Seven months after a private foundation signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Karnataka to maintain the Venkatappa Art Gallery in Bengaluru, the move still continues to be opposed and discussed by artists across the state.
The primary bone of contention in the tussle, is that many artists say that art cannot be handed over to the discretion of private players, while the Foundation says that it will only improve the existing setup.
The Venkatappa Art Gallery was set up by the state government in 1970. Owned by the Department of Archaeology, the building on Kasturba road is a shadow of its former glory.
The first stop for a visitor are the works of K Venkatappa, after whom the gallery is named, but you would not know that: there is neither an introduction to the artist nor are there labels indicating his work. Some of the paintings in the gallery are also reportedly damaged due to climatic conditions.
Museum of Art and Photography, a division of Bengaluru-based Tasveer Foundation entered into a private-public partnership with the state government in July 2015. According to the MoU, the legal status of the building would vest with the Department of State Archaeology. The MoU is for five years, and can be extended by five years on mutual agreement. Revenues earned through the VAG would have to be pooled back into the cost of maintaining the project, according to the MoU.
Among those are opposed to the move is the Venkatappa Art Gallery Forum, which has sought views from artists to develop an alternative vision plan for the rejuvenation of the gallery. The forum believes that the Foundation has plans to “make changes to it that will take away our democratic use of the space as well serve a more elite class of people”.
In a Facebook post, the group raised questions about why the Foundation's plans for the gallery were not placed in the public domain, and why artists are not being consulted.
“What the artists are trying to protect by opposing MAP's plans is a small and underused part of the gallery that only caters towards a few artists being able to pay to hang up their own work. This isn't actually very democratic, if you think about it, as art spaces shouldn't function on the idea of those who pay get their work shown, but by independent curators selecting what's in the public interest,” says Nathaniel Gaskell, associate director of Museum of Art and Photography.
However, according to the MoU: “All curatorial, exhibition, and programming decisions shall be governed by MAP, its curators and advisory panel.”
Asked about this, Nathaniel said that decision-making committees would include representatives of artists from within Karnataka and outside. These names were being discussed, he said.
Currently, artists can pay Rs 800 day to use the space for exhibitions and visitors’ fees are Rs. 5 per person. The Foundations plans to revise the rents, but Gaskell said that “the place would remain affordable”.
“We will have days when the space would be available for free and artists can book the space in advance. There is also a provision for concessional rental rates for artists with smaller budgets,” he adds.
A plan for the “Art District”
Gaskell said that the goal was to turn the place into an “art district” by setting up more galleries.
Asked whether there would be major alterations, Nathaniel said that the Tasveer Foundation would fund the preservation and protection of the current collection, and undertake developments which would attract more visitors. A new museum to alongside the VAG is on the anvil. The Foundation also proposes to create educational and outreach initiatives to reach all sections of the society, Gaskell said.
“We won’t replace what's there, only make it better, more appealing and relevant to the public while keeping it affordable and inclusive. It's seems so sad and closed-minded to me that this is something that would be blocked,” he said.
Asked about allegations that a trustee of the Foundation, Abhishek Poddar would take over the gallery, Gaskell pointed out that Mr Poddar is one of four trustees, and that the project would then be managed by a management board, advisory committee and various other committees made up of artists, administrators and nominees from the government.
Dialogue with artists
Gurudas Shenoy, a Bengaluru-based artist, has said that the move would “defeat the very purpose of founding the art gallery and compromise with the interest of the artist community”.
However, when contacted for this story, Shenoy said that a group of artists would hold a media conference soon and did not wish to speak to journalists until then.
Previously local artists had suggested that the Lalita Kala Academy be given the task of overhauling the gallery.
Ravi Kashi, a Bengaluru-based artist, says another problem had contributed to the current stand-off: lack of dialogue between the foundation and the artist community.
“Talking through media is no way to do it. The artist need assurance that the space where they congregate whenever they feel should not be disturbed. They should be consulted before making any changes or at least asked what they would like to have,” he said.