Framed in accessibility


Though the art market has been hit with incomes shrinking and buying receding in the list of priorities, the access to online art has expanded the audience many folds, say industry insiders


As art shows move from gallery walls to laptop screens and exhibitions take the shape of webinars, the famously closed art circle seems to have been breached, with art finally becoming more accessible.

What were once closed door soirees — confined mostly to those with money to invest or the clout to be part of the exclusive guest list of the who’s who of society — are now global online events attended by thousands of art enthusiasts.

The pandemic has compelled stakeholders to think of ways other than private openings to reach out to their patrons, and the internet has been a kind friend.

Though the art market has been hit with incomes shrinking and buying receding in the list of priorities, the access to online art has expanded the audience many folds, say industry insiders.

According to India Art Fair director Jagdip Jagpal, the new mode of interaction with art has opened up engagement opportunities for not just existing patrons and connoisseurs, but also for those who might be potential art enthusiasts.

Jagpal says there has been a spike in digital engagement and activity.

“More and more collectors are becoming accustomed to online viewing rooms and auctions, while art enthusiasts are reaping the benefits of diversity of content, exhibitions, talks, conversations, films and more, made available in real-time and archived on gallery and museum websites and social media platforms. Artist profiles, too, are receiving high traffic, with audiences showing greater appetite in learning more about the behind-the-scenes life and studios of creatives they love and admire,” says Jagpal.

She adds that the lockdown and the restricted exposure to the outside world has also made available avenues for people to look at art as both a tool for entertainment and therapy. For instance, DIY (do-it-yourself) art has become a trend, with both children and adults demonstrating interest and curiosity.

“While all these are but small steps toward expanding audiences in the arts, it is likely to benefit the sector in a post-COVID world,” says Jagpal.

Over the last few months, galleries, museums, auction houses as well as artists have become more active and visible on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, while making their websites more interactive.

That the art world is gradually embracing the transition to online can be seen across the globe.

It started with international art fairs, including Art Basel’s Basel and Hong Kong editions as well as Frieze, New York, launching online viewing rooms after the physical events had to be called off due to the spread of COVID-19.

In India, the uncertainty among gallerists, curators and artists was conspicuous. The art world seemed to have fallen silent in the first couple of weeks after the lockdown was announced in March, until some stakeholders took the lead.

The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) was one of them. KNMA used the tools at its disposal — social media — to keep the conversation around art going.

It hosted a range of intellectually stimulating webinars, past lectures, and talks by renowned artists, curators, photographers — such as Nilima Sheikh, Ranbir Kaleka, Dayanita Singh and Gayatri Sinha. But it has also been bringing art to people in less complex, yet engaging formats — there’s ‘guess the artist’, crossword and picture puzzles, step by step painting, calligraphy, and craft workshops.

KNMA chairperson Kiran Nadar says this ‘heightened exposure’ to art online is likely to ‘spark curiosity’ among viewers, and will increase the museum going culture in the country.

“Online access will enable more people access art, culture and museums and in a way spark curiosity. It’s worth noting that Frieze in New York, as well as the Sydney Biennale moved to a virtual format this year due to the pandemic, both of which have had a relatively good response.”

“This may be the blueprint for the future, where the majority of engagement is digital,” says Nadar.

The museum’s social media account, for instance, has also been featuring the ‘Art x Fashion’ series that has popular faces in the fashion industry talking about how art has inspired them or their work.

Other galleries are also innovating in keeping with the times.

Like Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery (VAG) that started a new digital endeavour VAG Fresh, a series of online exhibitions hosted on their website.

According to a gallery statement, the project, which has shown artists, including Shailesh B R, Vicky Roy and Srimanti Saha, was convened with the objective of supporting VAG’s younger artists. It also directs a percentage of proceeds to charities and NGOs working towards rehabilitating those affected by COVID-19.

There is something missing, of course.

The “sudden amplification” of online access to art and the conversations around art might have “democratised this domain”, but it can never replace the need for physical interaction with a piece of art, says cultural theorist and independent curator Ranjit Hoskote.

“It (online access) invites far more people into the space of viewing art, responding to it, and participating in a forum peopled by like-minded people who wish to know more and learn more about art and its contexts. This is a sign of hope. But there can be no substitute for the actual physical experience of encountering an art work, engaging with its materiality, its impact on space, its presence, its scale and detailing,” he says.

According to Hoskote, also an advisor to the Mathaf Museum of Modern Art, Doha, online viewing can offer only certain aspects of the actual act of engaging with an artwork.

Artist Sudarshan Shetty agrees.

While the internet can be used as a tool to make and disseminate art, there are limitations, he says.

“We cannot have the same memorable moments of surprise and epiphany that we do when we come upon an art work in an unexpected space, or see it for the first time, so to speak, in flesh and blood,” Hoskote explains.

From a strictly business point of view, online access to art for serious buyers and collectors is merely a transactional space, which must be kept alive, considering the financial blow due to the pandemic.

According to the Artery India Annual Art Market Report 2020, the turnover for FY 2019-20 dropped to `559.7 crore from the previous year’s `696.7 crore.

Online trade contributed less than one-third of the overall turnover — last year — `137 crore. And while the digital presence has helped maintain visibility for those selling art, the numbers aren’t going to be any better in the next fiscal year, says Arvind Vijaymohan of Artery India, an art intelligence and sales advisory.

“The physical interfacing is an irreplaceable aspect of truly appreciating the artwork. However, the online domain will allow for transactions to continue, in particular with assets by artists that one is already familiar with, and with signatures that collectors have been chasing for a while,” says Vijaymohan.