Ghost galleries

Written by Garima Pant | Updated: Sep 6 2010, 04:57am hrs
Ask any member of the Kaul family in Delhi about their weekend plans and the answer would be the club, movie, play or a mall. And, will a museum or an art gallery come into consideration At best we all can go for a movie or a play, but definitely not a museum. What's there to see asks Roshni Kaul, a research analyst and youngest member of the family of four. And have they visited any museum in the city The doll museum when I and my elder sister were in school. These places are not very interesting, she adds.

The Kaul family is not the only one that has little interest in visiting various cultural hubs like the National Museum, National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), All India Fine Arts & Crafts Society (AIFACS) or the Lalit Kala Academy (LKA), to name a few. Ashok Vajpayee, chairman, Lalit Kala Academy agrees, adding, People in Delhi are not art gallery or museum visitors. And, these places are no pigeon holes, but historical spaces, conceived on grand scales and built on prime real estate.

Take for instance the NGMA at Jaipur House, which has on display 17,813 works of 1,742 artists dating as far back as 1857. Built on 7.84 acres, the indoor display area is approximately 12,000 sqm. Director Rajeev Lochan takes great pride in the unique identity of the museum and believes its strength is its collection. The gallery had about 32,000 visitors last year, not counting school and other special groups, he retorts. With the opening of a new wing last year, NGMA has a lot to offer. The six levels in the new wing have galleries that offer a sampling of many facets of Indian artminiature traditions, company school art, European academism and The Bengal School. There are sections dedicated to four pioneers of modern Indian artRabindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Amrita Shergill and Jamini Roy. The progressive have a level to themselves and so forth.

However, Shailin Smith, an art consultant, feels these spaces are intimidating and that's what probably makes them inaccessible to the viewer. Imagine not knowing the address or what exactly you might encounterno signage and nobody to guide you around. In fact, try making a trip to any one of the spaces, just as a layman, and you will know what one would go through, she adds. This is true especially in the case of the NGMA. While the architecture of the gallery is up to date, courtesy architect A Ramanathan, the internal movement is complicated and would have been greatly helped by signages, of which there seems to be an almost total absence. In most cases, the signs are basicname of the artist, usually either the birth and death years of the artist, the year in which the work was created (both together are a rarity) and dimensions and medium of the work. The initial galleries have brief section introductions, but they seem to have been given up as one progresses inside!

A people's initiative beginning at the grassroots is the need of the hour, feels Smith. If one travels to smaller cities and towns, the first thing that a traveller is guided toward is a temple or a place to shop. So if one is to begin the process of induction and initiation into art, it has to be at the grassroots, she says. Experts also suggest inculcating awareness about art and culture through special initiatives for children. I remember a documentary of the Rena Sofia Museum, Madrid, Spain, where they showed children from kindergarten being put in front of a Picasso. Culture begins the moment we can remember and our memories are the strongest books and memoirs of what we know. If as an adult we fail art and artifacts, it's because we don't know them, adds Smith.

Parul Vadehra of Vadehra Art Gallery feels that institutions like the LKA and NGMA were intended as public cultural institutions for modern and contemporary art. And since the 1980s, private galleries have become primary centres for visual arts and the locus through which contemporary art reaches the public. More recently we have seen the emergence of a new phenomenonthat of private museums with institutions like Devi Art Foundation coming into the picture. But still these public institutions cannot be called redundant, as these spaces are significant as repositories of important collections and historical material; they enjoy great credibility and have important symbolic value, adds Vadehra.

Experts say it is most important to enhance the outreach programmes of these institutions. It is also important to revitalise these spaces and make them more relevant in todays context. In other words, they should have more educational programming and an active exhibition schedule that is more accessible to the masses, says Vadehra.

A recent UNESCO survey that rated five public museums with an aim to assess them from the perspective of the general public adds to Vadehra's suggestions. Apart from the NGMA, the other four included National Museum, Railway Museum, Craft Museum and the Archeological Museum in Red Fort. While the survey rated these four as lacking on several grounds, NGMA fared better, though was still found to be inadequately advertised.

However, Vajpayee adds that people who are keen on art visit on their own. People who need to know are informed by the academy, says Vajpayee. But what about reaching out to the masses

A museum official adds, What has the media done to ensure that more people come to visit these museums vis-a-vis a trade fair How much has the press and media helped institutions like these that are already doing their best while showcasing the best Private galleries have a commercial interest and that is why they advertise and promote themselves. That is why they are more proactive. We can simply showcase our collection and expect people to respond to it, he adds. Lochan also agrees and feels that NGMA has been doing its best, but hasn't been able to draw enough response. Everyone talked about Tagore. We put in four ads in the newspaper, organised the exhibition but I did not get the kind of response I would have wanted for the exhibition, says Lochan. He adds that the culture ministry has drawn up an exhaustive strategy and plans to address the issues of creating awareness among the public.

Lack of well-trained staff and personnel at these places also adds to the lacklustre imagery portrayed. Experts also agree that it is pertinent that the museums and art galleries should be more proactive in promoting themselves. Experts also point to the lack of museums. Any advanced city has a museum for every 1,50,000 people. New York has one museum for every 10,000 people. In Delhi, we dont even have a museum for every one million people. It is also the art industrys fault. We have not done anything to educate our clientele to the extent that we should have, says Arun Vadehra, director, Vadehra Art Gallery.

This lacuna can be overcome through an interactive awareness drive meaningful to a social cause, based on various communication methods and mainstream engagement between art and society. For this, museums, centres of art and culture and other agencies can generate an art educational agenda through schools, art fairs in fine arts and craft institutions and other public enterprises at grassroots, says SK Kushwaha, dean,faculty of fine arts, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.

While the blame game has been continuing for long, it's high time the existing cultural hubs find visitors.