GLOBAL ART AND MUSEUMS IN THE NEW URBAN INDIA:
BUILDING THE DEVI ART FOUNDATION AND THE KOLKATA MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
by Grace Murray
A major art museum building boom has taken place around the world in the last decade, with the creation of new cultural institutions accompanying the rapid economic growth of many countries, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. In India, private collectors and philanthropists are striving to build “world-class” art museums to match their ambitions in the realms of business and politics. These museums can be seen as a result of the exponential growth of the country’s art market since the late 1990s, the rise of a powerful group of private collectors, and the continuing failure of older government-run museums to engage with contemporary art. In this paper, I will focus on two new art museums that I believe represent important emerging trends: the Devi Art Foundation, which opened in New Delhi in 2008, and the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art, scheduled to open in 2013. These organizations have very different organizing rationales; the Devi Foundation is a small, collector-driven contemporary art museum, while KMOMA is an ambitious public-private partnership that aims to exhibit Indian modern and contemporary art with international art. However, both of these examples represent the desire of private collectors and civic leaders to appropriate and reconfigure Western art museum models.
Although Indian contemporary art has been shown in museums, art fairs, and biennials around the world since the late 1990s, until recently few museums in India were showing this work. The country’s government- run museums suffer from insufficient financial resources and restrictive bureaucratic regulations. For example, the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi has avoided hiring experimental curators or showing new media art, and collects only paintings, sculptures, prints and photographs (1). Although paintings by celebrated living artists such as Vivan Sundaram, Jitish Kallat, Nalini Malani, and Subodh Gupta are on display, government regulations prohibit the museum from acquiring video art and installations by the same artists due to their supposedly more ephemeral nature (2). This means that although strong in Indian modern art, the NGMA collection is not truly representative of art production over the last 15 years. The extensive bureaucracy, poor facilities, and conservative curatorial choices of government-run museums such as the NGMA are some of the reasons that private collectors and philanthropists have begun creating new museums. Unlike the older colonial and national museums, new institutions such as the Devi Art Foundation and KMOMA are concerned with connecting to international contemporary art networks through the kind of art they collect, their architecture, and their urban locations in new satellite cities.
Building the Devi Art Foundation
Perhaps the best-known example of a private art museum in India today is the Devi Art Foundation. Founded by the mother and son pair of collectors Lekha and Anupam Poddar in August 2008, it is considered one of India’s first non-commercial contemporary art spaces (3).
The foundation’s galleries are located in Gurgaon, a satellite city located south of New Delhi, and the collection includes the work of prominent Indian contemporary artists such as Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Sudarshan Shetty, and Raqs Media Collective, as well as folk and tribal artworks. Although the Poddar collection initially consisted of only works by Indian artists, it has expanded to include artists from other countries in South and West Asia. Anupam Poddar has described the foundation as “a platform for the convergence of cutting-edge, experimental art in the sub-continent and…such works from greater Asia,” and his ambitious agenda includes building an ever-growing collection, encouraging public awareness of contemporary art, and eventually moving into a larger building in the next several years (4). At the moment, the lack of infrastructure in the Indian art world provides opportunities for individual collectors with a vision like the Poddars to make a major impact on the scene.
Although only in his mid-30s, Anupam Poddar has been a serious art collector for nearly fifteen years (5). His often flamboyant taste is reflected in the interior he has created in his family’s home in which every room, bathrooms included, is filled with art (6). The Poddar family, originally from Rajasthan, made its fortune in the paper industry and also owns a chain of luxury resorts. Poddar grew up surrounded by his mother’s collection of folk art, but began collecting himself in his 20s. The first works he acquired — including Subodh Gupta’s life-size pink fiberglass cow Rani and Bharti Kher’s sperm-shaped bindi sculpture Spit and Swallow — were inspired by what he saw as “a new version of India that this generation — my generation — was grappling with.” (17) Gupta’s Rani, which fuses the most recognizable symbol of traditional Indian culture, the holy cow, with a distinct Pop sensibility, has become an icon of the Poddar collection.
