Critical Collective in conversation with Jagdip Jagpal, Director, India Art Fair
Critical Collective (CC): The pandemic and its subsequent lockdown impacted the established calendar of events and shows all over the world. What were some of the steps that were taken and anticipated by you when the first round of lockdowns was announced, considering that the Art Fair had wrapped its 2020 edition only a month prior to the first lockdown that was enforced in India?
Jagdip Jagpal (JJ): The South Asian art market was growing against the global trend; the 2020 edition was our strongest to date with attendance from many local, regional and international collectors and visitors. In addition to the established names, a key highlight was an increase in buying activity and interest in works by young, lesser-known artists, a clear sign of market vibrancy, dynamism and growthopportunities.
We closed our offices and implemented working from home before the official lockdown. As part of our continuing risk management strategy, we also decided to reschedule the 2021 edition to 2022 six months in advance of the original dates, providing the longest possible lead time for everyone involved. It did not make sense to delay the fair by three to six months at a time when the vaccines were yet to be announced and rolled-out. We felt that we would best serve our community by providing clarity to artists, galleries and partners as they dealt with the impact of the pandemic on their lives and organisations while also allowing us to do the same.
(CC): One of the responses from the art world to the ongoing crises of closed art venues has been a shift to digital spaces. How do you read this development, especially since galleries have clubbed together to strengthen their operations, in a way that simulates or perhaps potentially competes with the art fair model? Do you believe that the digital space by fragmenting the experience of art into trading online or via discursive conference platforms may eventually do a disservice to the experience of art as we know it?
(JJ): For me, the experience of viewing art in person can never be matched by a digital experience. It is like reading a sheet of music as opposed to hearing a song or performance; there is no comparison. Given the choice and resources, I feel people will always prefer to view, acquire and experience art in person. The recently concluded Mumbai Gallery Weekend's excitement and success has demonstrated this.
Having said that, the digital space remains central to opening access and promoting conversation on art and artists. With the spike in online activity, art enthusiasts too are reaping the benefits of a diversity of content--exhibitions, talks, stories, films and more--made available in real-time and archived on gallery and museum websites. Audiences can enjoy the creative process and behind-the-scenes access to artists, their studios and production of works, without having to view it through the lens of a curator, critic, gallerist or art fair. Hopefully, we will see more of that as it plays a key role in opening up the sector to a wider audience base.
Collector behaviour online has also evolved, and digital sales have grown, as it appears more so in favour of artists of greater renown and repute. In terms of galleries, I hope their collaborative efforts and online clusters will continue into the future. I view this as a positive development: we need such artistic platforms to raise curiosity and feed audience appetites. Whether models created last year will continue to be relevant in a post-pandemic world remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the acceleration of digital transformation and capabilities is to the art sector’s long-term benefit.
(CC): Given the long hiatus between the fair this year and the upcoming edition in 2022, what changes do you envisage going ahead, whether it is in the venue, the model for display, and even the profile of the fair?
(JJ): We are currently in the process of laying headlines for the 2022 edition. As always, we remain committed to providing a platform for the region’s art scene, with a minimum of 70% of our floor space dedicated to Indian galleries selling South Asian art along with representation from legacy institutions, foundations, festivals, smaller artistic collectives and nonprofits. While returning to commerce remains the key focus, we also plan to take our extensive programme of events, including education initiatives, artist commissions, workshops and pop-ups to venues across the city and country. A continuing emphasis on accessibility and inclusivity will remain central to our plans and efforts to welcome diverse audiences.
In the coming year, we also aim to increase our India-wide outreach as we have done year on year while assessing the best route to increasing access to international museums and collectors. In keeping with the overall strategy, India Art Fair will move to a new home at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi. A key area of work will be looking into how we can create an experience for our exhibitors and visitors according to the changing rules and regulations--particularly the local standard operating procedures--to ensure that we are not just compliant but exceeding international benchmarks.
(CC): The India Art Fair taking place in the capital city has cemented itself as an important annual event not just for collecting art but also through initiatives that highlight important platforms from India and South Asia, as well as the artists in residence programs. With the current situation and the postponement of the fair, what are some of the ways in which the IAF has envisioned programming for the coming months?
(JJ): As South Asia’s leading platform for modern and contemporary art, we will continue providing year-round support to the regional art scene and developing audience interest in India, South Asia and across the globe through the strength and accessibility of our digital infrastructure. We consistently look towards improving the fair and look forward to discussing this with our artists, galleries and partners regarding future initiatives.
In conversation with Bose Krishnamachari, President, Kochi Muziris Biennale
Critical Collective (CC): The conditions brought on by the pandemic such as the nation-wide lockdowns and travel restrictions have affected the established calendar of events all over the world. Do you think that the same curatorial premise and artists’ work will be on view next year, as was planned for this edition?
Bose Krishnamachari (BK): We consider this extension an opportunity that will allow for a better production schedule, both in terms of the works that will be a part of the exhibition and the production of the exhibition itself. The extension has not affected the participation of any of our artists so far,andthe artists willremain the same. However, I’m sure that we can expect the pandemic to have an impact on them, producing inflexions in their works.
CC: While the Biennale has been shifted to November 2021, the Students Biennale has been restructured to take place online from February 2021. What are some of the changes in programming to accommodate this transition online? How will it be different from the regular activities associated with the Students Biennale, its shows, workshops and events?
BK: The principal motivation behind the Students' Biennale is to create a space for students to exchange ideas and learn within? It is a space that complements what is already available to them in their institutions. With the usual programming in colleges being disrupted, we felt that there ought to be a platform available where young artists can come together to think about and produce art.
Workshops and communication between students and curators during the Students’ Biennale will be online, and we're glad to have the support from the colleges since even if students are not physically there, they have made available to us their institutional infrastructure. The online programme will be the first and most significant phase of the Students' Biennale. It will have a second phase in Kochi when the physical Biennale is on.
CC: The shift to digital spaces and modes of communication has become necessary in light of the ongoing circumstances. How do you think this shift to the digital or alternate spaces will affect our established notions around our experience of art? Does this signal a 'new era' of art creation and dissemination, perhaps moving to a dual-mode of experiencing art and events such as the Biennale?
BK: The 'virtual' aspect of exhibitions has been around for a while now, but as you suggest, I think it has gained some critical mass during the pandemic. If such virtuality in the art world was mainly informal earlier, then moving forward we may see more investment in it and as a result a general formalisation of the many virtual modes of experiencing art.
CC: The Biennale is closely tied to Fort Kochi, the physical spaces where the Biennale and the parallel programs occur are on the various sites around Fort Kochi. A number of works exhibited at the Biennale also respond to the site. How has the ongoing pandemic and the subsequent postponement impacted the relationship of the exhibition with the site, if at all?
BK: Our activities are strongly tied to artists, scholars and visitors being able to travel to Fort Kochi, Mattancheri. The pandemic has, in this way, constrained our on-site programmes. However, we are still connected with schools in Kochi through our children's programme, which has been adapted as an At-Home programme, with both online and offline elements. We are also expecting to re-commence smaller scale educational programmes on-site as soon as it is practically possible.