(Lado Sarai Gallery street in South Delhi, photo by Gireesh GV)
Could the art galleries gain their audience back, especially in the times of demonetisation? Galleries have been going through a bad patch in India for the last five years, with several of them shutting down, a few of them minimizing their activities either by relocating to exclusive places or smaller spaces, some of them remerging only during the art fairs or Biennales and yet another lot existing only in their online portals. Only a very few galleries could remain where they have been and still hold on to their past glory if not by attracting sales but at least by putting up shows. The grand openings, lavish parties, elaborate catalogues and artists travelling en masse to other cities to attend a fellow artist’s exhibition opening etc have become a thing of past and veritable album materials to reminisce in the evening of life. Except for the openings, the foot fall in the galleries have come considerably down (and in some places almost nil) and if at all somebody goes into a gallery, it is either for a friendly visit or some consultancy (I do not know whether galleries are making any sales these days because most of the artists are willing to sell out of the gallery waiving off the commission part and also reducing the prices to fit the budget of the buyer who comes with a pre-knowledge that it is a buyer’s market).
I am not concerned much about the relationship between the galleries and the artists in this article because it could always fluctuate depending on the kind of deals that they strike mutually. There have been complaints from the artists immediately after the market crash in 2008/09 regarding the dropping of them from the gallery artists’ list like hot potatoes. We all know that the demotion from being a hot cake to a hot potato is not only quite demeaning but also depressing. The fluctuations in their relationships were caused mainly by mutual unethical practices. First of all the artists started believing that the galleries were there for ethical business and the sole aim of the galleries was not to make profit but to promote art seriously and sincerely as they used to claim. But the artists should have known that the gallerists were not really enlightened people with socialist and democratic mindset. Galleries are primarily capitalist outlets that stand for profit making. They treat art as another commodity to be sold in the market; the only difference is that art has a speculative value and could earn more as it gets vintage in the secondary as well as in the auction markets. I would say that despite many warnings from the art critics like me the artists fell head over heels for the deals offered by the galleries. I am not saying that all the artists did so.
(a gallery view; source net. representational purpose only)
Let us turn our attention to the audience who have now almost abandoned the idea of visiting art galleries. One would ask whether there was an idea like that before at all. Even if the gallery visiting people were not in huge numbers there was a time when people visited galleries after reading about the works of art displayed there. The word ‘private’ attached to the galleries is very important in understanding the dynamics of visiting a ‘gallery’. The colonial people who amassed wealth through exploitation and business also started collecting works of art from different parts of the world apart from commissioning individual artists in their own countries and elsewhere. These were kept in the cabinets of curios initially and were opened to the guests during parties thrown by the owner. With huge museums being set up by the empires and the enlightened emperors and later by the modern states, these artefacts were opened to people for admiring. The word gallery came from the palaces and the palaces that turned into museums where the display rooms were called galleries. With the capitalist market well in place and the profit flow steady, there arose a necessity for some avenues for the newly emerged wealthy class to look at some good artefacts. The modern galleries were set up in the late 19th century and in the early 20th century for catering to the buying class. That means, the very idea of gallery is embedded in an exclusive market. If museums were places where people could engage with the works of art as if they were facing divinity inside the churches, galleries were simply the places where the rich and affluent could face the art without disturbances of the vulgar public, and definitely with an idea of buying in mind.
If that was the case then it is pertinent to ask why galleries were opened to the public. That is where we find the ingrained crisis of all the business establishments. Though galleries were meant for a limited buying class, it became imperative for the gallery owners to claim a space in the cultural life of the place/city or the country from where they operated. They also understood the fact that so long as the works of art done in some private studios by unknown artists remain ‘exclusive’, their innate charm to influence more people would be left dormant, reducing their public/cultural value in a big way. That means the worth of a work of art increases as it becomes more popular through public exposition through various mediums. The magnetic power of a work of art and the creator of it became stronger with more and more people looking at them and talking about them. That means the audience with or without buying power became an integral part of the gallery practice. While both the buying class and the gallery owner class detested the presence of the vulgus populus in their premises, it became a necessary evil to promote the ulterior ends of art business. Whether the people walk into a gallery really enjoy or not, their presence makes a lot of difference to the art business. But the mindset of the galleries about the people is that they are all free loaders looking for an evening among the artists with a lot of free food, drinks and talks.
