Gallery as Practice: Informal Art Spaces in North Bangalore

Gallery as Practice: Informal Art Spaces in North Bangalore

Alison Byrnes |

The relationship between art-making and money-making has always been fraught. The desire to make art, at least for the past hundred years, has been considered more of a calling, or vocation, rather than a career. Worldwide, the mythos of the “starving artist” still looms large. For millennia, most art was de facto site specific because it was made for religious spaces – in the form of architectural carving, and mural and fresco painting on temples and cathedrals, with monolithic statuary. Individuals who crated these pieces were sponsored by religious institutions or were granted princely patronage. In the Modern Period, galleries have taken the place of these patrons, with the understanding that the artists themselves must contribute to the bottom line by creating movable commodities on offer to buyers.

Galleries in non-traditional spaces provide an alternative to the experience of the gallery-as-institution. What does it mean to have a gallery in a home or similarly informal place? What sort of psychic space does it occupy? Though any private space requires some form of permission, such spaces are in a better position to take risks because they are outside of the rule of expectations -by both an audience and a market.

This article examines the phenomenon of a set of home and alternative-space galleries, in Bangalore, in order to consider the cultural position of art exhibition in India in the 21st century. The author interviewed four gallerists who have recently run alternative-space galleries:

G159, the intended living room of a paying-guest (PG) housing space, run by Nihaal Faizal (2013-2016)

Taste of India, inside a working eatery, run by Gavati Wad (2015-2016)

We’ll Figure It Out, a converted garage in a shared student house, run by Linda Stauffer (2015)

Home Sweet Home, a studio apartment space, run by Chinar Shah (2015-)

Three of these four galleries were founded and run by students enrolled at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design & Technology in Yelahanka, north Bangalore, and are located there. The fourth one, Home Sweet Home, around 14 kilometres away from Yelhanka in Kalyan Nagar is overseen by a member of the faculty in photography and visual culture, of the same college, The college is private, and enrolls students from across India, with many of the faculty having been educated at least partially abroad. Yelahanka, technically an independent small town, is populated by Kannadigas predominantly. Over the years, there has been some tension between the local community and the college community, due to youthful exuberance and exacerbated by their status as “outsiders”, from different language groups. The enclave has been increasingly integrated into Bangalore city since the construction of a new international airport – also in the northern section of the metro area – with attendant rising real estate values. Yelahanka retains the qualities of a residential area, with people who live there making trips “into the city” for cultural events and entertainment. Traffic woes have grown in the past few years, however, and the long trip to the city center has become increasingly untenable.

Since the dawn of the era of Duchamp’s “Fountain,” the breakdown of the definition of what can be considered “art” has accelerated – from being limited to the traditional “fine arts” (painting, sculpture, etc.) focused on craft and skill, toward the prevalence in the twenty-first century of new media, mixed-media, and “remixes” or recontextualizations of found objects and images. Duchamp’s legacy is that the definition of art is whatever the artist, a self-identified label, designates as such. A critical component of this act of designation is the act of pointing – the artist points at something as art, and thereby determines his or her own identity as an artist through this act of pointing. This pointing is a gesture done for the benefit of another(s) – it is an act of performance and as such, requires some act of witness-bearing. That is, art, to be demarcated as such, and artist’s actions in the form of the artwork must be revealed, shown, exhibited. The artist, both recognized by the self as well as externally to the self, is thus reified* in the terms of this system. One function of the home and informal galleries has been to offer access to the system to artists who had not yet entered it. As Linda Stauffer, of the garage gallery We’ll Figure it Out, claims, “An artist can show work [in my gallery] that is not ready yet to show. An artist in a space like this doesn’t have to think too much, and can exhibit with less pressure and judgment.”

