Art curation in the pandemic

Despite the pandemic, art has thrived, and its consumption has undergone changes. Art curation has also got a new meaning amid the digital boom with a focus on digitally inclusive art. But there seems to be an artistic divide between the traditional and the digital. Does this set a new paradigm for creative collaborations, making online appreciation, buying and selling difficult? Art experts weigh in.

In paintings, sometimes even the delicacy of colour and the nuances of textures are unable to be perceived.
In paintings, sometimes even the delicacy of colour and the nuances of textures are unable to be perceived.

A transformational process

The isolation has given curators and artists time to reflect as the uncertainty of the future is raising several concerns. While often the materiality of a fine art production remains the same, technology is coming in a big way. The presentation of digital art and its consumption are undergoing massive changes. However, I am not a great believer of online exhibitions. The essence of art is marginalised, and the wow effect of technology takes over. Three-dimensional art, especially sculpture and installations lose a great amount of emotive aspect. New media art, which includes video, film, virtual reality and augmented reality, is most suited for online exhibitions or presentations. In paintings, sometimes even the delicacy of colour and the nuances of textures are unable to be perceived.

But art which does not involve technology in the process of creation finds itself on a back foot and the curators who are not well versed with technology also find curating a challenge. Engaging the buyers in terms of transactions is extremely subjective. For non-expensive art, online sales are not a problem. But for art, which is expensive, online buying is an issue— unless it is an extremely well-known, well-documented art piece in the market.

Art must be witnessed in person to truly understand it. It often loses its essence through the CMYK effect. Sometimes it looks better than it is on a large monitor or much of the subtlety is subsumed under the digital lens. Museums like the Virasat-e-Khalsa in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab have created an effect of wonder through the digital.

Virtual will now be a part of the new normal as virtual space enhances the experience, but it does not talk. For the audience, experiencing art through a screen is not the same thing as being able to see, touch or listen to it live.
— Alka Pande, art historian & curator, Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, Delhi; and project director, Bihar Museum Biennale, Patna

Big bidding

When the world started to slow down due to the pandemic in 2020, Sotheby’s started speeding up instead, especially with regards to digital innovation. Today, collectors can take a virtual walk around international exhibitions on websites (www.sothebys.com), or by using an app, from their homes to see how it might look in real life, should they place that winning bid. The reduced possibilities for viewing in person while travel is limited have opened a new world of options instead, arguably making art more accessible and democratic. While there is still nothing better than seeing art in flesh, clients have certainly embraced this new world for the time being, with multiple bids placed for over $1 million in our sales for last year by collectors who were never able to see the art in person.

Take the auction of Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art in New York, for example—66% of bidders were based outside the US, spread across 18 countries, including India of course. The sale concluded in March 2021 in New York, achieving a total of $7.1 million—more than double the sale’s $3.3 million low estimate and a nearly 50% increase year over year. With a sell through rate of 92% of lots sold, the sale marks the highest total for a Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art sale since March 2016.

The sale featured 66 artists, and seven new artist records were set. Some of the key stats include making its auction debut, VS Gaitonde’s 1962 masterwork Untitled leading the sale, reaching $1,956,000—surpassing its $1.2 million high estimate. The work emerged from the collection of Robert and Ruth Marshak, pioneering American collectors of modern Indian Art. Many lots well-exceeded the pre-sale estimates, including Akbar Padamsee’s 1956 Landscape, which soared to $927,500 (estimate $250,000- 350,000), and Jehangir Sabavala’s Lone Vigil from 1989, which achieved $721,800 (estimate $450,000 – 650,000).
— Shivajirao Gaekwar, deputy director, specialist India, Mumbai, Sotheby’s

Creative collaborations

We are passionate about helping south Asia’s artists achieve the attention they deserve, and there’s a strong digital foundation to ensure that India Art Fair’s website—much like the fair itself—is the first place to see and discover artists from the region. We implemented a revamp of the website, improving its functionality and design, and optimised it for mobile, giving better support to audiences and collectors.

Whether in a physical space or online, the challenge of putting together a show that excites, informs, and amazes the public holds true in both situations. This year, we aim to showcase the dynamic diversity of the region’s art scene through our IAF Parallel programme. From Bangalore to Bangladesh, Lahore, New Delhi and Mumbai to New York, the programme shines a spotlight on the latest exhibitions on south Asian artists and has helped immensely in broadening audiences in the arts.

The focus on developing a strong young collectors and corporate programme through educational initiatives in galleries will continue. We need such platforms to raise curiosity and feed audience appetites. Whether models created last year will continue to be relevant in a post-pandemic world remains to be seen. But the acceleration of digital transformation and capabilities will be for the long-term benefit of the sector.

We are equally proud of the creative community for standing up to their role and demonstrating strength in recent months, with everyone from auctions houses, galleries, patrons, and artists—big and small—coming together to contribute to fundraising, spreading awareness, and leading public advocacy initiatives to fight the pandemic in India.

While we will always prioritise experiencing art in person, the digital space remains central to opening access and promoting conversation on art and artists. With the spike in online activity, art enthusiasts too are reaping the benefits of a diversity of content—workshops, talks to exhibitions, editorial and more—made available in real-time and archived on social media, gallery and museum websites.

The Students Biennale organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation this year is a perfect example of how shows are now digitally inclusive. With participation of over 300 students and artists from 62 art schools in India, the biennale has been able to present works in a diversity of mediums and formats, ranging from painting, sculpture, photography, and video, as well as long-running student projects and collaborations—all of which have been hosted on a website platform. We work closely with the Kochi Biennale team to help boost recognition of these young voices.
— Jaya Asokan, fair director, India Art Fair

Inclusive spaces that heal and care

Curating an exhibition during the pandemic must be extremely sensitive to the calamity around us. It must be socially responsible and empowering. The task of the curator is to create inclusive cultural spaces for people that heal and care. Exhibition making is also knowledge and discourse production, therefore one must carefully think through before charting out the project. As far as digital media and new media practices are concerned the official line is still archaic. We need effective public-private partnerships to address the future of these practices.

All forms of exhibition-making are challenging tasks for the curator as he is the mediator between the art world and the audience. Online appreciation can be difficult in the absence of physical qualities reproduced for the digital, in the physical exhibition too you are building the exhibition for a crowd that is also not familiar with the history, intention and purpose of mediums, forms and interventions. I do not see the digital as a replacement for the physical, rather as something that is complementary to the physical. We are just flattening out artwork as an image and uploading it on the website, all the spatial qualities of the experience are lost. I do not see it as the same situation with internet art and practices that use AR and VR as they are already configured for the digital platforms.

Galleries and commercial art establishments have been sensitive to our times and have helped artists secure good sales last year despite the absence of physical shows. But the pandemic has made most galleries attempt to create virtual shows in the absence of physical ones. The trend continues even now. We have not arrived at a situation where digital art is excessively promoted.

Installation practices are the perfect example of how art integrates an overall experience of space, touch, text, sound, sometimes aroma, etc, in the work. This is a development that is not very recent. Even the Dadaists and Futurists at the beginning of the 20th century were attempting to integrate different experiences into one platform. Similarly, the integration of technology in art is not new and has evolved alongside the development of technology itself.

Being digitally attractive is not the priority of an artwork. Art speaks to its time through given avenues and if it is effective in that then one can call that a masterpiece. Leonardo da Vinci’s Monalisa, the renaissance murals, etc, still attract crowds. People crowd to see them physically even if their high-resolution images and augmented views are available. Though practitioners in India focus exclusively on the digital and the Internet, we still lack a curated digital exhibition to survey the progress made so far.
— Bose Krishnamachari, president, Kochi Biennale Foundation; and biennale director, Kochi-Muziris Biennale

An emotional experience

Art created today will hold value forever as a time when human suffering also culminated in the highest levels of human survival through creativity. Our show before the lockdown focused on the crucial role art played in the life of artists and the audience who consumed art to keep mentally happy.

Curation should focus on themes that deal directly with the larger emotions experienced by people… not necessarily pandemic related but with the more philosophical essence of art and its role. The shows this year featured two artists, Rahul Inamdar and Alex Davis, who used different mediums (oil on canvas and metal sculptures) but explored their common experience of the creation of art. Both interact with the pieces they make moulding, nourishing, creating, destroying, and then reviving.

Fine art in its real sense is hard to completely engage with and appreciate online, especially textured art done in mixed media. A primarily digital exhibit would have contemporary artists whose mediums include digital art as that is best done justice through such exhibitions. However, that leaves out a lot of artists whose style till before the pandemic was more classic. Indian art is evolving in a more contemporary direction, but it is still a slow evolution and most established artists still dabble in mediums like acrylic, oil and water colours. These mediums are tough to showcase in all their glory through a virtual show/ walkthrough.
We focused on the importance of the house as a safe space in a new narrative, a non-digital show called ‘Home: A Dwelling’ launched in 2020. It took effort to make these artworks come alive in a multi-dimensional way as the goal of the show was to discuss space and its importance. That is tough to achieve on a flat screen viewing.

It is not tough to choose art from a digital catalogue if in an affordable range or caters to a specification, and this has steadily increased online buying. But physical experience of art in galleries and museums won’t die away as people are excited to return. Art by nature is engaging as it pulls in the viewer with its vivid display, creating moods, weaving narratives and impacting perspectives. It cannot be confined to a primarily virtual platform.

The boom in digital art is evident and inevitable with the natural gravitation towards uber contemporary art. But it is important for artists to be true to their own narrative and organic in their flow, changing their medium just to adhere to a new paradigm isn’t doing justice to their own growth and practise. As long as the digital angle works for the art, it should be used.
— Sanjana Shah, independent curator & creative director, Tao Art Gallery, Mumbai

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