CHENNAI: Life as we know it has been put on hold. But, art, as many artists would agree, is free to chart its course — in utopian and dystopian times. History too tells us that the entire story of the Renaissance movement in art is sealed in 17th century Europe that was gripped by the plague.
After all, in art, we look for resonance, response and resilience. Helping us seek this connection are art galleries that have stood the dual tests of time and a novel coronavirus. With a bit of ideation and innovation, they have been reinventing ways to spark a new intimate relationship between art and its viewers.
Virtual tours, digital catalogues and archives, 3-D models and personalised online interactions from the confines of home — gallerists have seized the opportunity to tell us that even as the door remains closed, the window is now open; even if it’s a virtual one.
Taking the digital plunge
The initial months of the lockdown were nothing short of a litmus test for many like Preeti Garg, founder of Gallery Veda, who spent time revamping the gallery’s website, besides collaborating with an art curator to collate a digital catalogue with different categories of their artwork for public viewing. Seemingly, it was well worth the precious effort for what the protocols warranted. “The online space has gained momentum and people are comfortable with the newer mode of purchase.
Buying a piece of art involves several aspects, so, we offer them a multi-dimensional video of our artworks at the gallery for them to get a better idea. Then the shortlisted pieces are delivered to the buyers’ house so that they can try it on their walls and make a final decision. This was the closest we were able to achieve. If art enthusiasts are particular, then they can visit the gallery based on appointments,” shares Preeti. Likewise, Sharan Apparao, founder of Apparao Galleries, used the first two months of the lockdown to set up TAP India — The Art Platform India along with 13 other galleries that was launched in the first week of August — to keep the art and buyer engagement alive.
“Galleries have pooled in to create a common online platform to showcase exhibitions from across India that brings you new and exciting collections and events of modern and contemporary Indian art. This will be a treat to patrons and art lovers. Currently, artist A Balasubramanian’s exhibition as part of Apparao Galleries is on TAP. The gallery will not open anytime soon but we do have a few online exhibitions lined up,” reveals Sharan. Besides catering to the connoisseurs’ appetite for art, gallerists like Preeti are also kindling creativity among pencil-pen-and-brush-wielding fine art students from India by inviting submissions of their artworks.
The works of the final 16 from the lot will be displayed on their website for sale. “We wanted to encourage students by offering them a platform to showcase their creativity in these uncertain times. We received submissions from places like Jharkhand that we never expected,” says Preeti, whose attempt is to cross every hurdle with practical ideas. “I’ve been in talks with a printing company to print original artworks of MF Hussain and SH Raza. A Mumbai- based friend is conducting a workshop on the appreciation of art and I plan to make a recorded version available on our gallery for patrons to educate themselves.
We are working on making art more tech-friendly to an extent where patrons can visualise it on the wall of their house,” she details. But others like Forum Art Gallery re-opened their door to patrons in June, following all hygiene protocols. “Natural ventilation, social distancing, sanitisation...we have all that’s required to keep the show going. To ease the process, we ensure the patrons zero in on the final piece after browsing the artworks available in our digital catalogue. We also have a huge collection in our archive. This will reduce the time they spend at the gallery and make the purchase faster. That aside, we are virtually connected and facilitate client appointments through video-calls. So, it wasn’t a drastic change,” reveals Shalini Biswajit, owner.
A virtual adjustment
But the virtual switch has not been easy for many who maintain that the physical context enhances the aesthetic experience and it cannot be replaced by the online viewing room. Mayur Shah, founder of Focus Art Gallery, staunchly believes in the conventional consumption of art. But, as desperate times call for desperate measures, he has been working to turn digitally savvy. “I never thought there would be a need for a digital space as it’s too distracting and the true purpose of art is lost.
The pandemic has been an eye-opener in many ways. A gallery has always been the catalyst between the buyer and seller, but now I’m afraid that it might lose its meaning. Artists have gone tech-savvy and patrons are reaching out to them directly and negotiating a better price. I’m working on other ways for this to be a win-win situation for all parties,” notes Mayur. In these uncertain times, as intimidating as it may be to walk into a gallery, Ashvin E Rajagopalan, founder of Ashvita’s in Chennai and Piramal Museums of Art in Mumbai, upholds that the art business has inherently never been a digital-friendly medium because, whether you see an art scene in a museum or gallery, it is the experience between a physical object and the observer. “Of course, I’ve had my share of concerns.
