Artists aspire to make Venkatappa Art Gallery a vibrant public space

As the controversy regarding Venkatappa Art Gallery slowly fades away, artists are hoping to help the government in making the Gallery an active tourist spot.

The Venkatappa Art Gallery could well see more activity and action in the coming days, as artists in Bengaluru come together to make the Gallery a vibrant public space and regain its lost glory, and all this without private participation.

The heart of Bengaluru is buzzing with public activities right now. The Rangoli Metro Art Center is a hit because it’s open for all. Vehicle-free Sundays in Cubbon Park attract enthusiastic crowds. With the Venkatappa Art Gallery and the museums being near Metro stations, there is a lot of scope for improving footfalls at the Gallery, feels Suresh Kumar G, an artist. “We want to tap such opportunities, we want to work with the government to make it (the Gallery) a happening place,” he says.

Venkatappa Art Gallery. Pic: Shree D N

Suresh Kumar is a member of the Venkatappa Art Gallery Forum (VAG) Forum, an informal group created by artists to oppose the adoption of Venkatappa Art Gallery by private parties. “Once the memorandum of understanding (MoU) on adoption of the Gallery gets cancelled, artists will sit with officials and plan what needs to be done in the future, to increase public participation and make Venkatappa Art Gallery an active place,” he says.

The Gallery adoption controversy

The MoU referred to by Kumar is the one that paved the way for adoption of the Gallery by the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP). This ran into controversy when several artists objected to it, citing clash of interest, private business interests etc.

It all began when the Department of Tourism, Government of Karnataka, announced a programme in 2014, for the adoption of 46 tourist attractions in the state under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The MoUs signed under this programme created scope for maintenance of the facilities, training of guides, provision of signages, refurbishing of the adopted spaces and the like.

The above was officially proposed in a government order dated September 16 2014. The GO, besides identifying places in Karnataka for CSR adoption, says that: “Corporates will finance the activities, operations and maintain the facilities on their own rather than transferring the funds to any Government body/department. Corporate willing to adopt such tourist destination will also ensure adequate funding is provided to improve and maintain the facilities for a minimum period of 5 years.”

The list of locations up for adoption included the Venkatappa Art Gallery, established in 1975 as a museum holding the works of K Venkatappa and also a space for artists from all over Karnataka to showcase their art. However, the administration of the art gallery lying in the hands of the Department of Archaeology, Museum and Heritage, that falls under Kannada and Culture Department. There was not enough attention paid to the Gallery. There were instances where concerned artists submitted a list of issues in the Gallery that needed immediate attention and did not require a huge budget. However, nobody acted on these requests.

As a result, the Gallery was sorely neglected. Lack of maintenance led to leaking roofs and dull rooms lacking visual appeal, absence of proper lighting for the art works and far-from-optimum space utilisation, with no thought given to the presentation of art works.

No funds, no self-sustenance

Lack of funds was cited most often as reason for the sorry state of affairs. The Gallery generated a revenue of Rs 30,000 per month on average. The entry ticket for public, priced at Rs 4 for adults and Rs 2 for children above five years, covers one visit to the government museum and the Venkatappa Art Gallery.

Besides, the Gallery charges Rs 500 per day for exhibitions, where the booking must be for five days at the least and ten days at the most. For the auditorium, the charges are Rs 500 per evening, with projector. For group shows, the charges are Rs 750 per day. An air conditioned room with a projector also costs Rs 500 per day. Artists say this is the cheapest in town, and hence the best option, particularly for budding artists.

With low rental values and meagre revenue levels, the Gallery automatically depended on the government for funds and maintenance. The shows happen only when someone wants to conduct an exhibition, but there is no curator who looks at what to present and how to present in the Gallery.

There was no publicity given for the individual exhibitions that happen at the gallery, and no plans to attract the general public to the gallery. All these factors made the Gallery an easy choice for the CSR adoption list.

Enter private participation

After the cabinet decision to get 46 public heritage and tourism places under CSR, the then-Tourism Minister R V Deshpande asked corporates to come forward and express interest to adopt them. The Tourism Vision Group was also asked to spread the word.

