Thursday, July 14, 2016

When a Gallery Closes Down, Should it be Accountable to the Artists?

Man proposes, god disposes. If you don’t like the word ‘god’, say something else disposes. It is not necessary that life progresses the way we want. Seen in its totality, life is a series of prioritizations of choices of which some may find fruition and some may not. When it comes to priority, there cannot be steadfast rules. A staunch business professional could put everything down, risk millions of dollars and cancel high profile meetings and fly back home to attend his daughter’s pet dog’s imaginary birthday. Another one could even ask his relatives to keep his mother’s dead body in freezer for a few days till he finishes a series of high worth engagements. It all depends on priority. Hence, when a gallerist decides to wind up his operations in the art scene and prioritizes some other things for whatever sake, we can neither object nor ridicule such a decision. Life does not treat people well always. Facing the rough edges of life could change the course of one’s philosophy and action. It could even change the nature of one’s remaining life.

However, winding up a business or shutting down an establishment based on prioritization of life’s demands could also affect a series other lives directly or indirectly depending on the longevity of the said establishments. The laying off of a work force all of a sudden could change the complexion of the society itself. It has happened before. But the character of the working class is this that they learn to adjust. They could move from middle class neighbourhoods to slums in order to survive. They could take their kids out of the good schools and put them into badly run government schools. Human beings generally adjust to the changing situations and they too prioritize life. Like human body, human minds also take pain and suffering with equanimity, provided it is given in slow doses over a prolonged period time. Though too many galleries have not shut down so far, the shutting down of a few of them has impacted the lives of the artists and their families indirectly and in some cases directly. Hence, the question that arises here is this: who is going to take care of the artists who have been depending on the sales prospectus of the galleries that one or the other day call it quits?

The famous film actor Kamal Haasan, when asked why he does a few bad movies (aesthetically bad but commercially successful ones) in between the masterpieces that he brings out at regular intervals, he replied with a lot of humility and pride that he runs a film production studio, Raj Kamal International, and so many technicians and their families are depended on the functioning of the studio. A film studio’s function is to make movies. Making of movies, whether they are commercially successful or not, assures food in the plates of these technicians and their families. As an actor and as a producer, Kamal Haasan says that he has the responsibility of those people who have been working with him for a long time and who have shaped their lives completely depending on the ‘life’ of this one man called Kamal Haasan. He also says that it is not just the technicians and their families suffer if he stops producing movies but the extended range of people who even stick the posters of his films all over the place.

What the ace actor tells here is the ethics of entrepreneurship. Vijay Mallya who has been cheating the Indian banks thereby robbing the hard earned monies of the people of India did not care much about the people in his enterprises when he shut them down without ever caring to compensate for their works or even once thinking about their lives. Kamal and Vijay stand apart in their work and life ethics. Against this backdrop, if I view the shutting down of the galleries and also the ways in which the galleries drop the artists from its ‘list’ of artists, I am forced to say that some kind of unethical practice is forced upon the artists by these galleries. Kamal speaks of accountability of work. If he shuts down his studio, he is answerable even to his light boy’s child who has just got into kindergarten. That is a great accountability that a person could show. But what about our galleries when it comes to accountability? Does anybody ask them to be accountable?

Prioritizing things in life is absolutely personal when the life led so far is personal, not public. A gallerist is not just a private person. He or she has a public responsibility even if the gallery business is a private venture. As it is a part of the larger economy and it brings the artists as makers of aesthetics in it as its work force in order to generate wealth via business deals, the privacy of the gallery enterprises becomes public. So there should be some kind of accountability and there should be arrangements with the ‘resident artists’ so that their lives post-closure of the gallery remain smooth and carefree. Now looking at the lives of the artists in India, who were once a part of the gallery system, now out of it due to choice or expulsion or exclusion, one cannot help say that their conditions are really bad. The artists now are scrambling here and there in order to eke out a living. Most of them have taken up advertising agency jobs or teaching assignments. Many of them, including the mid career artists are going to cheap camps or doing assembly line commission works, pawing their dignities for the lowest price available in the market as well as in the society. This according to one of the serious observers of Indian art scene, has given birth to ‘a traumatic generation’ of artists.

