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How the art industry is responding the Covid-19 pandemic

Ella Datta | Updated on June 05, 2020

Colour call: Bengaluru-based Museum of Art and Photography offers paintings as backgrounds for Zoom meetings   -  IMAGE COURTESY: MUSEUM OF ART AND PHOTOGRAPHY

Art galleries and museums are turning to virtual tours and digital immersive experiences to sustain viewership

Spring marks the start of a new year, and the art world was looking forward to it. But the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown brought the shutters down. For galleries and museums, it meant putting out the lights, cancelling show openings and deferring all plans.

The pandemic has brought its share of disappointments. “For us, this has meant that our long-awaited stand-alone museum designed by Sir David Adjaye will now be delayed,” says Kiran Nadar, founder of the Delhi-based Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA). “We had also planned an exhibition in Moscow, which was going to be one of the largest exhibitions of contemporary Indian art outside of India. This is also now delayed to 2021,” Nadar adds.

Curiously, though, the energy in the art business has overcome the initial setbacks of which there were many. Gallerists and museum directors from the metropolitan cities in India are pooling in all their energy and resources to keep alive the buzz about art. And both the social media and digital platforms have turned out to be great resources.

“I come from a different generation. Art for me has to be experienced in person to feel its full power. But the digital media has helped us find new audiences, geographies,” says Renu Modi, who heads Delhi-based Gallery Espace.

Nadar points out that the pandemic and lockdown have given the art world an opportunity to “dive deeper into virtual content and reimagine curation”. Affirms RoshiniVadehra of the Vadehra Art Gallery (VAG), “All of us are now turning to different digital platforms. Major art fairs such as Art Basel, Art Dubai, Frieze, New York, have online viewing rooms where we can display our artworks.”

A museum, of course, always looks forward to making exhibitions in its physical spaces, and offer viewers an “immersive experientiality” that draws them back to the gallery, points out KNMA chief curator Roobina Karode. “The physical and the digital space cannot substitute each other. But viewers’ engagement is our focus at the moment — how to enhance and offer them exciting forms of experiences using online resources,” she says.

The lockdown has its advantages, too. “Online resources help democratise art and reach out to a larger audience,” Karode adds. “This is a time to think differently and reinvent ourselves,” adds Reena Lath of Kolkata-based gallery Akar Prakar.

Clearly, new areas are being explored. Vadehra mentions a group called In Touch which is possibly the first collaborative digital initiative of its kind. It marks the coming together of a dozen galleries from Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Dubai. VAG is among them.

The group showed an online exhibition at Frieze and are preparing for another show in June this year. VAG was one of the first galleries to connect with collectors and connoisseurs by circulating a weekly newsletter. And, most recently, it has started online exhibitions by younger artists under the title Fresh.

The front-ranking galleries are pulling out all stops to mount shows on their websites. “People are happy to engage with art digitally. Many people turn to art for comfort,” says Vadehra. Adds Aparajita Jain of gallery Nature Morte, “Viewing art can be a transformative experience. It offers a parallel way of seeing, and adds more layers of viewing experience.”

While most are exploring the possibilities of digital and social media platforms to reconnect with viewers, the Centre of International Modern Art (Cima), Kolkata, has made a video to support to the multidisciplinary experience of the arts. The video, appropriately titled Art Heals, has been circulated widely among artists, institutions and social media platforms, says Cima head Rakhi Sarkar.

Bengaluru-based Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) has made innovative use of online space, too. Says founder-trustee Abhishek Poddar, “We already had a social media following, but now we began to focus attention on creating engaging content that initiates a dialogue with our audiences.”

MAP has some interesting interactive programmes. One amusing option is the offer of creating backgrounds for one’s Zoom meetings by downloading an MF Husain painting or anything else from the MAP collection. MAP also has some unusual online exhibitions such as one on Indian textiles.

Despite the excitement over the possibilities of the digital and social media platforms, there is also a sense of unease, for this is going to be a long haul for artists and gallerists.

“Funding towards art and heritage will be significantly impacted,” says Poddar. “Corporate social responsibility funding may drop significantly. A second challenge will be getting people into a museum. The social-distancing restrictions will be a deterrent till a vaccine is found.”

For galleries, how much of the exhibitions will turn into sales is still an open question.

“The idea is not to bombard the mindspace of the viewer because online congestion and fatigue will soon happen,” Karode warns. “We have to present the collection in more creative ways, emphasising interaction, conversations and generating new knowledge,” she says.

Ella Datta is an art historian and critic

Published on May 29, 2020

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