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

In this second part of the discussion “Curatorial Practices, Culture and the Public,” the focus is on the funding and financial processes that form the basis for institutional survival and development, as well as how and where curatorial practices are formulated and implemented. The two areas are intrinsically related; sources of funding and monetary support maintain financial infrastructures, while curatorial (and exhibition) practices substantiate and define the conceptual and ideological foundations upon which the art museum exists.

The museum – in all its forms – is a place for the representation of a society’s cultural wealth. It is a form of public space in which changing values, new (or old) ideas and institutional processes are defined and made more visible. During the “socialist era” (no less than today) culture was an ideological commodity; not only was the representation and display of cultural products centrally defined, but a hierarchy of products was established as well.

In the European socialist countries of the 1960s, the 1970s, and part of the 1980s, art existed in three different worlds. The first was the art world based on the historical ideals of the socialist revolution as expressed by the aesthetics of Socialist Realism and supported by the state, the Party elite, and by the revolutionary old guard, who idealized the rhetorical world of the revolution. The second was the art world of Sober Modernism. Later, in the period of late socialism, such art was supported by state institutions and disseminated internationally via official exchanges. The third art world was that of the experimental and intermedial activism of neo-avant-gardes and Conceptual Art. At the beginning, this existed outside any institutional framework, but later it was exhibited and internationally represented through marginal cultural institutions such as student and other youth organizations.Miško Šuvakovic, “Art as a Political Machine Fragments on the Late Socialist and Postsocialist Art of Mitteleuropa and the Balkans” in Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art under Late Socialism, ed. Aleš Erjavec [book on-line] (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

It is the artistic continuum from this “third art world” – in the period after 1989 – that energizes current debates regarding museum finance, cultural funding and curating (by artistic continuum I mean the extended intellectual network of people engaged in these cultural activities). From this realm of artistic activity emerges an historical continuity, a critique of the “socialist period” as well as a praxis that articulates a vision of contemporary social realities not only from or about the immediate cultural environs but also international arenas of artistic activity.

The fact that during the “socialist years” the spheres of cultural activity conformed to government guidelines did not negate the reality of less visible work connected to both international and internal artistic traditions. Consequently, during the transition years what surfaces is a less visible history of work, critique, and outlook.

However, although this “third art world” emerges with the break-up first of the Soviet Union and the cataclysmic dissolution of Yugoslavia, many cultural institutions moved to an economic periphery. Whereas previously major institutions had a proscribed ideological function and a financial lifeline, the new, or marginal, institutions while not completely un-tethered, nevertheless were dependent on NGOs for survival. Financial support from “western” cultural institutions (Kultur Kontakt, Goethe Institute, British Council etc.) or the United States (the Soros Foundation) was essential.

The stratification of cultural policies prior to 1989 coincided with the development of distinct “publics” who not only viewed artwork and praxis differently. The “third’”group developed new cultural criteria, responsibilities and outlooks. These new forms of artistic praxis now had a greater visibility and support, but their institutional infrastructure remained fragile and dependent on external funding. The artistic public that emerged found itself without a consistent financial or institutional base. The following exchange is a continuation of the “virtual dialog” that begin in the first installment of this article.

Background and Context

Dimitrina Sevova: In Bulgaria and more generally South-Eastern Europe the role of non-governmental agencies and foundations has been absolutely central after the fall of the wall. Their active role contrasts with the passivity of local public funds and the Ministry of Culture.

Allan Siegel: This points to the absence of a new pedagogical framework from which a re-definition of the institutions could emerge. Thus, after ’89 though many institutions were released in theory from the ideological constraints of the ‘socialist era’ they were in practice still tied to an archaic methodology. In this sense there was an administrative and conceptual vacuum.

Dimitrina Sevova: As a whole, the socialist state had built a large number of artistic spaces. In every larger town in the province, there was an appropriately equipped exhibition space for “newer” art, which often had the right to accumulate a small collection. Most of these spaces are now in a poor state, or have been turned into bazaars and bingo halls. Bureaucracy, bad legislation and the sluggish reform of the mechanisms for distributing state and municipal subsidies, the lack of tax incentives to potential private and corporate donors, combined with the ease with which companies hide their profit from tax inspectors, and the non-transparent distribution of EU and other foreign money are some of the phenomena preventing a meaningful process of restructuring.

Kisspál Szabolcs: It was a totally different view of art and culture before ’89. In many of these institutions you will find the same people who were there 20 years ago and who have the same vision of culture in which culture is for an elite, and you should not make big efforts to bring in the so-called “public.”

Dimitrina Sevova: The period of reforms and transition after the fall of the iron curtain was determined by the lack of respect for cultural institutions on the part of the state and the new political class, and correspondingly society as a whole. This is expressed not only in budget cuts for the state institutions, but also in the complete lack of institutional backing or public funding for the new institutions and exhibition spaces appearing after the opening up of Western and international cultural processes, art world and funding channels. These are the institutions working in contemporary art practices and culture, and with multidisciplinary approaches.

