W(h)ither Democracy?!

Alaka Rao
(With inputs from Sheela Gowda)

Venkatappa Art Gallery Issue

The handing over of Venkatappa Art Gallery in adoption to a private businessman stands up as a classic case of mockery of propriety. The resistance of the Visual Artists of Karnataka who have taken up cudgels against the Government succumbing to corporate cronyism, raises one question that should haunt every individual – “W(h)ither Democracy?!”
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Art has the amazing power to bring different communities and societies together and is a powerful tool to bring about social change. It also builds a bridge across generations and forgotten cultures. As much as a society needs its farmers and fields, workers and manufactories, scientific researchers and laboratories, physicians and institutions, engineers and industries, academicians and universities…it needs its proponents of introspection and aesthetics – the artist community and their cultural spaces. Art galleries are a cultural gathering space for visual artists and a very significant part of the art ecosystem. A place where artists exhibit their works, spread their ideas, serve aesthetic joy, expose it to polemics and absorb critical comments. An unique space which is a melting pot of culture and where diversity is nurtured!

Venkatappa Art Gallery:

Venkatappa Art Gallery, the Official State Art Gallery of Karnataka is one such gallery which facilitates the artists of Karnataka, a platform to exhibit and evolve. It has been an incubation centre for generations of artists helping them to develop and progress. Venkatappa Art Gallery and its entire environs has been a meeting ground and a site for various art events. It is a place where individual shows, group shows, State exhibitions, All India exhibitions, Kala Melas, festivals, workshops, seminars and meetings have been held. It is also excellent for non-commercial and experimental art projects. The use of the gallery is based on a democratic process of first come first served basis without any discrimination and is economically viable.
When K. Venkatappa’s family donated his works to the Government in 1966, the then Government of Mysore, decided to build a space to house his works. However, the tardiness in construction work frustrated many artists and in 1971 G.S. Shenoy along with fellow-artists U Bhasker Rao, U Ramesh Rao and few others, exhibited their paintings on the stone-cobbled pavement near Bible Society on M.G. Road, as a mark of protest against the Government, demanding a gallery space in the fast developing Bangalore city. The Government realizing the importance for a space solely dedicated to the artist community, completed the construction. The gallery was planned to have 5 floors of which 3 have been in existence. It is situated on 3.5 acres of prime land in the Museum Complex at Cubbon Park in the heart of the city. Today the gallery houses, the heritage collections of K. Venkatappa, K. K. Hebbar and C.P. Rajaram.
Such a heritage space with State artists collections and a Centre of artistic expressions to generations in Karnataka, is now being given in adoption to a private businessman.

Karnataka Tourism Vision Group (KTVG):

In 2013, the Government formed the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group (KTVG) to advise the forming of a new tourism policy to remodel the tourism sector and take it to international standards. A totally urban-centric, non-domain experts body comprising of eminent people and corporate buddies set out to frame a policy which would have a far reaching impact on the society. Several locations were identified across the State to develop better facilities and ensure world class, quality infrastructure for tourists. The Department of Tourism under the ‘Adopt a Tourist Destination’ scheme offered these places for adoption to the corporate sector, with no proper processes laid down nor due diligence. Little consideration for sustainable development, historic conservation and cultural sustainability issues is reflected in the entire exercise. The scheme, the group claims is structured to be extremely investors friendly and it is exactly that. Democratic, cultural heritage spaces have been handed over to businessmen and corporate houses on a platter without any safeguards. An act pernicious to the interest of the common man! On 16th July 2015, in an event presided by Sri. R.V. Deshpande, Minister for Industries (L&M) and Tourism, six MoUs were signed with corporate for adoption of tourist destinations in Karnataka – in the presence of Sri. Siddaramaiah, Chief Minister, Govt. of Karnataka and Smt. Umashree, Minister of Kannada and Culture. One of the location under this scheme is ‘Venkatappa Art Gallery’, Bengaluru and the MoU has been signed between Department of Archaeology and Museums, Govt. of Karnataka, Department of Tourism, Govt. of Karnataka and Tasveer Foundation. Interestingly, the Venkatappa Art Gallery is not mentioned in the PROPOSED KARNATAKA TOURISM POLICY 2014-2019 nor in the Final KARNATAKA TOURISM POLICY 2015-2020 released on 26th March 2015, but four months later on 16th July 2015 a tripartite MoU of Adoption was signed between Tasveer Foundation, Department of Archaeology, Museums and Heritage and Department of Tourism!!

