Battle for Venkatappa Art Gallery: Why protests over its proposed adoption have deeply divided Bengaluru - Firstpost
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Battle for Venkatappa Art Gallery: Why protests over its proposed adoption have deeply divided Bengaluru

By Janaki Murali

The Tasveer Foundation’s proposed adoption of Bengaluru’s renowned Venkatappa Art Gallery (VAG) has snowballed into a controversy, with the city’s intelligentsia finding themselves on opposing sides of the debate.

On one side is a group of 300 or so artists, writers and theatre persons, who are protesting the adoption plans. There is another group, also comprising artists, writers and theatre persons, supporting the plans, saying it would do a lot of good for the gallery, even waxing eloquent on social media.

Government Museum. Courtesy: Janaki Murali

Government Museum. Courtesy: Janaki Murali

Interestingly enough, these are people who have often joined hands to lead several civil protests and marches on the streets of Bengaluru. For instance, both sides marched together to protest the state government’s plans of demolishing the majestic 19th century Balabrooie Guest House and turn it into a legislators’ club. But the city’s intelligentsia got the government to retract the plan and saved the building.

They have now turned their attention to the 40-year-old VAG, part of the three museum complex which also comprises the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum (VITM) and the Government Museum, Bangalore.

When the takeover plans were revealed in the Legislative Assembly, opposition parties accused the government of land grab. The Kannada and culture ministry shot off a missive to the tourism ministry, saying the VAG came under its purview and not under the tourism ministry’s.

Entrance to the VAG is through the Government Museum, a breathtakingly beautiful Bengaluru landmark, often mistaken for the VAG. A ticket for the government museum costs Rs 4, which includes entry to the VAG as well. Strolling through the museums lets one look at the VAG and the serene Lotus ponds, an enjoyable lazy morning art experience. Perhaps you will see works of a young artist or two in the gallery above and pick up a cool bargain. You may also choose to end your tour sitting on some quaint benches on the beautiful lawns and gaze at more sculptures as you nibble through a set-dosa and filter coffee.

An artist's rendition of the proposed renovation at VAG. Courtesy: Abhishek Poddar

Will this cultural experience change once the VAG is handed over to the Tasveer Foundation? Will this quaint old building, intrinsic to the feel of Bengaluru, be demolished to make way for a glass and chrome monolith? In trying to get to the bottom of the controversy, Firstpost talked to some of the prominent players.

Tasveer Foundation head Abhishek Poddar sidestepped our questions, saying, “Thanks for your mail and questions. Since you have read my piece on Facebook, a lot of your questions will be answered there itself.”

So let’s see what Poddar says on his Facebook wall. On 14 March, 2016, Poddar put up a post titled, ‘Why plans for a new museum in Bangalore put the public first’. In this, he writes, “The proposed redevelopment of VAG is a significant step forward for Bangalore to have a modern museum facility. At the centre of our plans is the belief that art should be for everyone, and to create an inclusive, accessible space to rejuvenate interest in art and culture. We want the citizens of Bangalore, and the large number of tourists it attracts, to make this new museum a must visit site and an artistic hub of activity for people of all ages and from all walks of life.”

“The project, which has the full support of the government, is well thought out and in the larger public interest with strong governance in place. We are bringing in expertise, thought and funding to improve the approach to museums, exhibition programming and education in the visual arts in Karnataka, and are dedicated to building a new, broader, more democratic and inclusive audience for art,” he added.

Poddar followed up his signed blogpost with a detailed note outlining the Tasveer Foundation’s plans for the new public museum.

Government Museum. Courtesy: Janaki Murali

Venkatappa Art Gallery. Courtesy: Janaki Murali

However, not everybody is agreeing with his vision. Well known sculptor Balan Nambiar, who is supporting the ‘VAG Forum’, says their stand is correct. “The government has made a mess of the whole situation. The tourism department wants to hand over the VAG to a private party whose aim is to make profit. Abhishek Poddar is an art dealer rather than a patron of art. He would not be interested in this deal unless he is sure of making money. No Karnataka artist will ever get a chance to exhibit his/her works at the VAG if it goes to Poddar. He will convert the VAG as an outlet to market his acquired works of art. Most of the areas of the building will be used to exhibit his personal collection, which are meant for sale. All of it is dubious. There is no guarantee that the collection of Venkatappa and Hebbar would be displayed all the time,” Nambiar said.