This act of pointing, the exhibition, continues to occur in a physical space predominantly, though this is rapidly changing as digital spaces become more accessible and user-friendly. An artist creates, then places that creation in a space to facilitate the opportunity for others to see/ interact with/ and ultimately, judge the creation. However, space – developed, enclosed square-footage – has increasingly become a commodity and investment opportunity in the past decades, as both a worldwide boom and India’s major urban centers seeing real estate costs touch unprecedented rates. Space is no longer an area designated for living and the protection of personal and marketable goods, but is in itself a marketable good, with higher rates of return on investment than most other types of goods. Hence, this artistic act of pointing has become wrapped up in the values of capital. “When I decided to start a gallery, I had two options: wall space or digital space. I can’t afford a physical space. But I’m already paying rent,” reflected Chinar Shah.

Chinar Shah, whose gallery Home Sweet Home is her flat, started it because, “I knew of people making work that I love to see and talk about, but they don’t get to show.” A contingency of the economic tension between art and economy is the notion of “gatekeepers” – those who determine which artists get to exhibit their work, and which specific pieces their audience will get to see. A gallery serves as a canon-creator and reinforcer, wherein some types of work are accepted at a given time, and others are unrecognized, though not always because they lack in quality or significance. For instance, the Impressionists were not accepted in the official Paris Salon and had to start their own exhibition alternatives in order to show work. Today, the notion of gatekeepers has come under increased scrutiny in an era when traditional power structures, such as gender, race, and family background, are being challenged in many societies, including India, as strictures become loosed through economic hegemony. The gallerists each expressed this empowerment to subvert or avoid the requirement of gaining permission in order to show work: As Gavati Wad put it, “Nobody has a say in what we show. It’s not always easy, but the freedom is worth it.”

The home galleries discard certain aspects of the trappings of institutionality, either implicitly or explicitly. The notion of institutionality indicates stability. In the case of a gallery, the space itself, coupled with curatorial proclivities, exhibits continuity, while the individual artists or works inside rotate. In fact, this rotation, or tightly controlled change, is one of the defining hallmarks of a gallery. An institution becomes burdened by its own systems, which are a function of its goals, or expectations for itself. The sense of those expectations press upon non-members; even visitors. A museum, with many functions and conventions in common with the gallery, is a classic example; a place whose ostensible purpose is to provide an aesthetic or educational experience to a visitor, but also becomes a vehicle for imposing new behavior patterns on the people inside – ways of looking, standing, and speaking. Art in the types of spaces where we already go about day-to-day activities has the potential to encourage different ways of looking and experiencing. “I saw a need for spaces that are not institutional. I wanted it to be a spontaneous space, a place for when someone needs a space just to try something out. We can figure it out together. It’s important to get out of your studio as a young artist, who could never get a museum show. An artist cannot learn otherwise,” according to Linda Stauffer. Gavati Wad, whose gallery was located in a small eatery, points out that, “An accidental audience is possible in such a space. Also the informality of such a place, which not primarily meant to be a gallery, means visitors don’t have to be cautious around the work. The experience of seeing the work is different when sitting in a chair, eating lunch. Gallery spaces are often intimidating, which affects how one sees the work or thinks about it. In this restaurant, the ‘mundane-ness’ breaks down those barriers.”

Many artists or practitioners, when they gain success as measured in sales, freeze in their practice. It’s too big a risk to move away from what’s already working. When the quantifiable measure of success is not available, only the qualitative aspects remain – the artist’s own satisfaction. But human satisfaction is fleeting and unstable, so is the artistic drive meant to be as well. Linda Stauffer elaborates, “And it’s great it I don’t have to think about money. It makes it so much easier. If you worry about making money, you lose out on passion, and energy. And time.”

