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Art needs a wider 'canvass'

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

Six decades after independence and nearly two decades after economic liberation, India has little to show by way of art in the public domain. According to some estimates, the USA alone has over 600 trusts and foundations that display art, mount fund-raisers to acquire more works and encourage research, while Europe has traditionally enjoyed a great capacity to divert corporate spending in this direction. Even China has managed to create a vibrant art community with museums and galleries and state-sponsored foundations that have brought contemporary art into the mainstream of Chinese life.

India’s poor record on this score is only too evident. Other than the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, Mumbai and now Bangalore, or Kala Bhavan in Bhopal, a country with a population of a billion-plus simply has no stake in contemporary art. Sure, there are galleries — but their main function is transacting sales, not providing a comprehensive or even a specialised or thematic overview of the art scene in the country.

And yet, it isn’t as though there is a shortage of art collectors — or sufficient funds —in the country. Collectors spend crores of rupees to build personal collections, but have not thought to institutionalise those collections. Any CSR activity has remained confined to those that traditionally held sway — of dedicating a temple, a school and a well (though this has increasingly lost its relevance) to various family elders or ancestors. While any support of education, or slum development, is welcome, the void when it comes to supporting art is a visible lacunae.

Whether it is old money or new wealth — the Tatas or ITC as much as the likes of Infosys or Wipro — no one has thought to generate a corpus fund to build and house an art collection, underlining the apathy towards art in the national consciousness. We have failed to produce the Rockefeller or Onassis model of art trusts, a need that is now being felt as significant works by modern and contemporary artists find international buyers, or private collectors, as a result of which they disappear forever from public view. A vibrant art culture can be created when such art is displayed, or talked about, in the mainstream rather than just among a peer cognoscenti. Several galleries, curators and other members of the art fraternity speak of the importance of such foundations, and say the current slowdown provides the right opportunity to build corpus corporate collections at the right price, while also re-invigorating the art environment.

As always, there are a few exceptions, though it must be noted that they do not come from India’s major corporate club. The Devi Art Foundation, housed in an office building in Gurgaon, is the most prominent for breaking the mould of collector indifference. Housing the collection of Anupam Poddar and his mother Lekha Poddar, the Devi Art Foundation is dedicated to showcasing contemporary art, facilitating viewership and encouraging subcontinental art practices. The 7,500 feet of space is offered to curators to innovate and experiment, developing thematic aspects from the extensive Poddar collection.

A larger experiment, this one in the public-private domain, is scheduled to come up in Kolkata with the launch, some time next year, of the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art. A Rs 550 crore venture of the West Bengal state government with the private sector represented by Rakhi Sarkar, its managing trustee, the museum’s corpus funding got off to a start last year with an auction of contemporary and modern art at Sotheby’s that raised $1.5 million for the venture. KMOMA is being designed by Switzerland-based Herzog & de Meuron (with the Tate Modern in London, and Beijing’s bird’s nest stadium to its credit) in the city’s Rajarhat, with Delhi-based architect S K Das as local partner. When complete, it will likely house India’s most ambitious art collection after the National Gallery of Modern Art, consisting of works from the 19th century on to the current crop of exciting, new media artists.

The only other public outing for the arts currently planned is Neville Tuli’s Osianama, an ambitious project that is under completion at Mumbai’s heritage Minerva cinema that is being restored to house an extensive museum of Indian art, cinematic memorabilia as well as international oddities and collectibles already in excess of 1,60,000 numbers. But if India is to be viewed seriously for its art, interest from the state as well as a thrust from large business houses is important: but who will first bell the cat?

First Published: Wed, May 06 2009. 00:54 IST