The art of giving! Model Feroze Gujral talks about being an 'art patron' now

Dec 18, 2016, 10:31 IST | Benita Fernando

Long-standing supporter of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Feroze Gujral, on the "new art patron", who will do more than just sign cheques

Feroze Gujral at the Venice Biennale. Pic/Marco Secchi
Feroze Gujral at the Venice Biennale. Pic/Marco Secchi

Twisting an old adage, Feroze Gujral jokes, "One Malayali is an accountant, two are like a workforce in Dubai, three are a communist blot and four are the team behind the Kochi Muziris Biennale." Feroze has just recalled her Kerala roots and the number of things that allure her to the coastal state — pepper duck, the Guruvayur temple and spas are just a few.

"It's like coming home," she continues, as we pour ourselves some of Kerala's famed coffee. We are seated in the tastefully designed old-world lobby of a sea-facing hotel in Fort Kochi. Music from a video installation by Taiwanese visual artist Wu Tien-Chang wafts in from the neighbouring Aspinwall House. The third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), which has come to be India's most prestigious and ambitious art festival, was flagged off earlier that day at Aspinwall House.

From attending the opening of Zaha Hadid's early drawings and paintings at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, to supporting artists such as Vishal Dar at the 11th Shanghai Biennale and Desire Machine Collective at The British Museum it's been a busy year for the model-turned-art patron. But, for Feroze, at the backwaters of Kochi, it is not yet time to unwind.

Nurturing spaces
At Kochi, Feroze is welcomed as the benefactress that gave the KMB its showcase venue — Aspinwall House, a sprawling waterfront property that belongs to India's largest commercial real estate developers, DLF Limited. Since the first edition of KMB, Aspinwall House has been its primary site, an endeavour that both Feroze and Mohit Gujral, who heads DLF, have been proud of.

She jokes that she "begs" and "pleads" with Mohit to keep Aspinwall House, established in 1867 by English trader John H Aspinwall, for KMB. That may hardly be the case, we suspect, for the astute Feroze often speaks of "the business of benevolence" — getting corporate India to support the arts.

Gujral (second from right) at a breakfast talk on art patronage at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016, accompanied by (from left) Dr Venu V, principal secretary, Kerala Tourism, artist Dayanita Singh and Dr Thomas Girst, head of cultural engagement at the BMW Group. Pic/Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Gujral (second from right) at a breakfast talk on art patronage at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016, accompanied by (from left) Dr Venu V, principal secretary, Kerala Tourism, artist Dayanita Singh and Dr Thomas Girst, head of cultural engagement at the BMW Group. Pic/Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Nevertheless, it's a tough decision to dedicate prime property — surrounded by high-end boutique hotels — for a contemporary art festival. "To me, this is the most important thing we do — facilitate two properties for KMB, Aspinwall House and Cabral Yard. It's of course hard to keep a property that hosts a festival only once in two years," she says.

The new art patron
That's Feroze for you — poised and indulgent in high fashion, but candid about the capacity and potential for contemporary art in the country. Over at the National Capital Region, The Gujral Foundation, a non-profit trust initiated in 2008 by Feroze and Mohit, is looking closely at setting up spaces — not the kinds to just show but also make and talk art, design and architecture. At Gspot, Gujral's new office space at Meher Chand Market, programmes have been held in an attempt to demystify contemporary art and design. Curator and gallerist Peter Nagy was hosted there this year for a talk titled 'No-Sense'. Ever wondered why a Julian Opie piece commands the kind of price that it does? Nagy had some answers.

"Gspot is part of the sharing economy and the sharing culture, much like co-working spaces. It's an interactive space that reaches out to other disciplines such as cinema and fashion," she explains.

Taking forward the idea of sharing spaces, a studio for young artists in the works too. "We want to provide infrastructure to students who have the talent but not the wherewithal to further their practice. The new studio could house a printer for large-scale projects or a dark room to be used on a monthly basis or as per requirement," says Feroze.

In 2017, The Gujral Foundation will continue to focus on contemporary art but will also attend to design and architecture. An architecture, design and art intervention project on Le Corbusier for the India Art Fair and a book, in collaboration with Photoink, on photographer Madan Manhatta are planned.

"We are adding, rather than subtracting, to the programmes of the Foundation," she says. "Design is usable art — an object that has an aesthetic value and use. Think about the Indian coconut grater or a stick of kajal. We haven't explored their possibilities when compared to Alessi's cheese graters or Guerlain's kohl tubes."

With initiatives such as these, Feroze could well be ushering in a new wave of art patronage, which goes beyond just signing cheques. "The way of patronage has to change in order to attract a larger audience; the arts is a rarified high-end thing and the highest form of human endeavour which can intimidate people. How do you bring them into spaces for art, then?" she asks.

Recently, inspired by art historian Leonhard Emmerling, the director of programs South Asia, Goethe-Institut Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, Feroze says, "The new patron is not necessarily a young patron. They don't have to give money; they could rent their homes to travelling artists or turn their factories into an art space. And we need to give them access. That's what I intend to look into in the coming year."

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