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Art for one, and art for all

At a special evening hosted by HT Brunch, the first ever woman director of Tate Museums, Maria Balshaw, makes a case to broaden its audience and appeal [ An Exclusive Interview ]

brunch Updated: Mar 03, 2018 22:31 IST
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
Maria Balshaw, Director, Tate Museums and Art Galleries
Maria Balshaw, Director, Tate Museums and Art Galleries(Naina Redhu)

At the tail end of a dinner for Maria Balshaw, the new whizz director of the Tate, artist Subodh Gupta pipes up from the seat to my right: “You’ve opened up the Tate to everyone – you’ve given access back to the people. This is an extraordinary gift to democratise art.”

And then Gupta commits exactly the kind of faux pas I would, one that endears him to me for life: “You embarrass us all.”

Meru Gokhale, Publisher, Penguin Random House, laughs out loud (Naina Redhu)

“Perhaps, Subodh, you mean ‘embrace’?” Gupta’s partner Bharti Kher – one of my favourite artists – chimes from the head of the table.

Balshaw, razor-sharp on uptake, says, “Gosh, yes, of course, I do both equally.”

Balshaw’s husband, Nick Merriman, director, Manchester Museum, smiles at me. It is impossible to be immune to Balshaw’s mighty charm and scimitar intelligence, and how the combination sets her apart at any dinner table.

Among the delectable dishes served was this grilled king oyster mushroom with Kashmiri morel, celeriac, black truffle and sherry vinegar reduction (Naina Redhu)

Paperbacks to Picasso

Balshaw is in Delhi for an art fair. Along with my friends Dattaraj and Dipti Salgaocar, I hosted Nick and her at supper for HT Brunch. Some dear friends who joined us at The Leela Palace included Kavita and Hari Bhartia, Namita and Arun Saraf. Over the years, Balshaw and Merriman have been Goa drinking buddies, where it’s mostly chatting art, politics, books et al in board shorts over cold beer and prawn curry. Naturally, I was intimidated to be at dinner at The Leela Palace’s Le Cirque (the mixologist had created astonishing cocktails inspired by key works at the Tate and Manchester Museum, including one inspired by Cezanne’s wife reclining and wondering when she would leave England for France).

“Picasso’s Weeping Woman on the cover of Sartre’s The Age Of Reason led me to London...”—Maria Balshaw

For a north Goa village hick, what put me at
ease in Le Cirque’s glamorous climate was Balshaw, who has the notable gift of being naturally self-effacing and in full ownership of her genius. Perhaps it comes from her childhood – sound, middle class British stock with no unnecessary allusions to art.

The host of the evening, Siddharth, making artist Bharti Kher feel comfortable (Naina Redhu)

As initiation into a lifelong apprenticeship to art practice, she credits literature.

“For most of my childhood books were my refuge and inspiration,” she told me. “I read everything I could lay my hands on and had some wonderful aunts who passed me things that opened new vistas for me. I still remember receiving The Color Purple and Meridian by Alice Walker for Christmas at age 13, and curling up and immersing myself in Celie’s story and her voice and not moving from the armchair for most of the day. Virginia Woolf’s To theLighthouse guided me into modernism, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale were my feminist awakenings. And the world of literature then made me want to get on a train and go to find art and artists. So, Picasso’s Weeping Woman on the cover of a Penguin copy of Sartre’s The Age of Reason led to a journey to London seeking out modernist art. This journey led me to Tate Britain (then called just Tate as it was the only one) and to a sense that I really wanted to discover things I didn’t know (and I still like to do this).”

The host of the evening, Dattaraj Salgaocar (Naina Redhu)

In addition to serving as a disciple of curiosity, if Balshaw sounds dreadfully sensible then, well, she is. And it’s precisely this poise, candour and wit that Balshaw will high beam at the Tate, an institution that will revive under the new director’s expansive scholarship, gender inclusive politics, and her profound, intimate friendships with rock star artists as formidable as Marina Abramovic and Cornelia Parker.

Mostly, it’s what Gupta wisely observed: she’s committed to democratising art, playfully calling out its pretentions, and reminding younger audiences that even one’s Instagram feed, considered carefully, may be a tableau of artistic nourishment.

