On Sunday, a group of artists stood outside Bengaluru’s Venkatappa Art Gallery, holding printed A4 sheets. On cue, they crumpled the sheets, then pretended to eat them ‒ and choke. The dramatic skit was yet another act of protest against the Karnataka government’s plans to allow a private foundation to take over management of the state-run gallery. The sheets they were unable to swallow represented the agreement between the government and the Tasveer Foundation that will allow the foundation to adopt the gallery.
Artists from Bengaluru who have formed a group called the Venkatappa Art Gallery Forum have been fighting this battle for almost two months now. In July 2015, the Karnataka government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Tasveer Foundation to allow an entity called the Museum of Art and Photography or MAP, which is a division of the Tasveer Foundation to take over Venkatappa Art Gallery. The agreement allows MAP to improve the existing display and visitor experience and to bring in new collections, programmes and events. The agreement also allows the foundation to give the building a facelift and add new galleries.
Karnataka artists who were alerted to the government’s decision and agreement in early February have been up in arms ever since holding visual protests like making human chains and holding black umbrellas. “We are not against a museum for art and photography. We welcome it,” said photo and visual artists Pushpamala Narsinga Rao. “But why here? This is not only the only public space for art in the state it’s also the official state gallery.”
Public commons up for adoption
The proposed gallery adoption is part of a larger government plan of putting 46 sites across the state for adoption to improve their tourism value. In 2014, the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group headed by TV Mohandas Pai made a list of recommendations to improve tourism including setting up a museum district in Bengaluru via public private partnerships.
Abhishek Poddar, art collector and founder of the Tasveer Gallery and the associated foundation, said in a Facebook post that the Venkatappa Art Gallery adoption is not an attempt to privatise the public art space. He has also said that the works of renowned Karnataka artists K Venkatappa and KK Hebbar would continue to be displayed at the venue after the gallery has been refurbished. Tasveer will have the management of the gallery for five years with an option to renew the understanding for another five years when that term expires.
But the ambiguous language of the Memorandum of Understanding has left artists worried about the true nature of the move. Members of the VAG Forum are asking whether Poddar’s own art collection will be displayed at the state gallery.
Given that the agreement between that government and Tasveer Foundation states that all encumbrances will be removed before work starts on the gallery and contains an indemnity clause that doesn’t hold the foundation responsible for any damage to the building or artworks, the forum is unsure about the fate of the Venkatappa and Hebbar collections.
The artists forum is also resisting the proposed co-branding of the public building to include MAP on its display along with Venkatappa Art Gallery.
Democratic art space
The gallery opened in 1975 as an extension of the Government art Museum. Older artists in the city remember it as a vibrant, inclusive space where many of them held their first exhibitions. “We have been promoted by first showing our art in this space, where audiences came, we received criticism and we have grown from there,” said artist Alaka Rao. “The generation of artists now and the next generation from there should have the same space. You cannot expect senior artists to continue to show there now but everyone started by showing their works in that space.”
While two floors of the gallery have permanent displays of Venkatappa and Hebbar, the exhibition floor is open to anyone who applies for the space on a first-come-first-serve basis for a nominal fee of Rs 500. The Tasveer Foundation wants to change this model to one where the temporary exhibits are selected and curated, which is another sore point with the artist community.
“At Venkatappa, the whole responsibility of the work is with the artists,” said art historian HA Anil Kumar. “In private galleries, you have to go through many levels of processing, where the criterion is what they can sell. We don't want this to be another gallery like that.” Venkatappa Art Gallery currently gets anywhere between four and seven bookings for its exhibition space every month from artists in Bengaluru and from other parts of Karnataka.
The gallery’s rather unremarkable building is set in the middle of a well-tended garden and pond, right next to the Government Art Museum. The structure is what makes the space democratic, feels artist Surekha Anil, who has been the curator of the hugely popular Rangoli Art Center beneath the MG Road metro station. “In the present context, seeing what is happening around the city, there are several spaces like the National Gallery of Modern Art or the space at Freedom Park that are these big white cubes where no common man will enter,” she said. “They are for mainstream artists. It’s not like everyone will enter these places because they are intimidated. But Venkatappa Art Gallery, because it is associated with the government museum, has good footfall.”
Room for improvement
However, the artists agree that there is room for improvement at the gallery as it is run right now. The building has niggling maintenance problems, from poor lighting to bad toilets. Gallery officials say that there seem to be fewer visitors in the last five years or so. The bigger challenge is the absence of a curator to monitor and improve the current displays. The management of the gallery has been left to government officials with little artistic training from the state’s department of archeology. “Archeology looks backwards and we are looking at contemporary art,” said Pushpamala. "We need someone who knows contemporary art. All these things that the government has done need to be sorted out. And with all this negligence it’s not like the gallery is falling apart."
The artists of the Venkatappa Art Gallery Forum are asking for an outright rejection of the Memorandum of Understanding between the government and Tasveer. What irks many of these artists is that the decisions over a public art space have been taken without consulting them.
Painter SG Vasudev, who was a member of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group, said that a possible solution is for the government to revise the agreement to ensure the advantage of the artist community. Vasudev clarified that the tourism vision group did not decide on the destination adoptions, including that of Venkatappa Art Gallery.
Vasudev himself has been involved in efforts over the years to improve conditions at the gallery and feels that the present set-up isn’t working to the advantage of artists or the public. While backing a revamp of the gallery, he agrees that the MoU signed with Tasveer leaves much to be desired.
“The government cannot go ahead with this MoU but it can’t just hand the gallery over to the artist community either,” he said. “It can create a trust with artists, art historians, and people from the government and from other cultural fields. The trust can pick an artistic director. You can create a Society of Friends for VAG and open up the space to corporates such that not just one corporate but many can donate to the gallery.”