Funding and Economics

Dimitrina Sevova: Every society needs its spaces for contemporary art and culture, not only spaces that represent, preserve and conserve art and its history. There are a lot of stumbling blocks on the way to a broader public discussion about the public funding of contemporary art spaces or other public museums spaces. In fact, this debate is currently almost impossible to lead in a fruitful way in the region.

Antonia Majaca: Funding for museums and smaller exhibition spaces is a subject of constant discussion. Increasingly, it is becoming more difficult and problematic. How to mix public, private and corporate funds also arouses considerable debate, especially in a transitional country like Croatia.

Dimitrina Sevova: this situation is defined by various aspects and phenomena linked to economic processes in the countries in transition and broader global tendencies of advanced capitalism marked by the idea of the free market and the autonomy of the institutions.

Antonia Majaca: The fact is that we would first need to spend years in “educating” those with financial power to support art activities, especially non-representational. The atmosphere is still not right for this sort of collaboration, since the value of art is still at an extremely low level in the social value scale. Unlike US or Western Europe, we do not have the tradition of charity and sponsorship.

In transitional countries the corporate funding is still sort of a taboo. Stronger communication with the private sector will soon have to be established, as government money is being more and more pointed towards big, national, representative projects and programs and there is less public funding for arts. There is not a single non- governmental agent or foundation dedicated to arts.

Dimitrina Sevova: Bad legislation leads to a forceful commercialization of the public space, which serves as the private property of companies. Add to this the lack of good strategies and approaches to be used by the very museum institutions or exhibition spaces for overcoming their isolation, underlining their value and importance for the public space, and eventually drawing the attention of this type of funders.

Nemes Attila: It might sounds strange but I think governments should lower their support towards museums and public exhibition venues in order to make them more open for the needs of cultural consumption, the cultural market (e.g. culturismo). Since I am working in this “industry” my experience is that strong governmental funding can ruin professional practice, can make big institutions fail in finding their markets, because they have no pressure on picking up signs of interest. It also makes them slow, and they follow international trends which might be boring after a while (we could call it a McDonald’s effect – a fast growing chain of stores based on reproduction of products serving basic needs at a low price and cheap quality).

Basak Senova (NOMAD): If the system to circulate the public funding is fairly balanced among all of the big and small scale institutions/exhibition spaces/centers/etc., then it is useful to have the reliability of public funding. I do not prefer a specific model to another. Nevertheless, I think regular income is always essential for the sustainability of any kind of institutional activity.

Allan Siegel: Public funding influences exhibition priorities, “but mostly the pressure is about the scale and the profile of the audience, so I think such influences are much more controllable and manageable than with corporate sponsors.” In NOMAD’s case, non-governmental agencies and foundations are the first sources for fund-raising for projects.

Dimitrina Sevova: …every funding influences the priorities of an exhibition, the curatorial approach and the context in which the exhibition or project will be situated. On the one hand one can assume that with this type of funding the autonomy of the space and institution may be better preserved. On the other, being publicly funded requires more transparency in the work of the institution, a greater effort in arguing its function for the community, and responsibility in its social activity.

The difficult economic situation of most museum institutions and exhibition spaces has locked them in a position of passive observers or passive lamenters. Awaiting the stroke of a magic wand that would provide adequate legislation and a contemporary political and social context, they lacked the self-initiative to collectively formulate their needs and fight for their recognition as important players in a social process. Most of these still rely almost completely on foreign funding, whether from private or corporate foundations or from a Western state. Their jumping from donor to donor, adapting their projects to the requirements of each, makes it impossible for them to follow a long-term strategy, program and politics.

Nemes Attila: Over a certain limit, private funding can mean harm as well. I have met sponsors many times who offered greater support then I have requested in order to interfere with the concept and get rights of implying artists or pieces of art – serving their interest as private collectors or, corporate identity, etc. I have always decided to pick a lower support and not let them get rights to decide over the exhibition’s content.

Allan Siegel: Non-governmental funds gave me the most freedom and supported worked-out plans instead of general support. The problem with this is that most of the time the amount of their support is very limited, never enough to accomplish a show. My conclusion: my preferred model as a freelance curator is working for a public institution which is maintained by the government (basic maintenance). But they do not support the show besides providing the space and the institutional background, and I need to find public funds and sponsors in order to execute my idea. Admission fee is not an acceptable form for me, cause can be extremely anti-democratic. The Keyword is MIXED funding.

