The annual India Art Summit in its shiny, new avatar as the India Art Fair 2012 is in full swing. It’s looking much more professional this year, with curated walks, art projects, a speakers’ forum, special seminars, talks and other collateral events, elevating the conversation on art to a higher level. Opening up of the space has allowed gallerists and curators to display art works and installations much more aesthetically — murmurs among art professionals are comparing it to the Chelsea Art Fair. So I thought this would be a good time to highlight some unusual entrepreneurial activities in the art and cultural heritage space — start-ups like Pramod Kumar KG’s museum management and archiving services company, art restorer Priya Khanna’s restoration studio and edu-prenuers Katherine Rose and Eliza Hilton’s art education company.
What differentiates these start-ups from the usual art funds, galleries, dealers and other businesses is that in addition to addressing specific, crucial needs in the Indian art arena, these are seeding, growing, deepening and educating the nascent art market. Companies such as Eka Archiving Services, Art Life Restoration Studio and Flow India not just create and conserve our cultural capital, but also build and grow our art ecosystem and facilitate our engagement with it.
The Indian art market exploded into the international imagination a little over a decade ago. But it isn’t enough to have a commercially-thriving art market if it remains shallow — speculators can easily manipulate such markets. For greater sophistication and depth, the Indian art market needs a growing body of genuine art collectors, qualified conservators, curators, critics, restorers and other art professionals. It also needs enduring institutions of learning, galleries to display private and travelling collections, art and design labs, museums and storage infrastructure, in addition to an emphasis on early art education.
In India, the largesse – and intention – needed to create this supporting cast is still missing. Most government funding is directionless – just walk into New Delhi’s National Museum if you want to weep with frustration at the neglect of classical heritage – and private funding is whimsical and uneven. And unlike the West, philanthropy hasn’t quite reached the Indian art world.
Eka’s Pramod set up the Anokhi Museum of Handprinting in Jaipur in 2005. The following year, he consolidated all of Ebrahim Alkazi’s art into the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts. Eka plans to set up a museum on the history of Kalakshetra.
Pramod’s skill lies in transposing Indian art collections from their naturally found old-fashioned state as a store-room of curiosities and contextualising them into something with meaning and theme. Eka tries to creatively interpret and make available a rich learning experience for viewers, going beyond mere visual delight.
“People still don’t understand the value of archiving their collections,” from dating and authenticating to recording and conserving their art works and putting the collections online and making them available to researchers, he says. He has been trying to convince people that museums need to be interactive for the experience to be meaningful and has just set up touchscreen kiosks at the Sanskriti Foundation’s Museum of Textiles in New Delhi. But again, it isn’t just setting up museums, archiving and authenticating that I find attractive about Eka. It’s the founder’s bigger aim to train more people in museology and associated museum sciences — without diverting from the for-profit path. Pramod will set up a dedicated education centre for this, and is currently scouting for space. He also plans to create a conservation cell of photography, painting, textile and paper “that will become the most important conservation centre in India.”
Khanna’s company, The Art Life Restoration Studio, is the one that restored almost all the art at the Taj Hotel that was scarred by the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack — it is now the largest private studio with a full-time trained staff of 18, apart from interns. “We also educate and train students as they apprentice at the studio, helping create meticulous, efficient art restorers to meet the acute shortage of art professionals,” she says as we tour her studio, stepping around priceless works of art.
“We’ve restored paintings, murals, sculptures, ceramics and objects made of glass, wood and metal,” she says. Khanna also prepares condition reports for insurance purposes and advises best care on maintenance. Her studio has restored dozens of the old masters and modern artists such as Manjit Bawa, Tyeb Mehta, Souza, Husain, Raza and Gaitonde, as well as artists of more recent vintage like Bharti Kher and Anju Dodiya.
But the start-up closest to my heart because it addresses a primal, though still unrecognised, need for early art education in India is Flow India. The long-term educational impact it can have, especially on the next generation is invaluable. Unlike the West, Indian school curricula don’t emphasise on art. My kindergartner learnt about Picasso and Van Gogh in his neighbourhood school in California, along with adding numbers and phonetics. By the time he was in first grade, he and his buddies could identify Impressionist art with the same authority that they identified their heart, liver, lungs and kidney. Imagine the repository of art knowledge being created in ordinary people in the West. This adds depths to markets and helps create a body of knowledgeable buyers with the confidence to keep subjective evaluations honest.
Flow India is trying to do something similar by using existing Indian art spaces to teach children how to appreciate art and learn from it. Rose and Hilton leverage their subject knowledge and methodology to teach children the critical ability to recognise colours and styles specific to an era or artist, building reasoning, vocabulary and other life skills in the process.
“We’re seeding the market, building new audiences,” Rose tells me as she explains how they conduct workshops and take parents with children as young as three for guided tours of Indian museums, art galleries, cultural and heritage spaces. But like another Mumbai-based company, Art1st, Flow’s ultimate goal is to develop art and critical thinking modules for schools. “It’s all about transformative learning — properly mediated, structured and modulated edu-tainement,” says Rose.
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