Dispatch from Bucharest

Preparing for my first time back in Romania after 7 years I was filled with a certain anxiety: those stray dogs I remembered wandering the streets in packs, the beggars on every street corner, the guilt one feels for being a “privileged foreigner” amidst all the poverty and misery.

And yet my one week stay, undertaken thanks to a grant from the Romanian Cultural Institute, was filled with surprises: on the surface at least everything looked like a county on the cusp of change. Bucharest was vibrant and alive with an amazing energy, and specifically the art scene was in a constant state of movement.

Before and during my time in Romania, an impressive number of artists had coalesced around the cause of protesting the expulsion of the National Center for Dance Bucharest (CNDB) from the National Theater Building where it had been located since July 2004. Although supported by the Ministry of Culture since its establishment in 2004, the highly contemporary nature of the work proposed and created by the dance center, which failed to attract the ticket-buying public, led the Ministry to doubt the its relevance. It subsequently slowed down the process of finding an alternative venue for the organization, as it had done for the National Theater company.

This situation created a series of problems: where would the dancers practice and perform, how would they make their living, and what was the future of the organization? And then there was the larger discussion of publicly funded organizations that are at the mercy of a public that doesn’t support them, and a government that doesn’t understand them.

A group of artists organized on Facebook in order to poke fun at the absurd situation that is too often found in Romania: millions of dollars spent on monumental public sculpture, while contemporary organizations and cultural activities whose entire annual budgets including salaries and production costs area fraction of these sums, are constantly under-funded due to “lack of funds.” The restaging of the Caragealiana, the statuary group monument in front of the National Theater commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, was called for noon on March 24. Artists and performers came to mimic the gestures and poses, “at no budget.” And then, because of the support that this action received, another group squatted the former space of CNDB and called for a series of happenings and events to take place around the clock until the status of the organization became clarified by the Ministry. The organization remains itinerant until today.

A very active private contemporary art space in Bucharest is Pavilion Unicredit, sponsored by Unicredit Bank and located in downtown Bucharest. Pavilion not only organizes exhibitions and events but also publishes a magazine by the same name, and organizes the Bucharest Biennale. Due to the perceived hypocrisy resulting from its relationship with Unicredit while promoting a radical-left agenda, as well as several conflicts with the management, the Romanian art scene seems to be wary of collaborating with this organization, and thus you see a preponderance of international participants in the exhibitions, but hardly any locals. For example, for the upcoming exhibition, From Contemplating to Constructing Situations, only one artist has Romanian roots. The same goes for the Biennale – last year’s biennale had only three Romanian artists in a show of forty.

The Center for Visual Introspection (CIV) has established itself as an important platform for critical, independent, and cross-disciplinary theoretical discussions about the intersection of art and politics. Bringing together Romanian and international artists, CIV’s position in the contemporary art scene of Romania has been further established by its commitment to producing publications in collaboration with artists.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art, also supported by the Ministry of Culture, and housed in the highly contentious People’s House built by Ceausescu at the expense of entire neighbourhoods, which is currently the seat of the Romanian parliament, has been exhibiting a variety of shows. When funding allowed it ome of these were very interesting, such as the collaboration between Christoph Buchel & Gianni Motti during the inauguration of the museum. Other shows remain rather enigmatic when it comes to their purpose or their connections with the local art scene. One such example is the current exhibition Chile. Beyond Landscape whose intention, according to the museum’s website is to: “…serve as a source of inspiration for architects in the elaboration of similar strategies and projects in Romania.”  However, this ambition lacks any roots in the local art community. There have not been any debates, discussions, or public programs. Precisely because of this disconnect, the Romanian art scene, composed of art galleries, non-profit organizations, artist-run spaces, as well as itinerant projects undertaken by artists, seems to be circumspect when it comes to this didactic and politically connected institution.

La Bomba Studios is a different type of space: it’s a community focused organization in Rahova, an economically disadvantaged neighbourhood of Bucharest, that has an educational component as well as a transformative mission. Through a multidisciplinary programme, the organizers hope to be able to create change in the community and raise consciousness through art and culture. This type of initiative is extremely needed in a country where contemporary art is a world apart from the small culture-consuming public that visits theatres, film festivals, and the occasional modern art exhibitions. The educational and outreach component is the missing link between the contemporary and the past.

Insdide the Paintbrush Factory, Cluj. Image courtesy of the author.

