First, the galleries downed shutters, then museums closed; wine bottles remained unopened, cheeses dried up; openings were cancelled, exhibitions remained unattended; negotiations for artworks that had begun at the India Art Fair turned into damp squibs. Every day that brought bad news deepened the gloom — pink slips, salary cuts, an economic purge, medical emergencies, migrant concerns. As people locked themselves indoors, the luxury industry began to slip into recession. High street brands collapsed, hospitality and aviation teetered over an abyss, restaurants and bars shut, some never to open again — and the art industry?

It did well, proving all over again the truth of the adage that when the economy spirals down, the art world looks up.

Barely months into the lockdown, concerned conversations with artists began to turn into cyber celebrations. Even though they could no longer go to their studios to work, collectors were able to find their way with permits and vehicles to acquire works that soon emptied out their stocks. Canvases that had piled up over the years vanished in a matter of months. The buyers were individuals, not institutions, and they came in every shape and garb —professional collectors, first-time buyers, seasoned, middle-aged, young, male and female, professional and entrepreneur.

It was not panic selling— the artists did not need to drop their prices, the demand was so high. The buzz on cyber streets was that they were charging a premium.

But if artists were doing so well on their own, what about the galleries? With governments banning them from opening, they moved their exhibitions online to stay relevant. A wise move, as it turned out, as old clients reconnected, and new ones were added. Unusual enquiries materialised into art sales. OVRs or online viewing rooms — which had begun as technological tools based on apps — removed the barriers between large and small galleries, high art and low, and soon ended up as another cliché in the art world. If a large percentage of the traffic was content with the experience, others wanted the art. Those that didn’t adapt collapsed, or languished, but for most part, galleries flourished — or at least their bottomlines did. And all this without having to uncork the wine.

Business morphed into other ways too. Instagram, till recently a vanity platform for people to post their vacation pictures and restaurant food presentations, stepped up to become a platform that provided easy access to art and artists, completely democratising their access to it. From live interviews to videos of artists working in their studios to lessons in art history, it became a Pied Piper to a DM revolution that saw viewers engaging with art more than ever before. While the jury’s still out on the conversion rate of those enquiries, one thing is certain — it will be one of the most powerful tools for marketing art in the present and future, price no bar.

Auction houses were the most anxious among the players to test the waters in 2020. People were gravitating to Zoom talkathons, asking questions, raising awareness, but would it translate into sales — that was the big question. If it didn’t, the humiliation would be public because the results would be posted live and be available for people to view for all times to come. If estimates were not met, it could impact prices of artists for a long while. Nor was it easy to get high quality art from consigners unsure of getting an appropriate value from buyers who would not be in a room to watch the gavel fall.

That trepidation, too, bit the dust. The properties that came up for auction included the masters, even if the works were not all top league — but the auctions scored well to a collective sigh of relief.

The art market had turned in a very short while from low expectations to a smorgasbord of plenty.

What was driving the market? Several theories were put forward. People were spending more time at home and wanted to rearrange their interior spaces and make them more attractive. With increased time available, they were finally able to spend part of it making a value call of their requirements. With spends curtailed on luxury purchases, parties, weddings and holidays, spare incomes were invested in art. The reasons were perhaps a mix of these in whole or part, but at any rate 2020 became a year the art industry will look back on as a catalyst when change brought in more revenues than they had expected.

DAG’s exhibition — The Hindus: Baltazard Solvyns in Bengal — at the Bikaner House, New Delhi
DAG’s exhibition — The Hindus: Baltazard Solvyns in Bengal — at the Bikaner House, New Delhi
Image : Special Arrangement

2021 was expected to do even better—but then the euphoria dulled a bit.

The start of the year was a repeat of what one had seen in 2020, with art establishments — the commercial and the non-commercial — slowly opening, when Covid 2.0 struck with a vengeance. And this time the pain was closer home, if not at home. The sentiment in 2020 was one of apprehension; in 2021 it became one of loss. The market did not lose its shine but it definitely took a backseat to scenes of disbelief as healthcare collapsed and the world, for a brief while, stopped spinning on its axis. The poignancy of loss has stayed even though near normalcy is back, the high-street shops have queues outside them, revenge travel is growing, and auction houses have notched up records. While some are looking out for Covid 3.0, people seem inclined to move on. Protocols are in place, and galleries and museums have opened once again.

But the methodology of business and appreciation of art may have changed forever. Everyone in the fraternity acknowledges that art needs to be physically seen to be appreciated, or bought, but agree that a hybrid model in which the digital will play an equally important role, is here to stay.

Digital reaches out to larger audiences quicker and faster, and responses are immediate. But there’s one more thing we owe to cyberama— the art world’s equivalent of cryptocurrency, called NFTs, or non-fungible tokens.

The theory is that no matter who owns a work of art, or image — yes, including your vacay photographs — or video, or even a tweet (one sold for $3 million as an NFT), the blockchain equivalent of it is an ‘original’ that you pay for.

So, you have the rights to an artwork but not the actual artwork. NFTs are a trend that are selling for anything from a few grubby dollars (in the hope of becoming something big) to millions of dollars, and, yes, it’s begun in India too. Should you be interested? Why not, unless you prefer your art on your walls, not in some deposit box that gives no pleasure — especially in these gloomy pandemic times.

Follow us on Facebook, X, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp to never miss an update from Fortune India. To buy a copy, visit Amazon.