Although the Devi Art Foundation is a non-profit museum open to the public, it has no board of trustees or permanent curators. Anupam Poddar makes acquisition decisions with the help of a small rotating team of young curators and assistants, and guest curators are invited to create exhibitions drawn from the collection, which are on view for about six months (8). The first exhibitions organized were Still Moving Image, the inaugural show which featured photography, film, and video; Where in the World, which explored and questioned the relationship of contemporary Indian artists with the international art world, and Resemble/Reassemble, a survey of contemporary art from Pakistan. The foundation is also exploring different ways to combine folk and tribal art with contemporary art, and is currently commissioning work from artists who use traditional techniques to deal with contemporary issues for an upcoming exhibition (9).
The Devi Art Foundation’s architecture is representative of Anupam Poddar’s negotiation between “international” and “Indian” themes in his art collecting. Designed by Indian architect and landscape designer Aniket Bhagwat, the building’s imposing façade has been described by one journalist as “a giant portal of rusted steel, thrusting skyward like a cross between a Richard Serra sculpture and the monumental iwan of a Mughal mosque;” and like a Serra sculpture, the Corten steel on the building’s exterior will rust over time (10). To visit the museum, located in the same building as the corporate offices of the Poddar family company, Sirpur Paper Mills, Ltd, one must enter through a large metal gate guarded by several security guards. No signs immediately indicate that it is a museum open to the public rather than a private office building. Inside there are two three-story buildings facing each other across an open central courtyard, shaded by rows of freestanding brick pillars angled outwards to create a rippling sense of movement. The interior walls of the courtyard are made from locally handcrafted bricks in fifteen different shapes and colors that cast shadows, turning the court into a lively and intriguing space (11).
Inside, there are three gallery spaces with poured cement floors, high ceilings, and exposed beams, giving the space the feeling of a post-industrial warehouse despite the fact that it is a brand new construction. Most of the rooms have no windows, purposely darkening the space to aid in viewing video installations. The reception desk doubles as the bookstore/gift shop, and there is a ground floor museum café facing the outdoor courtyard. The Devi Foundation’s sleek gallery spaces and installations of new media art imply that it is more closely linked to the international contemporary art world than other museums in New Delhi, and in fact Anupam Poddar has said that he modeled the space on others he had seen around the world (12). Although the building feels modern because of its materials and its simplicity, it also references traditional Indian architecture through elements such as textured wall surfaces and the enclosed courtyard.
The Devi Art Foundation is emblematic of the collision of the new and the old occurring in rapidly expanding satellite towns like Gurgaon. The art historian Shukla Sawant described the museum’s location as a “surreal mix of time zones” in the catalogue for the exhibition Where in the World: “As the rural rubs shoulders with the urban, cows slumber on the pavements outside high-gloss skyscrapers as ‘neutral’-accented English-speakers of the call center industry walk past migrant labor from the interiors of India” (13). The Devi Foundation’s exhibitions aim to appeal to the newly wealthy residents of Gurgaon, intriguing them with the possibility of an international lifestyle centered on art collecting (14). Nevertheless, with a current attendance rate of only 8-10 visitors per day, the museum still has a long way to go to increase public awareness of its programs (15). In July 2010 a new Dehli Metro station will open nearby, which will surely affect the museum’s level of visibility. Poddar plans eventually to move into a much larger space with a library, an auditorium, and storage and conservation areas: “maybe in a year, maybe in two years, five years, it will be like the new Tate, the new Guggenheim, the new Art Institute of Chicago.”(16)
Although the Devi Art Foundation is still relatively new, the provocative nature of its collection and exhibitions are signs of its emergence as a new kind of art space in Delhi, distinct from government-run museums in its embrace of experimental contemporary art. However, thus far the museum has focused on fairly traditional modes of exhibition, and has not yet ventured into the realms of performance, public art, artist residencies, or other kinds of dynamic programming that would truly explore what the role of a contemporary art museum can be and forge a stronger connection with the art community in Delhi and internationally. The museum represents the vision of a single family, and it is located in a relatively small space with a very small staff. How it will manage to professionalize its operations, exhibit folk art alongside contemporary art, care for its ever-increasing collection, and reach a wider public in the years to come is yet to be determined.
