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Museum Trailblazers Series: Week 3: Interview with an Artist-Curator from Delhi

This August, Rereeti features four young professionals who are part of India’s cultural field, practicing as curators, archivists and conservators in museums and heritage sites.

This week, we engage in a tête-à-tête with Akansha Rastogi.

Akansha Rastogi_picAkansha Rastogi is Curator at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA). Her curatorial projects include An Unfinished Portrait: Vignettes from the KNMA Collection (co-curated, 2014), Zones of Contact: Propositions on the Museum (co-curated, 2013) and the Inhabiting the Museum performance series (2011-16) at KNMA. She co-edited Seven Contemporaries (2015) published by KNMA and was assistant curator and researcher on a seminal exhibition and five publications on artist Chittaprosad (2011) with Delhi Art Gallery.

Rereeti: When and how did you decide to become part of the museum world professionally?

Akansha: Studying art history at the National Museum Institute was an important exposure to the museum culture, collections, various departments, maintenance and upkeep of antiquities, but my inclinations took me towards modern and contemporary art. Before joining Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, I worked with two major collections of modern Indian art. The first one at Osian’s Connoisseurs of Art, where among other things I was working on the permanent collection of the future-museum Osianama, which if actualized would have been the first private-public museum of its kind in India.

All of us at Osian’s were working hard towards it, so the institution’s work-culture followed the finest museum practices, though in terms of nomenclature we were not a museum. At Delhi Art Gallery, again, I worked on reorganizing their entire collection of 25,000 artworks of important modern masters. Both places have phenomenal archives. So, joining KNMA was part of this gradual course. I’m interested in working with collections, and in a way I’ve always worked with not-for-profit aspects or historical research which had a panoramic view of arts not just a handful of artists, even when I was working with gallery or an auction house.

For my masters, I took the risk of shifting from English literature to the history of art, and it worked. Joining National Museum Institute was an accident as I didn’t exactly know or understand what the course entailed, and had no clue about the fine arts faculty at Baroda or Santiniketan.

Nikhil Chopra, Blackening V, 2013, KNMAImage: Nikhil Chopra, Blackening V, 2013, KNMA, part of the Inhabiting the Museum performance series curated by Akansha Rastogi. Photo: Sahej Rahal.

Rereeti: Did the thought of career growth, financial viability and social acceptability influence your career decisions? Could you share with us some of the uncertainties you faced while deciding to study further, specifically to enter the museum sector.

Akansha: I’ve made many jumps in my career choices, which I can now call bold or probably just following my interest or inquiry. I didn’t care much about financial viability or social acceptability. My parents did find my waywardness strange but were supportive. The contemporary art scene has changed considerably now. Earlier one had to work within the bounds of the commercial art market, but now more possibilities have opened up with the rise of not-for-profit art sector. Research and curatorial practice have become more independent of the old pressures, which is a great sign. We expect new important works to emerge now. So many researchers and curators of my generation are working with primary material.

Rereeti: What motivates you at work every day? 

Akansha: Working in the museum sector changes your relation with the future, its speculative possibilities and its present. It is a different lens altogether. The historical perspective, scale, dimension, audience, collaborations, and infrastructure that a museum space can provide alters the artistic production and thinking in a major way, particularly in the Indian context where there is a lack of museums of modern and contemporary art. This potentiality is inspiring.

Grazing, at the exhibition 'Zones of Contact: Propositions for the Museum,' 2013, KNMAImage: Grazing, at the exhibition ‘Zones of Contact: Propositions for the Museum,’ 2013, KNMA. Photo: Lucida.

Rereeti: What sort of networking opportunities have contributed to your career narrative?

Akansha: I’ve been part of few closed-group workshops and conferences organized in Delhi, which had directors and curators of important museums across the world. For instance, the Indian European Advanced Research Network Research Group on Museums and History had organized a workshop on Comparative History of Museums in India and Europe in 2012. I attended the international Conference of Modern Art museums and Collections in Brazil in 2013 and then a Japan Foundation Curators Program in Japan, which introduced me to many practicing museum curators. Such platforms raise questions on the role of the museum internationally and within local contexts.

Nationally and institutionally speaking, KNMA is always in a dialogue or collaborating with other local institutions such as National Gallery of Modern Art (New Delhi), Devi Art Foundation (New Delhi), and other not-for-profit art organizations. KNMA’s symposiums have been another platform for the discussion of private collections and their public lives, and museum culture in India. But in terms of a strong network of continuous conversations between peers in museum profession, it does not exist, yet. I’m interested in creating one such research network in South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Massoma Syed's works and Grazing, at the exhibition 'Zones of Contact: Propositions for the Museum', 2013, KNMA. Photo: LucidaImage: Massoma Syed’s works at the exhibition ‘Zones of Contact: Propositions for the Museum’, 2013, KNMA. Photo: Lucida

Rereeti: What are the options available for young professionals to study or take up professional development workshops?

Akansha: Exposure to different museum cultures is important, so I place lot of emphasis on travel and research. I’m a member of PRAC Forum, which is a group of curators and art professionals in Delhi, and we share our work, resources and skill sets with each other. Since Indian academic institutions do not offer curatorial studies as a discipline, we try to organize workshops on various aspects related to exhibition making such as lighting, conservation, disaster management, etc. One is striving to make such small pockets for discursive exchange. KNMA has an active programming section which organizes various kinds of workshops and research intensives with art students around our exhibitions. Our intention is always to find new formats for learning and producing new knowledge.

Rereeti: How do you see the museum sector evolving in India?

Akansha: Firstly, I would like to propose more collaboration between public and private players in the museum sector. This can ease and allow many initiatives. India will soon have many more private collections entering the public domain. They may not call themselves ‘museums,’ but recognizing such efforts and how they can be integrated into the larger dialogue and the museum field can change our perception of what a museum is today. Secondly, I would like to suggest collaborative campaigns to increase museum-going culture in India. If visiting museums becomes part of an individual’s life, it may make us culturally more conscious, open and vibrant. To realize this KNMA plans to launch a campaign shortly.

Rereeti: What would you like to tell a fresher to the museum sector?

Akansha: It’s a nascent field but with huge potential. It needs the contribution and vision of the young. I would like all freshers to find their own methods of taking the lead. It’s all about methods of creating dialogues.

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