Museums and galleries world over might be innovating by embracing the digital now more than ever, but the financial havoc the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked on the art and cultural sector is undeniable. As museums try to move their collections online to make up for losses in ticket sales, and galleries set about hosting virtual exhibitions, what hangs in the balance is the fate of young artists.
Noting that the lockdown and static state of the art market spelt financial precarity for a whole generation of young artists, Purvai Rai and Ayesha Singh, two Delhi-based artists, have become disenchanted with the lack of governmental and institutional support given to artists in India. But who better to look after artists than their fellow artists and art lovers, they realised.
On 8 May, they launched #ArtChainIndia, an initiative to enable artists to connect with new audiences and buyers by selling their work directly on social media. What at first appears as an innocuous hashtag, #ArtChainIndia uses a pay-it-forward philosophy to activate a community of stakeholders, be it artists or those who appreciate art, to create a circle of support.
The premise is simple — artists share images of their work, priced at anything from Rs 500 to Rs, 10,000, on Instagram with the tag #ArtChainIndia, along with a mention of basic details such as the title and the medium of the work. In their post, they have to pledge that each time they are able to sell work adding up to Rs, 50,000, they will, in turn, spend Rs 10,000 on another artist’s work. In this way, not only do artists take control over the fate of their own work, they also create a chain of support for fellow artists.
Support for artists is crucial right now
While a student in Bengaluru’s Srishti Institute of Art and Design, Rai started a photography magazine called Creative IMAGE, which got her in touch with many young photographers and artists who’d often lament the impermeability of the art market for young artists.
She met Ayesha Singh, who after completing her MFA in sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has gone on to take part in many groups in solo shows with different galleries, and won the Emerging Artist of the Year award at the India Today Art Awards 2020. Singh had previously spearheaded an initiative called The Creative Community, which sought to create an environment for young creatives to collaborate, critique and mentor each other.
But when the Covid-19 crisis began, they both realized they wanted to do something to address the urgency of the moment, and so was born their Instagram page, The Art Chain.
The idea was inspired by Artist Support Pledge, a movement started by British artist Matther Burrows that has resulted in over 100,000 posts on social media and has generated an estimated £20 million for artists across the globe during the pandemic. Rai and Singh adapted the approach to be more local, decided a price range and a basic set of guidelines and then pushed it out on social media.
“We literally said, let’s just start. We created a page on Instagram, shared it among friends and family, and it just spread through word of mouth.” Galleries traditionally have mailing lists and a roster of buyers cultivated over years, but Rai and Singh personally knew only three to four buyers. The game plan, however, was to focus on artists, not buyers, says Rai.
“We came from a place of feeling like yes, you need buyers, but there also needs to be a sense of uplifting each other’s practice,” Rai tells ThePrint.
Within the first eight days of going live, more than 70 works were sold, with more than 1,700 posts under the hashtag on Instagram — all through zero marketing or PR, just organic word of mouth.
View this post on Instagram
🔗 Title – I AM NOTHING BUT A REFLECTION OF YOU – III Medium – pigment , print, graphite on acid free paper and lesser cut Jali on acrylic sheet. Size – 9"x 7" (box framed) Price – 10,000 rs (INR) Status – AVAILABLE Please DM me or send me an email at ( email@example.com) if you are interested to purchase this art work . This work is a part of the #artchainindia Movement. I will share work made by me priced at iNR 10,000/- or under. Eachtime I reach INR 50,000/- I will use INR 10,000/- to buy the work of another artist under the #artchainindia Hastag and support the fellow artist. #artchainindia #infiancontemporary #indianart #mixedmedia #ektasingha @ekta_singha
“At a time like this, artists usually stop practising and consider switching careers, right now such support is crucial for this artist community,” Singh and Rai note, pointing out how the economic impact of the pandemic has affected the already precarious incomes of many artists.
Breaking barriers in an unfriendly art world
Gallery systems are hard to navigate, despite what art school you may have gone to or what your work is like, says fine art practitioner Damini Parashar, who is herself an alumnus of the prestigious MSU Baroda, with a Masters from Ambedkar University. Parashar was pleasantly surprised to note that the organisers of The Art Chain were not charging a commission, and made her first sale from the project just a few days after posting her work online.
Conventionally, galleries, art dealers and agents can charge anything from 15 to 70 per cent commission when an artist manages to sell a work, but The Art Chain’s approach of allowing artists to sell directly to buyers cuts out the role of an intermediary.
“This is one of the first welcoming initiatives in the art world that I’ve come across,” Parashar tells ThePrint.
Inviting participation from practitioners of photography, sculpture, mixed media, painting, fine art, performance art, the project champions inclusivity, sidestepping cultural gatekeepers of India’s exclusionary art market. Rai and Singh also helped provide some basic resources to the artists such as a template for an Certificate of Authenticity to send to buyers along with their artwork once a sale was made.
Furthermore, any Indian who is an artist by “education or practice” is welcome to join, says Rai — a significant shift from India’s gallery system that mostly works with professionally trained artists. “Many have asked us why we’re not curating the work. But for us, art is really subjective and a buyer will buy what they like.”
Rai feels this initiative also pushes artists to be confident in their own decision-making, on when artwork is finished, what they feel it can be priced at and whether a particular work represents their artistic practice. They hope for this movement to evolve into one that exists beyond the uncertainty of today, one that continues to create a common platform, a friendly space for the artistic community to collaborate and create.