Democracy in Art Spaces: of the People, for the Rich, by the Artist

Mumbai, for the outsider looking in, is the gothic buildings of St. Xavier’s, panoramic sunsets at Marine Drive, the steps leading up to the Asiatic library and drives on the Bandra-Worli sea link.

This is Mumbai seen through a filter of money and privilege.

For every person who can afford these luxuries, there are thousands who cannot. The rich-poor divide is undeniable in Mumbai’s layout of slums and skyscrapers.

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Mumbai as seen in photographer Johnny Miller’s Unequal Scenes project (source: qz.com)

South Bombay is the southern tip of the city, built and inhabited by the British during colonial times, it is the city’s Art District. The spaces in this Art District have a reputation for being elitist.

After all, one can argue that for the rich, ‘Society, Art & Culture’ is just class performance. People who have an art collection because they want to be the kind of people who have an art collection. The rich don’t just want to be the ones with money, they also want to be the gatekeepers of class and culture.

How do they get to be the gatekeepers, you may ask? It’s because they have the money.

While attempts have been made to democratise art spaces, one very -for a lack of a better word- interesting attempt has been made by the ‘Mumbai Midtown Art Collective’.

An initiative by Anupa Mehta and Rashmi Dhanwani, it is a collective of art galleries, a museum and an auction house in the central localities of Byculla, Worli, Dadar, Lower Parel, Parel and Mahalakshmi. It presents itself as an alternative to the elitist art scene in South Bombay.

Essentially, the Midtown Mumbai Art Collective’s brand is ‘non-elitist’. 

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Left to Right: Anupa Mehta and Rashmi Dhanwani (Left to Right), founders of Mumbai Midtown Art collective (source: mid-day.com)

“We forget that art is the great equaliser, and Lower Parel is a constant reminder that different classes co-exist here,” says Dhanwani in a Mid Day feature.

What Dhanwani omits in her description of Lower Parel is that the locality and its surrounding areas were once populated with the working class and the mills that employed them.

Today, these areas have been converted into corporate offices that are nestled in high rise buildings, a duplication of the rich-poor divide visible in all parts of Mumbai.

So does the Midtown Mumbai Art Collective stay true to its claim of ‘art being the great equaliser’?First, the art spaces that make up this collective: Anupa Mehta Arts & Advisory, Gallery Art & Soul, Piramal Museum of Art (Lower Parel & Byculla), Priyasri Art Gallery, Saffronart, Tao Art Gallery and Volte Art Project.

Looking at ownership, some of the art spaces in this collective come under names like Mehta, Patodia, Shah and The Piramal Group. The sole auction house in the collective goes by the name of ‘Saffron-art’. It could be an unlucky coincidence. But it may be too much of a coincidence that the auction house in question, holds auctions on behalf of the Tax Recovery Officer, Income Tax Department of India. ‘Saffronart’ was also chosen to auction Nirav Modi’s seized assets by the Enforcement Directorate, Government of India.

The auction house has a long-standing connection with Kalpana Shah’s Tao Art Gallery, which is also part of the collective. This is a gallery that requires you to make a viewing appointment, specifying the kind of art you would like to see, beforehand.

Almost all the artists mentioned on Tao Art Gallery’s website have had their work auctioned or currently being auctioned on Saffronart’s website. Exhibitions and shows curated by Kalpana Shah are mentioned more than once in the ‘News & Features’ section of the Saffronart website. 

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Tao Art Gallery (source: taoartgallery.com)

In an interview with The Asian Age this is how Kalpana Shah explains the start of Tao Art Gallery, “Since we are into real estate, my husband [the late Pankaj Shah] was working on a new building’s plan in Worli at that time. So, like a spoilt wife, I asked him to get me a gallery space [laughs]. And that’s how it all started. Tao was a dream come true since I love to be around culture, and with a gallery, you can express so much. We have done a lot in the last 18 years.”

She also credits her friend Sangita Jindal for the suggestion that Shah open an art gallery because of her passion for art. Sangita Jindal is the chairwoman of JSW (Jindal South West) Foundation, which comes under the JSW Group and is listed as a client on Anupa Mehta Arts & Advisory’s website. Anupa Mehta is also the founder of the Mumbai Midtown Art Collective.

“Art in India is very elitist” says Tushar Jiwarajka, founder and director of Volte Art Project (also part of the collective), in an India Today magazine feature. He goes on to add, “The gallery tends to be private and discrete where we showcase our artists and their works to our clientele. And we enable projects outside of the gallery, where a much wider audience can experience art.”

Others in the collective like ‘Piramal Museum of Art’ come under the Piramal Group, infamous for their murky dealings with the government in power, but famously known as the Ambani’s in-laws. Speaking of the Ambani’s, an art show at Priyasri Art Gallery, a part of the collective, was inaugurated by Nita Ambani in April 2013, it was also attended by Kalpana Shah of Tao Art Gallery. 

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Left to Right: Nita Ambani, Akbar Padamsee and Priyasri Patodia at Priyasri Art Gallery
(source: www.photogallery.indiatimes.com)
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Kalpana Shah at Priyasri Art Gallery (source: www.photogallery.indiatimes.com)

 

With such intricate connections of family, wealth, friends and influence, it is hard to identify the art spaces under the Mumbai Midtown Art Collective as anything but elitist. Thankfully, the democratisation of art isn’t just a PR stunt for some. 

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The Floating Canvas Company’s monthly subscription plans (source: www.floatingcanvas.co)

Buying art requires at least a 5-figure investment and the commitment to continue liking the artwork you spent 5-figures on. The Floating Canvas Company is  an ‘art-on-subscription’ service with monthly plans starting as low as Rs. 90 and can go upto Rs. 8,000, depending on the artwork and artist. While the concept behind The Floating Canvas Company may not be novel, what sets it apart is that they deal directly with the artist. This creates greater autonomy for the artist and there is no commission to be paid to galleries or collectives, making their art subscription service affordable. 

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JR, ‘Inside Out Project’, 11 November – 30 December 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project, entrance view. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

Scenes of village life, daily wage labourers and overly sexualised Koli fisherwomen are often subjects of artwork that sell for lacs of rupees. While the art may be of these simple, common people, it is certainly not meant for them. In 2017, St+Art India Foundation created The Sassoon Dock Art Project as part of their Mumbai Urban Art Festival. 

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Guido van Helten, ‘Untitled’, 2017, The Sassoon Dock Art Project. Image courtesy the artist and St+art India Foundation.

The oldest maritime docks of Mumbai were revamped with art installations, murals, discussions, curated walks and audio visual experiences for the viewing public to understand the culture of Mumbai in different contexts and time periods. The Sassoon Dock Art Project lasted only two months and the installations were eventually returned to the artists, but the murals and paintings remain for the future.

The St+Art India foundation continues their work of putting out art in public areas instead of conventional museum and gallery spaces, exemplifying the call for ‘democratisation of art’.

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