A Sweetheart Deal and the Cultural Commons: Battle for Venkatappa Art Gallery

by The Phantom Lady

Cynical governments, greedy corporates and paid mobs are invading our intellectual and cultural spaces in a pincer move, squeezing out all independent thought and creative action. Karnataka artists are fiercely opposing the state government move to hand over the official state art gallery in Bangalore to a corporate collector to rebuild and house his private museum.

VAG @ Town Hall 20th March 2016

A Sweetheart Deal and the Cultural Commons: Battle for Venkatappa Art Gallery

Eight months ago, the Karnataka Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) practically giving away the Venkatappa Art Gallery (VAG), the official state gallery, to Tasveer Foundation, the family trust of Abhishek Poddar in a private-public partnership. Tasveer Foundation plans to build a new Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) to house Poddar’s collection on the site. When a colleague alerted us a month ago, there was an electric response and the artist community gathered in large numbers in meetings for intense discussions. The consensus was to reject the MOU and stop the take over of the state institution by any corporate house. The art community has formed the Venkatappa Art Gallery Forum or VAGforum to oppose the MOU.

March 6 – We@Venkatappa, #HugVenkatappa / March 19 – Wepaint @Venkatappa / March 20- We@Town Hall/ March 27- MOU Read* Rejected* Recycled*

VAG- March 6More than 500 artists, art scholars and art lovers occupied VAG on Sunday, March 6th from 11 am to 6 pm in a day of protest and creative actions, in a wonderful show of solidarity. We made a human chain around VAG and later discussed the whole issue of the MOU in a meeting. The mood was festive, with people performing, drawing and singing in different parts of the building and gardens. People took photographs of themselves hugging the building as an echo of the “Chipko” or “Appiko” movement, which were printed on the spot, and put up. There was another day of landscape painting at VAG on the 19th and a spectacular public demo at the Town Hall on 20th March with black umbrellas, whistles and drums. Leading figures and groups from theatre, film and literature addressed the gathering in support. Again on Sunday, the 27th of March, artists gathered at VAG for the MOU Read/Rejected/Recycled Live Action where artists and children did creative acts with the MOU copies. Artist groups in towns all over the state are organizing protests.

Tasveer Foundation thought this would be a triumphal march and did not expect fierce opposition. MAP at VAG is being projected as god’s gift to the Bangalore public, and the protesting artists as spoilsports.

Artists are not against the Museum of Art and Photography coming up in Bangalore. We are against it being built on the land of the Venkatappa Art Gallery. We oppose any corporate house taking over our cultural commons. Why should Abhishek Poddar want the official state gallery to build MAP when he can rent or get any property or heritage site to house his collection? We would go to see it, have a coffee and salute it. This MOU is a sinister new precedent. All major art collectors in India like the Kiran Nadar of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Lekha and Anupam Poddar of Devi Art Foundation, Ebrahim Alkazi of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, or Priti Paul of Apeejay Media Gallery to name a few, have set up world class museums of their art collections on their own land.

There is an example of a benign private-public partnership (PPP) in the case of the historic Bhau Daji Lad City Museum in Mumbai, which is the first of its kind. The Jamnalal Bajaj Trust is in a tripartite agreement with the Mumbai Municipality and INTACH. The trust gives generous funds for conservation, maintenance and running of the heritage museum. However, they will not occupy it, build a new building on it, put in their own collections, or get co-branding with it, as Tasveer Foundation plans to do with VAG. If Tasveer Foundation will fund VAG for its maintenance, conservation and activities, we welcome it. It will be philanthropy.

The Venkatappa Art Gallery is the official Karnataka State Art Gallery. The building is on two acres of prime land in the Museum Complex at Cubbon Park in the centre of the city. It is not an empty shell. It houses the heritage collections of K. Venkatappa, K.K. Hebbar and C.P. Rajaram donated by their families. There is an extra gallery space, an auditorium and grounds with a moat, which artists of the state have constantly used since it was built in the 1970s. It is in good condition but needs some upkeep.

