Does big business beggar art?

Corporate sponsorship of the arts can be a double-edged sword—it can buy out art’s power to dissent, to critique present-day realities

Nita and Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre, Mumbai
Nita and Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre, Mumbai

Rashmi Sawhney

Artists, writers and intellectuals have historically been the vanguard for mobilising social change and bringing down tyrannical states. More intellectuals have been put behind bars than businessmen or bankers, as they have the ability to expose oppressive systems and shape public opinion. This has been a unique characteristic of these professions, guided by creativity and the desire to weave a unitary continuum between art, work and life.

In 1969, Jean Toche and Jon Hendricks co-founded the New York-based Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG) in a climate of growing hostility towards the Nixon presidency and its foreign policy. Hendricks and Toche challenged the systems of art and society by contesting their distorted and conflicting behaviours through parody, highlighting the irony of the facts that they denounced.

In 1967, the Black Panther party, founded by students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in California, presented its 10-point programme ‘What We Want Now’.

It included the following demands: ‘We want employment for our people. We want an end to the robbery by capitalists of our black community. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings. We want education that teaches us our true history and exposes the nature of this decadent American society. We want an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of black people. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.’

During the same period, the Dalit Panther movement in Bombay, led by writers such as Namdeo Dhasal, J.B. Pawar and Raja Dhale, was challenging long histories of caste oppression through a radical genre of protest literature in Marathi.

On 30 October 1969, the GAAG presented a manifesto to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The first demand they made was that the MoMA sell work from its collection to generate $ 1 million, and donate the proceeds to poor persons of all ethnicities in America.

‘We as artists feel that at this time of social crisis there is no better use for art than to serve an urgent social need. The donation is a form of reparation to the poor, for art has always served an elite, and therefore has been part of the oppression of the poor by that elite,’ read the manifesto.

Jean Toche and Jon Hendricks at the preliminary action to a flag-burning ceremony at the UN plaza, 5 November 1970 (Photo courtesy: Yale University)
Jean Toche and Jon Hendricks at the preliminary action to a flag-burning ceremony at the UN plaza, 5 November 1970 (Photo courtesy: Yale University)

The following day, in the presence of many members of New York’s artistic community, Hendricks and Toche replaced Russian avant-garde artist Kasimir Malevich’s painting in the MoMA White on White with a copy of their manifesto. The GAAG then demanded the resignation of the Rockefellers from the MoMA Trust, stating that the economic interests of the Rockefellers in the Vietnam war were incompatible with the mission of the institution.

These historical events are useful to remember in the context of recent developments in India: the inauguration on 31 March 2023 of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) in the Bandra-Kurla business hub in Mumbai, describing itself as “the home of the arts, artists and the audience”.

The NMACC includes several theatres of varying capacities, the largest of which, a 2,000-seater, is studded with 8,400 Swarovski diamonds. A four-storey 16,000 sq ft art gallery has been built to house contemporary art shows, the first of which—Sangam Confluence, curated by Bombay-based poet and curator Ranjit Hoskote and New York-based art dealer Jeffery Deitch—was inaugurated by Kokilaben Dhirubai Ambani along with various Bollywood and Hollywood celebrities.

The show includes the work of five regional and five international artists, working across varied mediums and in starkly different contexts and conditions, brought together under the umbrella of ‘cultural confluence’.

There is nothing unusual or unsavoury about wealthy philanthropists supporting the art world; yet the Ambani’s new venture should concern all those alarmed by the hijacking of art and culture by anti-democratic agendas and institutions.

We are at an unprecedented time in India’s history where tensions in multiple areas are rising, the economy is in distress, federalism is under attack, mob violence and hatred are being promoted by the state, and the very edifice of our democratic and secular values are under attack.

Such times beckon progressive writers, artists and intellectuals to protect constitutional values and to safeguard the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Will the cultural centre established by the Ambani’s support dissent and debate, and encourage freedom of expression, as is expected of a world-class arts and culture institute? Will it open its nine-star doors to Dalits and Adivasis, other than to put them on ‘display’ as folk artists? Or will it shroud urgent social and political issues under the gloss of wealth?

Nothing about the Centre or the group or the family that has invested in the NMACC gives the hope that this will be a space where protest poetry will find voice or where capitalistic greed and state violence can be critiqued through art forms.

Big businesses provide political parties with funds for their electoral campaigns and, in return, governments protect corporate interests. It has been widely reported that Mukesh Ambani’s wealth has grown phenomenally in the last several years.

It may not be a bad thing that the family wish to spend some of their considerable wealth on art and culture. That they have solicited support from art-world personalities such as Hans Ulrich Oberist, curator of the Serpentine Gallery in London, and Jessica Morgan, director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York—both of who are on their advisory board—is more than mildly ironic.

One can only hope that the artists and intellectuals associating with the NMACC will recognise the true purpose of the arts, hold the institution responsible to the citizens of India and make art speak truth to power.

Art can be funded by big business, but art must not be appropriated by big business.

(Rashmi Sawhney is a Bangalore-based academic and writes on cinema, cultural studies and the visual arts. This article was first published by The Billion Press)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines