Art of change: Maintaining digital and physical balance in times of Coronavirus

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Updated: Aug 02, 2020 8:30 PM

A sector that relies and thrives on the physical experience, the art world has been thrown into a tizzy by the pandemic. To survive and recover, it requires a new blueprint. An online narrative and innovative collaborations could be the way forward

The team behind Kochi-Muziris Biennale, scheduled to open later this year, is working on a strategy to be able to open art spaces while keeping in mind safety of all; an installation at the 2019 Serendipity Arts Festival; and a visitor at this year’s India Art FairThe team behind Kochi-Muziris Biennale, scheduled to open later this year, is working on a strategy to be able to open art spaces while keeping in mind safety of all; an installation at the 2019 Serendipity Arts Festival; and a visitor at this year’s India Art Fair

In March, just before the lockdown was put in place, Delhi-based artist Sangeeta Gupta completed a massive 606-feet painting on a khadi cloth. Bathed in indigo, the masterpiece depicts the Hindu deity Adiyogi Shiva. Gupta was hoping to make her way into the Guinness Book of World Records with her artwork, but the virus threw all plans off-course. The artist, however, has continued to work on a series of projects. Her palette has undergone a creative transformation, though, in response to the pandemic—the predominant red and blue hues have been replaced by subdued silvers, whites and greys, which now dominate her unfinished series on ‘healing earth’.

“The pandemic slowed us down and impacted my thoughts to create an intimate and evocative series in context of the crisis. Art works as therapy. It inspires people through engagement and action,” says Gupta, who retired as chief commissioner, Income Tax, Delhi. She feels art has a bigger role to play in times of uncertainty. “Like my indigo series can help uplift the native practice of cultivation, benefit farmers, dyers and craftsmen of rural India,” Gupta says.

It’s true that the pandemic has thrown the art world into a tizzy. Usually a sector that relies and thrives on the physical experience in the form of exhibitions, talks, auctions, etc, it has gone through a tough few months, as galleries and event spaces remain shuttered and visitor footfall abysmal due to social distancing measures. It’s no wonder then that artists like Gupta are innovating and adapting to the extreme changes that have been thrust upon them. And that precisely is the need of the hour. To build a resilient environment, the art community needs to look at alternate ways. The chief among them are investing in online narratives (think online viewing rooms, auctions, exhibitions, etc) and forming collaborations to support artists. “When people are locked in their homes, there is an opportunity to reflect upon innovative means to engage with them and bring a sense of normalcy in their lives through connections with the past and present. Collaboration is key and has the potential to yield impactful results and restore a sense of cultural cohesion,” says Delhi-based Smriti Rajgarhia, director, Serendipity Arts Foundation & Festival.

Virtual culture
Art houses and galleries across the world are revealing more of their collections to the digital world today than ever before, creating an increasingly open and accessible arts community. France-based International Council of Museums has, in fact, collaborated with Google Arts & Culture to help art institutions and cultural organisations digitise their content. They even released the Connected to Culture toolkit, a guide for organisations to continue their cultural programming online through livestreams, online talks and digital tours, along with tips on how to showcase collections through social media.

Similarly, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, offers digital resources for students, teachers, parents and science enthusiasts in the form of 2.8 million artefacts and specimens from history. New York-based auction house Sotheby’s, too, has transformed its business model to focus on online sales. In the March-June period, the auction house saw 76 online auctions (versus 27 in the equivalent period last year) with 6,200 lots sold and sales amounting to $134 million. “We can harness the technological advancements of recent months to learn and share more with each other. The current environment is an opportunity to innovate and adapt. Our website looks very different to three months ago, with more information available, many online auctions, art available for private sale or curated offerings from partner galleries. Online catalogues are enhanced with interactive educational content,” says Edward Gibbs, chairman, Sotheby’s India.

Closer home, Delhi-based galleries Espace and Nature Morte and others have collaborated on, an online digital exhibitions platform created in partnership between galleries to present curated exhibitions.

