Ahead of her digital exhibition of art created during the lockdown, as an ode to the unrestrained creative spirit of artists, senior art curator Lubna Sen says the art world must increasingly re-calibrate to embrace the digital world and feels “this is the best time to make a difference to art and artists”.
Founder of The Art Route, which had organised ‘Confluence – Celebrating India-Bangladesh Printmaking’ to promote the obscure medium in January this year, Sen has independently curated culturally-significant projects with culture bodies of repute and is a prominent voice in India’s art spaces.
Her latest exhibition ‘The Spirit Remains Unlocked’, comes on the heels of an art project that began on the first day of the lockdown and will showcase finished works by 30 artists who stayed locked-down in word, but unlocked in spirit, all this while.
Excerpts from Sen’s interview
Speaking from your experience as an art world insider, what are the finer nuances of the COVID-19 hit on the art world?
Sen: The lockdown is probably giving an ideal working atmosphere for most of the artists who like to reflect and create. But art production and the art market are two different things. The immediate cascading effect of the economic downturn is already being faced by emerging artists. Not just in sales, which have obviously taken a hit – but also in the opportunities to showcase their works. Physical events like art exhibitions, workshops and residencies are the places where artists get noticed, mentored and groomed. This is the time when they need maximum support from the art world.
For the galleries, the economics of the business is at stake. The maintenance of physical space is the most important cost in the gallery business. Since this downturn is going to stay for long, this is a matter of a strategic business decision for them. Those with deep pockets and a long term commitment to the business (the well-established ones) will stay but some might have to exit or take a pause.
We know exhibitions and auctions, and to some extent, art fairs and biennales, are going digital, but how have emerging artists and galleries been coping?
Sen: I do feel this is the best time to make a difference to art and artists. A robust long term art business has always been built by people who have a deep-rooted passion for art. Irrespective of the size, any organisation with a commitment to make a difference will survive. While we can wait for the physical spaces to open up, we all should re-organise ourselves better so that we can face such unexpected events in future.
This would require radically overhauling our programming and pushing the boundaries of how art can be appreciated and consumed. The world across art organisations are embracing the digital world. Doing virtual shows will be extremely important, not only to maintain continuity but also to help the public appreciate art.
There was already a yawning gap between smaller artists and rich art businesses. How do you see the economics of the art world changing?
Sen: Talent and content will be the differentiator and this is not just for art business, for any business and service. Of course, this change will not be immediate but it will happen and this is the beginning.
You are correct in saying there is a big gap – the market has not been democratic. The dynamics of the market for an artist is linked to the value appropriated to his or her work. This value is created by players who are a subset of the wider art world (art initiatives, galleries, fairs/festivals, curators, museums, individual buyers, corporate collectors and auction houses). It is with this overall support of a network of coordinated activities by different entities that an artist gets recognised. A lot of times talented artists and art professionals do not get their due because they do not have correct access with the right players.
Is there an opportunity for the art world in the midst of the crisis?
Sen: Art has an inherent subjectivity – hence, like many other creative fields, like say the movie industry, it not free from favouritism, cliques, and lobbying. As I mentioned, the change will be slow but definite. If you see our buying habits are already changing without us realising. The pandemic has made us move to technology, not just for entertainment and socialising – but also for serious pursuits and purchases. Across the world, the volume of art bought by millennials through e-commerce is growing. Indian market should take on this opportunity. It will be very short-sighted to avoid the market potential and ignore the technology enabling platforms that are available today.
More and more artists will utilise social media and the internet, not just for building portfolios but also for promotion. As the information asymmetry will reduce, the market will become more democratic and prices will rationalise. The galleries, exhibition and fairs will always have a big role to play. But the excesses will be pruned. Today we have over 300 art fairs across the world. Apart from just the business of selling art, these are quick investment opportunities for many, which really has little to do with art and culture. There will be a rationalisation of such activities. This will allow others who have the passion to promote art to come in. I firmly believe this will be a great opportunity for young artists, art professionals and smaller organisations who will benefit from a more level playing field.
At a time when many have backed into a hand-to-mouth existence, as finances of all strata are hit; buying art for pleasure or investment seems like a far cry, do you agree?
Sen: Right now, art as an investment is only being pursued by serious knowledgeable collectors. This is in-fact the time for expert art collectors for bargain hunting and that has been happening. Once again the demand will be for the “blue chips”, for the artists who have a rightful place in the historical context. The speculative purchases have gone down.
Yes sure, art is a discretionary purchase and is considered to be a luxury- so for the public, in general, there has been an understandable dip. But as you can see, our homes have once again become the centre of our attention. The interior industry has been busy with projects. People want a safe haven – and when the economy stabilises, they will start looking for art for their homes. This will be a great opportunity for young talents whose work will can be bought at accessible prices.
You stress upon art going digital. How will that cushion the blow?
Sen: Currently the most important thing is to survive and be relevant. It is about keeping the conversation going. Going digital should not be looked at as the answer to the problem. Rather it should be considered as an enabler for creating and delivering innovative content to the audience. This is not a short term strategy to override the downturn, this is a long-term strategy for acquiring customers. And by the digital, I just don’t mean having an online gallery or e-commerce set up or having online workshops and talk shows. It can be a very strong platform for educating art lovers, developing artists and promoting art. Once again content and innovative programming will be the differentiators.
Art – whether by consuming or creating – has kept many afloat during this time. Your thoughts on this pervasiveness and influence of all forms of art in public life?
Sen: I think the best way to answer this is by remembering the time when – in the middle of the pandemic crisis in Italy – people were spontaneously breaking into songs and music from their balconies. Even at the height of the pandemic, this scene gave us a glimmer of hope and a moment of peace. This is the role that Art plays in times of crisis. It responds, gives us hope and helps us heal.
Artist is the “first responders” to a crisis like this and in the process, document exactly what is happening. Our project ‘The Spirit Remains Unlocked’, which started on Day 1 of the lockdown, captured the lives and works of a group of artists who reacted and responded to the unfolding events and eventually evolved personally from the experience. And their experiences were no different from that of the rest of the world. There was positivity, joy, concern and hope – like all of us. Our project became a snapshot of a pivotal moment of history.
One thing that all of us involved in this project experienced was the sense of purpose with which we were dealing with our lives in spite of the chaos outside. The creative spirit was keeping us protected from the gloom and uncertainty. Personally, I had stopped looking at the news and the rising Covid-19 statistics!
The Art Route’s ‘The Spirit Remains Unlocked’ is a very promising exhibition and a remote residency. What else do you have planned?
Sen: The project had been conceived very organically and evolved with each day. Personally, this has been an extremely satisfying project for me. Definitely I would like to explore more of the use of technology and digital platforms in creating innovative content while being true to my mission of promoting underrepresented artists and art forms of India. There are many untapped areas which can be explored and brought in front of the public as genuine, authentic and appreciable mediums of art. We will be coming up with something exciting very soon!