(a gallery view, source net, representational purpose only)
Even if the gallerists in India would dispute my views on their treatment of the audience, historically speaking the common visitors are not always expected in the galleries. That’s why we have ‘press openings’, ‘VIP Openings’ (in a democratic country!), ‘public openings’, ‘visit by appointment’, ‘price on request’ and so on printed on the invitation cards ,websites, emails and so on. During the boom years, whether one likes it or not, art dos became an extremely private affair of exclusive communities of artists, art lovers, critics, historians, curators, buyers, dealers, middlemen, consultants, journalists, celebrities and so on where none from outside was expected. After the opening day, in fact though the galleries kept their doors open for the public during the day, they seriously did not expect the public to walk in. Some of the gallerists, drunken by profit started openly telling that they did not expect the public at all in the galleries. One of the biggest art fairs in India, the India Art Fair, openly said that it was not for the public but it was just a platform that provided business meetings for the exclusive people. The public hours were in fact charity hours (with a ticket and begged on passes) for the public which was openly made to feel that it was not expected there. All the other claims regarding footfall made by the organizers are just building up of the charisma of the events and the artefacts displayed in there.
Turning art galleries into private viewing rooms and refusing to switch on lights for the random visitors in the odd hours, and a total disparage shown towards them by the executives present there have caused a slow but steady erosion of people from the idea of gallery visiting. None would prefer to get insulted in a gallery only because they wanted to see some art. There was a time where the Indian galleries in their crass imitation of the western galleries (that are tax paying galleries with a commitment to the local governments and the art funds of those countries) started claiming that their projects were meant for public communities and local community participations. But my experience have proved that no community living in and around of the private galleries (hardly ‘communities’ live there because most of the galleries are in the upmarket places) ever venture into a gallery to know what is going on in there. The reason is that the vibes that they art programs give out are exclusivist, capable enough to repel the humble people around the galleries. Today, with or without a lot of money flowing into the market, if people have abandoned the galleries then the onus should be on the galleries themselves. So long as people do not know about what is being projected as the visual culture of our country, such works of art are not going to be a part of the collective memory of our country. Such works of art not seen by people even after getting exhibited in the galleries would face the same fate of those works of art made and sold to the collectors and buyers to cater to an excessive demand during the boom years. They will remain incognito for many years and in the meanwhile if the artist loses his fame and relevance in the art scene, those works of art would become absolutely dead ones, liable to be scrapped in the junk market.
(a gallery view, source net, representational purpose only)
It is high time that the Indian galleries change their strategies. Those galleries that are still active should reconsider how their shows should be presented, also they should think about the way of attracting the common people to their galleries. Today, Indian artists are not considered worthy to make a social comment because they are not contributing much to the socio-cultural and political life of our country. When an issue happens they are never asked for an opinion because even if they have earned money during the boom years they are not considered worthy of having an opinion. This has happened because the galleries have not made any effort to get people into the general art discourse of our country. So long as people respect works of art and the artists who make it, nobody is going to give any value to an artist. The efforts to get art and artists closer to people should come from the galleries; it can never be done by pushing the guests into page threes because the people in general are not interested in page three. While they pluck out the shampoo samples stuck on the newspapers, they do not even look at the face of the model. People should be given something, if not in samples but in the forms of aesthetical enjoyment and friendly introductions to the works of art. For that one should have a welcoming attitude. One should also start treating a work of art as visual philosophy not mass produced wares arrayed in the supermarket. To begin with the galleries should respect works of art, artists, critics and art viewers whether they bring profit or not. If not, Indian galleries are going to face the doomsday because with demonetising, the buyer knows where to buy the works from and artists know where to sell their works. If that is the case, the galleries would become dispensable showrooms with naked walls, darkness and despair.