New Delhi: In 2002, Anmol Vellani, the executive director of the Indian Foundation of Arts, wrote an essay about the problem of funding art and culture in a country where basic needs elude nearly 400 million people.
“It is not unreasonable to ask whether culture has more or less value than, say, education or health,” wrote the philosopher and theatre director. “How often has one heard the lack of philanthropic or developmental attention to culture defended on the ground that it falls low on any scale of priorities?”
Eight years later, the vexing issue of funding the arts in India is as pertinent as ever and, according to Vellani, the improvement has at best been incremental. At present, India’s art institutions rely on a handful of very rich private donors and major foreign foundations for funding, or fall back on government grants. Though traditionally Indian artists were patronized by the aristocracy, today such support has dwindled. Enthusiasts and practitioners continue to ask why art and culture funding has been so neglected by philanthropists.
The problems of arts funding, according to Vellani and other experts in major arts institutions, are threefold. First there is a general lack of distinction between art and culture. Second, more effective and efficient institutions are needed to create a network of philanthropy. Third, there is a need to attract funding from a wider range of donors.
In the accompanying column to this article, Ashish Rajadhyaksha suggests that art and culture are “unwilling bedfellows” and calls for a “paradigm shift” separating the arts from the arena of culture. Often arts funding must be disguised as development funding through arts education programmes or handicraft training in order to appeal to corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes.
Arshiya Sethi, formerly creative head of programmes at the India Habitat Centre (IHC) in New Delhi, has worked for Lincoln Center in New York and currently runs the Delhi International Arts Festival, agrees that big business has a vested interest in the kind of “arts for development” funding described by Vellani.
However, she distinguishes this “backdoor CSR” from corporate funding for public arts institutions such as IHC or Lincoln Center, which she says involves a more equal and mutually beneficial partnership.
Although the arts and business are natural allies in cities such as New York and London, where the glamour of high-profile arts events attracts both the business world and independent philanthropists, this connection is only beginning to be made in India, according to Sethi.
“When we inherited the Habitat Centre, I was given this very impressive looking building on a huge scale, but it didn’t have any money apportioned for the arts,” she said. “The only equity I had was space for performance.”
Sethi made a number of strategic partnerships with businesses such as Hindustan Computers Ltd (HCL) and worked out a budgetary balancing act whereby IHC would offer its performance space for free to artists while charging businesses for conference facilities. “Habitat is a success story because of its four Cs,” she says. “Culture, conferences, club and cuisine. It’s one of the finest models we have; every city in India needs one.”
Both Vellani and Sethi make a distinction between public arts institutions and private art venues such as the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, which recently opened in Delhi. “The people who set up their own foundations are setting up museums around their own art collections,” said Vellani. “Their interest tends to be as a collector rather than supporting the field; at many levels the visual arts scene has a lot of gaps in this country.”
Sethi points out that such models work well for the plastic arts because they have an inherent currency value, but less so for performance arts. “I can play the art market the way some people play the stock market, visual arts translate into economic value,” she said.
Another issue is that the pool of major donors to the arts is currently quite small, restricted to a handful of businessmen and women with a personal passion for some aspect of fine art. In response, institutions such as the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) are struggling to incorporate a wider range of donors, not just the very wealthy.
Arundhati Ghosh, deputy director of IFA, who is responsible for funding, has noticed that philanthropic foundations with art agendas such as the Sir Ratan Tata Trust are dwindling in number. “Four foundations closed last year, especially with the financial crisis. You look to see where you can cut and art and culture always goes first,” she said.
One solution is to try to expand the donor base to include people who might give smaller amounts, but more regularly. To appeal to this category, Ghosh has pioneered a scheme called “Friends of the IFA” where donors can give Rs 2,500 per year to become members, receiving newsletters and entry to IFA events; Rs 50,000 buys a lifetime association.
“We look at individuals like you or me who don’t have millions to give but might give five or 10 thousand to various projects over a year,” said Ghosh.
Sethi considered a similar but smaller project for IHC, but found it untenable. “At Lincoln Center you could contribute a million dollars and have an auditorium named after you, or if you could afford nothing else, you could sponsor a chair. We debated something similar for Habitat, but decided it wouldn’t work.”
Despite the hurdles, Sethi believes things are improving. “Ten years ago I would never have dared to do any of this,” she said.
As major corporations such as DSC Ltd (which sponsor the Jaipur Literary Festival), Citibank NA and HCL get more involved in arts partnerships, Sethi believes that doors will start to open. “It’s our only hope frankly,” she said. “Corporate partnerships will have to carry the day.”