In the high capitalist scenario, new endeavors require careful planning – patterns and rituals that most often pertain to economic viability. One must set forth with intention, or “vision,” already in place, in order to secure loans and real estate, and attract partners/investors. Each of these players acts as another “gatekeeper.” In the end, even a carefully planned business can fail – there is always a risk regardless of the pre-meditative rigor. The alternative galleries are able to act on impulse; an immediate opportunity that is filling a gap at that very moment, without the time lag of gaining validation from funding sources. Thus they are much more dynamic and malleable to shift according to changing needs. Linda Stauffer, a Swiss exchange student related that, “When I told people here in Zurich [my intention of starting a gallery], they said ‘you said you need a proposal, and plan, and then finances.’ In India it’s much cheaper. I wanted it to be a spontaneous space, a place for when someone needs a space just to try something out.” Nihaal Faizal mentioned that “The strength of such an art space is that it is self-funding, requires minimal costing, and runs on collective pooling of resources. It is manageable. I sometimes get donations, which have paid for the projector. There is no extra cost; the space is already part of the rent. The total cost over three years has been around 20,000 rupees, for fruits, rum, stationary, lights, and printing.”

Art in modernity is the story of the confluence of power structures through economic control, and the continual challenge to these structures by some, both artists and curators. Though galleries in “non-gallery” spaces have existed and are not unique as a phenomenon, the home galleries examined here reflect several new challenges of the Indian metropolis and its rising Middle Class. Certainly, “artist” does not make the list of acceptable, mainstream middle-class or upwardly-mobile career paths in India, where parental proclivity for pushing the professions (doctor, engineer, business manager) is well known. Despite these attitudes, individuals and collectives continue to maintain art practices, however marginalized, from the wider society’s values of being “settled” into a clearly defined career path. As with many cultures with long arts and crafts traditions, much attention and official support is designated to India’s traditional arts and crafts spheres, with fewer avenues for support of what would be deemed “contemporary art.” As with many other parts of the world, artists in this category are expected to find their way into the private gallery system; such galleries being the substitute for the patronage that had previously supported artists. The relative paucity of contemporary galleries now presents itself as an opportunity, perhaps, for Indian artists to self-define and re-define the means by which art is exhibited, and the time is now ripe for experimentation as artists who are now globally connected online can adapt ideas from the international stage without being bogged down by a long-established gallery tradition, which is, itself, a reflection of imported cultural values.

Galleries are spaces required for the perpetuation of the understanding of what art is, and, as spaces, galleries are tied to economic concerns along with the attendant realms of publicity, public relations, press releases, and cultivating patronage. For a gallery that must pay the rent, all activities and decisions must contribute to the bottom line, and are thus more aligned with the interests and skill set of the business profession. Private, commercial galleries provide services for their artists, but also take a substantial cut of any retail sales (usually 30-50%). A more significant impact of the gallery system with respect to the position of the art producer, however, is that the gallery takes an at-will position vis-à-vis the artist, serving, again, as a gatekeeper – essentially a middle-man between an audience and artist. Many of those interested in the arts, including the gallerists here, have backgrounds in fine-art making and theory, but not in business. The home gallerists do acknowledge the conflict in values between art and money. As Chinar Shah related, “Others,’ [who had discussed a home gallery] idea was a lot about money. I was annoyed by emphasis on selling but I imagined the wall. But I also had a space, and that’s how Home Sweet Home started. I thought I can do it better than the people [who were concerned with sales]. It’s also annoying that when people want to talk about photography, it always boils down to money and materiality – the market, and analogue versus digital. I wanted a space where we’re not really talking about this doomsday financial aspect.”

Taste of India

Photo Author

“Spaces can be intimidating. Even a home space can be intimidating. I can’t really say a home space makes it more accessible. But it makes the experience of looking at the work different,” according to Chinar Shah. The discomfort of visitors is related to economic factors in addition to aspects of personal physical and emotional ease. Art spaces are unlike any place one encounters in daily life – home, work, school, the streets. A gallery, which displays wares ostensibly for sale, or with some sale value equivalent, is not functionally unlike a shop. The cost of the items in this shop, however, is far outside the range of an average “consumer.” This leads to a loss of agency by the gallery or museum visitor. The scenario of a grocery store, or clothing store, is empowering to those who examine the wares inside, because he or she can decide at any moment, after handling them as desired, to purchase an item. A gallery, whose “wares” are unattainable, is not unlike a designer boutique, at which one would feel out of place, like an interloper, due to the differential between one’s personal financial ability and the cost of goods. Even a museum, where objects are not for sale, shows items that were acquired at some point through a financial transaction, and this knowledge is implicitly held within the means of display, which is also not unlike a shop.

