Art in a time of pandemic

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Illustration: IO/Design Team

IO – During this time of pandemic there are two areas in Indonesia that provide hope to artists, gallery owners and art fairs. They are Bali and Jogjakarta. During the corona virus pandemic the arts world like nearly every other industry and occupation has been suffering from cancelled exhibitions, lack of sales and performances due to lockdowns and social distancing regulations. This has drastically affected the income of artists as well as any one working with the arts. However, the curves of infection in these two places have come down far faster than in nearly any other province in Indonesia affected by the virus. 

The amount of confir med COVID-19 cases in the world are 11,600.000 cases with 6.328.000 or 54% recovered as per 3rd July 2020 whereas in Indonesia there are 66,226 with 30,785 or 46.4 % recovered cases. It is projected that by September 2020 worldwide 97% of all cases will be concluded. 

Indonesian public health specialist and epidemiologist, Dr Panji Hadisoemartono states that if the situation continues to progress as it is now whereby the number of recovered COVID-19 cases increases at the same rate as it does now in comparison to new cases then by September 2020 about 95% of all COVID cases in Indonesia should be concluded. In Bali and Jogjakarta however, 75% of COVID cases are already concluded which means that exhibitions, art galleries and fairs should be able to open again there before September 2020. 

Sarasvati Art Management and Publication is an independent arts-research and management company that combines the strength of art market analysis and journalism. It also assists artists in providing added value to their work by organizing art activities as well as programs. Last June Sarasvati arranged an arts discussion via webinar where four speakers spoke about the concerns of artists and those involved in the arts and what they can do to survive during the pandemic. As scientists say that there may be more pandemics in the future what was discussed would also serve as a future blue print. The speakers were art promoter and owner of the OHD Museum, Oei Hong Djien, the founder of Gajah Gallery, Jasdeep Sandhu, the founder of the Titian Art Space and Award, Soemantri Widagdo and Zamrud Setyanegara, head of exhibitions at the Galeri Nasional Indonesia (the Indonesian National Gallery). 

Lin Che Wei, the founder of Sarasvati Art Management and Publication. (Photo courtesy of Sarasvati Art Management and Publication)

Lin Che Wei, the founder of Sarasvati opened the discussion by remarking, “During the economic crisis of 1998 and 2008 the stakeholders of the art world could still hold and view exhibitions but during the pandemic the visual arts can no longer be viewed directly. For months, exhibitions and art fairs have talked about nothing but cancellations. This is worst for sculptures and installation art which really require direct viewing. 

What we forget is that during a pandemic art is considered a tertiary necessity however during lockdown in fact, listening to music, reading books and viewing online exhibitions become major activities and are all very much on the increase. This in fact provides new opportunities.” 

During a pandemic especially if there is a lockdown and social distancing the most affected stakeholders of the art world are artists who have not yet established their name, artisans, freelancers and daily wage earners who work at art sites. The main worry of artists during this period is of course a financial one but also the question, “Will I still be relevant in a post-COVID world?” 

Lin Che Wei added, “The pandemic is a time for stakeholders to inventorize and restore and clean art collections as well as research them and create online digital art services such as online exhibitions for example.” 

Oei Hong Djien, art promoter and owner of the OHD Museum. (Photo courtesy of Sarasvati Art Management and Publication)

Oei Hong Djien of the OHD Museum in Magelang, Central Java said, “In 1998 despite the economic crisis the art world was booming. Christie’s auctions were doing extremely well and although the property market in Indonesia had collapsed there were still many wealthy individuals visiting the art galleries, looking to invest in art which could be sold at Christie’s and the profits brought to Indonesia. Many became art dealers during this time. 

That is not the case this time around. The art galleries and museums had to close we have been forced to return to the essential meaning of art with no gala openings, catalogues and curators. An exhibition is no longer a social event. Those who look at online exhibitions are only those truly interested in art.” 

Oei Hong Djien is hopeful that perhaps a new art movement will arise as a result of the pandemic and its affect felt not only on the arts but also on the socio-economic and political structures of society. After the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918-1920) new movements in art arose such as Dadism which also came into being as a reaction to the senseless slaughter in the trenches of the First World War. It essentially protested war and the chaos that invaded society afterwards. Another art movement that appeared after the Spanish Flu was Bauhaus, an art and design movement originating from Weimar in Germany in 1919 which championed a geometric, abstract style with little sentiment or emotion and no historic features. 

