Karnataka Artists Hug Venkatappa Art Gallery, Fight Bid to Privatise It

Indian Express | March 7, 2016

BENGALURU: Artists from across Karnataka formed a human chain to surround the government-run Venkatappa Art Gallery (VAG) on Sunday morning in protest against its ‘privatisation’.

An MoU was signed by the Department of Archeology, Museums and  Heritage and Abhishek Poddar Tasveer Foundation last June. Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), a division of the foundation, intends to take over the gallery for adoption of the tourist destination programme as part of its corporate social responsibility activities. The programme is being implemented according to recommendations by Karnataka Tourism Vision Group at destinations it has identified.

Many from the artist community say they were not aware of the proposed move till about a month ago. They have gone on to form an art collective, Venkatappa Art Gallery Forum, which initiated this ‘creative demonstration’.

Nearly 350 artists, curators and art lovers — going by the number of signatures on a petition circulated early afternoon — unanimously expressed concern that the art space would become less accessible to students of art and up-and-coming artists from the districts.

Such artists, says Mohammed Rizvan, a city-based artist who dabbles in abstracts, are more than happy with the facilities the space currently offers. “After all, how does it matter on what kind of walls the paintings hang?” he says.

Artist and art facilitator at Srishti School of Art Design and Technology, Raghavendra Rao, thinks it is “rather shameful if the government, which is supposed to run the state, cannot run a small space like this one”.

“This is the only gallery in Bengaluru available for `500 a day,” says Dimple Shah, who was also at the event. She and her fellow artists fear that this will go up and only certain artists’ works will be exhibited.

“It’s likely that cliques might be formed,” says artist and cinema art director Badal Nanjundaswamy, also known to use art to call attention to civic issues. “Besides, it’s all very well for established artists like me who are approached by galleries to exhibit. But the others…” he trails off.

“It should also be a hub of activity, made possible by involving artists and art curators,” says artist Surekha, also the former art curator of Rangoli Metro Art Centre.

“Artists have had a few such activities in the past here, and we will have more with renewed intensity. For, if the decision-making power slips from the hands of the government, who knows if we’ll even be allowed to enter the gallery?”

Several forum members, including Sheela Gowda, treasure memories of having had their first shows here. Some even say they were instrumental in setting it up. “In the early 1970s, 10 of us exhibited our works on the footpath in Cubbon Park in protest, saying we wanted the gallery space,” says Shyamsundar, retired faculty of Hyderabad Central University’s Department of Fine Arts.

He and his artist friend Jayakumar G, who heads the Department of Visual Arts in Bangalore University, talk of their struggles to procure space from their respective institutions for the courses they teach. “Art cannot be compared to other professions,” Shyamsundar says.

Jayakumar says finding a private sponsor, like in the galleries and museums in Europe, would be ideal in this case.

Not Privatisation, Says Foundation

Nathaniel Gaskell, associate director of Museum of Art and Photography, says that the artists’ protests is driven by misinformation.

“This is a public-private partnership (PPP), not privatisation,” he explains.

Further, MAP plans to create more gallery spaces and an additional auditorium, besides refurbishing the existing one, he says.

The advisory board includes Dr Jyotindra Jain — “one of the most respected curators and museum professionals in the country” — as well as Arundhati Ghosh, from the India Foundation for the Arts, “another hugely respected figure who promotes inclusion in the arts”, he adds.

The facilities will be affordable, most of them free, he says.

‘Problems with MoU’

Department of Archeology, Museums and Heritage gives the private player the power to give space at the price it fixes, and reserves the right to deny access.

The Tourism Department has told VAG this is a `15-crore project, but the amount hasn’t been mentioned in the MoU.

An artist alleged that this MoU was signed in July 2015, whereas the architect and curator for the project were deployed two years ago.

The document fails to state under what conditions the agreement will be terminated or continued — it merely says it will be signed initially for five years, followed by “a minimum of five years”.

the Campaign

Through the rest of the day, the collective ‘claimed’ the space by sitting in and around the building, sketching or painting. The collective also started a campaign — Hug VAG or Appiko VAG — where artists and patrons clicked photographs ‘embracing’ the gallery.