Prerna SM Jain
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, art galleries across the globe have suffered an enormous setback. As the Director of Volte Gallery, Tushar Jiwarajka, says, “This is the worst economic crisis that anyone has seen in their lifetime. People are comparing it to the Great Depression and World War Two.” However, new technologies and industry models have been able to cushion this blow. By speaking with gallery experts across Bangladesh and India, we have gained some insight on what may await us around the corner.
Galleries have long depended on their collectors or art fairs for their income, but in this situation of lockdown all events have been cancelled. Founder of The Edge foundation (Dhaka), Iftekhar A Khan, sheds some light upon the current situation by sharing that “the local galleries are not profitable to begin with, so, realistically speaking, we will see several close.” About his own foundation he says, “The Edge Education programme is very much dependent on donations, which, of course, will decline. Most of our funding comes from private events, such as exhibitions utilising the gallery space and our Lakeside Plaza setting. With social distancing in place, this activity will most likely not return anytime soon.”
Emerging and small galleries will be the ones who will have to bear the brunt, as they lack the resources to be able to sustain in a recession, especially with the high rents involved. Spaces like Gallery Maskara and Volte Gallery in Mumbai, which are operating on unconventional modules, however, seem to have adapted well. Gallery Maskara had closed its physical space a few years ago and now conducts private viewings and invitation-only shows for its clients. Volte Gallery changed its business model by executing their projects in different spaces with the same artists instead of having a permanent space.
Bangladesh and India already have a very low patronage for art, and with galleries being rendered incapacitated to maintain a clientele and survive this economic crisis, several of them have transformed their physical presence into e-view rooms or other online platforms. The conjunction of VR with arts caught the limelight when Hauser & Wirth announced their programme, ArtLab. But on its viability, Jiwarajka says that not everyone can afford to have a VR set and that “Francois Pinault or any other major collector in the world, I don’t think would have a virtual reality headset. I think that’s way too ahead of time, maybe two or three years down the line when the headsets become more like regular glasses, and they’re not cumbersome, then maybe something like that would make sense.”
Maskara says that although with certain 2-dimensional art you can get a sense of it by viewing it online, but the experiential part with be missing because of the small scale of the phone, iPad or laptop. The visceral feeling of seeing paint on canvas can never be substituted in a digital format. So, while online platforms are providing innovative solutions and accessibility to the audience, it restricts the viewers in terms of spatial depth and tactility, thus ensuring the need for a physical gallery.
Although the pandemic is creating a grim situation, there is a silver lining to it. Collaborations between art institutions have increased manifold, the internet has become a new medium for art institutes, and a larger audience is now being included in the art world. According to Jiwarajka, this is a big opportunity for his gallery as it makes international artists more accessible, for the West is facing the crisis, too. Yamini Telkar, former gallery director of Delhi Art Gallery and head of the arts programme at Bengaluru International Airport, says, “The ideal situation is that this becomes an avenue for the younger audience or people who are unfamiliar with the world of art to give away their inhibitions, to start engaging with it without saying ‘Oh will I look foolish?’”
Meanwhile, art galleries are also trying to support the community. The Edge Foundation hosted a design competition for emergency ventilators. Khan says, “We felt it was our duty to contribute to the larger community by highlighting our gifted engineers and scientists who can really make a difference.” Everyone hopes that just as galleries faced various adversities in the past and overcame them, they will thrive despite the pandemic, and continue to support the community, artists and each other.