With the advent of the museum as a civic institution there was not a simultaneous development of the curator as a more “public” interlocutor between artistic works and the public; as the person who organizes, selects and contextualizes artwork. The role of the curator has evolved from “collector,” “gallerist,” or “administrator” to someone whose personal tastes and talent straddles the more public responsibilities that arrive in orchestrating exhibition that come under all forms of scrutiny. This cycle of evolution moves the tasks of the curator into the public domain, and with this he or she is not simply the go-between or taste maker but rather someone who brings to the foreground individuals, ideas, and perceptual capacities whose potential is to alter the horizon of experience of the general public.

Curating / Background

Allan Siegel: But like an actor without a stage or a play to perform, the curator (or potential curator) without an exhibition space or place to experiment is left to abstract theorizing about possibilities and little more. Within the geographical framework of this discussion, the scarcity of exhibition space is not the issue (on paper there is an over-abundance); rather, it is the pedagogical and institutional support that would enable these under utilized sites to play a more meaningful role both for the young artist as well as the curator.

While schools expand their capacities to produce (or nurture) more artists, there always seems to be an uneven commitment to fostering situations where the ideas nurtured in the academy can be put into play within the real world.

Dimitrina Sevova: The academy’s or other educational institutions’ own museums and exhibition spaces are locked up and not used; their archives and collections have been plundered; students never had access to them. There are many possibilities to make exhibitions in the academy beyond the presentation of diploma works once a year – but this has never been used or proposed. Until about five years ago, the term of curator was considered a dirty word in the academy.

Kisspál Szabolcs: You cannot really find an institutional support for curating. All of the people around, I would say, are dilettante curators – some of the people who studied abroad have a more complex view, but the majority don’t really know what curating is about. It’s more a kind of art historian traditional aspect of curating. It’s a very simplistic way of looking at things.

Zoran Eric: I was feeling very uncomfortable with the fact that due to the sanctions to former Yugoslavia and isolation of the county, I was either bound to work just on the local scale, or had to go abroad to take part in the global art scene. A phrase that I heard at one curatorial workshop in Vienna, and which always resonated in my mind afterwards, was that the first mistake a young curator could make is to think just locally. I was motivated as a curator to bring Serbian artists into different global theoretical discourses on art and to avoid a presentation of their works as just “encapsulated” in shows that contextualized the “pathological” milieu where they worked.

Antonia Majaca: I studied art history, philosophy and literature. Unfortunately, our old system of higher education is based on 19th century model of generalized knowledge, without specialization of any kind. We did not have any subjects that would cover critical theory, theory of visual culture, or recent artistic practice. Since I live here and now and I’m interested in what is happening around me, in every way, the contemporary art came as a natural choice, especially since I was always interested in processes, ideas, concepts, but was at the same time not interested in producing them myself but in acting as a mediator and some sort of agent of cohesion maybe.

Pawel Jarodzki: What attracted me the most was my belief that I am the best one to do this in the city. The quality of exhibitions in Wroclaw was not satisfying to me. I found them dull. It was a very naïve belief. I got my practical skills during 20 years of activity working with a group of artists and making group exhibitions.

Curating / Objectives

Vanalyne Green: Artists and curators are no longer separate entities and that reality must be acknowledged.

Zoran Eric: [By] using the very word co-operation I am stressing the importance of the close work and exchange of ideas between the curators of actual art and the artists. I don’t see a curator just as a manager or organizer of the show. Exactly the opposite would be another responsibility of the curator: to raise certain critical issues, to provide new readings and interpretations for different phenomena the artists are dealing with, and by doing this to give more to the exhibition than just a good design.

Allan Siegel: My aim as a curator would be to create a context where the critical questions on certain issues in society that I am posing together with the artists would acquire more fertile ground for reception in the public sphere. By claiming that I am interested more in the ethical than aesthetic potential of art, I don’t mean that art projects and exhibitions can make any radical changes in society, not even in the art system, but that an exhibition has to make people think, contemplate, reflect the problems that the curator and the artists are raising. That is good enough as a starting point for understanding what is contemporary art about.

Zoran Eric: One of the roles of the curator could be to spot in time some interesting societal phenomena and to give theoretical context to the artists that are playing over the same issues. It is important to find the right balance here between theoretical assumptions and artistic practice, not to have some hermetic theory imposed as a topic to the artists, nor to have just a participatory show with big names.

Curating and Education

Vanalyne Green: Museums are notorious for exploiting people and assuming that people who go into curatorial practice are independently wealthy and don’t need a substantial enough salary to pay the rent.

Pawel Jarodzki: In Poland, within the past two years, there are two places where one can study art curating. It is not sufficient. This kind of study requires both practice and theoretical knowledge. Because of this, the people that can be described as professional curators [are very few].

Dimitrina Sevova: A good curator needs to be continuously alert and sense the slightest shifts in the ever moving trends and fashions of the art world and society as a whole. Combined with this, the curator needs critical thinking rooted in a broad general education.

