Here’s Why I Believe Lockdown Has Pushed the Art World Out of Its Comfort Zone—and on a Path to a More Equitable Future

Artist Chila Kumari Singh Burman on how this moment could transform the arts for the better.

Chila Kumari Singh Burman with the Winter Commission at Tate Britain. Remembering a brave new world(2020). Photo by Joe Humphrys, ©Tate.

I have no words to describe 2020, a year that has taken so much from us all, while giving very little in return. My world is the art world, so it has been devastating to watch the continued impact a virus has caused to one of the oldest, most extraordinary fields on earth. 

The industry has been turned upside down. Galleries are financially strapped, art schools are struggling, museums are shut, and artists, as the end recipients of all these challenges, have been pushed to the limit. And yet, I have recently realized there is room for some cautious optimism. We may be experiencing the last days of the art world as we know it, but we are also experiencing the beginning of a new one too.

I am no stranger to the myriad barriers emerging artists must face in the UK. As a South Asian woman who began working in the British art world in the 1980s, I experienced dismissal and pigeonholing at the hands of the establishment, and artists like me often had to build our own spaces for our work.

The art world is still bound up in traditional ideas of exclusivity, meaning a small circle of collectors, gallerists, and museum directors set the rules and the pace. This systemic elitism is largely to blame for the lack of women, people of color, LGBT, and other minority artists displayed at major art exhibitions worldwide.

Like all crises, the pandemic has hit marginalized groups the hardest, so there is no denying these artists already struggling from the industry’s blatant disparities were the worst affected last year. But long-needed changes forced on the industry by the crisis offer a glimmer of hope for future generations.

Until last spring, the art industry was one of the last in existence yet to be transformed by digital tools. But lockdown forced an industry for so long driven by large, exclusive, social events, to adapt. As an artist whose income relies on these kinds of events, it was heartbreaking to see the biggest, most renowned art fairs in the world cancelled overnight, but heartening to see how rapidly they digitalized. 

In many respects, the move online has been a democratizer. Practically overnight, the industry rituals once preserved for the “elite,” from art fairs to live auctions to prestigious exhibitions across the globe, became accessible to all.

Going online has lowered the barriers to participation for artists, curators, and gallerists by levelling the playing field for those without the capital or equity to pursue a brick-and-mortar space, or the time and financial resources to travel. Meanwhile, the movers and shakers of the industry in turn discovered a whole world of emerging art, student degree shows, and under-platformed artists online. 

Chila Kumari Singh Burman, <i>Remembering a brave new world</i>(2020). Photo by Joe Humphrys, ©Tate.

Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Remembering a brave new world(2020). Photo by Joe Humphrys, ©Tate.

Remembering a Brave New World

Art has also proved a vital source of inspiration and comfort for people in this dark time. There has been a wider acceptance and enjoyment of art from a general public who might not have engaged with it before, and art world insiders are also discovering artists from outside their usual sources.

Uptake of art and creativity grew throughout 2020, with the entire population suddenly stuck indoors and on the hunt for fresh distractions to pass the time. Many discovered appreciating or creating art as a fantastic way to channel emotions, a therapy sorely needed by the public during periods of uncertainty. Others found art could open their minds to perspectives they had never previously understood.

I was blown away to have my installation Remembering a brave new world featured as Tate Britain’s Winter Commission, an outdoor art project visible to all on the building’s façade. I was honored to have been invited, but what touched me most was the joy it seemed to bring the people who went to see it. With its neon sculptures including Hindu deities like Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and purity, and Ganesh, the god of prosperity, juxtaposed with lips eating an ice cream cone and winter snowflakes, I wanted the installation to instil feelings of fun, light, and hope for the future. Despite the gallery being closed, the public made its way through the cold dark nights to enjoy my art. 

To me, this proved two things. Firstly, it confirmed the very need for art to exist, and secondly, a whole-hearted embrace of art depicting different cultures and heritages. Yet it doesn’t all come down to an evolving public attitude, or to institutions giving one high-profile commission to a minority artist. This acceptance of diverse art is incredibly important for the industry to progress, and these are positive signs—but there is a huge need for institutions to do more. 

The art world finally moving online was certainly a step in the right direction, but minority artists still need targeted support, now more than ever before. Grants, funding programs and art foundations must continue to offer support to artists. There need to be more organizations like Stellar International Art Foundation, which championed me personally three years ago, by offering me a platform to display and discuss my work. Opportunities like these are priceless for emerging artists and it is imperative they continue to exist.

Covid-19 has been tough on the art world—that nobody can deny. All we can hope is that all these nuggets of positive change will continue to grow, that commitments to diversity and equity in the leadership and on the walls of institutions are upheld despite the budgetary constraints brought on by the crisis, and that accessibility to the industry continues to improve after it has passed.

If it does, the art world will rise from the pandemic like a phoenix from the ashes. We will be different—but we will be bold, modern, and more internationalized and democratized than ever before.

Chila Kumari Singh Burman is a British artist, whose work “Remembering a brave new world” is on view at Tate Britain through February 28.

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