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by Tanya Abraham

Rethinking Funding for the Arts in India

The idea of arts funding did not emerge as a vital component in Kochi before the Kochi Muziris Biennale. Ever since 2012, when the government of the state of Kerala announced its support for and initiation of an international cultural event, the climate surrounding contemporary arts has been shifting. The impact the biennale has had has been noteworthy[1]; over the years, the city of Kochi has been recognized as a very important hub for the arts in India. However, in spite of the powerful impact on the city and its peoples, the question of funding remains, with the challenge being re-presented every year. Whilst a portion of the biennale’s funds come from the government, the remaining funding is raised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation. A mammoth task. Since my association with the arts in the region prior to and after the biennale’s first edition, funds from local patrons have always been a trickle. The feat of raising funds in Kerala is a challenge pertaining to its own social conditions and climate—the arts has long been a distant thought for the average public.

In my PhD thesis on the querying of the social impact of the Kochi Muziris Biennale on the state of Kerala and my own experience in running the non-profit arts organization, The Art Outreach Society (TAOS), my research opened up certain understandings regarding the social complexity of the region, which can be attributed to the relationship of the various publics to the arts. For one, prior to Indian Independence, the access to patronized arts was reserved to the upper classes/higher castes. Here, there is the aspect of art being viewed by an audience (theatre, performances, paintings, and so on), and then, arts found in crafts and daily occurrences of lived experiences.[2] So, for the common man, such everyday art was not necessarily “art to be viewed” but everyday art which uniquely merged into Indian society, formulated as a functional product. Traditional art forms found sustenance through events like temple festivals, worship, and so on. With the colonial influence on society, especially the British period, Western styles of art found patronage amongst the local wealthy who emulated the colonizers and created a new bourgeois attitude through it. Since Indian Independence, there has been a gradual shift in the social structure and also the emergence of new economies. Patronage towards the arts dimmed. Traditional art forms, however, continued to find life through daily life practices. With contemporary art, the task faced is different. It is a fairly new idea for the people of Kerala. It queries the need for funding in a society where patronage no longer thrives. The need of the hour is thus understanding the impact of the arts on society and the lives of its people, and it calls for an in-depth search into the nuances of its intricacies—the possibilities coming from art investment.

At the 2022 Kochi Muziris Biennale, the invited satellite exhibition curated by me titled A Place at the Table focused on gender parity and the situated roles of women in Kerala society. Part of the exhibition was the community-participatory project called “Who Put Out the Fire?,” where artists worked with women in unearthing ideology-based situatedness of women in Kerala through the positions in kitchens and lived experiences concerning cooking, food, and so on. Seven films created from the five-month project were exhibited at the biennale. Artists worked with homemakers from varied socio-cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, bringing forth issues pertaining to women’s societal place and roles instilled by ancient patriarchal frameworks. This involved weeks of in-depth research through interviews, sharing meals at homes, cooking together, and so on. The process helped in understanding the lives of the women, their desires, social/religious limitations, and so forth, and what kitchens specifically mean to them as spaces in homes where they bear the sole responsibility. Such work signifies the position of the common man and the significance art possesses in addressing pressing social issues. Through such artistic practices, art is given a position that pushes the current narrative it carries, thus providing new reasons for funding.

To allow the permeation of this understanding to seep into the fabric of society, for business firms and social organizations to understand the impact of the arts, these are the crucial questions: Can individual lives change? Can economies develop further than tourism? What is the multidimensional result of it? There have been a number of discussions, conferences, and organizations constantly working on creating awareness at the central level to create policy change. Yet only a handful of corporations have allotted their corporate social responsibility funds (and a very limited amount at that) to cultural development. The use of art as a tool in addressing social issues, public/personal health, etc., are unfortunately seen as a less authentic tool. Since 2016, TAOS has been working with victims of trauma (women, children, and juvenile prisoners) using the arts for psychological interventions, with its impact and work being monitored by the psychology department of Christ University, Bangalore. In spite of reports offered, the seriousness associated with art’s ability to impact the human mind is questioned, and funding from corporations is often rejected due to “a lack of seriousness” in the field.

The issue of funding, in spite of the recent changes in the social climate which the biennale has created, however, still remains starkly vivid. The much-needed awareness regarding the arts has not shifted from a periphery level yet. Nor has a deep interest been sparked to view it from a new perspective, viewing it as a necessity for a 21st-century Kerala. The few arts institutions working towards hosting exhibitions, supporting arts education, and so on struggle to attain even the crumbs of funding budgets from corporations. As for the governmental structure in Kerala, it is very complex, with long waits for the allocation of promised funds and the politics of power between political parties. A high literacy rate, which sets apart the Keralite from the rest of the nation, has not, however, been exposed enough yet to the possibilities from the arts. Art education in schools, visits to exhibitions, workshops, and the like, to instill in young minds an interest for the subject, and a strategic plan for public awareness, both by private and public organizations, are remedies ready for implementation. In terms of awareness, an impactful strategy for its successful implementation calls for private and public investment. It seems like a chicken and egg situation.

