PPP can help improve Venkatappa Art Gallery

Venkatappa Art Gallery is in the news, because artists are protesting the proposed private participation in the maintenance of the art gallery. V Ravichandar writes on the situation and possible solutions.


Being a proponent for the Government of Karnataka’s (GoK) decision to ‘Adopt a Destination’ under CSR, one is saddened to see some artists put out misleading and wrong information to ensure that the Venkatappa Art Gallery (VAG) adoption MoU signed between the Government agencies and Tasveer Foundation is cancelled. Terms like ‘brutal, undemocratic takeover’, ‘surreptitious MoU’, ‘usurp public resources’, ‘prime real estate capture’ are being bandied about giving the impression that some of us (who believe that VAG adoption is good for Bengaluru citizens) are descendants of Darth Vader!

Bengaluru citizens will gain with this adoption program. We might well revert to status quo on running VAG if GoK decides so, but let the decision be based on a fair and open consideration of the issues involved and not on a misrepresentation of facts. So to make my case for the adoption, here is my take on the frequently cited objections to the VAG adoption. Firstly, a disclaimer is in order – I am co-chair of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group (KTVG) which is under attack (understandably we are fair game) by the artists wanting MoU cancellation. I am writing this note in my personal capacity and as a self-styled ‘Professor of difficult causes’ who believes that Bangalore comes alive in its public spaces and many of them need rejuvenation (with infusion of funds and operational excellence) to appeal to a wider audience.

Honey, they are privatising VAG

Let’s start with the privatisation bogey. By no yardstick is the GoK adoption program a privatisation initiative. Have a look at the MoU – it clearly states a 5 year + 5 year arrangement and the premises is never ever detached from Government ownership.

Further, the MoU makes it clear that any net income under this arrangement has to be reinvested in the running of the gallery. And at the end of the tenure, the property with any infrastructural enhancements reverts to the government. To me, the GoK adoption scheme looks like a great winning proposition for Karnataka citizens and Sarkar.

This is a conspiracy of KTVG to bring in privatisation

Select artists have been going to town with conspiracy theories of how the Tourism Vision group plotted this adoption and that the decision to hand over to Tasveer Foundation was clandestinely taken by KTVG since Abhishek Poddar was a member during the late 2013 deliberations among over 55 members. Nothing could be further from the truth. The KTVG report is available here. Where in this report is there any mention of the adoption program under CSR?

One endorses the GoK cabinet decision to do this and personally (as a co-author of the report) it’s a regret that we at KTVG did not think of the adoption under CSR! Once the State cabinet had taken the decision to adopt destinations and issued the Govt Order, the Tourism Minister reached out to Corporates / Philanthropic Institutions to come forward to adopt places under this program. Some of us also spread the word about the GoK adoption program which resulted in the few adoption MoUs (eg. Belur Halebid by Coffee Day; Government Arts Museum by Jindal Foundation including VAG by Tasveer Foundation).

But transparency was not followed in the process and the decision is undemocratic

Another innuendo put out by select artists and carried by the press is that the Kannada & Culture Ministry (under which the State Archaeology department comes) was in the dark about this adoption. How is this claim tenable? The State Archaeology department, a department of the

Kannada & Culture Ministry is a signatory to the MoU. There was a function held to exchange the MoUs with the Chief Minister, The Kannada & Culture Minister and many other cabinet Ministers in attendance – see picture below. As for the democratic decision, is the case of the artists that the State cabinet is not empowered to take a decision for adoption under CSR?

The artists have an emotional attachment to VAG. But why did you let your loved one deteriorate?

True on both counts. The artists do have an emotional attachment to VAG and the coming together to protest the adoption is a sign of that. Folks recall a few memorable events from the ‘80s, ‘90s. But if the artists’ hearts bled for VAG, how did they allow the place to go to seed over the last decade and more.

Do take a trip to VAG and see for yourself the state of the building and the exhibits – does it do justice to a place set up in the ‘70s under the donation terms of the Venkatappa family? Ask yourself – what memorable art events in the last decade made you and your family head for VAG? The place has gone to seed and Government by suggesting adoption has indicated its road map to fix the place for the next decade.

There was one artist, SG Vasudev who has a track record of working tirelessly for VAG over the years. The fraternity chooses to condemn him unfairly.

Examine this document. It has the VAG bookings from 2011 to date. Check for yourself how many of our leading artists have chosen to exhibit their wares at VAG? One admires artists for their creative skills. But it’s a telling comment that when it comes to their own events, many prefer the cooler five star and private galleries. If they really cared for VAG, they could well have put it on the global map by doing their exhibitions and events there.