When a gallery shuts down or a gallery drops some of its artists from their lists of ‘resident artists,’ what kind of assurance do these galleries give to such offloaded artists about their works and their future? When an artist agrees to work with a particular gallery, whether there is a written agreement between them or not, a word of trust is exchanged between the artist and the gallery owner on the pivotal issue regarding the security of the artist’s life. While some of the galleries assure a steady income to the artists by selling at least one work in a month from the gallery’s inventory, some other galleries give a regular stipend to the artists against the procurement of their monthly ‘produce’. This is an ideal situation possible when there is a steady market for art in general. But today the situation is different. Many galleries do not have regular shows. They are unable to sell works from their inventories. Most of the galleries have stopped working with the artists who used to sell but do not sell currently at all. They are simply pushed out of the bus right in the middle of a desert. And there is no agency to complaint to because there is no legal validity to the kind of agreements that they have together entered into. I personally know a lot of artists off loaded like this, suffering terribly these days.

Who should be made accountable for this? When a big player like Amit Judge exited from the Indian art market, there was confusion for the time being but it recovered itself by following the chaos of the speculative art market. What Mr.Judge had started was taken further by the other galleries whether they were capable enough to carry such weight or not. Once the market collapsed in late 2008 and then onwards, galleries put up a brave face and did things that everyone thought would make things better, but in vain because the larger economic realities were different and the art market all over the world was just a big bubble. It did burst. One of the majors, though not a procurer of mid career artists’ works nor those of the youngsters, when the Devi Art Foundation shifted its gear from contemporary art to the folk and tribal art, none dared to raise the question of accountability. Perhaps it was not required then. But then there were a spate of closures. The artists were humbled and bundled out. None was made accountable for such closures of the galleries. Before closing, they did not give a plan B to the artists who worked with them. Nor did they do the same to the in house artists who had signed contracts with them. To tell you the truth, so many careers in art have been killed by none other than the galleries.

Another important thing several galleries that had been working with the artists who did painting, sculpting, print making and traditional art practices like that, side stepped those artists all of a sudden in order to promote conceptual artists, video artists, performance artists, digital artists and so on without giving any clear explanation why they stopped promoting those artists who worked in traditional mediums. None took the responsibility of explaining it to the artists. What was that which provoked the galleries to demote the artists who worked in traditional mediums? There is no accountability. Artists also have to be blamed to a certain extent for this. When they were making money through the business deals with these galleries, they entered into deals those were not really professional. The blurring of the personal and professional relationships, in terms of making home visits, attending parties, foreign travels, camps, introducing to the curators, lobbying for international fairs and shows for these artists, made the artists susceptible to the unprofessional dealings of the galleries. When they dropped the artists, they did not have the ethical right to question their practices. So today most of them nurse their hurt pride, deeper wounds in the egos and lead a life doing commission works or doing odd jobs.

This is not a fair situation because artists are not wealth creators as I said in one of my recent articles. They can just make money enough to live a good life. But wealth makers are the galleries. Hence they need to take the responsibility of the artists who were helping them to create wealth via their works of art. Unfortunately it is not happening and we do not have any public or government forum to express the deeper concerns of the artists who have been grounded by the galleries. Artists are not unionised people as in the former soviet countries. Artists are not a force at all these days. Look at the book ‘Words Matter’ edited by the famous poet Satchidanandan. There are at least five articles that refer to the forty plus writers who had returned their Central Literary Academy awards based on their conscience and their right to rebel and respond to the atrocities committed by the right wing government at the centre within its first two years, including the murder of three eminent rationalists and writers. All these articles sweepingly say that the artists were also there in the protest. But no name (except the names of Siddharth Kararwal in an article regarding the cow flying during the 2016 Jaipur Art Summit and M.F.Husain) was mentioned in the whole book. The reason is that the artists in India are not even connected in spirit and conscience the way the writers are. If some atrocities happen against the artists, more than the artists’ community, the intellectuals and writers respond. I do not say that the artists should have unions but they need unity, especially in the times when they are just removed like dispensable ingredients in a very expensive dish.

(all images from net. illustration purpose only)


johns said...

very well written, focusing lights into the practices of Artist/ gallery of a gone past.

Unknown said...

Well written dear johny,on an important issue but it's a talk about ideal situation. In our country galleries are even not bother about replying of artists mails if they don't see something good or benefit in their work according their glasse, in this kind of situation how can we expect so much accountability of galleries...? But yes, atleast u draw attention towards this issue. . Whistle dear..!!;-)