Museums

I’ve been visiting a lot of museums lately. And getting irritated by them. We charge so little as entrance fee. I would happily pay 300 Rupees for the Raja Ravi Varma museum in Trivandrum housed in an old mansion; or for the NGMA in Bangalore. But I don’t need to. When I go in, there is so few people. This column is a rant really.

Want the arts to flourish? Get educated
Along with constructing foundations and museums, consider audience participation
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Aug 24 2013. 12 05 AM IST

When was the last time you visited a museum or gallery? And what did you do there? Art exhibition openings don’t qualify: they are social, not artistic events. I visited a museum last to see the interesting Homelands exhibit organized by the British Council; and the exhibit of Tagore’s paintings and drawings at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, which begged the question: Would the art have interested viewers if the artist had not been Rabindranath Tagore?

I’ve been thinking about funding for the arts and have come to a rather sobering conclusion. We are doing it all wrong. The good news? It is fixable.

The arts are at a crossroads in India. The big name artists have checked out. They create for a global, mostly Western audience. The upcoming artists pander to international tastes as well; walking the tightrope between making their work accessible while remaining “authentically” Indian. Indian collectors such as the Poddars, Nadars, Goenkas, are figuring out what to do with their collections. I have a suggestion for them: along with constructing foundations and museums, consider audience participation.
Starting in early 2001, the non-profit global policy think tank Rand Corporation released a series of fascinating reports on the arts in the US, which should be required reading for anyone operating in the visual and performing arts space. One of these reports, A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts, begins with the following sentences. “Many arts institutions are re-examining their missions and their roles in what has become an increasingly complex arts environment. Concurrently, arts policy appears to be shifting its focus from influencing the supply and quality of the arts to increasing the public access to and experience with the arts.”

What was true in 2001 in the US is true in the India of today. The visual arts are fuelled by a stunningly small ecosystem of artists, collectors, gallerists, writers and historians, many of who treat art as a function of the economy rather than an endeavour that is embedded in a society. Because contemporary visual art is so specialized, it is in danger of being irrelevant to Indian lives. Rather than being stakeholders, the general public is disengaged with the arts. They couldn’t care less what happens to the painters and sculptors who are supposed to be visual representatives of our times.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Let us begin with museums. They are in danger of becoming redundant. A terribly small percentage of the Indian population enters its portals and those that do, don’t understand what’s inside. This is because museums function like zoos. They contain art in a closed space and expect that the abundance of art will give people a chance to appreciate them. This may work in modern Western societies, which are prone to compartmentalization and specialization, but it doesn’t for us. The Indian aesthetic—like that of Bali, Vietnam and the East—is intertwined with life and rooted in serendipity. You go about your business at a temple and suddenly come upon a sculpture that speaks to you. My bicycle repair man has an altar decorated with tiny photos of Christ, compiled into a collage and decorated with yellow paper flowers. Amid the punctured bicycle tyres and metal elements, it provides as much solace as good art.

We mix work and play; families and friends. We eschew boundaries. Yet, our museums and galleries have steadfastly followed the Western model of cordoning artwork instead of coming up with a new model; a new paradigm of displaying art: one that is both appropriate for our culture and does justice to the work.

India doesn’t need more art spaces. It needs arts education. It needs to bring the general public up to speed with what’s going on in the contemporary art world. As the Rand Corporation reports say, three things are needed for an aesthetic experience: supply (which we have in abundance); access; and the capacity for individual viewers to engage in and enjoy the work (demand). Indian art institutions have failed abysmally to cultivate demand. Cultivating demand isn’t about marketing campaigns and public outreach. It is much more systemic and embedded in society. Corporate houses can sponsor art appreciation workshops that will help put art in context. Knowing the jargon of art will help viewers discuss it with each other. Art will never become cricket; but the way that the game has changed to suit audience needs is a good model about adapting to demand.

Assume that the planet Mars is colonized; that humans have found a way to sustain life there. Who would we need to get society going? First on the list of people that we would put on the spaceship out to Mars would be the builders and architects of our spaces: city planners, sanitation engineers and urban developers. Next would be the professionals who provide important services: doctors, nurses, fire fighters, school and college teachers, bus and taxi drivers, and retail workers. With each successive spaceship, a new set of professionals would make their way to Mars, imbuing that society with efficiency, order and communication. The final spaceship would carry those people who would give this brave new world on Mars its soul: dancers, musicians, artists, poets, philosophers, thinkers and writers—people who have no obvious “use” in a society but are the bedrock of a civilized world. For many of us, living in a world without the arts is unthinkable. Listening to music helps us connect with our souls; watching and participating in dance gives joy to our spirit; good theatre holds up a mirror to our lives and thoughts; and the visual arts provoke our psyche while quieting it at the same time. Yet, how many Indians are engaged with the arts in a meaningful way? Very few. I reckon that if you ask the average Indian walking on the street whether Mars needs artists, he will scratch his head and say, “not really”. That is the fallacy that those passionate about the arts have to change.

Shoba Narayan believes that the arts should be brought amid the people since getting the people into arts spaces doesn’t seem to be working. Ergo, think like Carl Hagenbeck who changed the paradigm for zoos.