Carry on art!

It was just in March that the art community was buzzing alive with activity. Opening shows were all about wine soirees and networking. Now six months later, the pandemic has brought all art shows and other viewings to a halt. Shows that were booked way in advance, had to be cancelled. So how are the art galleries getting by in this time?

Well, it is certainly a more pared down approach this year. Nonetheless, given the circumstances, it is reassuring to see that the galleries are adapting to keep the wheels turning. While there have been some cancelations, galleries have readjusted to the new normal as soon as possible.

“This was a particularly crushing moment for the exhibiting arists and the gallery team because of the tremendous amount of hard work that had gone into bringing the show to life,” says Gallery Ark’s Nupur Dalmia.

That fateful week towards the end of March, when the lockdown was announced took everyone by surprise. Baroda based Gallery Ark was all set to open their group exhibition, A Voyage of Seemingly Propulsive Speed and an Apparent Absolute Stillness, which had been a logistical and curatorial feat to put together. Though the show was not outright cancelled, a lot of reorganising and re-conceptualising had to be done. After some brainstorming, Dalmia and her team developed the Online Viewing Room, which gave viewers easy digital access to the artworks. “This was a particularly crushing moment for the exhibiting artists – Arshad Hakim, Moonis Ahmed Shah and Sarasija Subramanian – and for the gallery team, because a tremendous amount of hard work, energy and enthusiasm had gone into bringing the show to life,” says Nupur Dalmia, gallery director, Gallery Ark.

Even in the bigger cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, it has been the same case of cancelled shows as well, and reorganising the shows for the digital platform. According to Roshini Vadehra, director, Vadhera Art Gallery, they had to cancel four physical exhibitions during this time, but the gallery has more than made up for it with various digital / online exhibitions and projects to continue engaging with and expanding audiences. “The market has continued to be strong during these uncertain times. So can’t really say there’s been any loss, except for maybe additional sales that could have happened through physical exhibitions and art fairs. But the online projects have made up for it,” she says.

While Mumbai’s Gallery Art & Soul had a busy schedule with a show planned every month for this year. However, the show scheduled for March 18, had to be cancelled two days prior. At Chemould Prescott Road (CPR), four shows had to be cancelled. Though the gallery could have restarted in September, Shireen Gandhy director at Chemould Prescott Road (CPR), thought post monsoons would be the best time to go into much needed renovations. “The gallery has not been renovated for some 13 years, so no better time than now! So we have cancelled,” she says.

Tao Art Gallery (TAG) was in the midst of its 20th anniversary show when the lockdown started, “but we tried to salvage what we could with online 3D tours and other sales initiatives,” says Sanjana Shah, creative director, TAG. Later, a few shows were cancelled where artists preferred to wait for a physical show once the pandemic is over. Other shows where artists were okay with virtual, the gallery went on as planned, but with a changed format.

The biggest loss, which is often underestimated and overlooked, is the fear and uncertainty of unprecedented times. The main beauty of a gallery is the physical human experience of interacting with the art, artists, and other art lovers. So apart from the obvious financial loss of cancelling shows, there is also the very cultural loss of not being able to visit art galleries/museums and other art events. “Most artists make work that is created to be engaged with in person and for them a virtual show does not do complete justice to the way they visualised the end result. Many buyers too hesitate when buying art online unless they see it in person, especially for larger sales,” says Shah. 

January to May is busy in terms of gallery footfalls and sales, the monsoon months usually see a slow-down, followed by a pick-up in October. This year has been a mixed bag. According to Gandhy, CPR would have been in slack season during the March – September period, but “Given that people were at home, they decided to look on the website and shop – as a result we have probably sold more than we would at such a time,” she says. “To tell you honestly, we have not been at a loss,” she adds. On the other hand, for Gallery Art & Soul (G&S) it’s usually a busy time of the year so “this is a significant loss,” says Tarana Khubchandani, gallery owner. “What is more distressing is that we debut younger artists between June- August, and that has been a disappointment for them and us,” she adds.

According to Tao’s Shah one silver lining is that creativity has definitely increased during this period so a lot of good works, with reasonable prices, can come out of it and start a new trend of affordable art. “It is possible that people may jump at the opportunity to buy more quantities of good art that is priced lower. The art from this period will be something to cherish/remember for decades to come and I think investing in that may be a desire of many art connoisseurs/collectors,” she says.

“Art seems to have bounced back to some new kind of high,” says Shireen Gandhy.

The art industry adapted very quickly to the new normal through virtual platforms and people were more than happy to engage through that medium, and continue to add to their collections. Well, a good indicator of the art market’s resilience are the recent auction performances. Some of the recent auctions –Astaguru’s all-Husain auction in August where Husain’s third most important painting, Voices (1958) sold for Rs18.47 crore setting a world record for the artist. In September, V.S.Gaitonde’s Untitled (1974) sold for Rs32 crore setting a new world record. “Art seems to have bounced back to some kind of new high!” says Gandhy. Of course contemporary art which is her market, has not had that kind of impact. But despite that works are being sold. According to Vadehra, “This time has also seen a plethora of new collectors as while sitting home in lockdown, people have realised the value of being surrounded by good art,” she says.

Even in the collector demographic, a disproportionate amount of the market “value” is made up of a smaller percentage of superstar artists – primarily the Modernist icons – which continue to remain a good bet for the small pool of seasoned collectors. This collector demographic are seasoned art buyers who have seen economic troughs before.

However, being mood and impulse based, the contemporary and emerging artists market has always been a vulnerable segment. This group is far greater in number and attractive to the growing group that is called “young collectors”. Unfortunately, this collector demographic has felt the heat of the economic crunch caused by the lockdown, directly affecting their buying power. Younger artists also require a larger push towards sales by way of physical viewings, show features, and direct canvassing to clients – all of which has of course, taken a big hit.

