Curatorship, Culture and the Public: Curatorial Practice in the Post-Soviet Age, Part I

As a result of my own personal experiences, as well as discussions with colleagues in Budapest, I became interested in the prevalent curatorial practices in the region. In this context, region is meant as those countries which were formerly part of the “socialist bloc,” as well as countries which were once part of Yugoslavia. Today, within this entire ‘post-socialist’ geography, there is scarcely an institution where there is a formal curriculum relating primarily to curatorial praxis or arts administration.It might safely be said that the administrative and artistic management of museums and other major cultural institutions was left to a club run primarily by those whose training was in a branch of art history. And, since these were neither consumer societies nor market driven economies, practices relating to the exhibition and curating of artwork were markedly different from those societies where there is an integrated and thriving network of institutions (and collectors). Critical questions arise: how do those working (or wanting to work) as curators in museums, galleries and related cultural institutions and artists make the transition from a non-market oriented art economy to one clearly dominated by major Western institutions? The question is not insignificant, since the answers and solutions – the cultural processes – define the creative depth of a society’s cultural self-definition.

What follows then is a form of ‘virtual dialog’ taken from emails and interviews that I have been gathering over the past months. The materials were contributed by coworkers, artists and curators working in Budapest and throughout Southeastern Europe, with comments also from Istanbul and the UK. The focus is on issues associated with curating, such as institutional structures (museums, galleries and other exhibition sites) political environments, education and spectatorship: factors that facilitate and encourage the social spaces that form what we can call the life-world of contemporary art.

Allan Siegel: To curate – to study, select and represent art work; to organize and promote exhibitions – is not only about an examination of individual or group praxis but also includes questions concerning institutional infrastructures and pedagogies that define and inculcate values associated with art history and its representation, as well as methods and forms of spectatorship. To curate and present an exhibition, to build and define an audience, is therefore not only about display or selection (though they are crucial) but foregrounds the spatialization of discursive processes that draw upon a range of individual and social factors.

Emanating from within this matrix of disciplines, political interests and individual expertise, the discursive process is of paramount importance. It is critical – essential – to the maintenance and growth of communityCommunity is used here to not only to designate a neighborhood but the larger social fabric.

“In the irreversible reconfiguration of large cities as service centers, culture plays a basic role. This is not just a matter of having a good supply of events, prestigious museums, for internal and tourist consumption. You also have to, perhaps most importantly, have the capacity to receive, recycle and export ideas, sensibilities,projects which improve the internal quality of life and upgrade the city in international competition. No city with a rich cultural life lacks solid cultural structures and resources for contemporary creativity.”Mari Paz Balibrea, Urbanism, Culture and the Post-Industrial City: Challenging the Barcelona Model in Transforming Barcelona: The Renewal of a European Metropolis, ed. Tim Marshall (New York: Routledge, 2004), 214.

These realms of cultural activity and their discursive processes are suffused within and substantiate the horizon of experience that marks daily life. They posit trajectories skewed toward either degeneration/petrification or durability/change. Janos Sugar states this rather succinctly.

Janos Sugar: “It is almost a 100 year old idea that the museums are power plants – the German Alexander Dorner said it first in the early 20’s – such an exhibition like Tamás St. Auby’s 3334 same size Baddrawing in the Kunsthalle or the Hidden Holocaust exhibition they were really like power plants. If you invest some energy to interpret they give it back ten times more.”Janos Sugar (JS), interviewed by A.S. May 2006.

Allan Siegel: Who and what empower these ‘power plants’? Especially in consumer societies (and those moving rapidly in that direction) the ability to extend one’s horizon of experience beyond the codes and routines of consumerism can further a society’s cultural evolution. In this context information becomes a creative tool.

Janos Sugar: You cannot lose information if you give it out, or pass it along. In some sense it is a duty in the information society; the first rule is to pass along information helping it to reach the place where it could be useful. Not noise, but quality information. We can only lose commodities by giving them out. You can give me your phone number, and both of us will have it; but if you give me your cellphone, you will not have it any longer.

Allan Siegel: To curate than is to establish sites where information – the forms of information – becomes accessible and negotiable; to orchestrate both the site and exhibition elements into fecund public spaces able to initiate information exchanges.