“Poddar’s aim would be to attract the elitists and corporate clients. For example, for every exhibition opening at his Tasveer Photo Gallery and his showroom Cinnamon, only a couple of artists from Bangalore are invited. He usually tends to invite corporate personalities,” Nambiar added.

The tourism department had started an “Adopt a tourist destination” drive in 2014, under which it had put up 46 tourism sites for adoption. Of these, six, including the VAG, were picked up by private entities. This came about a year after the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group (KTVG) was set up by the state government. Comprising about 50 members, the group met for seven sessions over two months and put together a report, compiled by writer Vikram Sampath. Among the KTVG’s recommendations was that a museum district be set up around the city’s famous Cubbon Park, to be managed by the Cubbon Park Management Authority (CPMA).

The CPMA was to become an autonomous body with representation from various Cubbon Park stakeholders, including the departments of horticulture, Kannada & culture, archaeology, Bal Bhavan, high court, museums, the private sector as well as civil society members.

Among the KTVG’s recommendations were that CPMA be given a master plan prepared through an international bidding process, which would help develop Cubbon Park as a state-of-the-art urban park, restoring all heritage buildings housed within and putting them to adaptive re-use (for example, as museums). The CPMA would work on a self-sustainable model (with initial /annual grants from the state government) and be built along the lines of English Heritage/National Trust in the UK.

V Ravichander, co-chair of KTVG, said, “KTVG played no role in suggesting the adoption of VAG. The adoption programme under corporate social responsibility (CSR) was conceived by the Karanataka government’s tourism ministry. KTVG welcomed it once it became the official policy of the government, and approached corporates and foundations to let them know about the adoption programme. The reality is that there aren’t donors queuing up showing interest; the properties adopted had only one suitor though over 100 firms were approached.”

Caught at the wrong end of the adoption controversy, well-known sculptor and painter SG Vasudev, who was accused of being a member of KTVG and party to the adoption plan, instead offered up an alternate model for the development of VAG. “It involves the setting up of a trust to manage and run VAG in public interest. The trustees could be a combination of government representatives, artists and also the general public, including historians, art critics and collectors. The government would support the trust with funds but resources (financial and otherwise) would be sought from other sources, including donations. The trust would administer the institution by engaging various people necessary to look after different aspects of the task, including an art director, curators, etc. The trust could also set up a society like Friends of VAG, which could provide different kinds of assistance. This model has enabled a number of art museums and galleries in different parts of the world to sustain themselves while retaining their public character. I think it could be explored here as well.”

And while the jury is still out on the VAG adoption controversy, what is obvious to any ordinary visitor to the museums is that they both need urgent repairs. There is water seepage on the walls and some of the paintings and sculptures need restoration. However, neither the VAG nor the government museum has a heritage tag. Being adopted could result in some funds, says Ravichander. “Karnataka doesn’t have a Heritage Act. There are no private listings of heritage buildings by organisations like the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. To the best of my knowledge, VAG isn’t on that list,” he said.

Interestingly, VITM and the Government Museum, also in the same complex, were also put up for adoption under the same policy. Biocon chief Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who was keen to adopt VITM as a part of her company’s CSR agenda, backed out after museum authorities turned it down.

MK Panduranga Setty, a member of the museum’s executive committee, was reported by Bangalore Mirror as saying, “We will not allow commercialisation of this museum. (It) doesn’t belong to the state government and it is very well maintained. We don’t want private participation. Let the government focus on developing other tourist spots and leave the VITM alone.”

The Government Museum, the most photographed of the three museums, has been adopted by Jindal Steel Works. Now, will there be another protest over this? That’s another battle for another day.

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