have thrown a spanner in the works for the Indian art market as well.

“The Indian art market has not been robust in the past few years, so this [coronavirus outbreak] will certainly make things more difficult for everyone. We will now have to wait and see exactly how long it takes for things to return to some sort of normal before we can assess any further effects,” Nagy said.

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Updated Date: Mar 26, 2020 12:17:17 IST