Abhishek Poddarwho heads the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), a division of a nonprofit trust Tasveer Foundation, was interested and applied for adoption of Venkatappa Art Gallery. MAP entered into an agreement with the Department of Archaeology, Museum and Heritage, (that falls under Department of Kannada and Culture, Government of Karnataka) and the Department of Tourism on July 15, 2015 for the adoption and maintenance of the Gallery. The Tourism Department didn’t have any control over the Gallery and acted as a facilitator.

What did the MOU say?

  • The MOU gave Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) the rights to construction, landscaping, illumination, operation and maintenance activities related to conservation, preservation and development of monuments and basic facilities in VAG.
  • The MOU proposed plans to redevelop and improve the display and visitor experience of the existing gallery, bringing in a new collection of art, and operating a new series of public programmes and events.
  • The MOU barred the Department of Archeology, Museum and Heritage from going for anyone else other than MAP, to redevelop the gallery.
  • The MOU said the revenue generated in the gallery as collection of entry fee shall be reinvested directly to offset costs related to the establishment and maintenance of the project.
  • All curatorial, exhibition and programming decisions shall be governed by MAP, its curators and advisory panel.
  • There will be a part of the gallery available for a fee. For deserving cases as decided by the advisory board, Poddar had offered a concessional charge or even free use. The lawns outside, and in all likelihood the ground floor, would have been a free place.
  • MAP needs to submit its plans and designs for the reinvention of the gallery to the Project Implementation Committee (PIC) of the government, headed by the Tourism Minister
  • A governing body, which will be a technical sub-committee of the PIC, would run the space

Artists oppose CSR adoption of VAG

Artists came up vehemently against the adoption proposal and succeeded in drawing the attention of the government and the public towards private adoption of public spaces. They came together under the banner of the VAG Forum, and organised unique protests and art events in support of their cause.

A senior artist, Pushpamala, explained the contentions of the artists in a write up on Citizen Matters. Handing over the maintenance and curation rights of the Gallery to a private party would take away the benefits the public would get from a public space, according to the Forum.

Artists held unique protests in March 2016, asking the government to scrap the MoU on the adoption of Venkatappa Art Gallery. Pic: Shree D N

The Gallery being the cheapest and easily accessible in town, has been used by hundreds of budding and established artists across Karnataka to display their works. Artists feared that the committee set up by the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), would decide whose exhibitions to host, thereby denying space for aspiring budding artists, and artists not recognised by the traditional art fraternity.

All for a public, democratic space

The artists feel that every event or exhibition, irrespective of the origin and the genre of the artist, should be allowed in the Gallery, something which may not happen when there is a private party involved. There is an apprehension that this party can decide which events to host and which to reject, leading to a kind of commercialisation and filtering of artists. Artists feel that a democratic space like Venkatappa Art Gallery should always remain so, accessible to all sects of people.

The inclusivity factor is something that’s on top of artists’ minds. “There are successful private models running in the city, but are they open to hosting events that appeal to a diverse set of audience, such as amateur theatre and Yakshagana etc?” asks Kumar. He fears that the same thing will happen here as well, and the setup will become undemocratic for artists.

“We just love the place. The affordability of services, democratic set up is what everyone is looking for… VAG is public, and democratic. It should remain so,” says Kumar.

Poddar gave a detailed rebuttal to the key accusations, and revealed the complete plans, which failed to allay the fear of the artists, and did not prompt them to get into a meaningful dialogue with Tasveer Foundation.

‘Working with the government the way forward’

“We have plans,” says Kumar, “to make the best use of the space, and hold public art events once in 45 days, planned by curators. We want to make these a regular feature. We are meeting soon to discuss this all.”

As many were questioning the vision of the artists for the Gallery in the event of no CSR funding, in April 2016, the VAG Forum organised a marathon panel discussion, Karnataka World Cafe, for brainstorming on ideas to galvanise the artist community and come up with ideas for the Gallery. Many town planners, architects, artists and others shared their views on what the future of the Gallery should be. A lot of inputs and ideas flowed in.