MOU BalloonsIt is an inclusive and democratic space, which can be hired cheaply by young artists and those from the provinces and also excellent for non-commercial and experimental art projects, festivals, workshops, seminars, talks and meetings. Most of us here, like myself, have had our first solo shows in VAG. Through the years, there have been group shows, collective projects, eight state Kala Melas, a retrospective of RM Hadpad, The Khoj International Artists Residency, The International Live Art Festival, Co-Lab and Ananya Drishya artist talks, a major IFA Asian Museum Curators Conference, to name a few activities – open and free to all. Will MAP be able to do these things? Do we need an exclusive wine and cheese place here? We usually do kaphi and vade. VAG has acted like an incubator of art for us, and we want to keep it for future generations.

We are fighting for the cultural commons and our public space. This is a wrong precedent by the government: where a public cultural institution is being given away carte blanche to a corporate house to occupy and rebuild. This has never before happened in India and is against public interest.

“At this point, globalization is everywhere a capitalist project, developing simultaneously on the regional and world scales. But this project is always expressed through local systems of governance and culture – – Neoliberalism as the dominant ideology of contemporary capitalism is preaching about free and unrestrained market, privatization of public commons and limitation of the role of the state in those processes.”

– Zoran Pantelić | Branka Ćurčić, “Cultural Commodification and Its Consequences in the Neoliberal “Niche”. Globalization – Core-Periphery Hierarchies.”

VAG March 6 protest

It is a scandal that the state government which has the responsibility to run the entire state, claims not to have the money or expertise to run a small gallery. It is ignorant to say the state lacks expertise. Karnataka has artists, art scholars and curators of high repute and vast experience.

Theatre people here who have a strong lobby, have already got the government to build Ranga Mandiras – theatres – in each district in Karnataka way back in the 1980s. We not only demand that the state invest and run this gallery in consultation with the art community, but also build a string of art galleries all over the state to develop the art scene.

VAGforum has studied this MOU thoroughly with legal experts. The MOU is vague, flimsy and lacks scrutiny. It is a sweetheart deal, which Tasveer Foundation has written in its own favour and signed by the government officials without any safeguards. MAP gets free rein to occupy and use the VAG space with no responsibilities. The MOU was signed between the State Tourism and Archeology Departments and Tasveer Foundation without consulting the art community which is a sign of malafide intent. A cultural institution comes under Culture, and not Tourism, which is under the Industries Department; the Tourism Department had no business to sign the MOU.

The very idea of ‘tourism’ taking over culture shows the deeply flawed conception that art and culture is only for entertainment and profit – for tourism in fact – rather than something central to the identity of a people, an expression of human creativity and philosophical exploration of the world.

MOU Read, Rejected, Recycled 27 March -We find many areas of conflict of interest. Abhishek Poddar, as a primary member of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group which created this policy, himself identified VAG for adoption by his Trust. He is the Director of the non-profit Tasveer Foundation which signed the deal (strangely a shadow entity with no website or information about trustees or its activities), and MAP (http://map-india.org) also a non-profit, but also the owner of a commercial photography gallery Tasveer Art Gallery (http://www.tasveerarts.com), and the Cinnamon lifestyle store.

We wonder where the profit ends and the non-profit begins, and vice versa? We have seen photographs shown and sold in Tasveer and Cinnamon. Photographers Raghu Rai and T.S. Satyan are two of 25 photographers who Tasveer Gallery represents – their works are also in the MAP collection. The same image by T.S. Satyan is shown in both websites. Nathaniel Gaskell, associate director of MAP (non-profit) who is working on the plan of the Museum, is also the curator of Tasveer Art Gallery (profit). While the MOU mentions

The Louvre rather fancifully as a model, in France a state department runs all the state museums. The strength of institutions like the Louvre is their independence from commercial interests.

Poddar is being projected as a philanthropist. Is he building and donating the building of MAP and its collection to the state? The MOU does not say so. The MOU is for 5+5 years. It will take several years and several crores just to build the museum. Will he vacate the building after ten years? Then where will his collection go? Is this a land grab in the guise of philanthropy? And what will happen to the heritage collections already existing in VAG during this building period? Will they be moved to his art warehouse for storage? The families are worried. In the MOU he does not take any responsibility for damages.