“Venkatappa Art Gallery Forum”:

Artist community of Karnataka were not even consulted before such an important decision was taken. It came as a shock in the first week of February 2016. On 14th February 2016, an artists’ collective called “The Venkatappa Art Gallery Forum” (VAG Forum) was formed. Meetings were held with artists and supporters, where majority of the participants expressed their opinion to oppose this unfair take-over, raise a voice against this deal and initiate a dialogue with the Government of Karnataka. VAG Forum’s collective statement is:
We condemn the unilateral decision of the Ministry of Tourism and the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Karnataka, in signing a MoU with a private entity called MAP – A Division of Tasveer Foundation, to adopt and redevelop ‘Venkatappa Art Gallery’ (VAG) Bengaluru. This act literally hands over to its trustee, Mr. Abhishek Poddar, the entire functional management and programming of VAG, in addition to allowing the building of additional spaces to house his own personal collection. Such a deal is unprecedented in India and elsewhere.
Under the VAG Forum, a nine member delegation of artists met Sri. R.V. Deshpande, Minister for Tourism and expressed disapproval and requested that the MoU be scrapped. Several letters have been written to the concerned Ministers and several meetings held. A brief meeting with Sri. Siddaramaiah, Chief Minister of Karnataka, took place. The concerned Ministers and the Leaders of Opposition parties were met. Simultaneously VAG Forum initiated several events and protests to get this anti-people MOU cancelled.

Why is the Adoption of Venkatappa Art Gallery by a Private Businessman not acceptable?

Loss of Freedom, Culture, Democratic Processes and Affordability:

VAG is the only centrally located, affordable, democratic art space for the entire artist community of Karnataka. This adoption will take away the basic rights of the artist community.
There is an undeniable bond to VAG, as its history is connected to struggles of artists, who time and again raised their voice beginning from completion to the betterment of the space. Hence, the artists feel a sense of special proprietorship and belonging.
VAG is a cultural institution, where a lab of ideas and practices necessary for the culture of a society, generate and flourish. It is offensive when a Government lists Culture under Tourism only.
MAP promises to convert the gallery into an elitist, classy tourist hub for foreign and the rich class of Indian tourists. We have many a private gallery in Bengaluru to cater to this desire.
MAP states that only ‘deserving artists’ selected by their committee members which does not include a domain expert, gets a chance to exhibit. Loss of availability curbs the freedom for an artist and non-domain specialists destroys an artists’ future!

Questions about the Intent of the Government:

By giving away in adoption, is the Government admitting that it does not have the strength to run the only Government gallery and accepts its inability and failure?
Lack of transparency and undemocratic unilateral decision-making in the entire MoU signing process gives rise to doubts. Why were the artists not taken into confidence? Why was the deal done in a surreptitious manner? Has the Government succumbed to corporate lobbying and crony capitalism?
Is a rich businessman more important to the Government than thousands of artists of Karnataka, who will now be thrown right back to the streets?
Venkatappa Art Gallery managed by a businessman? Is this how the State Government respects its cultural heritage ignoring the practitioners in the field?
What kind of service or benefit has Mr. Abhishek Poddar done to the artist community of Karnataka till now, that VAG has been given in adoption to him?
For what is claimed to become a future world-class museum, the entire board of trustees, members and advisers, has only one visual art expert. Karnataka has artists, art scholars and curators of high repute and vast experience. Why were domain-experts not included?
The State Government is endorsing a private collection as the State’s collection by allowing it to be displayed in VAG. Is Poddar’s private collection deemed fit to be in the lines of the State art?
MAP aims to piggyback on the VAG brand by co-branding MAP with VAG, and give its own collection the prestige and credibility of an official State collection. How can this be allowed?
The visitors count in Tasveer Foundation’s gallery on Kasturba Cross Road is abysmally low. MAP intends to bank upon VAG’s prime location and clientele to fuel Poddar’s business ambitions. Isn’t the State Government under the guise of KTVG recommendation offering people’s property to him on a platter?
It is scandalous that the State Government, which has the responsibility to run the entire State, claims not to have the money to run a small gallery. Isn’t it a shame on the Government?

