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Managing Cultural Practices

Controversy in the Venkatappa Art Gallery

Shreya Pillai (shreyapillai@gmail.com) is a social policy analyst and writer based in Bengaluru.

The decision by the Karnataka state government to allow a private foundation to adopt the Venkatappa Art Gallery has come under severe criticism from artists and the general public. Can there be a workable model for participation from corporates in museums and art galleries that can ensure research and conservation of cultural assets and fostering art for all strata of society?

A little known and extremely run down government gallery in Bengaluru—the Venkatappa Art Gallery (VAG), is in the spotlight because of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Department of Tourism, Karnataka state government, and the Tasveer Art Foundation, a private art gallery/foundation managed and operated by Abhishek Poddar, a Bengaluru based industrialist and philanthropist.

How the Plan Works

Negotiated in 2015, the MoU grants permission to the Tasveer Foundation to renovate the existing building and “adopt” the gallery. The MoU also allows all curatorial, exhibition and programming decisions to be taken by the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), a division of the Tasveer Foundation, and its curators and advisory panel. All this has been negotiated under the aegis of the Karnataka state government’s “Adopt a Destination” scheme involving the corporate sector in over 40 of the state’s 300 and more tourist destinations.

As part of this scheme, the government hopes to “provide a better experience to tourists from before arrival to after departure and to this end a whole lot of facilities, infrastructure and services needed to be upgraded through PPP (Jaishankar 2016).”

All of this sounds good, especially given the lack of both capacity and funds with the government. So, why are artists across the city up in arms against the MoU?

Some in the artist community of Bengaluru have formed a VAG forum to protest the move. They feel that the government’s initiative to promote tourism, in the garb of adoption, is a move to grab the property located at a prime location. The “Adopt a Destination” recommendations were made by the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group (a government-corporate organisation of which Abhishek Poddar is on the committee) to improve the financial efficacy of the state by branding and marketing cultural material in the state. This, according to the protestors, smells of bias.

Questions Raised

So, why is this issue only coming up now in India? There have been instances of other museums across the world that have been “privatised/adopted.” In fact, the privatisation of galleries seems to be a trend across the world.

This raises several interconnected questions that need to be framed keeping in mind the declining support of the government towards arts and cultural practices. What are the antecedents of state-corporate actions such as the VAG decision? Is this only something happening in India or is this a common enough action across the world? Are the artists protesting the move valid in doing so? We have to also see if long term solutions can be drawn up that can benefit not just the artist community but also the people of Karnataka as a whole.

Privatising Museums

It is seen that across the world, since the 1990s, governments have been cutting funds to arts and cultural programmes. In the late 1990s, the Japanese government in an attempt to reform its administration, identified seven state-run museums including the Tokyo National Museum, the Kyoto National Museum, the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo and the National Museum of Art in Osaka to be recreated as “independent administrative corporations”  and quasi private organisations independent from the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Education which controlled the museums.

The steady devolution of funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for Heritage (NEH) in the 1980–90s in the United States is another example of the changing landscape of government, market and its citizens’ relationships. The NEA and NEH were established in 1965 under the Public Law 89-209, which states that

“…while no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.”

The NEA and the NEH were set up in the 1940s and early 1950s to legitimise the United States’ leadership role in the world, pitting the artistic and scholarly freedom (reflected in the burgeoning of arts and higher education) of the US against the totalitarianism of the Soviet bloc.

However, since the 1990s, with the fall of the Soviet bloc, this narrative is no longer valid.

Therefore the Congress reacted by cutting budgets for the arts, and reauthorising the NEA (it was almost killed in 1997). As part of this action, art galleries across the country have been shutting down in order to survive negotiating agreements with corporate houses and private sector philanthropic funds.

The Thatcherite action of privatising public sector agencies in England in the 1980s started the ball rolling in Europe.

Across much of Central and Eastern Europe, governments were simply unable to provide financial support to the cultural sector. Governments in Europe are slowly but steadily negotiating understandings with private and philanthropic funds to manage their national heritage. Those favouring “privatisation” cite freedom in budgetary affairs as well as improvement in service.

Understandably, there are significant issues with this move towards privatisation. Others believe that the government is using the excuse of financial restructuring to abandon cultural support and that once “privatised,” galleries will probably not be able to sustain funding for non-profit making activities like research and the conservation of cultural assets, as well as fostering art for all strata of society.

Instead, they might focus on more remunerative exhibitions and increase entrance fees. In London, the “privatisation” of the National Museum in 2015 had caused large scale strikes by museum staff.

Looking for Solutions

So, is there any real solution to the situation? On one hand, the government needs to be able to encourage and facilitate the artist community and on the other hand, its funds are limited and also managed badly; it barely has the capacity to manage programmes effectively or to scale up. When India gained Independence, the nation state acknowledged the importance of culture in building a new India and expressed the need for state support for arts and culture.

Unfortunately, the actual budget associated with arts and culture is miniscule and impossible to sustain the long term management of cultural resources across the country. Additionally, identifying areas to receive funding in the arts still remains extremely opaque and subjective.

Whether we like it or not, privatisation is becoming of the main engines for change in this century. It affects all levels of government including culture. In general, privatisation is being considered a guarantor of increased efficiency. While this is true for goods in general—an efficiency driven society will produce more goods at more affordable rates for more people— it is not necessarily true for all types of goods, especially those produced by social, educational and cultural sectors. These areas require a more sophisticated trade-off between efficiency and equity, especially in the view of long term benefits for society.

There are various methods of privatising art galleries. These include private sponsorship, as opposed to financing/outright sales; the incorporation of museums into foundations, the “agency” method (where staff is hired by the government but the managing agency is private) or “contracting out” method (where prices, quality and expected outcomes are defined by the state in the contract).

Going Dutch for Bengaluru?

The Dutch model of privatisation or automisation appears to be slightly promising. In this method, a state entity operates as an independent entity; it can be transformed into a public/non-profit entity/trust/foundation (and managed financially and operationally independently); though the curatorship and management of the collection remains a joint decision between the state and the non-profit management.

The ownership, however, remains with the state.

The specifications of the state in the MoU are clearly and explicitly identified—prices, quality and expected outcomes are defined upfront, and clauses for equity and fairness are incorporated.

Perhaps, the Venkatappa Gallery can look at the Dutch model and renegotiate their MoU with the current partners. They could also choose a partner based on a competitive and open framework. Issues such as maintaining a rent controlled space for new and upcoming artists to display their work and preserving lower ticket prices to allow lower income sections of the population to have access to art will need to be specified in the new contract. The reality is that issues like the privatisation/adoption of the Venkatappa gallery are going to crop up again and again.

The GoK has also signed MoUs in Belur and Halebidu with Cafe Coffee Day and for the Government Museum with Jindal Foundation; contracts that will almost certainly be questioned in light of the Venkatappa issue.

This is a trend that is not going to go away, especially, given the cuts in government funding to the arts. Artists and citizens are going to have to be more mindful and vigilant about how these contracts are negotiated in the coming years.

References

Jaishankar, Vedam (2016): “Protests over Venkatappa Art Gallery may Sully Culture, and a Revered Institution, in Karnataka,” Firstpost, 23 March, accessed on 3 May 2016, http://www.firstpost.com/india/protests-over-venkatappa-art-gallery-may-doom-culture-as-we-know-it-in-karnataka-2691870.html

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