Then there is the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Noida, which has incorporated online activities to grow art appreciation and the virtual museum culture. The digital programme includes conversations, workshops, contests and virtual exhibitions like an online glimpse of artists Mrinalini Mukherjee and Jayashree Chakravarty’s show Abstracting Nature. There’s even an online camp for kids called Craftopia. “The art world had to pivot and shift to online programmes. This allows more people to access art and, in a way, sparks curiosity,” says KNMA founder and chairperson Kiran Nadar.

Another KNMA initiative is Like the Moving Worlds—an online exhibition collaboration with Delhi-based NGO Artreach India, in partnership with NGO TARA Homes—which presents artworks by 18 young artists. It is inspired by transitions experienced by the artists from across geographies in light of the pandemic. “Inspiring appreciation and engagement with the arts, conceptualising and organising platforms and programmes for art education in India is the most important mandate for us. It is also to support experimentation and development of informal ways of art learning, which classroom-structured education at times fails to do,” says Roobina Karode, director, KNMA.

For Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, too, the virtual space has helped it stay connected with artists and audience alike through exhibitions on the life and works of artists Jamini Roy, Raja Ravi Verma and sculptor-painter Ramkinkar Baij. “We plan to roll out events and art collaborations beyond the confines of the gallery in the future and will continue to push our limits of experimentation,” says Adwaita Gadanayak, director general, NGMA.

It is clear that in this new normal, the art ecosystem has to adapt to new mediums and look for innovative means of outreach. “Institutions are undergoing a tremendous transformation aided by technology, recognising the advantages and power of the internet to engage with audiences. Like for our collaborative online festival in April, SAF 2020 x You, we received support from art institutions and organisations from across the globe and attempted to integrate the internet in our presentation and model of outreach. Over the six-day festival, we showcased performances, exhibitions, concerts, etc, all in the digital realm,” says Rajgarhia.

Building resilience
While it’s relatively easier for enclosed spaces like galleries and museums to go digital, the road is tougher for open-space events like art fairs and biennales, which are spread across a large area punctuated with massive artworks, installations and sculptures. “Earlier on, we approached artists to share what they had been creating during the lockdown. Using social media, we were able to show how artists continue to work during such situations and what purpose art serves during times like these,” says Bose Krishnamachari, president, Kochi Biennale Foundation, and director, Kochi-Muziris Biennale (scheduled to open by the end of the year), adding that the pandemic has forced them to think differently about the event this year.

The team has been working on a strategy to be able to open art spaces, while keeping in mind the safety of staff, visitors and stakeholders. “A biennale is so much more than a mere accumulation of coincidental collisions. The conversations that emerge from the exhibition, seminars and other programming will be vital in demonstrating the diversity of strategies that artists employ, especially in response to the current crisis,” says curator Shubigi Rao.

Similarly, the India Art Fair (IAF), too, will move to the newly-renovated exhibition halls at Pragati Maidan for next year’s show scheduled to take place in February. A well-planned art experience combined with better control over the event are a few reasons for moving to the new venue. “Flexible venues and standard operating procedures of the exhibition industry will help set parameters for both exhibitors and visitors. People prefer to experience art in person and a nuanced adoption of safety measures at gatherings, networking and relationship-building activities will make all the difference,” says Jagdip Jagpal, director, IAF. “In the past few months, the spread of knowledge online has been greater than ever before and, to a large extent, it has fast-forwarded initiatives that the sector should have been undertaking already. Going forward, we must find ways to remain strong in the recovery, as well as the growth phase. With this in mind, the IAF will kick off its public programme in September using digital formats as a means to support our in-person exhibition strategy,” she adds.

Art has always been a medium that communities have used in the face of crisis to help build resilience. It’s also an effective tool for community outreach programmes at such times. It’s no surprise then that Hampi-based creative mentor and curator Lavina Baldota has been working with weavers and artisans to preserve handcrafted textiles and bring design interventions in traditional weaving, embroidery and crafts to create products that have global appeal and usage. Her aim? To interface art and craft, lend a contemporary narrative to traditional skills and make them relevant for the future. “We need skill training and revival, as well as upscaling to create exceptional wearable and usable art,” says Baldota, who curated the multi-dimensional exhibition Santati at the IGNCA in Delhi early this year. It featured works created by artists from the weaving, fashion, literature, fine arts and design industries, representing their interpretation of Mahatma Gandhi and his message.