A home gallery does not require a specifically designated space, but only a new label. A visitor is not asked to confront the boundaries of an institution but rather an already-familiar place, erasing the line between public and private.

“The environment is different [from a commercial gallery]. People come to visit and come and sit in my room to relax and talk. It’s brought the college community together -faculty and students- in a way they wouldn’t normally interact,” recalled Nihaal Faizal.

The art world has recently increased focus on claims of inclusivity, though the efficacy of many of these efforts has not been proven. No single space can attempt to address all of the issues of the art world and the baggage that comes with coming into contact with art. However, only by challenging the underlying values of art institution are new social dynamics around art possible. The gallerists here still faced struggles to attract new audiences, and home spaces are not visible enough to attract foot traffic. Some factors enabled new combinations of visitors to come together. “It reached different people. The space didn’t only have proper exhibitions, but also concerts, and the mix of music and art together became important. It was interesting in this neighborhood, next to a lot of construction workers. The gallery itself is visible at the street level because it’s a garage. The construction workers always came – helping out by painting the walls, fixing the TV screens, and also taking pictures, drawing. This became interesting, to open it to a local crowd. We always tried to invite our neighbors, the construction workers,” according to Linda Stauffer. Future art spaces will need to interrogate themselves in order to understand the value of attracting a wide audience, before they can address the mitigating factors that can enable new visitors to enter a space.

Overall, the individuals who founded these galleries combined a healthy sense of pessimism (seeing a ‘lack’), with serendipity of a free, or extra, space and a vision for seeing art in it, and encouragement by a social sphere, to bring about set of ‘pop-up’ galleries with varying levels of permanence in an area not usually considered a destination for arts and culture. For instance, Nihaal Faizal, on the genesis of his gallery G159 states, “When I came to Bangalore to start college, there was nothing else [in the area], but faculty and students were interested in art discourse.” As the city sprawls, de-centralized hubs for culture, entertainment, and food have begun to play more significant roles in the city’s life. Infrastructure has not been updated to keep pace with the volume of new city dwellers, and the traffic ushered in by them. Development of small, local art spaces may represent a desire to shift to a urban-based “halli” system wherein the city functions more as a series of self-contained hubs, within which residents live, work, shop, and engage in leisure and worship, as people seek to avoid the need to commute for their daily activities. Gavati Wad expressed a desire to tap into the potential to harness an already-frequented local eatery as a gallery: “I wanted people to engage with what’s happening around us, not necessarily in a formal space, but where people would be sitting anyway, around food.”

“Having these kinds of spaces helps to create some kind of community or audience. Some artists were showing some kinds of work that either upset people, or they couldn’t access it. There were times when nobody turned up. Some people hated some of the work, but we pushed through it and opened up the idea of what can be shown as art. Even for me personally, I have been able to push my own boundaries of what we can call art,” expressed Gavati Wad. These galleries did not attempt to break down at once all trappings of the gallery tradition, but were able discard the greatest barrier to facilitating the showing of art – the daunting financial requirement of having a dedicated space. By trading money for time and personal dedication, they widened the viability of art and curatorial practices in a part of the world, with its very strong informal economic sector, that is increasingly empowered to question and remake institutions anew.

Alison Byrnes is an educator, artist, and administrator with interests that include museology, illustration, visual culture, and history. She lived in Bangalore 2009-2016, and currently resides in Michigan, USA.


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