The potential of a state which has established itself in the field of technology, education, services, and so on is a promising place to examine the possibilities of the impact of the arts within its unique social framework. Kerala has the highest female-to-male ratio (1084:1000, 2022 census[3]); it has witnessed a matrilineal system of inheritance for five centuries and has the highest literacy rate in the country (94%, 2022 census[4]). Kerala had an elected Communist government after Indian Independence in 1947 and continues to house one today. It thrives on a strong remittance economy, contributing significantly to its GDP.[5] The precarity from the Covid-19 pandemic emphasized that the dependence on inward remittances is a threat to Kerala’s growth. In 2021, The Hindu Business Line published an article stating the importance of local production.[6] The possibilities of the impact of the arts on such a society of the Global South present a unique and interesting proposition in terms of funding and the investment in the arts. Not only is it crucial that events and exhibitions find sufficient monetary support to continue to provide multiple benefits to society, but it is also imperative that investments are made in various other aspects of the arts—from education to participatory/community coproduction—to encourage cultural development and intellectual growth. The art sector thus needs to explicate its relevance in society, not only through conferences and symposia but through individual and community experiences as well, creating funders as social venture investors and artists as entrepreneurs. What lies ahead via the arts in Kochi/Kerala is enormously promising, with the possibility of a unique study regarding a unique society. Will we attain support from those who see it as vital?

“Who Put Out the Fire?” , Satellite Project, Kochi Muziris Biennale 2022
Working of the project, Aug to Nov 2022, Artists working with women in their kitchens

Tanya Abraham is a PhD student at the curatorial platform, the University of Zurich(ZHDK) and the University of Reading (UOR). Her thesis concerns contemporary art formats in a culturally traditional society (Kerala, India) and its impact on society through participatory art practices. Since 2012 she has been working as a researcher and curator in the field of culture and the arts in Kerala. She has to her credit, two books in the field, and contributes as a writer to the national publications Times of India and Art India. Tanya is also the founder-director of the award-winning non-profit organisation The Art Outreach Society (TAOS). Her work associated with it concerns gender roles, art education, and societal impact has been recognized with awards by both private and government institutions for its strong impact on societal change via art education. She has curated a number of exhibitions; In 2016 she curated as collaterals of the Kochi Muziris Biennale two art education projects (exhibitions) titled “Artist the Public Intellectual” and “Landscapes and Silence” , the latter in collaboration with Canadian curator Wayne Baerwaldt. In 2018 she curated the collateral exhibitions “Red Crown Green Parrot” on retracing the lost history of Kochi's Malabari Jews, and “Of Memories and Might”, a women's exhibition on querying women's roles in society. Some of her other projects include “Influences of an Ancient Nation”, Kashi International Residency 2015 in association with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and “My Name is Gayatri Gamuz” , 2013, in association with Museuo Fundacion Antonio Perez, Cuenca, Spain in addition to others.

Her exhibition during the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2022 titled “A Place at the Table”, was a participatory public art project of an embodied experience, concerning Kerala’s public’s relation to contemporary art woven in relation to the position of women in Kerala society.
Tanya lives and works in Kochi, Kerala, and represents her state in the National FICCI Culture Committee, New Delhi.



[1] The instillation of a biennial culture, decentralization—shifts from the center to the periphery – concerning a Western format of biennials, a rise in local businesses, and the regeneration of second-tier cities in India are some of the impacts noted. Amit Jain, “The Impact of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale,” www.academia.edu, accessed May 11, 2023, https://www.academia.edu/11825972/The_Impact_of_the_Kochi_Muziris_Biennale.

[2] India has a tradition of art forms inculcated into daily life. Based on the ancient practice of caste, the division of labor included traditional crafts required for everyday life (jewelers, carpenters, potters, and the like). The creation of crafts was associated with necessities (worship, festivals, and so on), not necessarily viewed as art forms.
Laila Tyabji, “Art, Craft & Beauty – a Subjective Caste System,” in Artistic Visions and the Promise of Beauty, eds. Kathleen M. Higgins, Shakti Maira, and Sonia Sikka (Cham: Springer, 2017), 219–23, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-43893-1_16.

[3] “Kerala Population 2022 | Sex Ratio & Literacy Rate 2023,” www.census2011.co.in, accessed May 11, 2023, https://www.census2011.co.in/census/state/kerala.html#:~:text=Kerala%20Sex%20Ratio%202023.

[4] Ibid.

[5] D. Dhanuraj and Nissy Solomon, “How Remittances Have Shaped the Socio-Economic Landscape of Kerala,” Moneycontrol, December 7, 2021, accessed May 11, 2023, https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/opinion/how-remittances-have-shaped-the-socio-economic-landscape-of-kerala-7799341.html.

[6] “Kerala Must Grow beyond Remittance Economy: S Gurumurthy,” The Hindu Business Line, October 26, 2021, accessed May 11, 2023, https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/national/kerala-must-grow-beyond-remittance-economy-s-gurumurthy/article37176739.ece.

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Issue 58

Speculations: Funding and Financing Non-Profit Art

by Ronald Kolb, Dorothee Richter, Shwetal Patel

Editorial: Speculations: Funding and Financing Non-Profit Art