The function of the public (or publics) and their relationship to or place within an institutional experience defines the extended boundaries or areas into which discourses generated by museums or exhibition spaces are disseminated. Functionally, the public is not an amorphous mass of people but rather an ideological construct. Thus within any given society the mission of a public institution can be fulfilled only if there exists a public which satisfies that mission. What developed in those countries grouped under the “socialist umbrella” was a cultural life tied to institutional infrastructures with an ideologically circumspect mission and linked to a defined public constantly able to satisfy that mission.

Szabolcs KissPal: The cultural experience of the communist society affected in quite a deep manner the contemporary position of visual or fine arts culture. I think this condition is very common to many of the post-communist countries of the region.Szabolcs KissPal (SK), Interviewed by A.S. July 2006.

Allan Siegel: For the socialist elite that defined and implemented cultural policy, the public was a hierarchical mass channeled into those institutional zones appropriate to each layer’s status and the implementation of an official cultural policy. Similarly, from an obviously different perspective, in the non-socialist world (in Western societies) these institutional zones also served an ideological function.

Szabolcs KissPal: I think there are many parallels between how the capitalist and how the socialist society was built up in terms of ‘an elite’ – the communist regime had its own elite and view on what kind of social functions art can and should fulfill. Certainly it is a different model – as clear political and ideological messages were addressed to the masses through the culture under the direct control of this elite – but on the structural level you find many similarities.

In spite of those similarities that are right now revealing themselves it was a totally different view of art and culture before ’89. In many of the art institutions you will find many people who were there 20 years ago and who have the same vision in which culture is controlled by an elite, the problem is that the meaning and composition of what we call “public” became quite obscure, everyone agrees they should be brought in, but who are they?

Dimitrina Sevova: As public spaces, museums and public exhibition spaces are responsible towards society, and need to take this responsibility seriously. It is essential to re-establish the role of the public in museums and exhibition spaces. These spaces need to survive in the competition with the entertainment industry.Dimitrina Sevova (DS), email June 2006.

Allan Siegel: If this is the case, then throughout the region museums are confronted with the residue of the different ‘socialist’ models and the new socializing forces of consumerism. This tension is played out most directly as museums’ attempts to revamp archaic infrastructures, and schools seek to formulate new pedagogical approaches to the teaching of art. Within these two areas, through how art is presented and how it is taught, it becomes possible to perceive the ideological underpinnings of a society’s cultural life. According to Tony Bennett,

Few museums draw attention to the assumptions which have informed their choice of what to preserve or the principles which govern the organization of their exhibits. Few visitors have the time or inclination to look beyond what museums show them to ponder the significance of how they show what they show. Art museums and ancillary institutions (School, galleries, web sites, cultural pages etc.) define social spaces that act as playgrounds in which the public focuses its attention on the processes and products of cultural production. They are not the sole arenas for these types of interactions, but they are perhaps the most prominent sites within a network of institutional zones or discursive spaces, within which public cultural life is enacted. The crucial position of these institutions arises because they represent sites of validation within an extensive global cultural network. They are the public spaces within which national cultural capital is substantiated and international cultural assets are exchanged.Tony Bennett, “3 Museums and ‘the People'” The Museum Time-Machine: Putting Cultures on Display, ed. Robert Lumley (London: Routledge, 1988), 83.

Admittedly, this paradigm is a primarily Western model because it is geared toward exhibition, collecting and marketing practices that reflect the processes of commodification that have transformed the way art is produced, written about and exchanged. In what was the East (and certainly other areas of the world) this paradigm had little place within the network of institutions.

Basak Senova: In Turkey, there is no institutional infrastructure or habitual patterns for museums,at all. For the last 5 years, with the few (mostly private Modern Art collection based) museums and the International Istanbul Biennial, a slight movement has started especially for the students and the middle-class (as a trendy leisure time activity).Basak Senova (BS), email July 2006.

Dimitrina Sevova: Regardless of the substantial competition both on the local and the global level, with other institutions and with the entertainment industry, exhibition spaces and museums need to leave room for provocative, innovative and experimental exhibitions and projects with new names, new points of view and approaches, which can explode the commonly accepted norms and conventions and open the space for further debate and discussion. Projects which may not find the support of a broad public.