The art business has changed too. To state the obvious – it is all primarily online now and this is likely to be the case in the foreseeable future. Collaborating virtually and supporting one another not just nationally, but internationally, is the way forward for the global art world. Tao’s Shah has been given the opportunity to become the Indian ambassador for the Arte Laguna Prize during this pandemic. In her interaction with all the ambassadors from different countries on Zoom, she has seen that there is an increase in mutual understanding and ideation. “Online virtual shows are the new thing, whether they can have a larger impact in the long run is still to be seen, but auction houses have made successful sales of large amounts during this time. The key will be to choose the art that can be done justice to when viewed online, and the thematic curation of shows has to be strong to be eye-catching at a time when everyone is trying to grab eyeballs online,” she says.

The “digital pivot” is seen as an opportunity – a chance to reach out to a larger audience, which is particularly relevant for younger institutions like Gallery Ark, that exist outside the well-established art market hubs of the big metro cities. “I do believe there is a vast audience, keen to know more about art, waiting to be tapped into. A thoughtful and honest communication of the power and purpose of art through digital channels is a wonderful opportunity to reach out to and harness this audience demographic,” says Dalmia.

A spirit of solidarity has developed within the art community. Notwithstanding some critical limitations, the digital space works as a great equalizer and has provided louder voices to lesser known entities through the pandemic. Online viewing rooms have already become the new normal. Chemould Prescott Road, Chatterjee & Lall, and 14 other galleries from Mumbai, Kolkata, New Delhi and Dubai have partnered together to present In Touch, a digital exhibitions platform between galleries to present curated exhibitions. The collaboration is now in its fourth edition. “The new normal will see more of this, even when physical exhibitions are possible,” says Vadehra. “The digital platform has the potential to connect with newer and larger audiences, and people will continue to engage in this way,” she adds.

Art can never only be about online viewings. Tao’s Shah believes that the art piece is as much about the creator as it is about the viewer. The engagement, the interaction, is crucial and can only be done thoroughly when one is physically present to see it in all its forms and angles. With multi-media increasingly coming into use in contemporary Indian art, most art pieces are very layered and complexly created. This complexity cannot easily be captured on camera and experienced digitally. However, technology has improved and with a 3D virtual tour it is possible to experience it online in a more than satisfactory way. This is however costly and in the long-term needs to be sustained with other types of engagement to generate sales. “As curator it becomes even more crucial today for us to communicate ideas and concepts to the viewer’s experiencing the art digitally as to avoid anything getting lost in translation. The story-telling narrative in the art will also become even more crucial.  The very affordable, young art will rarely pose an issue to sell. It is the more established artists and larger works that will suffer a setback. Therefore I do not think the art market can ever become a “click-and-buy” sort of market completely but yes, segregations can be made based on the context of each art work and a parallel business both online and offline is going to be necessary,” she says.

There is definitely more effort needed to stay relevant constantly, and to push for sales in such a time. “Lots of artists reach out to do shows but cannot be accommodated, or their work mediums don’t suit the digital space. Indian contemporary art has recently started flourishing and mediums like digital, are rare. Therefore the volume of artists and the resulting sales have reduced. Most show previews yield good sales, but now with the lack of that social element to promote art and artist, the business has definitely been impacted. Events like Art Night Thursdays/Fridays across the city used to also help in creating buzz before the pandemic hit. Now everything is online and on social media where catching and keeping attention is tough,” says Shah.

“Most artists make work that is created to be engaged with in person and for them a virtual show does not do complete justice to the way they visualised the end result,” says Sanjana Shah.

Whilst it has no doubt been a trying time, it hasn’t been all gloom. There have been a few buyers over the last six months – some new and some who were returning back for more works. Art is an experience and subjective at that. So the connect of the client with the artwork is the mainstay of a purchase. The format of this experience has changed from physical to virtual for the moment. So if there is already a relationship with a client, then the artworks are bought through images only. But if it’s a new relationship then the client needs to see them in person. The same applies to the artist – if the artist is senior and well recognised then an image is enough, but for the younger emerging artists, virtual may not be convincing enough. “Just like we galleries have adapted, the buyer will too,” says Khubchandani.

Galleries like Chattejee & Lall, Chemould Prescott Road and Gallery Art & Soul have been open by appointment since June. People have been going to the galleries to see old stock on appointment basis all sanitisation procedures are in place. Of course, these interactions are brief and most of the discussions are completed either prior or after the visit.

There have been buyers. According to Gandhy, almost every artist in Chemould Prescott Road’s stable has had a sale – some small, others quite large amounts. Tao, Chatterjee & Lall, Vadehra and Gallery Ark have also reported sales. Tao’s charity show for covid, ‘Through the Lens’ saw many sales and following that the gallery’s affordable art campaigns have also received good feedback. Most of the sales have been of the upcoming and established contemporary artists with strong and vibrant narratives to their art.

So how are they going to survive? Art galleries are already surviving and adapting, as are other galleries internationally. Sales effort on-ground on a one-on-one appointment basis has begun, and virtual shows have been all planned for the remainder of this year. “The only method is to keep pushing out content and staying relevant. There is a lot of new art being created by artists. Figuring out the best way to bring that to the audience is the job of the gallery and we are focussing on that,” says Shah. 

For galleries like Gallery Ark, going digital with their programming has allowed the gallery to cut down on costs and help them tide over.  Regular clients and a stable of very good artists is what is keeping the galleries on. “The time will get more difficult going further as this is only the beginning. But I have faith in my artists. And we will be conservative with prices and keep our costs as low as possible. We will survive,” says Gandhy.

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