The Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014 is an international contemporary art exhibition

Locating Contemporary Art in India’s Museums and Art Galleries

About the Modern is a four-part series by Sumitra Sunder that traces the evolution of contemporary art in India’s metropolitan cities and how the movement has flourished outside the traditional spaces of museums and galleries.

In part one of this series, the focus is on marking the genesis of contemporary arts movement in Bangalore and its relationship with state-run museums and galleries.

As an aspiring art historian and researcher based in Bangalore, I began my doctoral work with an idea of looking at the ways in which contemporary art has manifested in the city. A large part of this project has been looking at the gaps in research on contemporary art and its place in the history of art in the city. This series of articles is my way of looking at the ways in which spaces and creative practices interrogate each other.

Amorphous Nature of Art
The narrative of locating contemporary art usually begins by looking for it outside the museum. What is it that inhibits state-run art galleries and museums to engage with the contemporary? Beyond the bureaucratic or structural reasons, could it be that the works being produced are no longer bound by space? My research indicates that the movement doesn’t just preclude medium constraints or restrictions, but also rejects conventional forms and spaces to locate the works. Before I delve into practice, let me take you on a tour of modern art museums in our country.
National Gallery of Modern Art
Image: National Gallery of Modern Art. Photo courtesy Gitika Saksena for Neralu, Bangalore.

The buildings that house large collections of modern art, namely, the national gallery and its branches, are in effect India’s answer to the MoMAs (Museum of Modern Art) of the world. The situation in India can be referred to as a failure of state-run museums and modern art galleries to engage with contemporary art (Murray 2014). In a sense, private collectors and philanthropists have an answer to this. In Mumbai, for instance, older galleries such as Jehangir Art Gallery (founded 1952), Chemould Prescott Road Gallery (founded 1963) or Cymroza Art Gallery (estd. 1971) have engaged with the contemporary. And there are more recent examples, like the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon, of a space not unlike the MoMA in New York that came about at a time when the modern was seeking an identity.

In societies like India, the pre-modern is socially real and continually interrogates the modern – Raghuramaraju, 2009.

What is interesting about work produced in Bangalore is that it is both the site as well as the subject of study for artists. There have been a number of spaces such as Bengaluru Artists Residency 1 (BAR1), One, Shanthi Road, Bangalore City Project[i], Jaaga, and so on that have had artists who come in to work on ideas and issues that are very integral to the city. Srishti School of Art and others of their ilk have staged several urban interventions and mapping projects that span the city’s length and breadth. Often, these projects are a call to make people aware of larger ecological and access issues. There are also projects that try and look at disappearing urban heritage. For example, there are architects and urban planners who have put together forums to discuss and enable communities to work towards preserving the city’s heritage.[ii] But the work done by these spaces and groups are often viewed as belonging outside both the gallery as well as the museum.

Museum of Modern Art, New YorkImage: Art on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo courtesy Nilofar Shamim Haja.

Outpost of Modernity
The history of the modern art museum really sees its genesis with the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), set up in New York in the 1930s. This museum was built as an ‘outpost’ of modernity; as a contrast to the buildings of Victorian aesthetic that was the dominant architecture of New York at that time. This kind of aesthetic is what plays out for almost all museums of modern art or galleries of modern art as they are known in India. The buildings that house these collections are often signifiers of modern architecture as well as a sense of ‘modern’ history. The vision for the MOMA was also tied with the image of glamorous modernity and liberalism contrasting with the older museums that held on to enlightenment ideologies.

What is perhaps significant about MoMA is the ‘curating’ of modern art for the visitor. The galleries lead the visitor along the timeline of a ‘central’ history of modern art. This is not unlike the idea of dominant narratives of history where history is told by the dominant politics or class. So, in one train of thought these modern art museums often curate the history of art. The curatorial impulse for these spaces is the desire to showcase what is great modernity or high modernity, not unlike older museums that showcase pieces from the High Renaissance or the classical period. Therefore, the MoMA defines the history of modern art within three moments – Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. This is also what is often taught as central to modern Western art history in art schools. The ways in which the museums of modern art curate their collections lays the foundations for the ways in which this history is studied.