Allan Siegel: Finding and building public support and at the same time allowing and nurturing experimentation is just one aspect of the curatorial balancing act. Funding innovative projects often requires audience numbers as a justification for the costs involved. But audience is not simply a numerical quantity; rather, it is an essential element in the equation that defines the dialog between an institution and its public.

Who Is the Museum Audience and Why Is It Important?

Allan Siegel: Who comes to museums and why? From that period of time when the museum portrayed the benefits of philanthropic endeavors, and those most able to appreciate the characteristics of those endeavors, the relationship between public funding and audience was neither critical nor valued in the same manner as it is today. As Kathleen Mclean writes in “Museum Exhibitions and the Dynamics of Dialogue”:

Research on how and why visitors use museums has played a major role in helping to turn exhibitions into more connected two-way conversations. Although formal visitor research in museums had its start in the 1930s, it did not really begin to take hold until the 1980s, prompted by a sincere desire on the part of some professionals to better understand the effects of their exhibitions on visitors and by expectations of funding agencies that museums be able to back up with real evidence their claims of audience impact.Kathleen Mclean, “Museum Exhibitions and the Dynamics of Dialogue” Daedalus 128, no. 3 (1999): 83.

Dimitrina Sevova: Every space has its own specific public and target group, a cultural context. I.e., a community of people gravitating around it, some of whom are professionals, others fans of the space.

Antonia Majaca: The public should vary from show to show. The question is who comes on almost every show. And that is an art crowd. Antonia Majaca (AM), email August 2006.

Pawel Jarodoski: [The public] is merely nice young people, first of all young artists, art critics and students. The older generation of artists attend openings only in the case where the show is about them or they are participating. Sometimes nobody is coming (few people only). In that case we are running around the city through the coffee houses, schools, and pubs trying to attract people’s interest.Pawel Jarodski (PJ), email July 2006.

Dimitrina Sevova: The public visiting museums and public exhibition spaces in Eastern Europe is rather more difficult to categorize than in the Western world. This is partly due to differences in the structure of museum institutions, including the lack of patronage and a corresponding group of visitors, and the lack of supporting members, but largely stems from the lackof a middle class for whom the visit to a museum is an important part of good taste and good education (of themselves and their children), and whose taste defines a relative conservatism of the institutions.

In Eastern Europe, what middle class there is consumes its cultural needs in front of the TV set. This has a profound influence on the museums and public exhibition spaces. Many of the visitors come from a professional audience, with some students and tourists. If there are rich people showing interest and providing private financial support, they are usually eccentric and lack understanding and respect for the art institutions. The art spaces rely on state money, but are often empty, and need to develop strategies to become part of a process of cultural and political debate – a process of democratization. In other words, they need to attract a public again.

Szabolcs KissPal: Here in Hungary ‘artists’ are mainly the public for other artists. 60% of the public at exhibitions are other artists , 20-25% people coming from art theory, art criticism and so on… and then maybe 15% which are actually unknown to me… they may be young people or relatives of the artists. When you are doing something or exhibiting you are kind of communicating with this ‘art scene’ which is made up of colleagues, people who are dealing with art issues and then maybe the public who is ‘outsider.’ When I am creating an exhibition or something I try to be aware of all these kinds of groups of people.

Vanalyne Green: As a video maker, I always think about audience, and if I don’t I think it’s to my detriment. I’m not one of those artists who makes work for myself. Probably because when I tried that, I didn’t please anyone else, which meant I didn’t please myself.Vanalyne Green (VG), email June 2006.

Attila Nemes: Audience is the most important thing when I start working on a show. One of the first steps is defining target groups of the subject or circle of artists included. It also means I do not really pay attention to the critics but to the immediate reactions of the audience, so I like to imply projects on the shows which deal with the audience, talks with the audience, trying to gain feedback. This does not mean I am necessarily serving the needs of certain groups, because many times I like to challenge the audience with a title that is in contrast to the exhibition – the title is very inviting and straight forward while the show is controversial, turning the issue up side down. I do not like to make exhibitions for small professional groups or circles of the art world because I am not interested in its discourses. I more like to focus on the wider public and issues created by the media or very common in the public discourse or public storytelling.Attila Nemes (AN), email June 2006.

