The curious case of the Curators

Written by Garima Pant | Updated: Oct 11 2010, 05:13am hrs
With even gallery owners and housewives masquerading as curators, the Indian art scene is crying out for genuine experts who can infuse vision and perspective in art shows

Intellectual aesthetics are falling prey to commercial considerations. The number of burgeoning art galleries in the country, with over a hundred A-list galleries in the metros alone, is ample proof to the expanding Indian art market. But the absence of curators, or rather critical curators, is making this growth story rather incomplete. Consider this: when the new wing of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) opened to the public early last year, it brought together an exemplary collection of rare and historic works under one roof. But the absence of basics like proper signage, curatorial notes and even the year in which the work was produced, proved to be a big disappointment. The result: art enthusiasts, especially the younger generation, is feeling a disconnect. I don't understand art, rues 21-year-old Sneha Jain, a Delhi resident. I did try to explore art galleries when we had moved to Delhi last year, but couldn't find the connect. With just the name of the artist, type of material used and the size of the work, how do I understand what the central theme of the show is asks Jain.

However, a new breed of curators has taken over the art market, who have no historic leanings or background or even any kind of artistic education. The whole concept of curators has taken a beating, with even housewives calling themselves curators, says curator Uma Nair. Anybody and everybody who could put together a group show falls into the category of a curator these days. Gallery owners, managers, everyone starts calling themselves curators. It's so distressing that at times I hate using the term itself, says Dr Alka Raghuvanshi, a noted curator herself. Teresa Gleadowe, former head of curating contemporary art department at the Royal College of Art, had once stated how the past decade saw the emergence of a new discipline, creative curating, and curators started playing a pivotal role in the display of contemporary works of art. Gleadowe explained that curators became the makers of exhibitions and midwives of meaning. In this process, the curators realised the powers they possessed and also became aware of the choice they could make from the innumerable works of art they had, assuming the position of the arbitrators of taste. There was a worrying factor that the curators could become king-makers in the art scene.

But, who is a real curator

Jack of all trades

Curators across the world have been debating on the ethics of their practice for long. Art experts believe that the curator creates a contact between the artist and the viewer. The term curation has suddenly gained a lot of importance. There are some critic curators or writers who have curated exhibitions. On the other hand, you have gallery owners, who, because they put together stuff, either a group show or other forms, also call themselves curators. The actual definition is somewhere in between, says Pooja Sood, chairperson and coordinator of Khoj, an artists' initiative that organised the first-ever curatorial residency in India a month back. Dr Raghuvanshi offers a definition: A person who embodies in himself or herself many facetsbackground of art history, the creative ability to think out of the box as far as ideation of the exhibition is concerned, in-depth familiarity with many artists' works, awareness of the processes and technique of many artists' works, ability to write on the works with authority, sound aesthetic sense, a fine-tuned design sense as to how an exhibition can be presented. It is a multi-faceted discipline that requires an individual to don many hats.

A curator lends a show cohesiveness and direction, giving it a conceptual identity. This is what makes a curated show considerably different from a regular group show, says Sunaina Anand, director, Art Alive Gallery, Delhi. She also feels that artists and curators need to understand each other absolutely for the show to be a success. Perfect rapport between them contributes immensely to the overall strength of the show.

Nair, who recently curated a show, Reverie, by Pankaj Mistry, recalls how curating is a serious business that requires time and cannot be a monthly affair. I have been curating shows at an interval of two-three years, starting from scratch. For Reverie, beginning from the concept, I sat with Pankaj, ideating, putting together the concept note, working out the display details, space designeverything. The uniqueness of the show was that I picked out the works in pairs says Nair. Another important facet missing from the recent curating ventures is the lack of knowledge about art writing. One cannot be called a curator in the real sense if one cannot write about art, a trait that I find missing today, says Nair.

Self-taught art

Curating is an art or skill that is mostly self-taught in India and apart from a handful of independent curators and art historians, it has largely been an open field. While it is common to have a whole team of professionally-trained curators attached to every museum and gallery abroad, this trend doesnt seem to exist in India. The practice of institutions employing or inviting trained curators is on the upswing, though not enough is being done. There are instances where a dealer who has strung few works of art together thinks he/she has curated a show. There is a gap in understanding the role and importance of a curator within and outside the field of art, feels Mumbai-based independent curator Jasmine Shah Varma. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that most shows do not credit the curator of the show, possibly because there was none.

Experts believe that in India, art continues to be available to (and therefore of particular interest to) only a niche audience. The social divide between those exposed to art and those who arent is far wider than what appears. Anand feels that because art (i.e. art as understood in the context of a gallery or a museum) is not available to us easily (be it for viewing or buying), culturally we tend not to learn about art. Our schools do not introduce children to artists or art history, like a number of institutions outside India do for instance. As a result, when it comes to selecting a career after school, almost no one in our country (except of course those from the creamy layers of society, who are exposed to art probably both at home and abroad) seriously think about taking up art, be it art history or even as a general fine arts course. This is because we in India do not tend to view art as a viable career option, says Anand. In such a setting, theoretical courses on art and curatorial studies will appear absurd. It is, therefore, not odd that Indian universities tend to shy away from providing straight off curatorial courses.

Lack of dedicated courses has always been a concern. But there are small modules that are taught in art colleges. There are small curating workshops that people have done here and there, roundtables etc, but nothing in a serious sort of a way. But there is a huge gap when it comes to education courses regarding curation, says Shai Heredia, programme executive, India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). She adds that the programme at IFA is a process of exploring this discipline of curation and understanding what it means in an Indian context. Mark Nash, professor and head of department, Curating Contemporary Art, Royal College of Art, London, believes that it may be a matter of time before curatorial training finds its place in India. It took many years for the necessity for curatorial training to be addressed in the UK. It may just be a matter of time, adds Nash. His university has trained a number of Indian curators. Currently, one is studying with us for a Ph.D and two graduated in the past couple of years. We have teamed up with the Charles Wallace India Trust to try and address the issue of lack of training, adds Nash.

It is the lacunae in the curatorial process in India that have seen several artists turn curators in the recent past. While Krishnamachari Bose remains the most feted both in India and abroad, others like Chintan Upadhyaya and Subodh Gupta have created a storm in the art industry with their ventures. Artist Anju Kumar, who has curated all her shows, feels it helps understand the aesthetics better.

While some favour this trend, there are others that are completely against this move. This trend can only damage the art scene, with artists playing favourites and presenting lopsided view of the art scene and distorting history forever, feels Raghuvanshi. While Anand adds that an artist's method of curating is markedly different from the methods of a regular curator, it is still an exciting trend. It's (curating) a growing field. A lot of younger people are taking it up and understanding the responsibilities, says Sood.

Booming fakes

With a negligible museum culture and art colleges that are few and far between, art education has become nobody's business. And, with the rise of curators by the night, genuine art enthusiasts are facing the brunt. This lack of knowledge is fuelling the fake art market, as people don't have the adequate education to distinguish between the genuine and the fake works of art. Experts argue that lack of museum culture, absence of visits to galleries and not celebrating art and learning about it are some factors that have led to the current scenario. Everyone wants to display art to showoff their growing economic status. But we rarely want to spend time and effort on understanding if that art is real or not, says a gallery owner.

Says Bhavna Kakar, director, Latitude 28, a gallery in Delhi, "With Indian art travelling outside the country and vice-versa, we had exhibitions that were co-curated with international artists. This also led to the art fraternity in opening their vision towards organising curatorial workshops, talks and holding seminars. . Also, we need to change our mindset about these public places.

While the debate continues about the growing half-baked curatorial ventures, it's clearly still a long road home for desi curators.