Reconfiguring Museums for Contemporary Art
Coming back to the imagination of the museum, there’s a growing trend of associating these spaces with showy retrospectives of the great modernists or as relics of nationhood. The museum remains largely in the background or for a lack of better expression, a dead space. It is imagined as a storehouse rather than a dynamic space for the manifestation of works of art.

Specifically for Bangalore, there is no clear state support for the contemporary arts. In a seminal essay on the subject, Shukla Sawant goes on to state that with very little state provided support for contemporary art, there exists a ‘thriving’ culture of artist collectives (Sawant 2012) in the city. This structure of being part of a collective or starting a non-hierarchical space that engages the city as well as art forms has been a long standing tradition since the dawn of the modern expression. Whether it is theater or a group of progressive writers, this model has been both successful and almost become institutional for the history of art.

Chemould Prescott RoadImage: Chemould Art Gallery, Mumbai.

The museum was never seen as a space that could house contemporary artworks. For a more local context, the work that emerges in Bangalore post-1980s also moves towards this space of being ephemeral. The work is often temporal, at times existing only in a dematerialized manner or as a web-based venture, or even as a social project involving interactive events that leave no physical residue (Sawant 2012). The problem lies in the idea of a modern art museum and a contemporary art gallery. These two terms are more often than not looked at as separate identities. The National Gallery of Modern Art in various cities have large, permanent collections of modern art and these pose problems of storage and rotational display. There is also a sense of reluctance from those who run the national galleries to engage with the contemporary due to its ephemeral nature.

The larger point in this argument is the changing nature of contemporary art. The works that are being produced often are for a cause or for a movement, placing them in the rather confining (emphasis mine) museum is often counter-intuitive. What needs to be addressed is the ways in which the museum can adapt to accommodate new works and perhaps break away from the modernist constructs that it was built upon.

The next article in the series will explore further the changing contemporary arts practices of India. 

[i] The Bangalore City Group aims to raise awareness about arts and culture in Bangalore. The group wants to initiate programs for the city, as a meeting point for art and culture and as a neutral platform that would bring about awareness among the people, of the importance of cultural infrastructure of a city, of the histories and importance of various places in the city that have otherwise remained silent and veiled. http://bcp.wikidot.com/

[ii] NAKSHAY ‘where community maps its heritage’ is conservation architect Krupa Rajangam’s passion project. It is the outcome of her ongoing research to involve communities in conservation. The project objective is to get different community groups to identify and map places of significance to them, through a bottom up approach rather than top down. http://www.nakshay.saythu.com/

About the Author

Sumitra SunderSumitra Sunder is a PhD scholar, currently working on contemporary urban arts practice at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. The main focus of her work is to locate contemporary models of creative process and practice in the larger fabric of the history of art. Prior to commencing her doctoral studies, she has worked with IGNCA, Khoj International Artists Association and Eka Cultural Resources and Research in Delhi, and Apparao Galleries in Chennai. Follow her on Twitter.

Bibliography

Krauss, Rosalind. 2009. “The Guarantee of the Medium.” Studies across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences: 139–145.

Murray, Grace. 2014. “E-Merge » Global Art and Museums in the New Urban India: Building the Devi Art Foundation and the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art.” http://www.anysquared.com/emergetest/?p=8.

Raghuramaraju, A. 2009. “Pre of Art in Modern India.” Third Text 23 (5) (September 6): 617–623. doi:10.1080/09528820903184872. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09528820903184872?journalCode=ctte20#.Vb5WiK3FpNI.

Sawant, Shukla. 2012. “Instituting Artists’ Collectives: The Bangalore/Bengaluru Experiments with ‘Solidarity Economies.’” Transcultural Studies (1): 122–149.

Veikos, Cathrine. 2005. “The Post-Medium Condition Informational Asset Transfer towards Digital- Material Ingenuity:” 787–794.

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5 thoughts on “Locating Contemporary Art in India’s Museums and Art Galleries

  1. sareenak says:

    wonderful article! I am visual artist and i work in mixed media painting and drawing. My work is related to urban spaces, architecture and design, i have just moved to bangalore from bombay and would love to meet and talk with you

    Liked by 1 person

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