Kolkata Museum of Modern Art
An ambitious project currently being planned in the Indian state of West Bengal, the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art (KMOMA) is still in the development phase but is scheduled to open by 2013. Unlike the Devi Foundation and other new private museums, KMOMA is being created by a public-private partnership that includes the national, state, and city governments, the Centre for International Modern Art (a commercial art gallery in Kolkata), and a group of corporate sponsors (17). The Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, renowned for projects including the Beijing Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium and London’s Tate Modern, were selected in 2008 to design the $130 million museum in the satellite city of New Town. This project is significant because it aims to create a flagship modern art museum to restore Kolkata’s heritage as a cultural center and “rebrand” it as a global city. Because it does not yet exist physically but only through proposals, models, and a website, any understanding of KMOMA will be fragmentary, but it provides a fascinating opportunity to speculate on how new institutions may affect the Indian art world in the near future.
The capital of the British Raj until 1911, Kolkata has been a site for the blending of Indian and European culture for centuries. In the early twentieth century the city was the home of the Bengal School led by Abanindranath Tagore as well as later modernist movements that attempted to fuse Indian artistic traditions with Western avant-garde styles (18). But the move of the colonial capital to New Delhi in 1911 created a power vacuum in the city, and after independence and partition in 1947 and again during Bangladesh’s fight for independence in 1971, it became the destination of hundreds of thousands of refugees. The activities of Mother Theresa and other charities have only reinforced the image of Kolkata’s poverty to the world. However, since 2000 Kolkata has experienced a modest amount of economic growth and is occupying a more central place in the global economy with the rising importance of its IT and communications industries.
As critic Geeta Kapur has pointed out, Kolkata has struggled because “as a city it has been unable to make the move from provincial modern to international modern to global contemporary, in the arts and in culture in general.”(19) Although it is the capital of West Bengal and is trying to position itself as a commercial center, it lacks major art institutions. Due to this perceived deficiency, government, business, and cultural leaders created the KMOMA trust in 2003. Their goal is to “build a museum of international standards” to house “a national and global collection of fine arts from the late 18th to the 21st century.”(20) The KMOMA complex will be expansive, spread across a ten-acre site east of Kolkata in New Town, a rapidly developing satellite city like Gurgaon in Delhi, filled with information technology companies, malls, and new residential developments (21). With the creation of a new highway near the museum, it will be only a ten-minute drive to Kolkata’s main international airport, and a new metro line is planned to connect the center of the city, New Town, and the airport (22). In theory, this would make it easy for someone from South Kolkata, Delhi, or New York to visit (23).
KMOMA will include nine floors and four wings for exhibitions, academic programs, art conservation, and research. The exhibition wing will include a national gallery of Indian art, as well as European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian collections, and temporary exhibitions of international contemporary art (24). This broad scope suggests a desire to replicate so-called universal museums like the British Museum or the Art Institute of Chicago, which display art from all over the world; but according to Das, KMOMA will be something “beyond a universal museum,” sharing information and art works and collaborating with other museums in Asia and beyond. In Das’ words, a universal museum gathers everything into one point, but at KMOMA “everything will diverge outward.”(25) The plan has additional components beyond the galleries; half of the site will be designated a “cultural city,” which will include spaces for the visual and performing arts and cinema (26). There will be an outdoor amphitheater sunken into the ground, which will provide a space for events such as performances and festivals modeled after the traditional performance spaces for Jatra, a form of popular folk theater (27). The complex will also include retail areas selling Bengali craft items, as well as restaurants serving traditional food (28). Thus the museums’ activities will spread beyond the building and will attempt to market the uniqueness of Bengali culture, as well as showcase international artistic trends.
