In Europe and other parts of the world, funding and national endowments support art and cultural institutions and citizens themselves demand intellectual engagement as an essential element of public life. There is, in the same way, a compelling need for investment in the arts in India, where a lack of wider public engagement further contributes to its absence.
Perhaps it doesn’t help that the art world is often considered a world turned in on itself – out of touch and out of reach. Historically, the art gallery became synonymous with the term “white cube”, suggesting a space in which time, through the objects on display, could transcend its momentary inflections for a genuine glimpse of eternity. But despite walls that seem to move each time you visit, the gallery is actually an ideological space that is rooted in place. Our art ecosystem very much exists in, and responds to, the world we live in, and it is our primary responsibility to frame a discursive context around how we manage artists and how their work is consumed.
Particularly in India, commercial galleries act like institutions by serving as key artistic interlocutors for the public. Our goals are determined by how we build connections among vital inter-relationships in the art ecosystem: gallery-artist, artist-viewer, gallery-viewer, gallery-museum, artist-museum, etc. Moreover, with a West-centric perspective in how contemporary art is globally defined, and the manner in which art from South Asia is consumed, most galleries, like ours, are working hard to push their artists in global art markets to be able to make meaningful, inventive and timely contributions to the world art scene.
Why art publishing?
Whether informative or interventionist, much of such communication takes place via art publishing, or what we could wittily refer to as the art of publishing, which helps us create an archive of knowledge about an artist by contextualising their practice in relation to their many personas – as geopolitical citizen, global figure, and genius, whose work you may or may not like or understand.
While publication may seem like an ancillary endeavour for an art gallery, it actually enables the development of meaningful cultural theory practices that help us embrace interdisciplinarity and interact with new audiences, who in turn support the arts, literature and culture. Since our establishment in 1987, our gallery has grown to represent an eclectic and leading list of Indian masters as well as established and emerging artists across four generations, a wide temporal range that creates a discursive set of attributes from which we can build a historical body of knowledge as well as contemporary archives on Indian modernism and post-modernism.
It is standard practice, certainly at varied scale, to document artist literature and exhibitions through professional photography, cataloguing, commissioned art writing and publications. With active presences on Facebook and Instagram, documentation is often undertaken spontaneously and in real-time in the digital zeitgeist. With respect to art publishing, our guiding principle has been a simple question: why shouldn’t an Indian audience turn to its own authentic sources of knowledge on its cultural output and unique circumstances?
When the pandemic struck
Since our early foray into publishing in 1996, we’ve collaborated with international publishing houses to produce over a dozen books, in addition to hundreds of artist monographs and exhibition catalogues. As labours of love, in many cases these publications have taken years to emerge, from conceptualising and curating to writing and printing, their journeys often mimicking the production of a work of art.
Whether they’re scholarly projects or creative expressions, we are equally committed to developing intellectual relationships among writers, curators, critics and artists, as well as reaching wider and perhaps uninitiated audiences, including children. These publications are special efforts, undertaken in tandem with customarily producing image-and-text based literature for all our exhibitions, and regularly working with media channels and aligned art organisations.
The modus operandi is to interpret and create narratives on Indian art movements and practices that not only enter into larger critical conversations with but also relate to different kinds of readers. In embracing an already cultivated readership in the country, we hope to engage a broader viewership and prompt a sensitive engagement with the visual arts as well.
In creating and communicating an erudite yet accessible storehouse of information on art, like for any creative industry technology has played an influential role in how we connect with our general art public. After the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we were forced to temporarily close our physical doors just as many cultural institutions worldwide did, which led to a chain of events unfolding through various layers of our identity, purpose and outreach.
In a word, we became existential about our presence and decided that if connection remains of paramount importance then we would just have to find a way to take our art world online. Our challenge was not so much to re-fabricate communication channels but to establish a digital identity and presence that honour the ideological rather than the physical make-up of an art gallery. Along with hosting entire exhibitions online and participating in digital collaborations with other art galleries, a large part of this magnified experience has also been our growing relationship with art publishing.
Getting the written word out
We immediately committed to sending out weekly newsletters to our artists, clients and patrons, which was previously a quarterly endeavour. Every week we reflected on the relationship between art and life and focused on presenting art news and theory in a conversational yet nuanced way. We created a special series of letters from our artists as they reflected on their experiences and practices during the pandemic to share with our readers.
In one strikingly visual address, Praneet Soi wrote, “I notice how condensed time has become…I begin to notice things, details on paths that I have travelled for years. A clocktower on a residential building. The reflection in the water of a canal near my studio. The relationship of the canal bank to the buildings. The duration it takes for buds to appear on naked branches, the slow job of Spring.” Titled “Thoughts from the Studio”, the series included heartfelt contemplations from artists like Faiza Butt, Anju Dodiya, Arpita Singh, Atul Dodiya, Shilpa Gupta, Gulammohammed Sheikh and Gieve Patel, to name a few.
We also actively responded to the fact that our pop-up bookstore in both our gallery spaces would no longer be reachable for the determined or casual visitor, and in July 2020 we launched an online shop on our website, where we sell prints, books, editioned artworks, selected photographs and products. We may have been unexpectedly cajoled out of an over-reliance on our physical spaces but these investments online, guided by the desire to stay updated and relevant, have been so rewarding. By taking the entire enterprise of our erstwhile bookstore online, we’ve been able to tap into art markets all over the country that we wouldn’t necessarily have identified.
These systematic experiments aside, traditional art literature was already undergoing creative dismemberment in order to become more accessible to a wider audience. A placeholder over-reliance on social media platforms means that engaging with cultural production and its criticism are both a challenge and an achievement. As romanced as we are by form and media, as much as by subject and content, we do remain deeply attached to print but also know that where literature remains full-length and heavy, short, essayistic writing on art lends itself better to periodicals and journals that publish more frequently and is well-aligned with the newfound popularity of lifestyle reportage.
So as we tinker about with the heart of our machinery, oiling our limbs to keep them intact, we’re hopeful that interest in reading and writing about art will grow through our conscientious and sustainable energies. By entering into contemporary circulation, as much in mainstream cultural content and dinner-table conversation as in academic dialogue about art-making in India, we strive to be a positive part of the force that releases a world stereotypically perceived as turned in on itself.
Parul Vadehra is a director at Vadehra Art Gallery in 2007, and a trustee of the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art.
Dipti Anand is a writer, editor and curator. She works at Vadehra Art Gallery.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.