On the museum front, we have to worry about education, audience engagement, and the museum’s responsibility to provide a cultural outlet to the masses. On the gallery front, running the business like before seems to be challenging. If somebody surveys the success rate of artwork being bought mainly by digital images, you will be surprised to find it well under 10-15 per cent. If you decide to spend a couple of lakhs on a painting, you’d at least go for the preview unless you know the business or the artist,” asserts Ashvin. However, scepticism won’t be the best way forward considering art galleries in Chennai are relatively conservative compared to other cities that are doing better business and reaching a wider audience, confirms Mayur.
“Art galleries in other metros with their strong digital presence have been able to reach out to art lovers in Chennai than those in the city itself. You need to be associated with the right people having the right expertise to up your game in the market. The newer generation also prefers quirky and not old-school options. The purchasing power of youngsters has grown steadily, where they are ready to shell Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh for a painting. Though I’m not for it, I’m forced to go digital just to target this market,” he explains. Echoing a similar thought — that change is crucial for the benefit of the community — is M Senathipathi, president of Cholamandal Artists’ Village.
“The lockdown has given us time to re-strategise with newer works for exhibitions — online or physical. We recently inaugurated our page on Google Arts and Culture. Our famous bronze casting workshop that was to be held in April also got rescheduled. It is an annual affair where artists from different parts of the country participate. But, the nature of the craft is such that it cannot be conducted online and so, we are waiting for revised dates with lockdown relaxations. We are also in talks with a few artists for an online exhibition soon,” he informs.
For others like the Progressive Painters’ Association, who had grand plans to celebrate their 75th year, the pause has been overwhelming. “It’s one of the oldest associations for established and aspiring artists. We planned for an art camp and an art show as part of the celebration in March, but now we will have to wait. Meanwhile, we have asked the artists to work on small size paintings and sculptures for a better price so that people from all strata can buy and they can also earn some money. Since there are many elderly artists in the community, it hasn’t been easy to make a digital switch. We are planning for monthly online exhibitions, especially with young artists, on different themes, using different mediums of art,” says S Saravanan, president of the association.
Painting new projects
Adjusting to this new virtual reality, a few gallerists are hosting competitions for art students, some others are raising funds through charity work, and a few others are sharing artist interviews on their social media pages. For instance, Artworld Sarala’s Art Centre raised funds for paramedical staff in the city through its Lockdown Series art show in March. “We were one of the first to make our online presence felt with group art shows. In July, we did the Unlock Series with a few artists.
Patrons have been coming in since June, and that’s a huge support. Even in September, we brought eight city-based artists together to paint at the gallery and displayed their artworks for the public viewing. This was also an opportunity for them to network and have a good time. I feel that there’s been a surge in interest among patrons especially with the newer generation carrying forward the legacy of art collection,” details Sarala Banerjee, founder.
For Ashivta’s, however, which has an active presence on social media, there was little to catch up during the lockdown, says Ashvin, who has now opened the gallery on appointmentbasis. “We only engaged our patrons on Instagram with some modules that gave an educational experience. We also posted video footage of interviews with artists from Madras as it’s rare and invaluable. People have been experiencing digital fatigue and so we did not want to overdo.
This is a time for those players who’ve not tapped on their digital presence. Otherwise, there’s nothing new happening in the market. If you did not sell artwork before COVID-19 then you will not after that just by moving online. Having said all this, the market has always been cyclical and I’m confident that it will bounce back in time. There have been some great sales happening . The a r t market seems to be more stable than the stock market ,” he elaborates. Preeti concurs that the bargaining capacity for artwork has starkly increased. “There’s a rise in the secondary art market.
A few patrons have been asking for discounts because of the prevailing circumstances. Considering art an expensive hobby, we thought the market would crash. But ardent art buyers don’t seem to be bogged down. They are using the money they have been saving up by cutting down on luxury expenses to purchase paintings. We have to wait and watch as to how the trend is going to shape up,” she offers. As curators, gallerists and artists turn to technology, only time will tell how art births a new cultural and social identity.