If the state is endorsing a private collection by giving it the branding of an official state museum, it should be obvious that the focus should be on Karnataka art. But if you look at the different sections of this eclectic collection, there is hardly any representation of art from Karnataka. What MAP will do is appropriate the existing heritage collections of Karnataka artists in VAG by the co-branding of MAP-VAG, which will give the rest of the collection the credibility of an official state collection.

Where is Poddar’s social responsibility, his sense of inclusivity? What is his sense of location and history? We have not seen him in any art event in Bangalore in the last twenty years, which only shows his utter disdain. Bangalore has a unique art scene run by artists, who have created on shoe string budgets huge public art projects, run international art residencies and collective art spaces. It is considered the avant-garde art capital of India with artists experimenting in new materials and forms like installation art, new media, conceptual photography and live performance besides traditional forms like painting and sculpture. Yet he has hardly supported art activity here or anywhere in the state.

This MAP project is being erroneously compared to the popular Ranga Shankara theatre in Bangalore. Ranga Shankara is a different model altogether (www.rangashankara.org/) and not a PPP. Here, the Sanket Trust was set up by well-known practitioners, who got an empty plot of land from the government to build a world class auditorium, and raised funds for the purpose from the public and business houses. It runs on sponsorship. This was for the use and development of the theatre community, and rented out cheaply to theatre groups with cheap ticketing for the public. If the state had tried to give away the state owned Ravindra Kalakshetra to Sanket Trust to rebuild and occupy, or to a corporate to build an opera house, the entire theatre world would be outraged.

Let us look at the trustees of Ranga Shankara who are Girish Karnad (playwright- Jnanpith award), Arundhati Nag and S. Surendranath, who are all experienced theatre practitioners with S. Parameshwarappa who is an administrator and theatre enthusiast. M.S. Sathyu (theatre director) is a consultant. There is a gravitas and a vision to this group.

March 6 2016 HUGVAGIn MAP, Museum of Art and Photography, the Director is Abhishek Poddar (business, collector), and the Associate Director is Nathaniel Gaskell (a young British curator). The trustees are Arundhati Nag (theatre person), Nirupama Rao (diplomat) and Amanda Miller (expert in marketing Asian art who worked for Bonhams auction house). The Board members are: Kiran Majumdar Shaw (business, collector), Priya Paul (business, collector), Som Mittal (IT), Vivek Gupta (business, collector) and Dilip Cherian (image consultant, political lobbyist) – why a political lobbyist?! Not one of these people is a practitioner of visual art or expert in the field. There seems to be a preponderance of business interests, and usefulness for lobbying in all these names.

When we come to the Advisory Panel we finally find some names from the art world: Dr. Jyotindra Jain, respected scholar, curator and institution builder whose expertise is in tribal, folk, popular art and crafts. Arundhati Ghosh of India Foundation for the Arts is an arts administrator and not an expert on visual art. For a Museum of Art and Photography, there is no expert or practitioner in photography, or in modern and contemporary art, in the list of trustees, board or advisors. There is only one expert from visual art. How serious is this museum, which claims to be world class and wants the status of an official state collection?

IMG_5453Our protest against this MOU is against the backdrop of huge scams where government banks have given thousands of crores of bad loans to renegade business houses. Vijay Mallya, another Bangalore businessman, (strangely not part of MAP) is only the tip of the iceberg. There are scores of such government scams. This is how governments drain their money and have nothing left for culture, and have to sell our institutions to corporate houses. Would anyone tell me how much the private sector has contributed to the development of the city and how much it has taken from our town?

VAGforum will not give up until the MOU is cancelled. We are ranged against a neo-liberal government and the corporate world, which are hand in glove, where the government and media project corporate honchos as the cultural and intellectual faces of the state. But artists and intellectuals and common citizens are supporting us, as it is an issue that concerns all of us in these dark times. We also wonder how MAP will come up at Venkatappa Art Gallery against the will and severe displeasure of the entire art community of Karnataka.

The Phantom Lady
Bangalore, March 2016


The Phantom Lady emerged like a tornado in 1997 and has kept the art world enthralled with her adventures. A small town girl, she is quite at home in the metropolis and keeps a close eye on all the goings on, swooping down now and then to bring some order into the chaos.





One comment

  1. Venkatappa Art Gallery Forum · · Reply

    Reblogged this on Venkatappa Art Gallery Forum.

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