© Amit Kumar Jain

What Does An Art Curator Do In A Day? ‘Culture Manager’ Amit Kumar Jain Might Have An Answer For Us...

Salva Mubarak
Senior Features Writer

Amit Kumar Jain or The Middle Class Collector, as he is known on Instagram, does not want to be called a curator. “I don’t like to be called a curator, I’ll be very honest,” he informs me when I reach out to him to answer the question of the hour, “I don’t like to be called a curator, I’ll be very honest. My background is more in museum management. I’ve worked with the likes of The Devi Art Foundation and the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), which is going to be set up in Bangalore. I acted as their exhibitions head and I’ve done auctions as well. I’m very instinctive and I’ve been drawn toward the lesser-known forms of art, be it young artists or underrated artists who were not given the recognition they deserved. I’m not a curator, I’m a very visual person who likes to put together things that may spark an interest or debate in the industry and it’s something I’ve done all my life. I’ve been to an art school, but my interest has always been in managing museums.”

When I, politely, interject and tell him that he is describing exactly what a curator does, he laughs and says, “Art curator today is a very complex position. Maybe one of the reasons I shy away from calling myself that is because it is now blurring the boundary between an art dealer sometimes and sometimes being a museum manager. It has become so vast, that people curate food, carpets, cars, or whatever. I prefer to be called ‘cultural manager’. But If you have to call me a curator,” he assures me, “I won’t hold it against you.”

As he mentioned earlier, Jain has previously been the head of exhibitions at the Museum of Art & Photography, Bangalore. He has also been the associate vice-president at Saffronart, director-special initiatives at The Savara Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi, and, not to forget, the head of programmes at The Devi Art Foundation, New Delhi. Now, the ‘cultural manager’ has been tasked with curating the ‘Platform’ section at the upcoming India Art Fair. “It’s the first time the Art Fair is giving a whole section to folk traditions,” he says, excitedly, “What’s very exciting is that for the first time our living traditions will be coming to the forefront, which unfortunately never get the same kind of exposure and equality in the art market eco-system so having them at par with any other contemporary art gallery around them speaks a lot.”

Jain’s instinctive eye for the lesser-known forms of art comes into play here as he sets about to somehow educate the Art Fair visitors about the incredibly complex and rich history of traditional folk art of India. “My agenda was to showcase the masterpieces of folk art, which is not usually what we know. Our basic education has been limited to Dilli Haat or Craft museum and we think artists from rural India paint on paper straight away or do any contemporary representation of their day-to-day lives. In reality, our folk culture goes way beyond that, it’s thousands of years old. So what we’ve done is that we’ve showcased glimpses of how it all started. So there are a lot of bronze sculptures coming out in the open which have been handpicked from different collections. These are all mukhalingams, which were used as phallic covers in Shiva temples. Simultaneously, there are small Bhoota, which is from the Karnataka region and represents the cult worshipping of that region. Bhootas comes from the word ‘Bhoot’ (Hindi for ‘ghost’) because people believed that these bronze sculptures contain spirits that act as guardians of your crop or your house. They come in different animal shapes, like boars, elephants, etc. It’s very exciting that for the first time all of these kinds of sculptures will come out in the open and people will get a crash course in what is the real folk culture.”

It’s evident throughout Jain’s impassioned speech about his work that he is passionate about what he does. This is something that he feels is key to making it big in this field.

“One of the most important things to keep in mind when you decide to become a part of this industry is passion,” he says, when I ask him about the advice he would give to people who want to be like him, “It’s not an easy path. I come from a middle-class background and my father was really against me being in the art industry. So you have to be really passionate about art to make this choice.”

Now that we were on the subject of adopting this as a career path, I prod him further to elaborate on this, “You have to be aware that you’re not going to earn as much as your friends from other industries because I still get compared to my friends. But you will have the best time of your life. You will be the happiest person because you’re doing what you love.”

On a practical front, he recommends a formal education in the space to be a good curator. “I recommend getting degrees in art, either in art history or doing a course in museum practices, so you know how a museum functions. Being in touch with peers is very important to keep yourself in the know. This may be coming from a privileged space, but I always push for international exposure. Either get a scholarship or apply for residencies because your outlook will completely change. I’m one of those people who was denied that till I was 27 and I look back now and I wish I had taken up opportunities to travel abroad earlier because I know I would have had a different perspective on art.”

Despite having more than 15 years of experience, Jain still finds that there are things that surprise him about his work and the industry. “What I’ve been noticing is that people follow me because I pick up fresh things. My Instagram has been a fun place for me to share my language with an audience that I didn’t know existed. So I would put up things that I liked, it could be a Gaitonde or a 10-rupee work, and I realised that when I put up something, people will look at that and call up galleries to enquire about the artists. So that’s something that is very exciting to me, that I can be a tastemaker after all these years of trying to get out there and telling people what is good and what’s not.”

This is not to say that the job doesn’t challenge in ways you and I would never think possible. “There have been so many challenges, I can’t even recall!” he exclaims, “One would definitely be dealing with artists. That’s something I’ve had to learn on the job, the art of how to behave with artists, how to respect their space. It’s a privilege when an artist invites you into their space, so I’ve learned that humility from Lekha Poddar, who was my first boss at Devi Art Foundation. In my years of being an auctioneer, I’ve learned about the emotional connection people have to their art collections. The idea of owning something for 40-50 years on a wall and then finally coming to a realisation that you have to part away with it is profound. I’ve seen collectors cry when I’ve taken their art away from their homes. What do you do in those circumstances? It’s like an end to a relationship and you’re the person who is responsible for it!”

So back to the question we began with: What does an art curator do in a day?

“I used to be a workaholic. I still am a person who dreams of art and would get on a train or a plane at a moment’s notice to go visit a museum. But when COVID hit, I realised, what am I doing? So I work on my own terms now. For example, I am choosing to skip a meeting in favour of taking my dog to a therapy session. I want to enjoy being in the art world but not lose my life over it. My workdays are dedicated between hand-picked projects, my daughter, and my dog.”

This, to be fair, is a great endorsement of the job in my honest opinion.

RPSG Group and HELLO! India are delighted to announce the first-ever HELLO! India Art Awards on April 25 in New Delhi. The awards will felicitate and appreciate the works of established artists, upcoming talent, new media, individual and group exhibitions, galleries that curate and showcase excellent artwork, various mediums of expression, and every domain of artistic excellence there is in India today.

Stay tuned and keep following @hellomagindia for more behind-the-scenes action, exclusive interviews, and much more!