Ar(t)istocracy

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Ventures like the Google Art Project have reframed the experience of viewing art. But real-world firewalls keep it boxed within the same space, says Janani Ganesan

Illustration: Samia Singh
Illustration: Samia Singh

IN THE past year, about 1 lakh people across the world curated their own collection of art. Twenty million people took an art tour from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to Italy’s Uffizi Gallery. None of these art aficionados necessarily moved from the comforts and confines of their own homes. This virtual experience was made possible by the Google Art Project (GAP), an online museum of museums. And since 12 April, selected works from India’s National Gallery of Modern Art and Delhi’s National Museum are part of this extensive, and given the capacity counters of Google’s servers, possibly limitless repository.

GAP is founder Amit Sood’s solution to a lack of access to art. As a teenager in India who moved cities often, Sood says, “When I woke up on a Saturday morning looking forward to checking out a museum or an art exhibition, the option simply did not exist in India.” His is not a standalone story. Rajshree Pathy, founder of the India Design Forum, says she grew up in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, without having ever visited art galleries as there were none in her town. While the metros, specifically Mumbai and New Delhi, now have a strong and vibrant presence of galleries, it remains a relatively isolated and elite phenomenon.

At a recent art opening of artist N Pushpamala’s photographs at Gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi, the drama of the works was accentuated by the thoughtful lighting. Some viewers contemplated the display in solitude, others gathered around the artist for explanations, while the regulars compared cocktails. “We are open to people who just want to come and view art and not necessarily buy,” says Peter Nagy, founder of Nature Morte. “But galleries can be intimidating,” he adds. This experience of viewing art in a designed and curated space still eludes the larger populace. Sood says, “It is very difficult to have an easy experience of art in India — unless you are connected to the high society. Art has snob value.”

Technology may not be able to replicate the physical engagement with art but ventures like GAP offer an alternative experience. A few clicks and GAP users can gather all their favourite art from the collections of participating institutions online. They are the curators, creators and custodians of their own galleries. But whether a viewer will even use this platform is predicated on an already kindled interest and a selective eye. Despite the stunning possibilities of exploring images online, as Sood stated in his TEDTalk, “The Google Art Project is only to supplement the experience of actually visiting a museum.”

Affairs like the India Art Fair (IAF), which completed its fourth edition this year, bring down the “snob value” associated with art. The mass of people that thronged the four-day event proclaimed it a mela, with something for everyone — the newbie seeking a sneak peek or the collector chasing an obsession. IAF’s escalation to success also coincides with a period of economic slowdown. “The mad frenzy of buying art has calmed down after the economic boom of pre-2008. This means that people are now engaging with the creative process of art rather than just the investment aspect,” says Himanshu Verma, an art curator and founder of Red Earth, an organisation that deals in multiple art forms, from paintings to craftworks. “But this is happening at a snail’s pace. Not as fast as it should be,” he adds.

Users of the Google Art Project can create and curate their own galleries, bypassing experts of the tightly-knit art world

Accessibility to art in India has two distinct dimensions of geography and information. The Internet’s own two-dimensionality traces the contours that events like the IAF leave dotted lines for. While projects like GAP reach out to the art appreciators, art galleries deploy the Internet to reach art consumers, an exclusive subset of the former category. Nature Morte, which hosts 10 shows a year, sells 66 percent of its art online. Cochin-based Kashi Art Gallery sells 40 percent of its art online, half of which consists of buyers within India, including those from smaller cities like Pune. While this breaches a geographic barrier, it throws up other fences.

Galleries and auction houses still have a stronghold when it comes to establishing taste and determining the prices the works command. The prominent ones are careful about whom they display. Many choose to form partnerships with artists, creating a cartel of sorts. The auction house Art Bull’s latest catalogue introduces its offerings as “a set of modern art gems coming from reputed collections with authentication certificates and expert opinions”. Although the Internet can help discover lesser known works that exist outside market trends, such as an unremarked exhibition of Gond art, this informal information is still collated through key words, tags, and paid reviews. It is a clouded transparency. The felt absence of balanced criticism is occupied by this carefully sifted information. Catch 22: better engagement can only be engendered by better access.

Art in India, and everywhere, is also a business. Galleries are, after all, profit making enterprises, with limited risk taking abilities. This restricts the entry of not only emerging artists but also new buyers. Sunitha Kumar Emmart of GallerySKE, based in Bengaluru, is suspicious of unknown buyers, concerned about the entry of speculators in the market. “Suddenly an artist starts selling for more than he should and that makes him the most prominent. It is ridiculous,” she says. GallerySKE does not use the online space to seal deals, only to whet interest.

Dinesh Vazirani, co-founder of SaffronArt, an online auction house, counters: “The Internet brings about transparency in auctions. The buyer can see for himself what prices the other galleries or auctions are selling them at.” Most galleries, however, do not display prices because profits exist in the volatile margins.

But the Internet takes care of its own. Undertakings like GAP will inevitably snowball into a more direct, democratic and cooperative involvement with art. It cannot be a substitute for public institutions such as museums, but the Internet can open up a currently closed circle.

Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka. 
janani@tehelka.com

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