Nick Merriman, Director, Manchester Museum in conversation with Namita Saraf (Naina Redhu)

Portraits of the artists as heroes

I first met Balshaw a few years ago; she was director of the The Whitworth, Manchester. After attending a photography exhibition I’d curated at Sunaparanta, an arts foundation I head in Goa, which was set up by the Salgaocars, we had dinner at my cottage. She asked me if I’d curate a show for her. I thought of Sooni Taraporevala, who is feted for her photographs of the Parsees but also had, as gallerist Devika Daulet-Singh alerted me, a definitive archive of Mumbai/Bombay photographs spanning 40 years. During our collaborative adventure, Taraporevala and I were dazzled by the ease of working with Balshaw and her team at The Whitworth.

“When we presented Queer British Art at Tate, one visitor comment simply said, ‘I think it might be safe to come out now!’” —Maria Balshaw

Balshaw is utterly professional, entirely non-interfering, and a prodigy of mindful delegation. Her greatest strength? She champions her artists with animated gusto. Unlike many in similar positions, who come with the industrial strength arrogance of an influencer, Balshaw is disarmingly fangirl before her artists. The weight of her recent designation is such that she arrived in Delhi only to discover a lunch reception for 300, where she had been billed guest of honour. Her entirely extemporaneous speech at this lunch was waving candles for attending artists she admired: Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Nalini Malani (she separately pointed out Indian artists she is watching carefully, including Jitish Kallat, Reena Kallat, Gauri Gill, Raqs Media Collective). What might have been an opportunity for her to speak about her own role at the Tate turned into a thoughtful reminder of its primary responsibility: to nourish and advocate artists.

Ms. Monet’s Meditation – a cocktail inspired by the famous French artist (Naina Redhu)

And then there’s also that quietly thoughtful way she winds up a project. To celebrate Taraporevala’s rapturously received show at The Whitworth, she treated me to dinner at Mahesh Lunch Home, when Nick and she were passing through Mumbai. We walked from my flat to the restaurant, and over rice and fish curry, we spoke about our parents, how we aspire to age, the Marquezian solitude of ageing. I had, around that time, lost my father; we touched on the role of art in helping us process loss.

“We struggle as humans to accept loss, as I think we delude ourselves that we can or should be complete in ourselves,” she later observed. “So the process of engaging with an artist’s work is a timely reminder that we cannot stop time, or be perfect and that more takes place beyond or outside us, and I find this humbling and also inspiring.”

Hari Bhartia gets cheerful (Naina Redhu)
Couturier Kavita Bhartia is all smiles (Naina Redhu)

Arts and the economy

The Tate drew 8.5 million visitors last year. Balshaw must allocate £110 million of funds across its venues, manage a permanent collection of over 70,000 artworks, and lead close to a thousand employees. Internationally, art has revived economies in nearly bankrupt towns such as Spain’s Bilbao, where the Guggenheim Museum attracted millions of visitors to its whimsical and lavish Frank Gehry edifice (in its initial three years the museum generated nearly $500 million and another $100 million in city taxes). A 2014 McKinsey study pointed out that what makes a city great, in addition to green spaces and immigrants, is a thriving cultural sector.

Author Patrick French sips a secret (Naina Redhu)

Sadly, a thriving cultural centre is vastly lacking in our country. In India, public museums are dismal – run either by government servants with no vision, training or passion, or by ageing socialites who use public art spaces to dignify their otherwise pointless existence. There are few private museums, with key exceptions such as the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (where the excellent Roobina Karode directs its energetic programme). In America and China, the mega rich create and support art centres. Our newly wealthy, instead of funding world class museums – for the sheer vanity, if for no altruistic motive – build two billion dollar homes that become odes to crass greed and aesthetic failure. In the process of heading an arts foundation in Goa, I find myself struggling to keep my own bullshit sensor in check – it’s so easy to fall into the art world rhetoric of free champagne and inscrutable language. So how does Balshaw cope?

Artist Subodh Gupta (right) in conversation with hotelier and museum founder Arun Saraf (Naina Redhu)

“I acknowledge the gilded world and the systems of control and privilege, but my public-sector career has always been and will continue to be about how we can make art and artists’ ideas accessible to a wider public. And there is nothing better to remind one of the power and relevance of art than to listen to what visitors say, think and feel when they come into Tate,” she said. “To give one powerful example, when we presented Queer British Art at Tate Britain, which explored the until recently hidden histories of queer desire and life in our national collection, one visitor comment at the end simply said, ‘I think it might be safe to come out now’.”

(Author of bestselling books, including The Last Song of Dusk, Shanghvi is honorary director of an arts foundation in North Goa. He travels extensively, and frequently contributes travel dispatches for Brunch)

From HT Brunch, March 4, 2018

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