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 File photo of sculptures and paintings at the Vadehra Art Gallery.
File photo of sculptures and paintings at the Vadehra Art Gallery.

Why the Indian art world is slow to adapt to digital era

  • Institutions and galleries around the world have moved beyond online exhibitions, webinars, talks and view rooms and are using social media holistically to educate young people about art history and even offer online therapy using paintings

NEW DELHI : Pranjit Sarma is planning to host his own virtual exhibition. After participating in 13 online art shows, both international and national, over the past four months, the printmaker believes he’s ready to take the plunge. “It’s cheaper to host your own show, and this is a good way forward since most galleries don’t give space to emerging artists," says Bengaluru-based Sarma, 26. “Anyway, most Indian galleries are still figuring out the online medium."

At a time when most sectors are pivoting quickly to best utilize the power of technology and stay relevant in a world where physical distancing is the norm, the Indian art world, worth over 14 billion, has been slow to adapt to the digital era. Institutions and galleries around the world have moved beyond online exhibitions, webinars, talks and view rooms and are using social media holistically to educate young people about art history and even offer online therapy using paintings. Indian galleries and museums, however, are still only thinking about going online.

We are stuck in the past, admits art critic Uma Nair. “We need to go beyond our comfort zone of buying and selling. Doing an online exhibition requires a vision, which is definitely missing right now because we are lazy."

Nair says this “transition" period is a good time to introspect. “We need to talk more about the quality of art, about emerging talent," asks Nair. “We need use the online platform not just to have webinars, which cater to the selected 1%, but actually teach our children about the rich tradition we have. Basically, put art on par with the viewer."

When the lockdown started, art curator and consultant Lubna Sen began thinking about ways to take the conversation on emerging artists online. She started an online art residency with 30 artists, including Sarma, to create works that reflect how the three months changed their lives. She’s now giving final touches to her first-ever digital exhibition, which will feature those 100-plus artworks. “You have to change with the times. I didn’t know much about digital exhibitions before but now you can ask me anything," laughs Sen, the curator of The Spirit Remains Unlocked, which will be open to public from 5 July on the website of The Art Route.

What’s the cost of hosting an online exhibition? “About $100," Sen replies. If it’s so cheap, why isn’t it more common? “Maybe the gallerists are hesitant they will lose out on the money they make from their gallery spaces."

There’s another aspect to this: Online art purchasing is not popular worldwide. Last year, online transactions represented just 9% of the global art market’s estimated $64 billion sales, according to Art Basel and UBS. With a slump in businesses even affecting the wealthy individuals that support a $60 billion global industry, it’s obvious that sales, online or offline, will plummet. The other reason for the decline is the art-and-feel aspect of art.

Roshni Vadehra, director of Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, has been sending artworks to potential clients’ home so that they can see the pieces before buying them. “You need to feel the art before spending so much money. Since they can’t come, we go to them," says Vadehra, adding that she’s right now working on improving their gallery’s website and social media presence.

Anil Jain, 35, who works at an international consulting company, loves to buy art online, if it’s not more than Rs2 lakh. “That’s where I draw the limit. Beyond that, I need to see it in person," says Delhi-based Jain, who has bought three paintings online from galleries during the lockdown.

Durga Kainthola, an artist with over three decades of work, too, is open to buying art online. “But I would rather buy directly from an artist because galleries will take commission and may not pay the artist."

The beauty of online exhibition is that it’s cost-effective, visually efficient, less time consuming and can be used democratically. “It removes the aura of exclusivity that comes with hosting shows in physical spaces. Online is definitely the way forward," says Nair. “Now, the Indian art world needs to come together to show that they are passionate about the craft and it’s just not about the money. This virus has perhaps given us an opportunity to change the discourse about art."

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