In the absence of State patronage, non-commercial art spaces in the Capital are thriving on the goodwill of private collectors and evolving a relationship with the public in general

Thinking about art museums, I was unable to recall when I last visited an art museum. Most probably during one of those school trips when going to the museum meant chhutti from boring classes! Some of us may never have visited one, because unlike science, politics or cricket, art was never a prestigious drawing room topic. Or maybe because visiting an art museum in India was never enticing enough — it was like visiting a dead place, looking at dusty old objects, paintings, reading callous text and getting scolded by the guards for touching objects!

Museums are crucial repositories of different trajectories of history, producing knowledge about human cultures. Through collection, archiving and display of artefacts, they cut across multiple perceptions of time, ideas and cultures produced within a society at a given moment. Interestingly, since their inception, museums in India have never played a crucial role for the masses. Particularly Art museums (with a capital A) were hardly a part of the popular consciousness and always remained on the peripheries. Either they were too elitist, or too engrossed in constructing national histories of the modern self, by situating art works within a nationalist frame with which only a few were able to relate. They never responded or adapted to diverse emerging forces like demographic shifts, economic power, the rise of the Right wing and shrinking of the world through technologies — which were shaping the world around them. We owe thanks to our State, the Ministry of Culture and great bureaucratic minds for turning museums into mausoleums. In contemporary times, they face a crisis of relevance as they have become a ‘space without a use’. Academics dismiss them as parochial, for the public they don’t have mass appeal and for researchers they are full of bribe-pocketing apparatchiks.

But times are changing and art museums in metropolises are going through a phase of resurrection via private collectors. Post-liberalisation, the art scene at urban centres is thriving with philanthropists who are running constellations of not-for-profit art spaces. Recently, among many, two new quasi-contemporary art museums have come up in the Delhi (NCR) — the Devi Art Foundation and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

The Devi Art Foundation located in industrial Gurgaon is run by an industrialist family, the Poddars. Established in 2008 by the mother and son duo of Lekha and Anupam Poddar, Devi Art Foundation has a cross-disciplinary collection of approximately 2000 contemporary artworks and 5000 folk artworks. Currently curating a nine-month long ambitious exhibition ‘Sarai Reader 09’ which brings together critical reflections and aesthetic engagements from 100 contributors from various creative fields at Devi, Jeebesh Bagchi, a member of the Raqs Media Collective, says, “Such non-commercial art spaces are outside the logic of trade. They work with different discursive logic and in the process rather create a new logic of art valuation. For the art world, they hold the possibilities of creating experimental trajectories by bringing together artists, public and private collectors.”

Free of baggage

Free from State patronage and involvement, private museums are liberated from the baggage of creating developmentalist national history. Rather they deal with the complexity of contemporary culture, engage with diverse practices of contemporary artists and grasp public attention by activating museum spaces with the vigour of performative art events, discussions, cutting-edge exhibitions. By dismantling artificial hierarchies around artist intentions, artworks, covert knowledge in art and ignorant public, they produce a new discourse around art, leading to unwritten histories.

Within private museums, through inter-mediations, encounters between artworks and different kinds of public are turned into a generative process. “Our ‘experiments in pedagogy’ programme invites lecturers and students from non-art streams to engage with Art through our unconventional art appreciation classes. It catalyses an informal engagement with art by facilitating a different learning experience. We even invite schools for our guided tours. More than 80 per cent of our visitors are from non-art backgrounds,” says Roobina Karode, director, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Established in 2010 by the Shiv Nadar Foundation, KNMA — located in DLF South Court mall, Saket — houses Subodh Gupta’s ‘Line of control’, a huge art work measuring 36 feet X 36 feet and weighing 26 tonnes, in the mall’s courtyard.

On the limited access of an elite space like this mall, Roobina says, “Malls are new public spaces in India. Yes, they do have their shortcomings because of the class structure that malls propagate, but we have been able to tap into the masses who otherwise will never go to museums or take part in art appreciation. We have been hosting performance art workshops, writing workshops, artist’s talks, interactive sessions, to discuss art in a newer context. These events not only activate the museum space but make KNMA accessible to school students, college goers and the general public.”

It is interesting to observe how in the absence of state patronage, non-commercial art spaces in Delhi are thriving on the goodwill of private collectors and evolving a relationship with the public in general. However, in the fast changing scenario of the digital revolution (where demarcations are dissolving between original-copy, artist-public, creator-collector), experimental practices of a new set of artists are not limited to institutional spaces like museums. They engage with the public via mediums like the internet, art performances, community workshops, etc. — in short, taking art beyond institutional setups. In the future, it will be worthwhile to observe how diverse art practices of the new generation artists will even pose a challenge to the act of collecting, archiving and interpreting artworks in a space like the museum.