Antonia Majaca: For each project, we try to involve different audiences and constantly broaden the circle of interested people. We do not expect the same amount of people for each show nor do we expect the same structure of our audience. We try to detect the extra target group who could be especially interested for each specific project- students, our neighbours, amateur painters, school kids, working class, different communities… We are trying to establish an open platform for different protagonists to act and blur the borders between producer and consumer, and are striving towards introducing some innovative and context specific mediation projects that include and mobilize diverse social groups and subjects.

Allan Siegel: What are the criteria for determining a successful exhibition?

Dimitrina Sevova: The interest of the public is clearly a criterion for a good exhibition. But it is not the only criterion.

Vanalyne Green: A successful exhibition is one that causes me to think, gives me joy, satisfaction, visual or intellectual pleasure, or both.

Basak Senova: [A good exhibition is] directly related with the context of a project. Sometimes the attendance is quite important (as NOMAD, we are trying to establish a community by making the people visible -who produce and share in digital culture,). Yet, mostly, profound and intense participation from a small group of audience is much more effective for the long-term feed-back process.

Pawel Jarodzki: Spectators’ attendance is the basic criterion but it is also important who the spectators are. Sometimes we organize commercial exhibitions in order to repair the gallery budget, but then we are embarrassed by the sort of people visiting the show. We have to defend ourselves as to why we did it.

Antonia Majaca: We formulate our projects according to a few program lines, many of which also take place outside the gallery walls or are shaped and developed as a process or are research based or are in other ways discursive. Thus, we have also developed several different ways of evaluating the success of each project, such as general outreach, covering specific needs, level of integration in the context, level of cohesion with specific groups, influence on the general policy… Of course, for shows taking place in the gallery, beside the number of visitors, other factors more dependent on the criteria of visibility count–professional feed back and media coverage first of all.

Janos Sugar: I miss very much as an artist that there are no ‘critical’ hypotheses about Hungarian art. There are no concise histories of the Hungarian art for the past 40 or 50 years. When there is a repressive system for 40 – 50 years people lose some abilities. You can say that in Hungary people don’t really argue or discuss things – they don’t really express themselves in certain situations. The culture of spoken word is missing. To form an opinion on something you have to be secure in your position… a frustrated person cannot have an independent opinion and is unable to stand up for something. This kind of moral support is what is completely unknown.

Tamás St. Auby was one of the most influential personalities of 60s and 70s art life, [he] emigrated and came back. He is the only one who kept this radicality. He did a show in ‘96 in the Mücsarnok (Kunsthalle, and no art critic or art historian dared to write about it. This is just one example. There is no internal discussion, and that is why visual art is not present in the public discourse.

Allan Siegel: To bring a discourse in from those fringe areas of conversation requires more than simply a handful of magazines or journals that cater to a pre-existing readership.

Education, Cultural Literacy, and Contemporary Art

Allan Siegel: A society’s cultural literacy, like media or computer literacy, designates a range of interpretative – critical – capacities. Cultural literacy represents a broad spectrum of abilities wherein the public can read various forms of cultural products and negotiate meanings. In many ways popular culture, at its best, reproduces its own critical language, but less accessible forms of cultural expression require further interpretive – educational – skills.

Szabolcs KissPal: If you talk about the contemporary art scene and its public then I think the most important problem is education, and not the education of the artists but the educational system [relating to contemporary art]. Here, the general view might be that ‘culture’ is more or less important but the present government and the past government didn’t really emphasize the role of visual culture.

Janos Sugar: Contemporary art is where people don’t necessarily have a clue how to enjoy or interpret an art work. Plus, in the case of visual arts, there are no such rules like in music or in literature. That’s why one may think that it doesn’t require any knowledge to make a critique. Since people don’t really have any help in the public schools; they don’t really go to contemporary art shows… because of this they don’t have the ability to face something which is not easily understandable or easy to digest.