Jasdeep Sandhu, founder of Gajah Gallery. (Photo courtesy of Sarasvati Art Management and Publication)

Jasdeep Sandhu, the founder of Gajah Gallery agrees, “After the last economic crisis artists really had time to think and about 6 to 7 years later there was an art boom created out of the results of that downtime which resulted in the creation of the Jendela Art Group from Jogjakarta which is a group of Indonesian artists whose works reflect a formalistic genre. It is time to develop art. Not only did artists during crisis in the past survive but they got much better at their art. 

Jasdeep Sandhu commented, “I am a big supporter of art fairs but by the time things normalize art galleries won’t have the money anymore to join art fares or to buy art at them. So, other ways need to be found. Art galleries need to get more and more into the internet and there they need to provide more information about their art as well as art entertainment. There will have to be far more research into artists and their art from different regions of Indonesia. 

When asked whether artists should reduce the prices of their art during the pandemic, he responded that there are still collectors buying art so artists should not get onto a panic. He advises them to enter into a dialogue with collectors and offer them incentives rather than immediately discounting their works. For example, if a collector buys a large work of art add a small one for free and also do not keep pestering collectors to buy. 

Soemantri Widagdo of Titian Art Space and Award. (Photo courtesy of Sarasvati Art Management and Publication)

Meanwhile the Titian Art Space and Award was created to help emerging artists with no established market yet establish one via their Titian art prize. So, the artists they deal with are very different from established artists. Soemantri Widagdo, the founder of the Titian Art Space and Award says that now the key issue for emerging artists is simply survival. “The use of digital platforms is very important and we use a method used in the movie industry namely storytelling. So we create a story about the artist and the work itself. This is the method used by both Christie’s as well as Sotheby’s. We not only focus on the art but also on the artist.” 

In January and February of this year activities were normal. On the 12th of March 2020 the WHO announced a global pandemic. The government announced large scale social distancing on the 13th of March 2020 and the closure of all entertainment and cultural sites on the 14th of March, including art galleries and museums. 

Zamrud Setyanegara, head of exhibitions at the Galeri Nasional Indonesia. (Photo courtesy of Sarasvati Art Management and Publication)

The exhibition venues at the Galeri Nasional Indonesia or Indonesian National Gallery which are normally booked months ahead for exhibitions had all their bookings cancelled due to the coronavirus. The Director General of Culture ordered all work to be done from home and all museums and galleries were closed. It provides the model that other Indonesia art galleries follow. “So, what is the Galeri Nasional to do?” asks Zamrud Setyanegara, head of exhibitions at the Galeri Nasional Indonesia. “As part of its strategy, Galeri Nasional Indonesia has a program called Art Activities During the Pandemic. It covers the following activities: 

All museum activities are carried out online via facebook, Instagram and twitter.

 The creation of online museum competitions and challenges such as museum challenge and the Galnas doodle challenge.’ 

Creating interactive programs online such as book discussions, virtual art discussions etc. 

The creation of virtual online art exhibitions such as the Galeri Nasional Indonesia collaborative exhibitions, permanent collection exhibition and manifesto exhibition. 

On the 8th of July 2020 all museums in Jakarta owned by the Ministry of Education and Culture were reopened. For this health protocols had to be put in place first including two-meter social distancing (which decreases the number of visitors allowed to enter a museum or gallery), compulsory wearing of facemasks, hand washing etc. The Galeri Nasional Indonesia provides the benchmark for museums and galleries all over Indonesia. These health protocols were created by the COVID 19 Acceleration Response Task Force, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education and Culture and the City of Jakarta. 

Deputy IV of the Coordinating Ministry of the Economy has created a program to assist artists. Artists in the lower 25% with incomes below the minimum wage to receive BLT or Direct Cash Assistance. The 25 to 40% segment with incomes below Rp 10 million will also receive government aid. However, the government is still being hindered in carrying out such aid due to the lack of a controlled database to support such government assistance. Even artists with annual incomes of Rp 120 -300 million annually have been hard hit by the crisis and are now in need of government assistance. 

Meanwhile, Lin Che Wei advises artists, galleries and museums not simply to accept government guidelines and regulations but to also provide the government with input, so that the government guidelines do not create an impossible situation for galleries and museums. 

Meanwhile, Oei Hong Djien commented that during the time that was pre-COVID globalization was the topic of the day. Now with the pandemic it is time to go local instead. It is time for a reformation in the arts. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)