Nearly a year after the state government decided to revive the Venkatappa Art Gallery (VAG) on Kasturba Road, the proposal — to let private money and enterprise bring the art gallery up to world standards — is in a whirlwind of controversy, with several prominent artists opposing it. But Tourism minister R.V. Deshpande, who is championing it, is not about to give up. In an informal conversation with Shwetha Satyanarayan, Mr. Deshpande tried to clear the air.
As he settled down and we broached the topic, Mr. Deshpande decided to tackle it by painting — no pun intended — the big picture first. Tourism into this country has not increased in the past several years for a number of reasons, he began.
While even smaller countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia boast of a higher contribution of tourism revenues to their national GDP, the sector still contributes only 6.5 percent of our GDP. “Every state, even the Government of India wants to promote tourism,” he explained, hoping we would begin to see the point.
And as if he had anticipated what the next question would be, he continued, “Yes, yes, I know, most of the concerns of tourists are around the safety of women, cleanliness, and world-class amenities. But it’s not as if we don’t have a vision to provide all this.”
“Look, when the Centre made it mandatory for corporates to spend two per cent of their profits on CSR activities, we thought we could leverage some of that money to promote tourism. The idea was validated when no less than the Taj Mahal and Qutub Minar were adopted by private parties. Do you mean to say that the Centre lacks the vision or the money to maintain Taj Mahal and Qutub Minar or that it does not have the competence,” he asked rhetorically.
It was on these lines that he had started ‘Adopt a Tourist Destination’ in Karnataka, and it was under this initiative, upon being requested by the state government, that mine baron and art collector Abhishek Poddar had come into the picture to revive Venkatappa Art Gallery.
“Now, here came a man with a passion for art and who is known internationally for the work he has done,” Mr. Deshpande said, in defence of the decision to hand over the art gallery to Mr. Poddar’s Tasveer Foundation. “When we signed the MoU with Tasveer, we put forth many conditions. We made it clear that the Tourism department does not own any of the properties, which means we can’t sell anything or even lease the destinations. So, there’s no question of privatization of any of them, let alone the art gallery.”
The government even decided to set up a committee to ensure that the interests of artists were protected. “That should be enough to explain that Mr. Poddar and his foundation do not have the freedom to do whatever they like or claim ownership of the art gallery at the end of the five-year contract,” the minister said. “And most importantly, Mr Poddar is not going to make a single rupee out of this! All the earnings through exhibitions will go to the art gallery for maintenance and development.”
Citizens, tourists, art lovers are all stake-holders in the art gallery. When the city gets world-class facilities and institutions, everybody benefits. Let not false propaganda jeopardize that, Mr. Deshpande said, referring to the artists’ continuing protests on the VAG issue. “The government signed the MoU transparently and Tasveer Foundation is not going to gain anything out of it. We must be thankful to Mr Poddar!” he said emphatically.
But why did his colleague Kannada and Culture minister Umashree seem to be distancing herself from the initiative, even announcing that nothing was afoot at the gallery? “The minister corrected herself later. I don’t blame her, because the agreement was made on behalf of the ministry,” he shot back.
Would he be willing to amend the MoU? “Show me how I am wrong or convince me that someone is going to personally benefit from this, and I will make changes,” he shot back. “I called the artists for a meeting, but they refused to even read the MoU. Let’s all accept reality and make our galleries world-class.” And then came a little bombshell of a whisper, the proverbial cat among the pigeons!
“You know, artists haven’t come out in the open to support this cause, but some have called me personally to compliment me on the initiative to revive the gallery,” he said, before going on to soften the blow. “I urge artists not to make this a prestige issue. We respect all artists and the interests of all stake-holders are protected in this arrangement.”...