Art made in the world belongs to the world

Written by Garima Pant | Updated: Jan 24 2011, 04:44am hrs
James Cuno, president of the The Art Institute of Chicago, is excited about the cultural activity in India, and the tremendous interest Indian art is generating globally. He heads one of the worlds leading cultural institutions, which attracts 1.5 million visitors each year. The institute boasts of an encyclopaedic collection encompassing more than 5,000 years of creative achievement and nearly 2,700,00 works of art spanning cultures worldwide. And, with the addition of the Modern Wing in 2009, the Art Institute is now the second largest art museum in the US. His book Who Owns Antiquity Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage, published by Princeton University Press in 2008, created a global uproar with his opinion on the ownership of antiquities and history. In Delhi to be part of the India Art Summit, Cuno talks with Garima Pant about his plans of a future collaboration with the National Museum, and the Royal Family of Jaipur. Excerpts:

What do you think of Indian art presently

I think the most exciting thing about Indian art today is the extraordinary vitality of it. And I associate it with a blossoming embrace of the new possibilities in India. Generations of students have grown up with Indias liberalisation in the 90s. And that vitality is also marked by their engagement with the complicated issues of India they cultivate. Thats where the excitement is. Its high quality work as well, but its also about the huge diversity and dynamic qualities as well. And as I understand, there is a shared community of interests among Indians and Pakistani artists. So theres a south Asian mix to it.

Which current Indian artists are faces to reckon with in the future and where do you see Indian art heading

We have been working with Jitish Kallat, a Mumbai-based artist, and we are very impressed with the quality of his work. We have seen Subodh Guptas work and visited his studios as well. Also, theres Reena Kallat, Jitish Kallats wife. We are just getting to know the work of these artists more intimately.

The direction (of Indian art) is bound to settle down. If the experience in the US is any example to go by, then I think it is possibly a relevant example to India. After the World War-II, so much artistic energy was transferred from Europe to the US. There was an explosion of activity in the US, and following that explosion was a coalescence around a few styles of painting. I think we are in the midst of an explosive activity in India. Twenty five years from now, it will coalesce around a few specific area of activity or styles of activity. But right now, the excitement is the embrace of the new and the possible.

Could you share something about the collaboration that is on the cards with the National Museum and with the royal family of Jaipur

The purpose of my visit, my second visit to India, is three-fold. One is to strengthen some initiatives we have undertaken in Chicago. Chicago is a sister city of Delhi, which is a formal arrangement. It encourages collaboration, whether it is business or educational or artistic. We also have a big Indian and south Asian population in Chicago, and in part also, because we are an encyclopaedic museum with obligations to present to our public. Our community in Chicago is a representative example of the worlds artistic legacy. It is a hugely immigrant-based city, with immigrants from all over the world, so it is important for us to present the worlds cultures. And not just as historic cultures, but also as living cultures, which is extremely important. There has been a case that US museums and art historians have been primarily interested in the past of India, and not in the present of India. This is an opportunity to correct that, to represent Indian art as part of a living presence. Thats one reason.

Secondly, the institute has been working in the area of modern and contemporary art. With Jitish Kallat we did an installation (the work of which is still going on) of his Public Notice 3. It is based on the famous words of Swami Vivekananda, and has particular relevance. And thats just a way for us to engage in contemporary practice in India, and we hope to extend that via a working relationship with the National Museum.

The third reason is this exhibition in Jaipur, and this will be a large exposition. It will open in 2013 and look into the legacy of the royal family as patrons of art, from past to the present. At the end of the great Mughal reign, as things were transitioning to another stage, he secured the greatest craftsmen.

Your book on antiquities created quite an uproar, and you have declared that cultural objects of great importance belong to the world and not just to the nations of origin. And museums can take better care of these antiquities. But India lacks a museum culture. Whats the way ahead

My argument in the book is, art made in the world belongs to the world. And politicising culture, by nationalising it, by declaring it to be the art-assisted legacy of one nation state as opposed to another, marginalises that culture. It prevents our common understanding of ourselves as human beings, and our inheritance of a legacy, to which we have a responsibility.

If the arts would be segregated among nations as it were, we would have no obligation to preserve the art of the other nation. But we have, because these are the arts produced by humans on this earth, of which we are the most recent examples. I want to liberate the arts of humanity from the recent politicisation of it. And I want all of us to feel responsible for it, and have a stake in the preservation of it. Arts have never known political boundaries, and have always moved beyond those.

My experience of Indian museums is very recent. We benefited from the museum culture prevalent in the US. It is not government- funded, but is funded by private, corporate donations, and foundation donations, giving us more flexibility. We are not instruments of government bureaucracy, and that allows us to do different things more spontaneously and more easily, provided we raise the money.

In context of Indian museums, when one is funded only by the government, and when the government changes, the leadership of museums change, and it becomes difficult. My understanding also is with the new economic activity in India. Private museums are developing in India, probably as they are in Japan, and in Latin America. Probably there will be a hybrid between the public and the private. Thats the case in the US, and increasingly the case in Europe. This is out of necessity because governments retreat from funding during economic crisis. I am tremendously impressed by the ambitions of museums in Indiaby the work they have done in both national and regional museums. Its an enormously exciting times for museums in India.