In 1977, while conducting research in Madhubani, the American anthropologist, Raymond Owens, was stunned by the beauty of some of the paintings on paper. Aware that commercial dealers were grossly underpaying the artists and forcing them to mass produce paintings to achieve any reasonable income, Owens encouraged artists to take their time, do paintings they truly cared about, and offered to buy them for 10 to 20 times the dealers' prices. When Owens returned to the US he showed the first paintings he bought to fellow anthropologist, David Szanton, who was equally entranced by them.
Together they agreed they would mount exhibitions, sell as many paintings as they could, and when Owens next returned to India he would return the profits from the sales to the painters, as a second payment to encourage them to do their best work. He would also continue to purchase the best paintings he could find for the next round of exhibitions and sales. In 1980 along with several colleagues, they established the Ethnic Arts Foundation (EAF), a non-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to sustaining the Mithila painting tradition, and also to hold the funds from sales until Owens could redistribute them to the artists on his next trip to India.
In 2003 the EAF established the Mithila Art Institute to encourage and train the next generation of Mithila painters. The EAF continues to purchase paintings at the artists’ prices, mount exhibitions and sales, return the profits to the artists, and has continued to raise funds to support the Mithila Art Institute.
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