2020: The art of staying afloat

2020: The art of staying afloat

The art world was left dishevelled by the pandemic. But, as the year drew to an end, some sparks of light could be seen in the dark tunnel.

Cruel Compartments (Digital installation by the author)

By all accounts, 2020 was a year of unprecedented catastrophe. An invisible virus shook thet entire world and triggered a global public health crisis. The consequent pandemic spared no one, including the high and mighty. And least of all, the world of art.  

The art world was left deeply discoloured and dishevelled by the impact of Covid-19. The global art calendar was disrupted and became a picture of disarray. Many art fairs, museum shows and gallery exhibitions around the world were cancelled or indefinitely postponed. Well-established events such as Art Basel Switzerland and autumn art fairs like the Frieze London and Frieze Masters were forced to announce annulment for 2020. 

Museums were closed and art galleries looked clueless as country after country announced partial or complete lockdowns. With no clear end in sight, layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts became common in the culture sector. Many organisers tried shifting the viewing rooms online with limited or no success. 

Unesco launched its ‘Report on Museums Around the World in the Face of Covid-19’. It revealed that in April, almost all museums around the world were closed because of the pandemic. Most museum professionals were forced to work remotely. While the situation for permanent employees seems comparatively stable, the situation for freelance museum professionals was alarming. The closures had particularly affected those regions where museums are recent and few and where structures are still fragile; in African, Asian and Arab countries. 

In June, The Sunday Times, Singapore, published the results of a survey on the perception of jobs during pandemic times. The study conducted by consumer research firm Milieu Insight revealed that 71 percent of the respondents chose the category ‘artists’ on top of the list of ‘non-essential’ jobs.

As the year drew to an end, there were signs of slight improvement in some quarters. Galleries and museums began announcing partial opening with strict safety measures such as mandatory mask-wearing, temperature checks and physical distancing for staff and visitors. Online shows and discussions on the internet became prevalent. Institutions began looking for innovative solutions to overcome (at least partially) their losses. Recently, Louvre Museum, Paris, announced auction time with Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece Mona Lisa to plug Covid-hit finances. “The Louvre is suffering like all big museums around the world,” bemoaned an official. Auctioneer Christie’s hoped that the online auction would raise one million euros ($1.2 million) or more, including an estimated 10,000-30,000 Euros for the ‘Mona Lisa’ experience. The highest bidder would have an opportunity to view the masterpiece from close proximity and also take a walk along the museum’s historic rooftop. 

In the Indian context

In India, the year began quite enthusiastically with a flurry of exhibitions. For instance, a visitor to Mumbai in January 2020 could enjoy the solo shows of Sudhir Patwardhan (NGMA), N S Harsha (Chemould Prescott), Nalini Malani (Bhau Daji Lad Museum), Manisha Parekh (Jhaveri Contemporary), Jitish Kallat (Famous Studios) and Mahesh Baliga (Project 88). In Delhi, the 12th edition of the four-day India Art Fair featuring 81 exhibitors from the country and outside concluded on February 2. There were art exhibitions and events in other cities too. No one visualised that we were just a few weeks away from an unprecedented nationwide lockdown (announced on March 24), which would send not only the art sector, but also the whole country into isolation.

Like in other parts of the world, galleries and museums were forced to close shop. The art market went into limbo and many artists were pushed into creative and financial despair. In the months following lockdown, two major events in the Indian art calendar attracting global attention got rescheduled. The organisers of the India Art Fair decided to move the next edition by a year. The Kochi Biennale Foundation announced that the opening of its next edition was shifted from December 12, 2020 to November 1, 2021. 

Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director-general of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya
(CSMVS), Mumbai, explained the effect of the pandemic on the 98-year old institution. “The museum closed to the public from March 15 and completely shut since March 21... We moved all important objects to a safe storage place. Galleries were emptied. We have some 300 staffers, including permanent and contractual staff. We decided not to discontinue any staff member. In eight months, the museum lost over Rs 10 crore.” Indicating that the museum would reopen in phases, he clarified: “In future, for certain programmes, we will take the help of technology, but it is not an alternative to physical space.” 

Roobina Karode, Director of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Delhi, regretted that
the current situation due to the pandemic had affected the larger framework in which art was created and sold. “Artists and gallerists face issues related to economic downturn, postponement or cancellation of exhibitions nationally and internationally as well… The pandemic may also push gallerists and dealers to think creatively about how to keep the art market going, by reverting to barter or inventing new forms to keep the art market afloat.”

Stranded in the studio

Artists across the country acknowledged a new reality brought about by the pandemic to which they felt compelled to respond. “The self-isolation imposed upon us these days is different, as you cannot drive away the images of the thousands of your daily wage-earning brethren trudging along a lonely road home,” wrote Vadodara-based artist and scholar Gulam Mohammed Sheikh. “Contributing to activist groups that help these lonely souls brings in a little comfort, but it does leave you with the guilt of being helpless.” 

Mumbai-based artist Gieve Patel revealed: “I am now in a situation I’ve never faced before, of having to help with housework for several hours of the day… It tires me out, so the free time that I might have earned to get back to painting and drawing is made that much more unusable. In addition, I am not unaware of the self-centredness of my feelings. With so much suffering all over the country, and in so much of the world, do I have a right to think of studio hours!?” 

Another Mumbai-based veteran Sudhir Patwardhan too was affected by the plight of migrant families. “Watching them from the comfort of our own homes has been conscience pricking as most of us have been able to do little for them. As an artist, I ceded to a need to paint their images, knowing full well that I will inevitably aestheticise the image.”  Delhi-based artist and teacher Rameshwar Broota felt that life had not changed dramatically for him. “I continue with my art practice, teaching and daily routines of exercise, meditation, etc… But, I am deeply concerned about the suffering of so many; in hospitals, out of jobs, displaced, leading restricted lives. We have all become aware of how vulnerable our lives are; and a cloud of negativity and gloom is overshadowing life.” 

Photographer Sunil Gupta wrote about getting stuck in the studio and its consequences. “I’m a photographer and the street is my theatre. I love big cities and their stories; Delhi, New York and London. I’m not sure what to do stranded in my studio. It’s a challenge.” 

Digital experiments

As the year progressed, things began changing slowly as the spotlight shifted to holding online exhibitions and events. In April, ‘In Touch’ was launched featuring digital shows by important galleries such as Chemould Prescott Road, Experimenter, Nature Morte, Grey Noise, among others. In August, another set of galleries and art institutions collaborated on ‘TAPIndia’, a virtual space to generate more visibility, exploring uncharted markets and opening new doors for arts. “Each gallery works independently, presenting their collections as they would in their own space. However, we work on something together to foster solidarity among participating galleries.” 

After a six-month hiatus, galleries in Colaba, Mumbai, began reopening in September with new shows. Restrictions, of course, were in place. Masks were made mandatory; crowding not allowed and appointments encouraged. This was to be seen in other cities as well. 

In Kolkata, the Experimenter gallery initiated a grant to fund artists’ projects during the lockdown and ‘to help continuity in work production.’ No age or geographical conditions were prescribed. Applicants could apply at any time of the year or whenever they were ready.  

Goa-based Serendipity Arts Festival too went virtual, spread across two weeks and the programming hosted and linked from a specially designed website.

In Bangalore, the launch of the Museum of Art and Photography was marked by a seven-day online festival (December 5–11). So, with all such developments, how would the Indian art scene look like in the coming year? While it is difficult to peep through the fuzzy crystal ball, for the time being at least, one would have to get used to virtual art exhibitions, online events and ‘art, by appointment only’.