Solidarity and collaborative efforts like these are more important now than ever before. And this is something that the recent ‘Taking the Temperature Report’—by FICCI, interdisciplinary arts organisation Art X Company and British Council—attests. It seeks to understand the impact of the pandemic on artists’ livelihoods and organisations, and the strategic response by governments and stakeholders to ensure that the sector recovers and grows. Some of its key findings are that MSMEs make 88% of the creative sector, 41% of the sector stopped functioning during the lockdown and 61% of organisations established in the past four to 10 years stopped functioning during the lockdown.

The report also shares case studies of resilience and innovation in action across the creative sector. Take, for instance, a community-led artist support programme and platform ‘stayIN aLIVE’ led by 8 independent arts organisations in Mumbai, under which launched an online arts festival in May with over 60 artists across multiple platforms. The festival raised over 3 lakh in ticketing fees and donations via a campaign fundraising page. The money raised is being disbursed through a grant programme, the stayIN aLIVE Artist Emergency Fund.

“Solidarity is more important now than ever. The partnership, to get under the skin of the impact on the arts and cultural industry, will help understand what collaborative efforts are best placed to address the long-term sustainable growth of the creative economy in India,” says Barbara Wickham OBE, director, India, British Council.

Strategic engagement
Going forward, Jagpal expects to see entrepreneurial skills and strategies becoming the mainstay of leadership and fundraising in the art world. “The strategy should be to create stability in unstable times through short-term, long-term and contingency planning. That requires vision, flexibility, versatility and creative thinking. We have always believed in a model that is commercially sustainable, while supporting development of the sector… whether by providing commissions for artists or training to develop existing professionals, as well as those looking to start a career in the arts. The cooperation and collaboration taking place amongst professionals has to be consistent and measured. Any knee-jerk activity will simply result in wasted financial and human resources,” she says.

Delhi-based artist Durga Kainthola, too, feels there is a need for well-rounded strategies. “As virtual exhibitions gain momentum to bring better exposure for artists, galleries need to start marketing intensely and restructure the audience to enable the artists’ reach. Due to the pandemic, there is uncertainty in selling of artworks. This, in turn, hampers artists severely. Perhaps galleries can lower their profit margins in order to let artists survive, and museums should utilise their global network for fundraising. Financial aid will enable artists’ creative growth amid the pandemic,” Kainthola says.

Alliances, for sure, are the way forward and will create new opportunities. “Alliances come with the promise of knowledge and resource sharing, which can introduce fresh perspectives. At Serendipity Arts Foundation, we have joined hands with (France-based annual photography festival) Les Rencontres d’Arles and Institut Français in Delhi to support practitioners from south Asian. The Serendipity Arles Grant 2020 aims to strengthen regional cooperation and Indo-French bilateral relations through cultural exchange, with the purpose to promote cultural practices. In the past, the foundation has collaborated with the Spanish Embassy, British Council, Goethe-Institut, among others, to promote art practices from around the world,” says Rajgarhia of Serendipity Arts Foundation & Festival.

Gurugram-based art consultant and curator Lubna Sen feels museums and galleries need to evolve rapidly to fit into the digital era of communication and reach out to their audiences in innovative ways to keep the art and culture conversation going. “Galleries can become educators of art appreciation, which is lacking in India. Since the careers and livelihoods of artists depend on galleries, they do have the additional responsibility to support them financially. The support can be extended through putting up works for sale whose proceeds can go directly to artists,” says Sen, who curated a virtual exhibition earlier this month titled Spirit Remains Unlocked, a group show of 30 artists.

Besides monetary help, there’s also a need to have a constant dialogue with artists to motivate them in these times. “The indigenous painters of Patachitra or Madhubani, who live in small towns and villages, require a constant dialogue of reaffirmation in such times,” says Gadanayak of NGMA.

One thing is clear: the art world will have to recognise the hidden opportunities stemming from this challenging situation and maintain a balance between digital and physical. “We all might have to operate a little differently, adhering to the protocols laid out for public safety. The internet plays an important role and to see it as a space that can host festivals and similar outreach initiatives is exciting,” says Rajgarhia.

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