The artist community wants to revive Karnataka Kala Mela, an event that was organised last in 2003 at VAG and saw over 1,300 artists participate. That was the seventh in the series, after which it was stopped as organisers felt that the youth should take it over.

The community now wants to sit with the government and get many simple changes done, which won’t require big budgets but can change the way the Gallery operates. These would include addressing basic infrastructural problems and appearance changes.

Beyond the Art Gallery: Bengaluru Art Circuit

The movement started by the VAG Forum has now spread much beyond the Gallery. The community was reportedly asked by the Tourism Minister Priyank Kharge to provide inputs on making Bengaluru a hotspot for tourism by identifying the possible avenues.

The community that met on July 31 2016, brainstormed on the idea of Bengaluru Art Circuit. The idea is to identify all art and cultural events that make Bengaluru what it is, and to map them all.

“We will be identifying the existing events where a lot of people gather and put them into a calendar with details, and introduce art events as well. Annual theatre festivals, walks and tours focused on both city centre and other unexplored areas, lake tours etc that are regular features, will be added to a calendar so that those who come to the city can plan what to do in the city,” says Kumar.

The artists will also think about how to bring art and culture activities to these activities. All stakeholders will be involved in the plans.

“All accuse artists of not being active in the social arena, not contributing to society, not being constructive etc. But nobody observes our work. All our works are socially conscious, we practice it everyday and show it… We are not living in ivory towers as we are accused of. We are artists, how can we be overlooked? We will work with the government to solve the issues,” says Kumar.

Kharge says that the Tourism Department wants to engage with artists and plan for Bengaluru Art Circuit. The newly formed Bengaluru Tourism Advisory Committee (BTAC) and the artists will work together to come up with consolidated plans, said the Minister.

‘No hierarchy in the Forum, democratic set up’

The VAG forum also decided against forming a formal trust. A strong resolution was taken for the Forum to remain a watchdog for the art community in Karnataka, with all artists being equal stakeholders. In the format discussed for the future of the Forum, anybody who has their views aligned with the Forum could be a member, and there will be no hierarchy. There will be no leaders. It will be an open-ended forum.

The Forum has decided that feedback from the art community will be shared whenever the concerned departments ask for it. Kumar makes it clear that the artist community is not after power or control, but wants to work democratically with the government to set things right in Venkatappa Art Gallery.

What will happen to the VAG MOU?

According to Ravichandar V, a member of Bengaluru Tourism Advisory Committee (BTAC) the ball is in the government’s court now. If the MoU is scrapped, it will affect the confidence of the other corporates that have come forward to adopt the other tourist attractions in the list, he says. So the government will have to deal with it carefully.

Poddar, according to sources, has sought clarity from the government on the MoU, while the MoU remains in cold storage for now. Sources in the know say that any of the parties can withdraw from the project.

Artists feel that the government is supportive of their concerns. Priyank Kharge who replaced R V Deshpande as Tourism Minister in the latest cabinet reshuffle, visited the Gallery and took stock of the situation. He met the VAG forum artists and promised to look into the VAG MoU issue. The artists have decided to pursue the cause till the MoU is scrapped.

Priyank Kharge says that the department has consulted both the parties and is taking legal opinion on the matter. Since the MoU has already been signed the legal repercussions will be weighed in and a decision taken soon.

The adoption scheme, however, does not seem to be a great hit among corporates. There has been lukewarm response to the adoption proposal. Out of 46 places, only four or five places have attracted the interest of the corporates. Jindal Foundation has signed an MoU for adoption of the Government Arts Museum located next to Venkatappa Art Gallery. Lalbagh was adopted by the Bangalore Chamber of Industry and Commerce (BCIC), but as there was no one to fund it, they have backed out. Belur-Halebid was adopted by Coffee Day Enterprises Ltd. However, none of the MoUs relating to corporate adoption are in the public domain.

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