On till 31 January, the India Art Fair (IAF) has a new section this year. Called “Institutional", it showcases projects run by museums and foundations like the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (BDL) and the UK’s Delfina Foundation.

We spoke to Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director of BDL, trustee of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation, a member of the advisory board of the National Gallery for Modern Art (NGMA), and a member of the International Council of the Museum for Modern Art, New York, about biennales and art events sprouting in different parts of the country, BDL’s interest in participating in such events, museum culture in India, and the new extension to BDL. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about your association with IAF, as part of its new “Institutional" programme?

We presented at the art fair last year as well. It’s a great platform to publicize our institution and show support for such initiatives.

Institutions often organize collateral events in tandem with art fairs and biennales. The Guggenheim presented V.S. Gaitonde in Venice. During the Basel Art Fair, all the institutions in the city present exhibitions, events and talks. The whole city becomes involved with the fair as it does with the biennales. Such events are often driven by city governments. It is time we do the same in India.

IAF is just completing its eighth edition. After Kochi, Pune has organized a biennale, and there is talk of biennales in Ahmedabad and Srinagar now. Is the space getting crowded?

No, I don’t think it’s getting crowded. We are a country of a billion people, and how many of them are really engaged in art as we understand it in this very urban sense? The IAF and Kochi Biennale have taken art out of a sort of reserved space. Prior to that, only collectors were interested in art and visited galleries. Or you were a researcher and academic and, therefore, you went to museums. There wasn’t the larger community engagement.

There was an India triennale in the early years, when Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru) was there and they had a different vision for the arts. He invited Grace Morley to do the National Museum in New Delhi; the triennale was set up; the Lalit Kala (Akademi) was set up. Then, for a long time, arts fell off the map. It was seen as something very elite—unfortunately so.

Last year, Shiv Sena ‘pracharaks’ prevented a fashion show from happening at the museum. Now there are questions around the new extension to be built at BDL. It has all snowballed into a debate around who should have how much of a say in what goes on at BDL. What stage is that conversation at?

It is at a very critical stage right now. And we will see how things go forward. It’s in the hands of the municipal commissioner. Because the structure of the municipal corporation is that the corporators can recommend, but it is the commissioner who has the executive power. So I am waiting to see, and I hope that he will understand the significant contribution we have made.

I just won the most votes in the Mumbai Heroes campaign by Mumbai Mirror (a newspaper). There were 30 groups of people and I was in the final five contestants. They had my photograph on a big billboard all over the city. So it’s not me, it’s really the institution we have created. I am just the face.

What’s your position in this debate?

I have no conflict in this. I think this has more to do with political objectives, rather than with me. I have been helming this museum since 2003. There hasn’t been a problem earlier, except on one or two occasions. There was a union problem which the commissioner resolved in the early years. At one point there was a problem of the name of Bombay and Mumbai because this is really a museum about the Bombay Presidency. So we used the word Bombay in several places and the corporators objected to that. I tried to explain that we can’t change a tradition’s name. So we have Bombay School Painting which represents paintings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the Bombay School Pottery represents pottery and ceramic ware from that period. I can’t call it Mumbai pottery because Mumbai didn’t exist at the time. So we found a solution. I am willing to work with them. Just as we found a solution then, I am happy to find one now.

They have accused you of financial irregularities…

I have not taken a penny. I work pro bono. I don’t take money for petrol or my mobile. I use the tremendous leverage of my family; my father was a freedom fighter, my husband’s family has eminent people. I use all of that to further the cause of the arts, not just the museum. Because I feel very strongly about it.

What would it take to turn around museum culture in India?

The reason museums in the country are not turned around is because it is a policy issue. The government of India refuses to change its policies in terms of recruiting the right people. For example, the criteria for hiring the new director general of the National Museum is 15 years of experience running a museum or cultural institution. How many people have that experience in this country, plus a PhD? So you have already reduced the pool to something minuscule. What you need in a director general is for him to be dynamic, to lead and create a sense of confidence. He needs to have experience in management and the ability to communicate. He needs to be able to understand the art forms. Bringing in just a marketing person to run a museum is not the right way either. You do need people with an art history background who have demonstrated a passion for the arts in some way. Government has basically killed off education in the arts, because there has been a moratorium on hiring in museums. No jobs means no people apply for the education programmes.

So there is a major holistic resuscitation of the cultural sector that is necessary.

What would that resuscitation take?

I think it needs the government to set up a panel of experts and follow through on what the panel recommends.

What would your recommendations be if you were on such a panel?

First and foremost, you make the institutions autonomous. Second, you invite experts to be on the board and you invite public-private partnerships. You bring in not just people with expertise, you bring in people with business acumen. Because in the end, what I do at BDL is almost entrepreneurial. We are still selling a product. We are selling the idea of India’s heritage, we are selling the idea of India’s art. And that’s what the art fair is doing too. It is a marketing exercise. At the same time, a lot of education happens to get people to understand the arts.

Are we still fixated on the Moderns in the Indian art scene?

The public is fixated on the Moderns; that’s true. Artists like S.H. Raza, Tyeb Mehta and Krishen Khanna are all established; their oeuvre has been established. Modern art is at enough of a distance and you know these artists have now been accepted. With young artists, you are taking a bet that they are going to go on to develop and will sustain through difficult periods. People are not sure enough of their own judgements, perhaps. And therefore not enough people are investing in contemporaries.

Equally, one of the problems is that we can’t do Modern (art) shows because the level of insurance is very high. Insurance is dependent on the security environment. In India, the security environment is considered a big risk, so the insurance is huge—2% of the total cost of the exhibition. The only people who can have these exhibitions are institutions like NGMA, which have a magnificent collection of the Moderns. This was collected during the Nehruvian time. There was a vision at that time for the arts. You see the proof of that now. That vision has paid off. NGMA has been doing amazing shows of the Moderns, and it’s wonderful. But what’s happened is that the contemporaries have got short-changed. So when we started (the new programme at BDL in 2003), we did so with exactly that idea. We have taken young artists like (Jiten) Thukral and (Sumir) Tagra, for example. I did a show with Sheba Chhachhi, who was not very well known then. I think you have to believe in your vision. It’s very important for us to send out a message to the world as an institution, as a museum, that we believe in our artists. I see that very clearly as my role as museum director.

What is happening now is that the Tate has created a committee. Indians contribute to be on that committee to purchase Indian art. So it’s Indian money purchasing Indian contemporary art, but for a foreign museum. I find that a bit disturbing. In 15 years, if we want to see the best of our contemporary art produced in the 1990s and at the turn of the century, we will have to go to Japan or the UK or other places that have been collecting Indian art. Some people may say it is a reflection of a globalizing world, but I also feel it’s a very poor comment on our government policy for the arts.

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