A central component of this plan is the innovative nature of the museum architecture. After Herzog and de Meuron were chosen to design the building, one Indian journalist pointed out: “If your intention is to create something to rival Tate Modern, the most popular museum in Europe, what makes simple, stunning sense is to hire the same team of architects.”(29)
Despite the fact that the museum is located in a new suburban development and not in the historic city center, the architects have repeatedly expressed their desire to make it as “Kolkataspecific” as possible, but aspects of the design also resemble their work in other countries (30). The design consists of a series of stacked boxes made from multi-colored transparent bricks. The space will convey a feeling of openness and transparency, and from some levels visitors will be able to look down into other galleries (31). The shape brings to mind elements of Herzog and de Meuron’s recent design for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as well as one of their current projects, the expansion of Tate Modern. One description of the Walker addition could easily have been written about the design for KMOMA or the new Tate: “a complex set of solids and voids that push, suggesting inherent energy, to a surface membrane that is taut and translucent.” (32) In these designs, the boxes pushing out of a central structure suggests the desire of the institution to extend its activities beyond the traditional white cube and into public space in new ways.
At this point the KMOMA trust is focused on raising money to build the museum building, and plans for the future acquisition of artworks are not yet firm. Typical of other new museum projects around the world, more attention is being focused on the building and what it symbolizes about Kolkata’s place in the hierarchy of global cities than the acquisitions and curatorial choices that will be made after it is completed. KMOMA’s dual identity as a modern and “altermodern” institution, trying at once to make up for a historical lack and also leapfrogging over outmoded models of the museum in favor of something radically new, epitomizes recent economic and cultural trends in India (33). Despite its somewhat contradictory impulses, KMOMA may still be a productive model for future collaborations between the Indian government and the private sector, and serve as a symbol of Kolkata’s increasing participation in global economic and cultural networks. As Geeta Kapur has reflected, in a country strapped for funds and for curatorial expertise, KMOMA “promises to be a beautiful shell that hopefully will evolve a content.”(34)
Raqs Media Collective, a group of three artists based in New Delhi, recently noted that the absence of strong modern and contemporary art institutions in India can be seen as a kind of productive lack — an opportunity for new, more political, and more diffuse forms of cultural action. They write:
If the museum and the large cultural institution were to contemporary art what the fixed landline telephony infrastructure was to telecommunication, what might be the equivalent of mobile telephony? … How can the paucity or dereliction of museums and large art institutions, of spectacular events and festivals in some parts of the world, be seen not as a liability but as an asset?(35)
This statement suggests that India does not need large new art museums, but rather alternative kinds of “interstitial institutions,” art networks spread throughout the city. Despite the power of this utopian idea, it is likely that new modern and contemporary art museums will continue to be built in the near future. Museums are closely tied to the art market and also do what other kinds of arts organizations, networks, and residency programs cannot: shape and preserve a collection of artworks and exhibit them in the public sphere. However, a wide variety of new museum models are being created across the country, from hybrid commercial/experimental gallery spaces, to corporate collections, to public/private partnerships, which has resulted in the diffusion of attention away from the national museums towards a variety of smaller institutions, allowing for more experimentation. Perhaps museums can be like mobile phones after all — non-hierarchical, rapidly evolving, and capable of connecting their users in new and unexpected ways.
In conclusion, new art museums in India are a part of a broad array of cultural, social, and economic changes. Both the Devi Art Foundation and the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art can be viewed pessimistically as institutions mainly concerned with the museum’s ability to produce cultural capital and serve as a status symbol for a city and its new wealthy elite. However, they can also be viewed optimistically as examples of “glocalization,” a process that involves reconfiguring international museum models and practices for specific local contexts and creating a platform to simultaneously address local, national, and transnational audiences. New museums face a number of looming challenges, including how to raise funds in the midst of the global economic downturn, how to attract diverse audiences, and how to negotiate the relationship of traditional and popular culture with global contemporary art. However, through their architecture, collecting practices, and institutional missions, they are striving to invent new museum models reflective of today’s globalized culture. This is just the beginning of the story, and it will be fascinating to see how these spaces evolve in the years to come.
