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Covid-19 and the future of India’s art industry

With events cancelled, programming stalled and sales in a limbo, is there a silver lining to the crisis facing India’s art industry?

‘Aam Aadmi Wala’ by Dushyant Patel was sold by the Latitude 28 gallery from an online promotion
‘Aam Aadmi Wala’ by Dushyant Patel was sold by the Latitude 28 gallery from an online promotion

The art calendar worldwide is a packed affair, except for the high-summer months. Boozy openings, private viewings, heady auctions—the business of art thrives on social networking in the physical world. In the last few weeks, though, a lull has descended. The novel coronavirus has hit the industry, whose global sale was valued at roughly $64.1 billion (around 4.83 trillion) as of 2019 (according to a report by Art Basel and UBS), leaving its future uncertain.

As the covid-19 contagion pushed the world into lockdown, events like Art Basel in Hong Kong and Art Dubai, both scheduled for March, and Frieze New York this month, were cancelled, replaced by online “viewing rooms". Closer home, Indian galleries and museums put a halt to their shows and future programming.

An installation by Aminul Islam Ashik at the 2019 India Art Fair, Delhi
An installation by Aminul Islam Ashik at the 2019 India Art Fair, Delhi

The last major event was the annual India Art Fair (IAF), which ended early February. “The 2020 fair closed on a high note, just a couple of weeks before the pandemic took over and lockdowns ensued. It was our best edition to date, with exhibitors reporting strong sales while our public programme of talks, performances, a new bookshop and artist-led workshops further highlighted the very best of the South Asian and Indian art scene," says Jagdip Jagpal, director, IAF.

Not everyone was as lucky. Biraaj Dodiya’s first solo show, which opened at Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery on 6 March, had to be closed due to the pandemic. Roshini Vadehra of the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi confirms that they won’t be opening their scheduled shows in May. Nupur Dalmia of Gallery Ark in Vadodara says they may be “reneging on a few commitments, such as our annual show Embark", which coincides with the final year display at the faculty of fine arts at the city’s MS University.

Delhi establishments like Latitude 28 (a gallery run by Bhavna Kakar) and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (founded by philanthropist Kiran Nadar) complete 10 years in 2020. But the celebrations will have to wait—no one knows for how long.

Coming together

The Indian art market, estimated at $14.6 million as of 2017 (according to a FICCI-KPMG report), has survived many storms. It was rocked by the government’s decision to demonetize high-value currency notes in 2016, followed by the imposition of the goods and services tax. The financial meltdown of 2008 also left businesses reeling. But those blows were different from the one inflicted by the pandemic.

“In 2008, prices plummeted because there seemed to be no logic to them around the time," says Prateek Raja, co-founder of Experimenter. “Auction records were being broken every day, buyers and sellers were playing the market brazenly, there was speculative buying. The signs of a downturn were palpable." The slowdown owing to the pandemic is, in contrast, unanticipated—there was no writing on the wall.

To their credit, commercial galleries have responded speedily to the situation. On 24 April, 10 galleries from India and Dubai collaborated to launch a group exhibition online called In Touch, which runs till 24 July. With 12 works from each gallery, the project brings together painters, photographers and sculptors, including Arpita Singh, the late Madan Mahatta, Bharti Kher, Abir Karmakar and Aditi Singh (Experimenter has also launched a need-based grant for artists, in collaboration with artists and friends ).

With the countrywide lockdown coming into effect, “we had to immediately innovate on how to engage with our collectors, artists and patrons", says Vadehra. “We are unsure when and how the physical space will open but art is something that people will turn to for comfort." Others, like Nadar, wonder if people will visit their establishments even if they open up after the lockdown.

A strong presence in the digital space is on everyone’s mind at the moment. Social media platforms are crowded with virtual events, performances and live conversations, but it’s not an easy transition to make for an industry dependent on doing business via physical meetings and networking. Even online-only businesses like the auction firm Prinseps have been forced to scale back.

