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.

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12 thoughts on “Museums

  1. Very interesting post, Shobha. I went to visit NGMA last month and since I didn’t know the exact directions I asked around. When I finally figured out the exact location, I realized even people/shops within 100 mt radius of NGMA didn’t have a clue about the museum. Isn’t it interesting that everyone knows where a shopping mall or movie theater is but hardly anyone know about museums and galleries!!! At first I was shocked but on a second thought I asked myself whether it was really their fault that masses are not interested in fine art. My thinking is it is not. The fine art world is contented catering to “patrons” and it doesn’t care about people on the street. In my opinion the following are the issues hampering fine art to become inclusive.

    1. For a common person the gallery environment is scary and uninviting. I mean, all the big galleries in India have this air of elitism. Without naming the names, there are galleries in bangalore itself where before entering one is scared wondering whether she is trespassing a private property. And in case someone has mustered enough courage then not being dressed to nines or speaking fancy jargons would push her in a corner with no one to care about.

    2. The another problem is there is no effort to engage with people and help them understanding fine art. Most of the galleries in India don’t even have viewing notes to help a viewer and in case one ask “what does it mean?” I bet everyone around is going to give her a look of being a inferior mortal. The most frequent answer one is going to get “decide your own whether you like it or not”. But the problem is not of whether one like it or not but she doesn’t even get it to come to any decision. I don’t think any one of us would like to buy a computer from a store where everyone else is a geek talking machine language and has no interest in telling you about simple things like storage or performance. Unfortunately, in the art market all stores are like that.

    3. The biggest culprit is the fine art transaction market. It is difficult for me to understand how can one be interested in purchasing something which has no objective valuation model and the asset value depends on “insider trading”.

    Given the undemocratic, opaque and non-inculsive nature of the fine-art world, I find it funny when the participants of the market moan about lack of public support and funding. Public funding comes from tax payers money and if you have no interest in engaging with and talking the language of the tax-payers then why should they care about you? They are happy and content being “inferior mortals” and don’t have any compelling need to support something which has nothing in common.

    I can go on and on but I think I have already written a lot for today.

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    • Great points, Shailendra. Agree on 1. Agree on 2. with knowing smile on face. Looks like you are a finance person, so let me disagree on 3. for this reason. I find that art requires two things to thrive. Patronage in the old fashioned maharaja sense, which we don’t have, or the market model which we do. Art needs a market. I too have issues with the way it is structured, but I don’t think the solution is to throw out the baby with the bath-water.

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      • I completely agree with throwing the baby out is not the way going forward and that the patronage model has very limited ability to work in today’s market. I believe there is an urgent need to increase the engagement and unlock a new class of buyers who are reluctant to participate because of the existing structure, and to achieve these two goals technology can help a lot. I don’t want to throw a cheap plug but these are the few things I am working on in my new venture and I hope this venture can bring more transparency and efficiency to the market. I know it is a tall task but someone has to try 🙂

        By the way, I recently came across an article by Allison Schrager on economics of the art market; it is a very interesting read, if you want you can check it here http://qz.com/103091/high-end-art-is-one-of-the-most-manipulated-markets-in-the-world/

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  2. Nice post! I agree with Vinay, what a comeback!

    Your bit about museums is very interesting. I guess museums have somehow always been associated with archival; the idea that something should be far gone from contemporary use. A typewriter exhibition in 2013 sounds properly museum-like, but not an exhibition of computer keyboards (or perhaps they go in a modern art exhibit). “Museum of Modern Art” always sounded weird to me.

    The description of the bicycle guy’s art really got to me. Nice! Maybe that is what art is in India: Art At The Bottom Of The Pyramid (a collection of photos by Shoba Narayan)

    Shoba I had a question which probably you can answer. RK Narayan always referred to the “pyol” (I guess the small stoop outside South Indian houses?) Is that the same as your photo here? This has been bugging me no end… Can you help please??

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    • Thanks RG. Great idea for photos.
      I love RKN. I am not sure if the pyol you are referring to is the verandah on that photo or the “Pai” which is more like a razai that we lay down on the floor to sit down. Would depend on context. Have to read Vendor of Sweets again.

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  3. Shoba is back! Beautiful post, I enjoyed reading every word.
    Two months ago we went to the Whitney museum where we saw, among other things, Jacob Lawrence. I remember thinking then that NYC is a center for art because it acts as a vessel for all kinds of art, because it attracts Asian, African, European everyone, it is the ultimate art conglomerate.
    What a beautiful summary of the Rand report! I always thought the average Indian – the majority – don’t have the time or inclination for art. The younger F/Y (Facebook/Youtube) generation – the majority – probably prefers Paris Hilton to Picasso, Lady Gaga to Van Gogh and Ravicharan Teja to Ravi Verma. Is this art? The Mona Lisa Smile professor may say ‘probably’.

    The very notion of the mangal spaceships will probably get all India into a rage!

    I guess I don’t know how we can whet the appetite for art (real art, whatever that means) and concurrently find a way to supply it…

    Beautiful piece Shoba. WELCOME BACK!!

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  4. “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.”

    Gem. You have the eyes Shoba – why sulk over entropy of museums…?

    Museums and Collectors’ vaults choke Art inside their walls. Liberate them. Future of Art, depends on level of appreciative interest. The walls will have to come down. Art is better noticed than displayed. Recognize evolution. Rejoice. Some day soon, world will have its Renaissance version 2.0.

    As they say, the best portrait is yet to be painted, the best poem is yet to be written. You have abundant room for hope. 🙂

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