1. “Something is Rotten at NGMA,” Art Concerns, March 2007, http://www.artconcerns.net/2007March15/html/coverstory.htm.
2. Kavita Singh (Professor, School of Art and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi), personal interview, January 2010.
3. Somini Sengupta, “Where Tradition Has Ruled, a Home for Contemporary Art,” The New York Times, August 26, 2008.
4. Annette Ekin, “Devi Art Foundation,” The India Tube, http://www.theindiatube.com/component/content/article/43-features/172-by%20Annette%20Ekin.html.
5. Judith Benhamou-Huet, “Taking it All In,” Art Info, September 1, 2008, http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/28380/taking-it-all-in/.
6. Lucian Harris, “India’s first private museum of contemporary art” The Art Newspaper, March 11, 2008.
7. Shruti Ravindran, “My Own Little Louvre” Outlook India, November 23, 2009, http://outlookindia.com/article.aspx?262798.
8. Amit Kumar Jain (Head of Programs, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon), personal interview, January 2010.
9. Jain, interview.
10. Lucian Harris, “India’s first private museum of contemporary art” The Art Newspaper, March 11, 2008.
11. Dua, “On Firm Foundations.”
12. Jain, interview. Poddar also keeps track of current museum exhibition practices through his cousin Sandhini Poddar, a curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
13. Shukla Sawant, “Material Means,” in Where in the World exh. cat. (New Delhi: Devi Art Foundation, 2008) 19.
14. Hans Belting, “Contemporary Art as Global Art: A Critical Estimate,” in The Global Art World, ed. Hans Belting and Andrea Buddensieg (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2009), 67.
15. Jain, interview.
16. Jain, interview.
17. “Sotheby’s Sale for Museum,” in The Telegraph Kolkata, 16 July 2007, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1070716/asp/calcutta/story_8049998.asp
18. Partha Mitter, The Triuph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde 1922-1947 (London: Reaktion Books, 2007) 10.
19. Geeta Kapur, “Where to Look When There Is No Modern Museum in Sight” (paper presented at the conference “Fair Trade: The Institution of Art in the New Economy,” the annual meeting of the International Council of Museums Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, Mexico City, Mexico, November 2009), http://www.cimam.org/meeting/meeting21.php?id_reunion=9.
20. “About KMOMA” and “Vision,” Kolkata Museum of Modern Art,http://kmomamuseum.org/.
21. Anthony King, “Speaking from the Margins: Postmodernism, Transnationalism, and the Imagining of Contemporary Indian Urbanity,” in Globalization and the Margins, Richard Grant, ed. (New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2002), 78.
22. “New Lease of Life to Rajarhat Real Estate” The Statesman Kolkata, 24 December 2009.
23. Sougata Das (Art Historian at the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art), personal interview, Kolkata, December 2009.
24. Gareth Harris, “Herzog & de Meuron to design new museum of modern art in Calcutta,” The Art Newspaper (June 2008).
25. Das, interview.
26. Dua, “A Wider Canvas.”
28. “Auction for 500-cr Art Museum,” The Telegraph Kolkata, 28 August 2006, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1060828/asp/calcutta/story_6664778.asp.
29. Lakshmi Indrasimhan, “Future Systems,” Tehelka Magazine, Vol.5, Issue 21 (31 May 2008).
30. “Tate Modern to city museum of art- Celebrated firm to build Calcutta Project,” The Telegraph, Kolkata, 13 May 2008.
31. Das, interview.
32. Andrew Blauvelt, ed. Expanding the Center: Walker Art Center and Herzog & de Meuron (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2005) 15.
33. Nicolas Bourriaud, The Radicant (New York: Lukas and Sternberg, 2009).
34. Kapur, “Where to Look.”
35. Raqs Media Collective, “Earthworms Dancing: Notes for a Biennial in Slow Motion,” e-flux, July 2009, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/69.