BENGALURU, India — In July of last year an agreement was signed to turn one of the oldest public art galleries in this city of 11.5 million over to a private foundation. With the news of the secretive agreement having emerged early this year, the local artist community has come out in opposition, determined to retain the Venkatappa Art Gallery (VAG) as a cultural commons.
Nearly every weekend of this summer of unprecedented and debilitating heat, artists, writers, and other creative practitioners here have been out on the streets protesting a takeover of the government-run VAG by the privately managed Tasveer Foundation. Their protests have included a day when hundreds of the intelligentsia sat before Town Hall under black umbrellas, blowing shrill whistles; a “Hug-VAG” day; a human chain; and a day when the artists painted, drew, sculpted, and crafted at the VAG in a bid to emphasize its value as a public space. An online petition that opposes the Karnataka state government’s decision to hand over what the artists consider nearly complete control of the gallery and its collection to a private entity is making the rounds and has accrued over 1,000 signatures.
The VAG was founded in 1974 with a collection of works by the renowned painter K Venkatappa, which were donated by his family. It has remained government-run since its inception and its collection has grown to include large bodies of work by other well-known artists from the state, including C P Rajaram and K K Hebbar. The gallery sits on prime real estate in the central business district of the city, with posh neighborhoods, the expansive Cubbon Park, upscale shopping hubs, government offices, the High Court, and Vidhan Soudha, the seat of the state government, all within walking distance. It is also in the same compound that houses the popular Government Museum and the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum, both popular destinations for school trips and tourists.
The gallery’s location is an important consideration in the feared takeover by the businessman, collector, and art dealer Abhishek Poddar and his Tasveer Foundation. Apart from being the owner of the local lifestyle store Cinnamon, Poddar runs the Tasveer Gallery, which is “dedicated to promoting and showcasing contemporary photography” and represents some of India’s most famous photographers, including Raghu Rai, Prabuddha Dasgupta, and T S Satyan. The Tasveer Foundation, about which very little is known, aims to establish a Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in the VAG premises.
In July of last year, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed by the Department of Tourism and the Department of Archeology, Museums, and Heritage of Karnataka state “with an aim to promote art and culture in the city of Bangalore, to both residents and tourists, MAP, a Division of the Tasveer Foundation will take up the course of the adoption on the Venkatappa Art Gallery tourist destination, as a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative, and in doing so, will redevelop of various facilities (sic).” The MoU adds that “all curatorial, exhibition, and programming decisions shall be governed by MAP, its curators, and advisory panel.” While the MoU was signed nine months ago, it was only earlier this year that the art community got wind of it.
Local artists soon formed the VAG Forum, a group that now consists of a larger creative community from all over Karnataka and supporters from around the country and across the world. Picking apart the MoU, the objections they have raised are many, foremost being that that the agreement gives Tasveer Foundation and Poddar complete control over VAG, allowing him to use it to show his collection and potentially promote his business interests. VAG has long been a space that allows art students and emerging artists to hire the gallery at nominal charges to show their works. It also emerged early on that the Department of Kannada and Culture, under whose aegis VAG falls, was neither made aware of, consulted with, nor involved in the MoU process. Nor is there a website for the Tasveer Foundation, or any mention anywhere of who its trustees are. A Wikipedia entry for Poddar says that the foundation is “a not-for-profit to manage and archive his extensive collection with a desire to use it to increase interest in the visual arts in India.”
An idea of what may be in store for the future of the VAG can be gleaned from a note Poddar published on Facebook last month. In it, he says that though the museum will be created with large private donations, funding, and expertise, “the initiative is not in the realm of privatization nor is it a takeover.” He maintains that the “existing collections will remain a key attraction,” adding that a “private collection, through exhibitions, will be visible to the public for the first time.” While the MoU remains unclear about what the proposed renovations will mean for the existing building, Poddar’s note elaborates that brand new galleries will be built, along with a new auditorium, art library, café, conservation lab, and digital interpretation zones. “These new facilities will be housed in a renovated and redesigned expanded building,” Poddar writes. The question of why Poddar wants to use a public space to house a private collection and the clause that MAP will retain full programming control have led to fears that the space will no longer be easily available to the community. Artist Pushpamala N, writing as her alter ego The Phantom Lady in an essay that details the complicated workings of this attempted privatization, says, “VAG has acted like an incubator of art for us, and we want to keep it for future generations.”
The potential privatization of a common space is at the heart of the VAG dispute. The MAP is welcome in Bengaluru, the members of VAG Forum insist, but they are against it taking over the VAG. Calling the MoU a “sinister new precedent” in her essay, Pushpamala questions Poddar’s motivations for wanting to turn the official state gallery into museum for his private collection. While the creative community insists that only a total scrapping of the MoU would be acceptable, the state government remains reluctant to revisit the decision. It is an impasse that seems nowhere close to being resolved.