Charity, Challenge and Change: The Kathmandu Arts Center

Features Issue 87 Jul, 2010
Text by Amendra Pokharel / Photo: ECS Media

The Kathmandu Arts Center is set to take Nepali art to the next level, to make it a part of a wider canvas and to let it gel with the global art culture.

Nowhere else in the world is art as trite as it is in Kathmandu. It’s carved in the temples, engraved in palaces, and etched in the hitis and bahals and the homes of the native inhabitants of Kathmandu. It is one of those cities of the world that can be safely termed as a museum without walls. While Nepalese are proud of the fact, the ubiquitous presence of art is also, unfortunately, what leads to their indifference toward the precious heritage and the art itself.

Not for long, let’s hope. A soon to be launched art center avows to change the sloppy art scenario of the country and give it a makeover that matches international standards.

The vision for the center comes from no less a person worthy of the cause than Sangeeta Thapa, the curator of Siddartha Art Gallery, and Celia Washington, an artist in residence at Kathmandu University since January 2006.

“While we were talking we always felt that there is a lack of a world class art center for artists to show their work,” says Sangeeta. “But that’s not all. We also felt that there is a lack of a world class museum and a place where foreign artists can stay for a longer periods to work and interact with Nepalese artists. There is, also, no library with great books on arts which people can use as reference.”

Their common concern soon became a crusade to endow the Nepali arts as both Sangeeta and Celia decided to work together to introduce such a center with all the facilities they thought were necessary.

“We drafted our vision for the art center together before Celia went to London and got the art center registered with British Charity under the name ‘Kathmandu Arts Center’,” says Sangeeta. “Celia lobbied hard for a while and the Victoria Albert Museum of London recognized the center as the charity of the year for 2008. Since the Victoria Albert Museum is one of the most prestigious institutions, it was hard for us to believe that Celia could have pulled that feat,” she adds. “We were shocked when she announced that Kathmandu Arts Center was nominated as the charity of the year at the Asian Art Week organized by the museum. We thought it was a coup.”

Since the Victoria Albert Museum sends a brochure listing the events of the Asian Art Week to all its clientele in London, France and US, the Kathmandu Arts Center is already well-known in major art circles around the world, Sangeeta points out. Celia timed the event with the annual Asian Art Festival in London and made sure that some Nepalese artists were also present. The art festival is held every year and it was for the first time that Nepal was present.

The exhibition took place at the Royal Overseas League. “The place is of great historic significance as, in the past, the heads of states of the great British Raj stayed there upon their return, before finally heading homeward. It was like a club for the ruling class,” says Sangeeta. “The paintings of 13 Nepali artists were displayed side by side 108 British artists. Among the British artists some were very famous names like Julian Cooper, John Allen, Catherine Goodman, Tim Hyman Nicola Hicks, etc.,” she said.

“All the British artists donated 100 percent of sales to support the future activities of KAC. ‘British artists for Nepal’ was the spirit at the exhibition,” she says.

“Many British artists said they were as excited about the project as Celia and I were”, says Sangeeta. “They are eager to see and be a part of the center’s activities.”

The Kathmandu Arts Center is not a commercial venture, but a private charity. “It will, however, do what other existing art institutions have failed to achieve in so many years,” says Sangeeta. “The Nepal Art Council and NAFA (Nepal Association for Fine Arts) are some of the organizations here that started with good intention, but when you visit these places you won’t be happy with the state of affairs. The last time I had to put up an exhibition for the ‘Divinity of Common Life’ organized by Alliance Française at the Nepal Art Council, I had to paint the building before I could move in. The place had to be cleaned as the toilet reeked and one could smell it even before entering the building. The Nepal Art Council has everything they need—staff, budget, space, but nobody really cares about its management,” she says. “Similarly, some artists have been occupying the studios at NAFA for more than 20 years. When are the young artists going to get a chance?”

Sangeeta thinks that if private investors had their money and prestige involved those things wouldn’t have happened. “By setting up well-managed space and through well-organized programs for artists and students, the Kathmandu Arts Center will set the highest standards. Students and artists will get to use KAC studio on a rotational basis,” she says.

“We want to groom the next generation of artists and not just conduct shows. We want to make inroads into the art scene and change the way artists work here. We plan to bring foreign artists, work with university art departments and make arrangements for Nepalese artists to visit other countries.”

Siddartha Art Gallery does at least eight shows a year by visiting artists. The gallery recently hosted exhibitions by artists from Australia, Caribbean Island, India, and France. “We are not reaching out to the foreign artists out of any fascination or for hype,” says the curator. “My logic in bringing them is that Nepalese artists do not get to travel much and they do not get opportunities to see the works of foreign artists. How many Nepalese artists have seen the Mona Lisa? You can count them on your fingers,” she says. Since Siddartha Art Gallery does not charge an entry fee, Nepalese artists and art students can see the sort of technique and medium being used by foreign artists. They also get acquainted with the art vocabulary and catch up with the trends in the art world.

Sangeeta Thapa thinks that India and China are two great art markets that we have to learn a lot from. “The works of Chinese and Indian artists generate huge amount of interests whenever their shows are put up at Sotheby’s or Christie’s,” she says. “Their works are being noticed and sold for millions of dollars. We can get those artists here and do something for our benefit. There has to be some sort of reciprocity and an organization that can handle programs of that scale and nature. We need an institution that can act as an interface between Nepalese and foreign artists.”

The Kathmandu Arts Center will have a contemporary art museum, well-equipped workshops, a large resource library, an auditorium for lectures, film-festivals and performances and conference halls. The center will host international exhibitions and foreign artists in residence to bring contemporary expressions to Nepal. It will be a dynamic center for both Nepalese and foreign artists and will ultimately become a hub for international cultural exchange programs with art playing the central role.

“We also intend to promote promising artists who are struggling and have limited resources. If a certain promising artist can’t afford to put his or her exhibition on, and is in need of help, we might consider his work, if it is good,” says Sangeeta. “One must not forget, however, that every charity has its overhead expenses. Celia will get certain amount of funds to take care of rent and the staff for a certain time. After that the center will have to be self sustaining and most of the fund will have to come from the exhibitions.” Siddartha Art Gallery runs on commission made from the sale of the arts. “Sometimes there is no sale at all.” There was a time, says Sangeeta, when we could not sell a single piece of art in three months. “I began to wonder how I was going to pay the expenses.”

All the money raised by the center, on the other hand will go into improving the facilities at the art center.

The Kathmandu Arts Center is set to take Nepali art to the next level, to make it a part of a wider canvas and to let it gel with the global art culture. Even in domestic art circle an institution like the art center can play a major role in bringing the almost anonymous art community into prominence by fostering a new kind of bond between members of the art fraternity and inspiring them to achieve excellence in their work.

“One of the main objectives of the art center is to take art to the masses, beyond the realm of artists. The idea is to generate public interest in art—art as a part of identity and heritage,” says Sangeeta. Wasn’t that exactly what it used to be?