This do-it-yourself attitude of people organizing despite the lack of institutional support is even more evident in Cluj, a large city in Romania’s northwest with a large Hungarian minority. Here a group of artists got together to create a community in a former Paintbrush Factory that’s owned by a local businessman who understood the benefit of having artists inhabit such a space. The most important galleries in Cluj, which happen to also be some of the most importantin the country–Plan B and SABOT–have their spaces here, as well as newer ones that are just starting to establish themselves, like Laika and others. At the time of my visit Plan B was showing a project by German duo Cathleen Schuster & Marcel Dickhage who created a film about the impact that the closing of the Nokia factory had on the German city of Bochum, and its subsequent relocation to Cluj. Supported by the Goethe Institute and the Plan B Foundation (the non-profit entity of the gallery), the exhibition was mounted in a commercial gallery that would otherwise not be able to exhibit such work. Similarly, SABOT was able to exhibit the work of Polish artist ?ukasz Jastrubczak through the support of the Polish Institute .

?ukasz Jastrubczak, MIRAGE, SABOT gallery, Cluj. Installation View. Image courtesy of the author.

?ukasz Jastrubczak, MIRAGE, SABOT gallery, Cluj. Installation View. Image courtesy of the author.

These types of collaborations between commercial galleries and public funding agencies–in the United States they are usually forbidden due to the strong guidelines separating commercial from non-profit enterprises–are not only seen as normal in Romania, they are necessary for these galleries to survive as the art sector develops slowly. And this strange, yet necessary, manipulation of the regulations has allowed a certain number of galleries from Romania to take part in international fairs with the support of foreign and local granting agencies, specifically the Romanian Cultural Institute. Many of these galleries actually only sell work during the fairs as the collector base in Romania not only is composed of no more than one hundred individuals in total but, even more worryingly, the majority of these individuals have no respect for modern and contemporary art. Ironically, these collectors are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for local masters such as Nicolae Grigorescu whose Impressionist-style paintings of gypsies, farmers, and Romanians from the countryside recently sold for a record 225.000 euro at a Romanian auction, but have no international value.

One gallery, Colors Art in Bucharest, specializing in modern and avant-garde artists of Romanian origin and international repute such as Constantin Brancusi, Tristan Tzara, Victor Brauner, and Marcel Ianco among others, complains that the wealthy who could afford art are busy buying cars and mansions rather than taking an interest in art, and those that do buy art have no interest in modern art and the avant-garde. They prefer landscapes and topics of national interest that appeal to their sense of nationalism, rather than the politically charged and critical positions taken by the former group. Of course it doesn’t help that the majority of avant-garde artists were also of Jewish origin, which in the eyes of many makes then not Romanian and, given the high level of anti-semitism in Romania, prevents their works from being purchased.

Iasi, a city near the border with Moldova that was once a cultural center and even the capital of Romania, has the second largest university in the country, with a history of important innovations and contributions to science and scholarship. Despite this cultural inheritance, Iasi is now a sleepy city, economically depressed, and peripheral culturally and geographically. And yet in 1997 one of the most interesting performance festivals in the country was started here.

The festival by the name Periferic was initiated by artist Matei Bejenaru who has also worked tirelessly to develop and shape a modern Photography and Media Department at the art school in Iasi. In 2001, the organizationof the festival was undertaken by an umbrella non-profit association called Vector which also published a magazine by the same name, and whose staff developed a biennale from the annual Periferic festival. . In this form Periferic became an international event with international curators, artists while maintaining its local relevance and translating the global to local preoccupations. In this format, due to dwindling resources and energy, the last biennale took place in 2008 and since then Vector has been more or less dormant, waiting to find its next incarnation.

Cathleen Schuster & Marcel Dickhage – Following the Line of Arguments at Plan B Gallery, Cluj. Installation view. Image courtesy of the author.

Despite the impressive level of dedication from cultural workers that I felt on my trip to Romania, throughout my discussions with artists and arts administrators who were much less enthusiastic about the art scene than I was, the dominant complaint was that the state doesn’t have a clear cultural policy that supports the independent contemporary art groups trying to get themselves off the ground. Of course there is support for MNAC (National Contemporary Art Museum), but even there much of its budget needs to be raised from additional private sponsors. And yes, the government (the Foreign Ministry not the Ministry of Culture, ironically enough) funds the Romanian Cultural Institute, an independently run funding agency that supports projects, artists, and organizations primarily for participation abroad. But what can those inside the country hope for in terms of support and funding? Considering that there isn’t an audience for contemporary art and that promoting folklore seems to be the main point on national agenda for contemporary culture, it will take a massive effort of teaching, communicating, and raising awareness among even the educated to create a class of consumers for contemporary art, one ready to support and finance the initiatives that have been self-funded or minimally supported by foreign sponsors until now.

Image courtesy of the author.

Olga Stefan is a freelance arts journalist, curator, and founder of Art Tours, Etc., through which she organizes art events and lectures throughout Switzerland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *