Katarina Rusnakova: “Every Institution is a Tool for Violence”

Katarína Rusnáková was appointed Director of Collections at the Prague National Gallery at Veletržní Palác on August 1, 1999. She previously worked at the Povážská galéria in Žilina, Slovakia.

L. L. & K. C.: Over the past three years, a total of four people have worked in the position of director of the modern and contemporary art collection. In what state did you find this institution when you arrived in early July?

K. R.: When I arrived here, I intentionally put aside all illusions and prejudice. I entered an environment which I expected to be marred by several years of unstable development. I think it will be necessary to start working on a better concept and make our activities logical and professional. This would be all in line with the overall restructuring of the National Gallery which Milan Knížák [=the director of the National Gallery, L.L.] expects to be finished any time now. We want to reorganize all the gallery’s activities and create a functional and flexible work environment. I have a vision that I would like to fulfill gradually. I would like the new permanent exhibition to open in April of next year. I understand that a large amount of work has already been carried out and it is up to the team of curators and external consultants to carry on a debate about the concept, so that the realization of the exhibition can start in 2000. In the course of this, the 19th Century collection will be moved to Veletržní Palác.

L. L. & K. C.: Does this mean that the entire collection from the St. Agnes Convent will be moved to Veletržní Palác?

K. R.: Yes. The Old and Medieval Art Collection will be moved from St. Agnes next year. The collections should not be atomized, there should be a certain transition between them. The 19th-century collection, for example, includes a number of excellent international works in addition to pieces by Czech artists, a fact which should attract visitors. The Palác’s first floor and some of the galleries in the Small Court will remain in use for short-term and alternative exhibitions, reflecting topics such as the media and their manipulation, the body, identity, advertising, high art vs. popular culture, etc. All of this requires a lot of work and we will have to hire external curators. Needless to say, we also need to raise a lot of money.

L. L. & K. C.: Do you think that it was a good idea to merge the 19th and 20th-century collections? Isn’t the contemporary art audience quite different from that for the 19th century? What about the suitability of Veletržní Palác as a space for exhibitions of this kind?

K. R.: The Palác was originally intended for commercial purposes, but it has since been adapted to the needs of an art gallery. I think that the Palác’s architecture allows for a symbiosis with art. As far as combining the 19th and 20th-century is concerned, I believe that such plurality cannot hurt. After all, everybody is free to pick what they like. The beginnings of modern art date back to the end of the 18th century. We need to look at the 19th century through contemporary eyes, look for innovative interpretations. Let us not be too narrow-minded and rigid. The nice thing about this arrangement is that you can scan individual periods in art history and look at them from today’s post-historical perspective.

L. L. & K. C.: Are you planning on using any of the proposals for the new permanent exhibition which have been worked out in the last two years?

K. R.: I am currently reviewing them. We need excellent curators who want to create a kind of encyclopedia of individual tendencies and trends, catering both to experts and to the general public. Understandably, a number of people have a problem with the current exhibition because modernist art is divided up among many different sections of the gallery.

L. L. & K. C.: Do you think that there are personalities here that would be able to put the permanent exhibition together? Some of the previous efforts by respected curators did not succeed…

K. R.: We just called for internal proposals asking all our curators to participate, and we also contacted outside curators. The proposals will be assessed and we will work with the person who will be selected.

L. L. & K. C.: How is your cooperation with [General Director] Milan Knížák?

K. R.: We speak mostly of what we do not like here and what we would like to change. Is there at least one concrete and visible change that we could immediately see even from the outside the institution? People tend to perceive the institution as a monster where nothing has changed over this past decade? Veletržní Palác should start living a full life. Its main function lies in the permanent exhibition and alternative short-term exhibitions. This should be accompanied with various other activities and interactive programs. The visitors should be attacked with various events aimed at different professional groups, we want to open a library with an internet cafe. Play best frive games at the frive site. The space of the Palác is not used efficiently enough, there are spaces suitable for jazz concerts, fashion shows, etc. It is necessary to use the cinema here which is not finished yet and rent it to somebody who is willing to invest 50 million crowns (or $1,430,000.00 US). The cinema may also be used as a conference room as well as a projection room for the gallery and general public. We should reassess leases with the current tenants of the Palác. Also, we would like to make space in front of the Palác for exhibitions of objects. We would first like to address older generation of artists, such as Knížák, and later talk to younger artists and international artists. It is interesting that the building’s orientation system has not been solved during the past four years, it is hard for people to find the main entrance to the building and exhibitions are not properly advertised on the facade.

L. L. & K. C.: When will a cafe or a library be open? Those promises have been made before as well…

K. R.: I don’t understand why this effort has failed. I consider this a matter of prestige that I do something concrete here. The gallery finds itself in a different constellation with professor Knížák being a energetic man who does not like long deadlines during which one gets lost and does not realize anything. We would like most of the changes to take effect during the first half of year 2000. I place a knife on my throat with the deadline I set for myself and many expert employees have already told me that it would not be possible to meet them. [But] it requires higher dynamics and work rhythm, flexibility, searching for new creative approaches, eliminating stereotypes and a large amount of independence and personal responsibility.

L. L. & K. C.: Do you think you will be able to manage financial problems which might occur while realizing your plans?

K. R.: I hope that the Ministry of Culture will understand the importance of this institution which does not only lie in visiting the gallery but also in cultivating one’s life style. Inordinate consumption leads nowhere. Institutions like galleries should be here to help people find answers to their questions, curators should be able to communicate in various forms. People cannot find their way to contemporary art and expert texts in catalogue are discouraging them. We need to look for ways to touch the general public and present art. We are not working on projects for the elite or close groups of theorists and artists – our work is about communication. It is not just a technical language problem that people don’t understand us abroad. The problem is that we’re often unable to find a common ground at home. Because we don’t know what we want ourselves – that’s not just a problem of the art scene.

L. L. & K. C.: But there is no environment here in which business people would feel the snobby need to support art. We cannot even expect the Ministry of Culture to understand what they have in Veletržní Palác. The only chance is [the Gallery’s Director] Knížák with his ties to the political scene. Nothing would happen the normal way, don’t you think?.

K. R.: Other people working in Veletržní Palác may be of great help, too. They should start thinking of their company more, be more broad-minded and proud of this institution. When they build their own prestige, they should combine it with the prestige of their own company. I was quite surprised to read some of the works written by curators here: many of them seemed to be more interested in working for other institutions than the National Gallery. I understand, they lacked motivation. I also don’t understand why colleagues should not review each other’s exhibitions, why they should not report on the National Gallery’s plans, why they should not speak about things they need to solve in the media.

L. L. & K. C.: Do you think it is an advantage for you to come from a foreign country not knowing the relations among people in the Czech art scene?

K. R.: It’s an advantage for me. I can regard Czech artists more independently and I can look at art works through the prism of quality. I don’t subscribe to the idea that we have to look at international art through the eyes of people who have lived under the tough conditions here and we cannot therefore be confronted with the international art scene. I believe there is only one kind of art: good art. It must be able to compete within international confrontation.

L. L. & K. C.: Do you have any curatorial projects for Veletržní Palác of your own?

K. R.: I have some projects at progress abroad but I would like to concentrate on reorganization and system changes here which would lead to defined administration. I am trying to establish an international network so that we may show some projects here but otherwise I identify with many scheduled exhibitions and I want to be integrated into the new permanent exhibition. We are working on an exhibition entitled The End of the World? in the Kinski Palace in which all the collections should be involved. I want to be a good official and a manager and create a platform for conceptual work. I am excited about a project I would like to realize in the future but that has nothing todo with Veletržní Palác: it’s an exhibition in a ZOO. I am interested in human identity, animal identity, evil as a Foulcaultian issue. Every institution is a tool for violence and power so I have to be careful no to be self-centered.

This interview was first published in the journal Umelec (Prague).