The Phantom Lady Strikes Again!
Cynical governments, greedy corporates and paid mobs are invading intellectual and cultural spaces in the country in a pincer move, squeezing out all independent thought and creative action. Artists in Karnataka are fiercely opposing the state government move to hand over the official state art gallery in Bangalore to a private collector and art dealer, to rebuild and house his private collection.
A SWEETHEART DEAL AND THE CULTURAL COMMONS
BATTLE FOR VENKATAPPA ART GALLERY
BATTLE FOR VENKATAPPA ART GALLERY
The Karnataka Government in its wisdom signed a Memorandum of Understanding recently, practically giving away the Venkatappa Art Gallery (VAG), the official state art gallery in Bangalore in a private-public partnership to Tasveer Foundation, the family trust of art dealer Abhishek Poddar. This is apparently part of a policy of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group formed by the government to give heritage sites in adoption to boost tourism. Tasveer Foundation’s plan is to rebuild it as a new Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) to house Poddar’s collection on the site.
When a colleague alerted us in February about it, there was an electric response. The artist community was galvanized and gathered in large numbers for meetings and discussions. The consensus was to reject the MOU and stop the take over of the state institution by any private entity. We have formed the Venkatappa Art Gallery Forum or VAGforum to oppose this move.
Tasveer Foundation thought this would be a triumphal march and are taken aback at the fierce opposition. MAP’s supporters did not think that artists would do hard legal research into all the documents and processes. Meanwhile, MAP’s public relations machinery is projecting the new museum as god’s gift to the Bangalore public, and the protesting artists as a bunch of provincial spoilsports.
Artists are not against the Museum of Art and Photography coming up in Bangalore. We welcome another museum in the city. But we want MAP to be housed on its own land and not try to usurp the state gallery. We oppose any private body taking over the cultural commons, and see no reason why Abhishek Poddar should want the official state gallery to build MAP when he can rent or get any property or heritage site to house his collection. And there is no precedent to this. The major art collectors in India like Kiran Nadar of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art - KNMA, Lekha and Anupam Poddar of Devi Art Foundation, Ebrahim Alkazi of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, or Priti Paul of Apeejay Media Gallery,have set up world class museums of their art collections on their own land.
If one wants to see an example of a benign private-public partnership (PPP) in India, the case of the historic Bhau Daji Lad City Museum in Mumbai is the first of its kind. The Jamnalal Bajaj Trust is in a tripartite agreement with the Mumbai Municipality and INTACH where the trust gives generous funds for conservation, maintenance and running of the heritage museum. However, they will not occupy it, build a new building on it, put in their own collections, or get co-branding with it, as Tasveer Foundation plans to do with VAG. If Tasveer Foundation will fund VAG for its maintenance, conservation and activities, we welcome it. Or rather, as our former Culture Secretary Mr. Chiranjeev Singh points out, if this is true philanthropy there are several neglected art centres in other towns in the state like Hubli and Gadag, which could benefit through a benign adoption.
The Venkatappa Art Gallery is the official Karnataka State Art Gallery built on three acres of prime land in the Museum Complex at Cubbon Park in the heart of the city. The gallery itself was built to celebrate K. Venkatappa, the early twentieth century Bengal School Karnataka artist, and in response to the protests of a whole generation of artists who demanded a space to exhibit in the city. It is a combination of a modern art museum as well as a contemporary art space for rent, and houses the large historical collections of K. Venkatappa and K.K. Hebbar donated by their families, and many other works by Karnataka artists acquired by the government. There is an extra gallery space, an auditorium and grounds with a charming moat, which artists of the state have constantly used since it was built in the 1970s.
It is an inclusive and democratic space, which can be hired cheaply by young artists and those from other parts of the state, and excellent for non- commercial and experimental art events. Most of us here, like myself, have had our first solo shows in VAG. Through the years, there have been group shows, collective projects, eight state Kala Melas, retrospective of RM Hadpad, The Khoj International Artists Residency, The International Live Art Festival, Co-Lab and Ananya Drishya artist talks, a major IFA Asian Museum Curators Conference, to name a few activities- open and free to all to use. VAG has acted like an incubator for art in Karnataka and is an archive of a century of its history. Will MAP be able to do these things? Do we need an exclusive wine and cheese place here? We usually do kaphi and vade.