 

Questions arise about the MoU:

The MoU is drafted totally in favour of MAP – A division of Tasveer Foundation, which is an unknown entity that is hardly defined in the document. Could MAP also mean– Museum of Abhishek Poddar?
The entire MoU is flimsy, vague and full of holes, surrendering the rights of the taxpayer to a private entity, to do anything they will, with audacity. Why?
Taking advantage of the gaps in the vaguely framed MoU, Poddar flouted norms and tried to start a cafeteria in the Museum premises. The archaeology department has now stopped it. What other kinds of unstated activities will take place once he has full control?
Construction of additional spaces does not have clarity anywhere in the MoU. Nowhere is it mentioned what he is going to construct, where and for what purpose?
No permission in the MoU for commercial activity, yet it is mentioned that there is a ‘Collection outside of entry fee’. What is that supposed to mean?
Though the private foundation is responsible for the management and maintenance of the gallery, they do not take the responsibility for damage of heritage works, grievances of artists regarding their works and safety of visitors even. Then who is responsible for it?
The MOU is signed for a period of 5 years + a min. of another 5 years, but is MAP going to vacate this prime land and the building after that?

Conflict of Interest:

Poddar, is a member of KTVG which actively worked with the Tourism Dept. in framing the policy and identifying sick destinations. He later identifies VAG and takes it up for adoption through his Trust!
Poddar is the Director of the Tasveer Foundation and MAP- both non-profit organization but is also the owner of Tasveer Gallery and Cinnamon lifestyle store- both commercial set up. Is there a demarcation at all? It is actually Not-for-Profit to help gain more Profit!
The Associate Director of MAP (non-profit) who is working on the plan of the Museum is also the curator of Tasveer Gallery (for profit)!
News reports say that he has commercial interest in FAB, Fine Art Bourse – Online art auction portal and reported to have invested $200,000!

Questions to Mr. Abhishek Poddar:

If Philanthropy is the desire of Mr. Abhishek Poddar, he could have sponsored art activities or organizations of his choice by funding them directly. The many artist led initiatives in Bangalore would have welcomed his generosity.
If Mr. Abhishek Poddar, wishes to build a world class museum, artists welcome it. But it should be built on his own land, elsewhere, not on the land of VAG. Major art collectors in India have all housed their collections in their own spaces. Why cannot Poddar follow the same trend?

VAG Forum – Chain of Events and Protests:

On 6th March 2016, an event at Venkatappa Art Gallery under the banner of ‘We@Venkatappa’ saw more than 500 artists from across Karnataka. They occupied the gallery for the whole day, discussed the MOU point by point and rejected it outright. As a mark of protest, they encircled the gallery in a human chain symbolically, shouting slogans ‘VAG Nammadu Nammadu’. ‘HugVAG’-A photo project saw artists hugging their favourite spot in the gallery and taking photos.
On 19th March 2016, at the event “WePaint@VAG”, a “Tribute to K. Venkatappa!” around 150 artists gathered at Venkatappa Gallery and created paintings of the gallery and its premises, adorned beautifully by the morning rays. A unique form of protest and indeed a perfect tribute to the first Modernist of Karnataka and one of the finest water-colourist & landscape artist!
On 20th March 2016, Bengaluru witnessed a massive protest by artists never seen in the history of visual arts in Karnataka. “We@TownHall”: PROTEST! saw artists with pictures of ‘HugVag’ pinned to their chests holding a black umbrella and waving to slogans, symbolizing the urgent need to protect artists and their ‘One and only Government run Gallery!! A gathering of 500, comprising of artists from all over Karnataka and people from other cultural fields joined the resistance. Waving the black umbrella to the orchestrated beat of drums and the shrill blow of whistles, they formed VAG on the steps of town hall holding ‘Tribute to K. Venkatappa paintings’! A visual treat, indeed!!
On 27th March, Artists of Bengaluru put the MoU to better Use! MoU-Read, Rejected, Recycled – An Artistic Rejection of the Memorandum, was an answer to the Governments’ repeated utterances to the artists to read the MoU even after artists having giving letters to them requesting to scrap it. Artists engaged in ‘Live art performances and MoU recycling action’- sending a strong message to say that the ‘The MoU is as good as scrap now! We ‘Read the MoU!’, We ‘Reject the MoU!’, We ‘Recycle the MoU!’