“While ours is entirely an online model with little ‘touch’ involved, a certain number of meetings are needed, even if it’s simply to have tea with a potential consignor," says Indrajit Chatterjee, founder of Prinseps. “Relationships are not the easiest to build over a Zoom call." Even though the logistics for delivery, restoration and photographing of art objects have stalled at present, Prinseps is hopeful that its July auction will go ahead as scheduled.

Traditionally oriented businesses that depend on walk-ins are in for a bigger challenge. Having a functional website isn’t enough any longer, there needs to be a thoughtful strategy to reach out to viewers and potential customers. With the materiality of the work blunted by the digital medium, galleries must invest in state-of-the-art technology to create viewing experiences that can replicate the feeling of walking through a physical space.

“We are working on a more immersive, animated 3D experience to virtually view our shows," Dalmia says. “It had to be animated because we are unable to physically shoot in the gallery but we are hoping to create a more lifelike experience for our audience that incorporates exhibition design, spatial reference, as well as the way the artworks interact with one another."

Shifting priorities

As the art world shifts gear to adapt to the times, the priorities of buyers are likely to shift too in the post-lockdown future.

“Things are going to slow down for the art market because questions of survival are at stake," says Nadar. Emami Art, which is hosting an online show Black White And More (featuring monochromatic works by Jogen Chowdhury, Rabin Mondal, Dashrath Patel, Bose Krishnamachari and Manu Parekh, among others), is donating its profits towards helping citizens affected by the pandemic. An online programme to mentor upcoming artists is also on the cards. On 27 April, DAG (formerly known as the Delhi Art Gallery) sold 51 artworks in an online fund-raiser to donate 1 crore to the PM CARES Fund and the CM’s Relief Fund in Delhi.

Not-for-profits like the Serendipity Arts Foundation are at a crossroads too. “We are thinking what role we can play in the digital space," says Smriti Rajgarhia, the director. “What is the user experience with so much happening on social media already?" The pandemic may have been a bolt from the blue but her team quickly managed to put together a six-day event online. The overall picture is far from positive, though, for the performing arts, which are mostly site-specific events, best experienced live. As Rajgarhia points out, performing artists, especially accompanists who are paid per concert, face a bleak future and may have to consider upskilling themselves.

Philanthropist Feroze Gujral, proprietor of the Delhi-based Gujral Foundation, is using this time to “review, reflect and reboot", she says. The programming at the foundation, usually fixed 18-24 months in advance, is on hold. “We want to build a legacy, to make a difference to the scene," she says. “We need tactical help in India in terms of education of artists, curators and conservationists. At the moment, there are too many artists and not enough good work. This phase will put a stop to it."

The pandemic has driven home the point that buying art is, at the end of the day, a luxury. “We are going to divert a portion of our funds towards causes that my children are invested in, such as saving the planet," she adds.

While emerging artists may be staring at an uncertain future, those with established practices are being forced to recalibrate too. “I opened a solo exhibition at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville a week before the lockdown in the US and India," says Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat. It has been closed temporarily but when it reopens, the show will have an extended run. “One of my studios is located just across the street from my home, so despite concerns about the state of the world, I have been having very creative days during the lockdown," he adds.

However, as economic gloom gathers on the horizon, the business of art in India is going to dip. At the moment, there is still interest in buying. Latitude 28 sold several works from its last show on printmaking online. Experimenter sold four works from the In Touch show, while Vadehra says there isn’t fear of a drastic drop in prices yet. In the secondary market, global auction firm Sotheby’s has had successful auctions during the lockdown.

“Since March, we have held 37 online auctions that totalled nearly $70 million. These have spanned nearly all the categories we offer... and we have added a number of new sales to our calendar for May," a spokesperson for the company says on email. “In the process, we have set new benchmarks...and attracted thousands of first-time clients. Around one-third of all bidders are new to Sotheby’s."

Although collector interest is robust at the moment, the dynamics of the industry will change in post lockdown—this we know for sure in these unsure times.

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