People here are less able to express independent opinions. Even the so-called art professionals. The institutional framework is completely paralyzed by this strange attention deficit disorder because they can only follow opinions and speak out only if they have already heard that this or that thing is okay or acceptable, etc. I consider it a proper manifestation of attention deficit disorder, which is well known for individuals but I haven’t heard about that it can be seen in a larger community, in a country. It is a real disorder. Its cause could be the lack of independence in Hungarian history, which led to the misconception of attention as commodity. In Hungary it is very funny, you can see this in the two Hungarian art magazines, in which a critic or art historian goes to NY, writes fantastic reviews on the exhibitions in NY, but can’t execute that sort of precise attention at home. Why? The people we are speaking about are not the so-called average people they are the professionals. If we want to have attention from outside then we have to generate attention inside.

Allan Siegel: The remedy… for collective attention deficit disorder is not seductive spectacles arising with the Disney-fication of exhibitions and museums. Selling more tickets may increase attendence but it does not address the more fundamental issues. Those countries emerging from behind the scrim of ‘socialist cultural practices’ are faced with a double paradox. #1 – Within the ethos of socialist planning culture was made accessible via an extensive network of community based institutions; yet, this culture was rigid and packaged from the top down; #2 – Within the previous earlier economic framework art was not tied into market driven strategies of collecting and exhibiting that are associated with advanced capitalist/consumer societies.

Janos Sugar: Attention has an information nature, and one cannot lose it by paying attention. Attention can even generate more attention. Or we could say: attention can be generated only by attention. Culture can exist only when there is a certain density of attention.

Allan Siegel: Janos’ density of attention suggests a kind of cultural litmus test. If we look at institutional praxis: how curatorial policies, exhibitions, educational programs, and audience coalesce, than the density of attention becomes comprehensible and the generation of noise vs. quality information become discernable qualities. Furthermore, as we begin looking at these elements in broad perspective it becomes possible to comprehend the objectives and mandates, the institutional ethos, that shapes a society’s cultural life. And, it is when these objectives and mandates are obscure or unrealizable that Janos’ attention deficit disorder begins to set in.

Szabolcs KissPal: If you go abroad you see other institutions – the big institutions – investing a lot in organizing public events and educating the public; they have many lectures and guided tours – there is a big effort invested in this sense. This is something very new for the Hungarian arts institutions. In the last couple of years they started, like the Ludwig or Mücsarnok, they started new programs that are aimed to involve the public in some way. You might feel the effect of these processes in 20 years when the new generation has grown up…

Allan Siegel: But what happens in the meantime? Within this cultural terrain there are artists well-versed in the ‘global art scene’ yet also, importantly, continuing to produce work that emanates from and extends both global and local cultural vocabularies. And, there are curators whose motivation and vision goes beyond the hindrances of institutional baggage and conservative curating practices. But, without clearly articulated and transparent policies regarding curatorial and exhibition practices, a new generation of artists will once again be confronted with the type of impenetrable cultural infrastructure that induces the kind of malaise Janos describes – a type of disease that infects the general public as well. In the short run, artists and curators will continue to perform a balancing act in order to survive and continue to produce new work. But, in the long run, after managing the restrictions of the ‘socialist’ past, how many will endure the restrictions which arrive with globalization and consumerism? I will look at these questions in the second part of this article.

Allan Siegel is a filmmaker, media artist, writer, and teacher. He lives in Budapest.
Participants in Part I of this dialog have included: Sandro Droshl [curator Medienturm (Graz)]; Roza El-Hassan [artist (Budapest)]; Zoran Eric [curator and writer (Belgrade)]; Vanalyne Green [artist and Chair in Fine Art at the University of Leeds]; Pawel Jarodzki [artist and chief curator, BWA Gallery (Wroclaw)]; Szabolcs KissPal [artist (Budapest)];Antonia Majaca [artist and curator (Zagreb)]; Attila Nemes [art historian /curator (Budapest)]; Basak Senova [curator and director of NOMAD, (Istanbul)]; Dimitrina Sevova [independent curator, writer and artist (Sofia)]; Janos Sugar [artist (Budapest)]; Stevan Vukovic [curator and writer (Belgrade)].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.