“The pandemic saw the art community band together like never before”: Nupur Dalmia

Director of Gallery Ark in Vadodara, Nupur Dalmia is harnessing her heritage as art patron and skills as a corporate leader to develop her city's image as a centre for the arts and culture.

By Neha Kirpal

Director of Gallery Ark in Vadodara, Nupur Dalmia is on a mission to put her city on the global art map, while supporting artists from India in the wake of the pandemic. She took over the helm of the Ark organisation in 2019, two years after its launch in 2017, and faced her most trying challenge just as Covid-19 clamped down on the art community the world over.

Within a couple of years, she demonstrated her mettle and set up an artist-support initiative and a digital pivot. Envisioning a vital and vibrant cultural hub in Vadodara, the third largest city in Gujarat and a well-known centre for the arts and education, she is now leading the Ark’s transition from gallery to an arts foundation, set to launch in June 2022.

Daughter of philanthropists and art connoisseurs Seema and Atul Dalmia, Nupur grew up surrounded by some of the biggest names in Indian art. She acquired her first work of art as a teenager: a painting by senior artist Rekha Rodwittiya. After completing her education at the prestigious University of California, Berkeley, in the US, Nupur returned to India to work in the corporate world, notably at beauty e-commerce major Nykaa.

Nupur Dalmia, director, Gallery Ark, Vadodara

Motivated to create a space that makes contemporary Indian art accessible to a broader audience and provides a nourishing platform for art practitioners in Vadodara and beyond, she took over the Ark organisation at a fateful period. Despite the challenges, the 30-year-old managed to steer an expanding programme of exhibitions, workshops, lecture series and performances.

We caught up with her for an insight into the Vadodara art scene and the effect of the pandemic on Indian artists.

You have grown up surrounded by some of the biggest names in Indian art. Tell us more about your unique artistic heritage and influences. Who was the greatest inspiration behind the Ark?

I have had the privilege of being surrounded by some wonderful artists as uncles and aunties, sharing frequent meals or visits with them while accompanying my parents. While I am truly delighted to call many of them friends and mentors now, the beauty of having known them in my formative years is that I had no idea of the incidental privilege in knowing them, and therefore they were natural interactions and associations of ease and intimacy – which I do believe are defining qualities of the art community in Baroda, even today.

The greatest inspirations behind Ark however, were my parents Seema and Atul Dalmia, who in fact started the gallery as a means of cultural patronage over two years before I returned to Baroda and eventually took over the reins.

An exhibition at Gallery Ark in January 2021

Which are some of your favourite contemporary South Asian artists, particularly women artists? What are the themes in their work that most strike you as a South Asian woman yourself?

Nasreen Mohammadi’s artworks never fail to move me in the most poignant manners. They seem, in my eyes, to hold a mirror to great truths of the world in exactly the manner one needs at the time. Zarina Hashmi’s work, especially her series, Home is a Foreign Place, speaks to me as I have moved across many countries and cities every few years for school and work. Nilima Sheikh, for the fantastical worlds her intricately detailed works quietly transport me to; and Rekha Rodwittiya’s work, all of which directly relates to navigating a life of independence as a woman in a South Asian culture.

Artists Rekha Rodwittiya and Jyoti Bhatt with Nupur Dalmia

How did the pandemic affect the art world in terms of both the creative and sales aspects? Have things changed now with restrictions easing up? Do you think things will ever go back to pre-pandemic times?

The pandemic was devastating for everyone, but it brought a silver lining – we saw the art community across the board band together like never before, looking out for the more vulnerable artists and art professionals. Alternate (and collaborative) models mushroomed, including artist-led – and particularly young artist-led – initiatives.

The Covid experience brought fresh, frank and authentic ideas to the fore and as most organisations took to virtual programmes, there was a huge shift towards greater access to the art industry, which I am certain is a crucial step towards wider engagement with visual arts in the country.

As the pandemic scare is easing up, travel, art fairs and physical exhibitions and previews are beginning to cautiously start again, alongside digital access to these programmes.

Artist Alexander Gorlizki interacts with students from the MS University, Vadodara

Tell us how, during the Covid-19 lockdowns, you managed to set up an artist-support initiative and a successful digital pivot.

Two days before we were set to open our summer exhibition – a beautifully curated group show – the Covid lockdown was announced. Through the fog of uncertainty that came with the first lockdown, we managed to rally our resources and creativity to swiftly set up a virtual gallery so we could bring the show to people at home. We also put together interactive digital events, like a virtual walkthrough and a virtual “Artist Roundtable” hosted by art critic and podcaster Kamayani Sharma.

Embark had been an ongoing project – an exhibition to platform exciting talent from the graduating class at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University. With the new circumstances brought by Covid, we decided to turn this into an artist-support initiative, with 100 percent of the sales going directly to the artists. Embark III was Gallery Ark’s first show to be exclusively hosted online through our Viewing Room.

Please share some insight into Vadodara’s art scene? What do you feel about the demand and knowledge of art in Tier-2 cities as compared with Indian metros?

Aesthetic sensibility and an innate awareness for the arts is in fact ingrained into the city’s fabric in a manner that I have not seen anywhere else. While we are certainly away from the market appetite of bigger cities in terms of commerce, ideals of patronage have been passed down through generations, starting with the foresight of Sayajirao Gaekwad III.

Bridging the gap between art patronage and support: Nupur Dalmia

What are your plans for the future?

We are currently in the midst of transitioning the gallery to its new avatar, as the Ark Foundation, which will formally begin operations in June 2022 after our closing exhibition, Parsec, comes to a close. The inspiration for a shift from a commercial gallery to a foundation came to me early in the pandemic, and has been closely examined over the last two years.

While I do believe that selling art is vital for artists to survive and art galleries play an important role here, I find that there is a larger gap between patronage and support, one that is relatively underserved and which we hope to bridge through our work.

I’m motivated by the idea of building an organisation that serves as a structure for artistic experiments in dynamic models of pedagogy, integrations with technology, public access to Baroda’s rich legacy and equally exciting younger practices, and as well to provide a space that challenges presumptive expectations and barriers to entry for new audiences to engage with visual art.

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