Kisspál Szabolcs: The majority of curators who are working in Hungary either studied abroad, in the Netherlands say, or they studied here but they studied art history – you don’t have such thing as curatorial studies in Hungary as far as I know.

Antonia Majaca: Beside the fact that there is no specialization in our higher education there are also no specific courses or seminars that one can take. However, I believe that we on the art scene have become very skillful self-educators. We are well informed, and well networked.

Dimitrina Sevova: South Eastern Europe lacks educational possibilities and specific programs through which one could acquire the skills necessary for good curating. This is mainly due to the lack of multidisciplinary approaches in education, of programs drawing on the history of art, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, curating and others, but also to the missing opportunities to practice what you learn in internships in real galleries, exhibition spaces and museums.

Kisspál Szabolcs: It is quite scandalous that in “ELTE” (a major Budapest University) they have an art history department, but it is actually so tiny and kind of narrow. The [little] space and time they deal with contemporary issues is just amazing. I met many young art historians and curators who by themselves had to dig into [contemporary art discourses] because they had no clues coming out from the university. This is scandalous, but the same thing is happening in our university. Students would learn for years about Greek culture or Egyptian culture, which is important, but they have only one or two months at the end of their studies where they start dealing with contemporary art.

Dimitrina Sevova: Even in the Western academic system, curating is a rather young discipline, and the methodology of its pedagogic approaches is a hard-fought territory and is in full development. Most programs are postgraduate, a field for experiments. In the real world, the curator’s education comes from sharing experience with others, from working meetings and seminars, much travelling, collecting experience with various art institutions and organizations, practice and theory, reading. It is essential to know English, useful to know yet another language to open your horizon on the German scene, the French scene, the Russian scene, etc.

Basak Senova: You learn curating only by practicing it. Yet I believe that my education on graphic design shaped my modes of producing and methods of curating. I also participated in the Curatorial Program of De Appel, in Amsterdam; I learned a lot especially about fund-raising and networking, yet such an educational program on curating would never be sufficient enough to make you a curator by itself. The more you practice – by selecting good projects and occasions – the more you get more acquainted with the requirements of

Nemes Attila: I do not think that more talent is needed to do this than any other profession, however, I think most valuable knowledge comes form its practice. I can imagine university courses organized for introducing curatorial practice, which would give basic insight and help form important issues related to this profession. But the one who will become a curator must create an individual outlook and use one’s own creative forces. I think it also makes this profession more colorful if curators come with different backgrounds, not only from art history or art but from other fields as well.

Dimitrina Sevova: Good curatorial skills can be developed by training. Beyond this, curators need to continuously educate themselves in their practice. There will always remain something else, something special in this work, which can be called the love of working, the love of art, humanism, responsibility, and the desire to go beyond the boundaries of established discourses.


What I sought to accomplish in these two articles was to provide a sufficiently detailed sketch that would outline the salient issues and bring to the foreground the views of some of the important voices who are shaping this discussion.

In addition, as was discussed in the previous installment, museums are sites of discourse, and the manner in which artwork is chosen and presented elucidates their profiles as public spaces. More succinctly, if museums are capable of functioning as discursive spaces it is because they seek a path other than as alluring containers for glossy, shrink-wrapped reifications of prevailing ideologies.

Some of the characteristics of an earlier pre-1989 era have been mentioned here. It now remains to be seen how museums will be reinventing themselves within the new, increasingly commodified, global, framework, as well as what role they can play in fostering an environment that encourages and supports new avenues of curatorial practice which in turn seeds new artistic work and thus adds depth to the cultural landscape.

A more genuine realization of the potential importance of new cultural spaces lies in their ability to substantiate a society’s critical self-awareness and to exercise the full parameters of its means of cultural expression. In this manner the museum and its curatorial program play an invaluable role in civil society. As Carol Duncan has stated,

Exhibitions in art museums do not of themselves change the world. Nor should they have to. But, as a form of public space, they constitute an arena in which a community may test, examine, and imaginatively live both older truths and possibilities for new ones. It is often said that without a sense of the past, we cannot envisage a future. The reverse is also true: without a vision of the future, we cannot construct and access a usable past. Art museums are at the center of this process in which past and future intersect.

In conclusion, while in its most basic forms the museum provides a revolving residence for the vast array of objects and things that shape or influence the various permutations of a collective memory, in its more expansive contemporary position the museum is an interpretive portal that opens to imaginary worlds of vast dimensions. Thus, in its current, and far grander manifestations, the museum and its curators and administrators can provide the markers that enable a society’s ability to confront both the visible and the abstract dimensions of the human condition.

Allan Siegel is a filmmaker, media artist, writer, and teacher. He lives in Budapest.

Participants in Part II of this dialog include: 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)].