Support from all Circles:

A signature campaign that was undertaken received a unified and solid response. Around 416 signatures were collected in one day at our first protest ‘We@Venkatappa’ which has now reached 800+. Senior artists of great repute and social concern like Yusuf Arakal, Chandranath Acharya, V. G. Andani, U. Bhaskar Rao, M.B. Patil and C. Chandrashekar have expressed their concern about this adoption and signed the petition asking it to be scrapped. Known artist Pushpamala, art historians like MH Krishnaiah, Anil Kumar and Suresh Jayaram, literary agent Sridhar Aghalaya are all in the thick of this agitation and written articles to shed light on the issue. Eminent people like Abhijit Sengupta, Pritvidatta Chandrashobi, Rajaram Tallur, Indudhar Honnapur and Prabhudeva Shastrimath have contributed through their thought-provoking articles. Artists like KT Shivaprasad, B.S. Desai, VG Andani, Manu Chakravarthy from other districts like Tumkur, Hassan, Belgaum spontaneously organized protests to show their resistance and strengthened the movement. Aavishkara Progressive Cultural Forum has been involved since the start, brought out leaflets, organized protests and promised to garner more support. The vigilant ‘Fourth Estate’ has taken the issue to every door step and created an atmosphere of discussion on the issue at every street corner.
Prominent Theatre personalities like H.G. Somashekar Rao, Kappanna, Shashidhar Adapa, Siddanagowda Patila, K. Muddukrishna, K. Y. Narayanaswamy, Du. Sarasawathi and many more willingly signed the letter. Well Known Poets & Writers like Devannur Mahadeva, Dr. Vijaya, Hampa Nagarajaiah, Kamala Hampana, Chandrashekar Kambara, M.H. Krishnaiah, Allamaprabhu Bettaduru, Shashi Deshpande, S.G. Siddaramaiah, Siddalingaiah, Dr. Chidananda Murthy, Chandrashekara Patil, Co. Chennabasavaiah, C. Veeranna, M. Poornima to name a few, signed and extended their support. Academicians like Pritvidatta Chandrashobi, Dr. Purushothama Bilimane, Sharath Ananthmurthy among others have signed and wished success to the protest. Well-known people from the film circle including Directors and Artists like P. Sheshadri, Girish Kasaravalli, Naagabharana, Tara, Malavika, Avinash, Sunil Puranik, Prakash Urs, Krupaakar – Senaani, Banandur Kempaiah and many more have voiced their concern and supported us. Social activists like Vimala K.S., Dr. B.R. Manjunath, Dr. H.G. Jayalakshmi and Surendra Rao have been with us and expressed their solidarity.
Signature campaign is an On-going process and the VAG Forum is approaching many more well-wishers and supporters. An On-Line Signature Campaign reached 500+ in less than a day. This over-whelming response of people from all circles of the society and from all walks of life proves that “Culture is central to the identity and definition of a place and public cultural institutions must be democratic and open. It is the Government’s responsibility to nurture talent and develop the culture of a state by building, funding generously and providing the infrastructure for art practice and creative thinking to flourish.”

Conclusion:

The Government of Karnataka should scrap the MoU which is detrimental to the growth of arts and culture. It behoves on the Government to safeguard the heritage, culture and people of Karnataka and not be influenced by forces with vested interests. Private players can exist in parallel to the Government initiatives, but cannot replace the Government. This is not only a local issue but one that should disturb artists all over the country. It is unprecedented anywhere that a Government art space is handed over to a private party to rebuild and occupy, with no restrictions. This shameful act of the Government is snatching away the only available democratic space of the artist community!! If it does not fulfill its obligations to its electorate, this Government would be forever known in history as the Government which sounded the death-knell to the artist’s only democratic space in Karnataka.
The Governments’ total neglect towards the gallery shows the Governments’ apathy towards Arts and Culture. It is the responsibility of the Government to create a congenial atmosphere for the growth of the arts. The present act and attitude of the Government is in reality, a clumsy attempt to shirk its expected responsibility. It is the role of every Government to provide space and infrastructure, in short, to encourage the growth and development of arts and culture. In a State with nearly 2 lakh square kilometre area, having more than 64 million population, a State which has produced several prominent artists of international calibre, a State with around 70 art schools having thousands of students, we can boast of having one Government Art Gallery! The Government should now take measures to set up Government galleries in every district of the State!!
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People’s Vision for Venkatappa Art Gallery
To conceive a “People’s Vision for Venkatappa Art Gallery” particularly in the context of Public art spaces, the VAG Forum has initiated ‘KWC-Karnataka World Cafe’ on Sunday, April 10th at Venkatappa Art Gallery. This is a structured strategy where a large group can arrive at a collective vision through smaller, open and intimate conversation and brainstorming of ideas. Artists, Art Curators, Art institutions, Architects, Museologists, Archivists, Administrators with concern for art and All those who have a concern for Public art spaces can participate! “Hither Democracy!”
For further information and insights on #savevag movement please visit http://vagforum.in
Write to vagforumv@gmail.com
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