VAG is also a strange case. For though it is an official state museum-gallery of modern and contemporary art, it has never had an identity of its own and has always been a subsidiary of the Government Archeology Museum next door, getting step-motherly treatment. If you google VAG, the red building of the old museum comes up rather than the modern building of VAG. This also means that it does not have its own specialist Director, staff or budget. This has given rise to certain problems of lack of programming, upkeep and lack of infrastructure. The archeologists in charge are hardly interested in any vision for VAG. They use rooms in the Gallery as offices and dump spare artefacts in the storage.
These are problems that the government can solve easily with the advice of the art community and certainly not an excuse to abandon the gallery. The government should not shirk its responsibilities and should generously fund and run the gallery. Private players can work in parallel with the government but cannot replace the government.
“At this point, globalization is everywhere a capitalist project, developing simultaneously on the regional and world scales. But this project is always expressed through local systems of governance and culture - - Neoliberalism as the dominant ideology of contemporary capitalism is preaching about free and unrestrained market, privatization of public commons and limitation of the role of the state in those processes.”- Zoran Pantelić | Branka Ćurčić
The Hon. Tourism Minister called us for a meeting. His opening remarks were that they had a Central Government directive that governments cannot manage “women’s safety” and “clean toilets” and so heritage sites should be given for adoption to private bodies. This is comical! It is a scandal that the state government, which has the responsibility to run the entire state claims not to have the money or expertise to run the state gallery. A fact finding report by Rashmi Munikempanna and Sridhar Gowda “A Broke Government of Karnataka And Other Myths: Has Funding Always Been The Red Herring?” (www.vagforum.in), blows the lid off this claim, proving from the annual reports of the Department of Museums and Archeology that 21 crores from its budget was returned unspent by the Department at the time of the signing of the MOU. And Tasveer Foundation had committed to raising only ten crores!. As far as expertise goes, Karnataka has artists, art scholars and curators of high repute and wide experience. This is a scam of the first order.
VAGforum has studied this MOU thoroughly with legal experts. It is vague, flimsy and lacks scrutiny. It is a sweetheart deal, which Tasveer Foundation has written in its own favour and signed by the government officials without any safeguards. MAP gets free rein to occupy and use the VAG space with no responsibilities. The MOU was signed between the State Tourism and Archeology Departments and Tasveer Foundation without consulting the art community, which is a sign of malafide intent. A cultural institution comes under Culture, and not Tourism, which is under the Industries Department. The Tourism Department had no business to identify VAG as a tourist destination and commodify it.
There are many areas of conflict of interest. Abhishek Poddar, as a primary member of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group, elected to adopt VAG for his trust, in a prime instance of crony capitalism. For a scheme involving Corporate Social Responsibility funds, as a trust Tasveer Foundation is not a corporation and so has no CSR money to donate. He is the Director of the non-profit Tasveer Foundation which signed the deal (strangely a shadow entity with no website), and its subsidiary MAP, (http://map-india.org), but also an art dealer, the owner of a commercial photography gallery Tasveer Art Gallery (http://www.tasveerarts.com), and the Cinnamon lifestyle store. Poddar had also recently invested heavily in an online art auction house, Fine Art Bourse that has now closed down.
We wonder where the profit ends and the “non- profit” begins, and vice-versa? Everything is strangely porous. We have seen photographs shown and sold in Tasveer and Cinnamon. Photographers Raghu Rai and T.S. Satyan are two of 25 photographers who Tasveer Gallery represents- their works are also in the MAP collection. The same image by T.S. Satyan is shown in both websites. While the MOU mentions the Louvre rather fancifully as a model- in France, a state department runs all the state museums. The strength of institutions like the Louvre is their independence from commercial interests.
