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Under my Umbrella!

The team behind Arts and Culture Resources India (ACRI) explain their foundational philosophies and their plans for the future in this inaugural issue of its monthly newsletter.

The year 2020 has been an ‘interesting’ year to say the least, and we’re only just in the first quarter. From mass street protests against CAA/ NRC/ NPR since December ‘19 through March ‘20, we’ve gone to social isolations and lockdowns to control the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. This global health crisis that has grim economic implications, is forcing every sector to find creative ways of carrying on with life and business.

Although creativity is not the sole preserve of creative professionals, their leading the way in these paradigm-bending times would mean setting an almost poetic precedent. Rashmi Dhanwani, the founder of ACRI, along with Dipti Rao, who are spearheading a movement to synthesize India’s largely unorganised arts and culture sector, launch ACRI as a bigger digital platform this month with this aim. With new membership facilities, fresh content and an email newsletter, this platform aims to be the umbrella under which the entire sector may fit. In this inaugural issue, Culture Wire editor Urmi Chanda speaks to the founders about their passion and their path.

What is ACRI and who are the people behind it?

Dipti Rao: Beyond the boilerplate information on the website, Arts and Culture Resources India (ACRI) began with a very functional idea of information sharing in a time where there was none. It didn't begin with the idea of serving the sector; instead, it was a personal sharing of opportunities amongst a small group of friends - something that even today, is one of the most valuable ways in which we share information. 2015 was also a time where (Rashmi) was only just beginning to explore ideas of structures and governance in the cultural sector, so really, it started with a small idea and gathered steam as we learned more about India's cultural sector.

Rashmi Dhanwani: While the group was started by me, moderation was almost always supported by volunteers and then Art X Company employees. Till date, we have had over 16 volunteers moderate the group. Since almost two years now, Dipti Rao from the team has been leading the effort to build ACRI and the Art X team has been dedicating time to moderate it.

DR: At my very first job interview, I was hired chiefly because I specifically did not want to be involved in the making of art - but rather, to be backstage. I feel that even today, this forms one of my guiding philosophies with work. I also feel like in India, we often find artists pivoting to management - or doing it alongside artistic processes - when we need more people who can look at the arts for the incredible production possibilities.

Why did ACRI decide to take a step beyond what is already a very popular Facebook group?

DR: I believe there are two broad layers to this - the first was a very deep need that RD and I felt for structure, for a space for the sector. In many ways both she and I are keen on the macro picture in the cultural sector. For me certainly, returning to India after a course of study in the US where I was exposed to sector-level thinking and planning, made me look at the Indian industry with a fresh perspective. The other layer is the sheer response that the ACRI Facebook group got on a near-daily basis. The proof of the pudding in this case really does lie in how much the group is used. As a volunteer-run group, we're really stretched to moderate the group as it needs to be - which is at once heartening and challenging. With such an immediate and sustained active response and use of the group, we couldn't help but think what more needed to be done.

RD: The decision to expand our scope of work also was easier to arrive at once we questioned our motivation for doing so. While we felt it was important to continue to host a common platform for sharing, it was getting increasingly difficult to do so on an external platform (Facebook) which had its own technical challenges not easily resolved when you are not a group that pays for online advertising. So we had two options before us: either continue to only run an FB group, or expand our boundaries a little and understand a little bit about what the sector needs. We decided to do the latter and in about a year had run networking meet-ups in 9 cities.

What’s the big idea? What does a platform/ initiative like this hope to do for culture professionals, indeed, the whole sector?

DR: From the very beginning of this whole exercise - the Facebook group - the focus has always been on the cultural sector and the professionals who work in it; that is where the greatest lacuna is. ACRI's vision is "to develop a strong, bottom-up online and offline platform for cultural professionals across India." If we break that down to a guiding philosophy, it is to contribute to efforts to bring structure to the sector that has so much potential that it has been growing and building in the (complete) absence of one.

RD: What that would mean is ably support the sector by way of research, advocacy, networking, information sharing and learning.

Why should anyone become an ACRI member? What’s in it for them?

DR: We envision the ACRI member group to consist of professionals who are keen on investing in sectoral development, and through that, bringing focus to professional development for themselves and their own areas of work. That is to say, for ACRI members, we're opening up opportunities to tap into some pretty incredible resources (people, institutions, knowledge centres) that are across the country that even we are discovering on a daily basis. Members will also be able to support each other and gain support through the sharing of their own experiences - something that is invaluable in a sector with very few opportunities for formal training. We see the membership programme with the potential for deep connections between professionals, and a uniting platform that individuals can leverage powerfully.

RD: As an ACRI Member, you can also access a number of exclusive benefits. From research and statistics, access to timely industry information and resources, an opportunity to both post and receive a filtered list of verified jobs and opportunities, and access to ACRI events and conferences.

The pandemic has hit the culture sector hard too. What are some of the things that ACRI and its affiliate, The Art X Company, have done to mitigate the damage and that other culture organisations may learn from?

DR: Our first strong move here was through a project we've been involved with in partnership with the British Council: Festival Connections. In the past few weeks when we've seen all live events being cancelled, we decided to pivot to digital. We were lucky to be able to do so both with the kind of content that we were presenting, and also due to the support of the British Council and also the speakers that we had invited to be part of the session. When we decided to move forward with the webinar, for ourselves it was a path forward in investing in new ways of working. We hope that more people will be able to pivot to digital - at least in the near future - and find support in the fact that none of us are alone in this venture and that we can learn from each other.

RD: We have also circulated an initiation position mail articulating what the sector needs right now and exhorting people to join the efforts. ACRI will have an exclusive page dedicated to documenting nes, information and emergency funds sources for people in the sector. We have also been speaking publicly about this. An example is a podcast with Roshan Abbas, and we’ll be supporting Roshan’s new fundraising initiative to support artists: Flatten The Curve.


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