Our Head of Arts says Farewell

It has been almost exactly three years to the day that I met Alka and Amisha Bagri in their home on an extremely hot day in August. As I sat there rosy cheeked from the heat, in my favourite green floral vintage dress, we spoke about our shared love of travel and endless quest for experiencing arts and culture from the Asian continent. It was the start of a fantastic collaboration and a lot of fun!

I would have never guessed that we would be where we are now three years later. On the one hand, reeling from the effects of the pandemic upon our lives, the international cultural sector and the Foundation itself, but on the other, establishing new, high-profile partnerships as the art world re-opens. It is with immense pride and humility that I reflect on the past few years with the Foundation, before I depart at the end of July to take on a new chapter in my life.

Alka and I were able to bond through an early trip to the Kochi Biennale in 2018. This whirlwind and humid visit over four days consisted of long walks through the barracks and warehouses across Kochi city centre, iced coffee breaks and fabulous food. It was an opportunity to introduce some of the artists and contemporary art practices to Alka as one of the first biennials she had ever attended. It also led to a team visit to the Venice Biennial in 2019 as well, another opportunity to see international artistic responses, but this time through a Bagri Foundation supported commission for Anicka Yi.

After six months of strategy and prep, liaising with the trustees Alka, Amisha, Apurv and Aditi, we were all very excited to launch a new website, programming strands, strategy and a new logo for the Bagri Foundation in April 2019. This was at the same time as delivering an incredible Iranian film festival at the Barbican – Poetry in Motion. It was a great way for me to understand the Bagri family’s love for cinema, also seen in their support for the London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) seven years running. Over the years, it also allowed me to indulge my passion for cinema, joining the short film jury for LIFF two times, writing about film festivals on our Stories pages, curating and writing about a Food on Film series for Mubi called BITES: A Taste of Asian Cinema with our team, and even doing my first film interview with the director Amit Gupta.

In a bid to bring in more of my visual arts connections, we were able to quickly establish support for the first Bagri Foundation funded artist commission – Rana Begum and Marina Tabassum for Is this Tomorrow? at the Whitechapel Gallery. This hopeful and beautiful installation toured to Concrete in Dubai as well, which was a treat to witness later that year.

By the end of my first year, we had delivered 16 projects reaching over 915,000 people and supporting 192 creative individuals. That year included some of our first major international visual arts projects – Venice Biennial as mentioned – and Nikhil Chopra’s residency and performance at The Met in New York. At this point, we were poised to grow and evolve, with many major new partnerships in the works and evolving connections of new interdisciplinary artists and projects.

When 2020 began, it was a chance to think big and we announced in January our lead support for the incredible Tantra exhibition at the British Museum due to open in April 2020. When the pandemic struck, many of our partners’ projects stalled and we had to pivot fast to think about how we could continue to offer knowledge and expertise about Asia and support Asian artists throughout this difficult time.

Reflecting on our role within this rapidly transforming world, led us to launch more of our own in-house created programmes  – our first ever Open Call was launched At Home in the World, and a series of new digital programmes were developed – Open Up: Artists in the Studio; The Bottom Drawer: Writers on Inspiration – a chance to share my love of Literature; and Object, Story, Wonder: Museum Collections Revealed.  One of the most successful partnerships through this period was our support for the amazing 99 Percent Invisible podcast, the episode Return of the Yokai, which has so far reached over 900,000 listeners – a treat to listen to during lockdown.

2020 brought an incredibly steep learning curve for the trustees and the team at the Foundation, but enabled us to reach even more people around the world – 1.5 million – and support 318 creative individuals.  Many of these new programmes may be kept and further developed, but with the world changing around us, now is a good time to rethink what is next, with a new Head of Arts supporting the family. How can we continue to grow and enrich more people with Asian art and culture, whilst continuing to offer much needed support to the Asian arts and diasporic sector?

I have learned so much working with our huge range of partners, the team and trustees these past few years and cannot thank them enough for their enthusiasm and support. 2021 has had an interesting start, full of planning and then re-planning. But I leave with the excitement of having supported smaller projects that are dear to me – Untold: Write Afghanistan and Til We Meet Again, IRL – with the knowledge that the major partners I was privileged to introduce to the Foundation are soon being announced. The Hayward Gallery/Bagri Foundation commission is just the first to launch, with many more to come this Autumn and next year. Watch this space and see you at the openings for all of them!

Signing off, Chelsea Pettitt

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