Which brings me to a veteran artist, SG Vasudev (SGV). I have long been an admirer of the man’s humility and grace. I now find that he has done the most for VAG and art in the city in a collaborative manner.

He has been the spark behind the regular Ananya Drushya every month at VAG to popularise art. So too for the public Art Park event on the first Sunday of the month held next to Ravindra Kalakshetra to provide a forum for lesser known artists. He has tried hard all along to make them collective endeavours and has succeeded in enthusing a number of artists, especially young ones, to be active in both enterprises. The decision to make Hebbar’s collection a permanent one at VAG was due to the efforts of SGV along with the then K&C Secretary, Mr. Chiranjiv Singh. The last structural intervention at VAG (a roof on the first floor terrace) was due to his intervention with the then Tourism Secretary, Mr. Vithal Murthy.

Now he is persona non grata with those fighting against the VAG adoption. Why? Because he had the temerity to suggest publicly that we must be open to look at possible options that is in the best interests of the city including setting up a trust to run the place or the VAG adoption. It is unfortunate that the pain caused to SG Vasudev led him to pen a missive to the fraternity restating his stance.

My limited observation is that if the artists could pillory one of their own (who has done the most for VAG), can we trust them to speak up for the best interests of the city?

Which brings us to the stakeholders of VAG.

The protesting artists claim that they are the only stakeholders who matter in VAG. One begs to differ. There are 4 stakeholders – firstly citizens, then the artists, government and if the adoption goes through, the donor. Any resolution of the VAG adoption has to find common ground that is fair to all the stakeholders. And as for the protesting artists, it would be good for Bengalureans to know their specific involvement with preserving VAG as it went into decline over the last many years. This becomes relevant as they now demand that the keys to the place be handed over to them along with government grants.

Artists say VAG is a space primarily for artists. Really? It’s a place that belongs to all Bengalureans. It’s a public resource. Check. It’s accessible to all. Check. It’s a democratic space. Check. One does not see how any of these laudable objectives is given up if VAG is adopted by Tasveer Foundation. If anything the Government is ensuring sustainability of this mothballed building into a vibrant public space. One can understand that there can be a concern that VAG could become an elitist place. Safeguards can be built to make it inclusive – for instance, a ‘free’ and ‘for a fee’ area can help address this. The way forward would be to build in the requisite checks and balances in the adoption program to ensure public interests are protected.

But this implies that artists are willing to engage in a dialogue. And that’s not happening.

In a meeting with the Tourism Minister, a group of artists were adamant that nothing less than MoU cancellation would satisfy them. The Minister suggested that they could meet again after a week to discuss legitimate concerns and offered to make the acceptable changes to the MoU. But this was spurned outright and one hopes they were not speaking for all artists when they ruled out any further discussions. They wanted the MoU cancelled, the State to provide funds for VAG and hand it over to the artists. One wonders whether this too can be classified as an attempt at a ‘brutal, undemocratic takeover’ by the artists!

Check out Tasveer Foundation’s plans Abhishek Poddar of Tasveer Foundation has put out the plans for the premises. Do read it. What’s not to like about the adoption?

There is a whisper campaign underway that Abhishek Poddar cannot be trusted and VAG will be converted into a private gallery for profit. This kind of maligning an individual who has come forward under a CSR adoption scheme of the Government is totally unwarranted, more so when there are operational conditions in the MoU and there will be a governance / administrative structure cleared by the Government.

Some say it is inconceivable that Abhishek would come forward to do such an adoption without vested interest. History is littered with so many folks (including ‘robber barons’) choosing to do public good, be it donations / endowments for universities, arts and culture, healthcare, education, poverty eradication, etc. Bengalureans need to be thankful that Abhishek has chosen to upgrade and run VAG as a public space.

Which finally brings us to the four options that may play out.

Going ahead with the adoption MoU signed by GoK incorporating any legitimate concerns of the artists and any other citizens

  • In my view, this is in the best interest of the city. We have a donor with great plans for VAG. If anything, we need to hasten implementation  

Heed the protesting artists’ demand of MoU cancellation, provide Government funds and hand over VAG to an amorphous group of artists

  • It will take a very brave Government Minister / Official to take ownership for this decision and any consequences arising from this artists’ handover along with Sarkar money. Good luck!  

Setting up a VAG trust that improves and runs VAG

  • Will need a well-honed, acceptable proposal (including trustees, significant non-government funding) to be tabled and finding Government folks willing to champion it internally with minimal Government involvement. Is anyone coming forward to take ownership to pilot this?  

Status quo. VAG goes into terminal decline if that’s possible

  • Inevitable if the adoption proposal is jettisoned. The city will be the loser.

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