MAP is being projected as an act of philanthropy. Will the MAP building and the art collection be donated to the state? The MOU does not say so. The MOU is for a minimum of 5+5 years. It will take several years and several crores just to build the museum. Will they vacate the building after ten years? Then where will the MAP collection go? Is this a land grab in the guise of philanthropy? And what will happen to the historical collections already existing in VAG during this building period? Will they be moved to an art warehouse for storage? The donor families are worried. In the MOU, MAP refuses to take responsibility for any damages, grievances of artists and even the safety of visitors.
If the state is endorsing a private collection by giving it the branding of an official state museum, it should be obvious that the focus should be on Karnataka art. If you look at the different sections of this eclectic collection consisting of popular art, crafts, photography, contemporary art, folk and tribal art, there is hardly any representation of art from Karnataka in any section. What MAP will do is appropriate the existing heritage collections of Karnataka artists in VAG by the co-branding of MAP-VAG, which will give the rest of the collection the credibility and weight of an official state collection.
Artists question what Poddar has done for Karnataka, (besides providing explosives to its mining barons) that he should be practically gifted the state gallery? His art philanthropy until now has not been very noticeable. We have not seen him in any art event in Bangalore in the last twenty years, which only shows his utter disdain. Tasveer Art Gallery has not put together a comprehensive invitation list of artists and art lovers in the ten years of its existence, preferring the corporate crowd. It has barely encouraged upcoming or even well known photographers from the state. Bangalore has a unique art scene run by artists, who have created (on shoe string budgets) huge public art projects, run international art residencies and festivals and collective art spaces. It is considered the avant- garde art capital of India with artists experimenting in new materials and forms like installation art, new media, conceptual photography and live performance besides traditional forms like painting and sculpture. Karnataka has some of the leading artists in India of international repute. Whether as connoisseur, gallerist or collector, Poddar has shown supreme disinterest.
Our protest about the giving away of the Venkatappa Art Gallery should be seen against the backdrop of a general philistinism sweeping the country where our finest cultural and intellectual institutions are being invaded and neutralized. Many are of the opinion that these raids are moves towards eventual privatization, along with a plan for total control over free thought and right to dissent. VAG is part of our cultural commons, and we want to retain it as an open and democratic space, accessible to all.
The very notion of “tourism” taking over culture shows the deeply flawed notion that art and culture are only for entertainment and profit - rather than something central to the life of a people, an expression of human creativity and a philosophical exploration of the world. Arthur Koestler in his seminal work The Act of Creation has argued how important creativity is to the very act of survival and evolution of species. A society with its creative community suppressed and denigrated is like a body without a soul.
VAGforum will not give up until the government cancels this MOU. We are fighting against a neo-liberal government and a powerful corporate world, both hand-in-glove. The government and media want to project business leaders as the cultural and intellectual faces of the state. But we also wonder how MAP will come up at Venkatappa Art Gallery against the will and severe displeasure of the entire art community of Karnataka.
The Phantom Lady
Bangalore, April 2016
March 6 - We@Venkatappa, # HugVenkatappa
More than 500 artists, art scholars and art lovers occupied VAG on Sunday March 6th for We@Venkatappa from 11am to 6 pm in a day of protest and creative actions, in a wonderful show of solidarity. We made a human chain around VAG and later discussed the whole issue of the MOU in a meeting. The mood was festive, with people performing, drawing and singing in different parts of the building and gardens. People took photographs of themselves hugging the building as an echo of the Chipko or Appiko movement, which were printed and put up in the gallery.
March 19- Wepaint @Venkatappa
A day of landscape painting at VAG to remember K. Venkatappa
March 20- We@Town Hall
A spectacular public demo at the Town Hall on 20th March with black umbrellas, whistles and drums. Leading figures and groups from theatre, film and literature addressed the gathering in support.
March 27- MOU Read /Rejected/ Recycled
Artists and children do creative acts with copies of the MOU at VAG.
April 10 – We@KWC
We@KWC or the Karnataka World Café, was organized at the Gallery as a first step to discuss a democratic vision of VAG. Based on the internationally popular world café model, a hundred invitees with experts from cultural administration, architecture, theatre, literature, film, and public space activists brainstormed ideas for the future of the Venkatappa Art Gallery.
Public Protests by artists in towns all over the state like Hassan, Gadag, Badami, Raichur, Shimoga, Bijapur, Tumkur.