Methods of Madness: The Old and The New In Prague

Considering all the drastic changes the face of Prague has endured during the last 10 years, the inside of Czech art institutions and galleries has actually seen very little transformation. Mass refurbishments continue to dominate the mise-en-scene of the city in a desperate attempt to catch up after the last 50 years of isolation, and although since 1989 Prague has quickly become one of the hottest tourist spots (“it’s just so cheap”) in all Europe, not everything sweeps easily under the rug.

Czechs, among other Post-Communists, were expected to immediately embrace the exact system they were taught to despise and while there were always some dissidents, there were more who succumbed to apathy and helplessness.

As Capitalism stormed in, Communism was simply put on the shelf, readily available if necessary. Those who were in a position of power in the former system didn’t all just disappear either, some are still there, lounging in their phony wood-paneled offices and working in the same manner as the last 50 years.

The façades of their buildings may have changed, but beyond that European-styled exterior lie the same people who never thought they would be called Europeans again. Now they have become like children in front of the sweetshop window, allowed to look at all the new goodies suddenly available, but can’t actually have any.

Professors, curators, doctors, and other professionals make an average of US300 dollars a month after taxes, so even though the wall fell over 10 years ago, the barriers that keep Czechs isolated and frustrated still in a sense exist.

With an irrationally functioning judicial system in place, criminality and corruption on the rise, and internal economic turmoil, it’s no surprise when state institutions collapse. Czech museums, galleries, and art organizations are certainly no exception to the rule, so it has become time to ask if the Czech Republic sees any light at the end of its long dark tunnel.

The finest running state-funded art institution at the moment is the City Gallery Prague. Headed by curators Olga Mala and Karel Srp, it now consists of the City Library space, The House of the Golden Ring, House of the Stone Bell, Troja Castle, and Old Town Hall. This institution presents international group exhibitions of established artists’ work and the best from the Czech art scene’s younger and older generations.

They also sporadically curate important retrospective exhibitions of Czech Modern Art that was ignored during the former system mainly due to political reasons. “We want to be the first to really do something with the younger generation of artists on an institutional level,” say both Karel and Olga.

They also strive to influence local artists and the art-going public by bringing in art trends from abroad, while putting Prague on the international art map. Bringing work from names such as Andreas Serrano, Dinos and Jake Chapman, Sam-Taylor Wood, Magdalena Jetelova, Diane Arbus, and Toyen has had a strong and lasting impact on the local audience.

Most of the larger exhibitions are either co-curated and or taken from other institutions as “package shows”. Olga and Karel have also created numerous opportunities for young Czech artists by fighting to place their work within group exhibitions throughout Europe.

The City Gallery also has a large collection of Czech Modern and Contemporary art that is housed at The House of the Golden Ring. The main problem with the City Gallery is organization. Most of the office personnel under Olga and Karel have no real education in art; yet organize the majority of activity surrounding each exhibition.

On the other hand, another positive outlook is the work being done by the younger curators that have recently joined such as Vit Havranek. These ambitious curators lend a refreshing viewpoint on Contemporary art and contribute needed improvements to the exhibition programs.

Absolutely no competition for the City Gallery is the National Gallery currently maniacally dominated by former Fluxus artist Milan Knizak. Knizak has held the position of Director of the entire National Gallery since 1999, which consists of Kinsky Palace, Chateau Zbraslav, Sternberk Palace, Saint George’s Convent, The Czech Convent of Saint Agnes, and The Trade Fair Palace better known as Veletrrzni palac where the collections of 19th Century and Modern and Contemporary Art are held.

Veletrzni palac is a Functionalist building from the 1930’s that was refurbished in the early 1990’s and turned into a museum of sorts. Since it’s re-opening, it has seen at least three different directors pass in and right back out of its doors. It has become one of the most scandalous art institutions in the Czech Republic with outstanding debts and endless corruption still clinging to it.

Veletrzni’s current managing director Tomas Vlcek even admits “The former directors before me neglected the basic aspects of running this institution and viewed it more as their own private enterprise”.

Knizak himself has taken on the task of trying to turn the entire institution around, but has done this by purchasing his own art works with the National Gallery’s collection budget and putting himself into major exhibitions held there and in other National Gallery exhibitions around Prague, which he even personally curates.

Criticized by all sides, most of the Czech art scene has demanded the removal of Milan Knizak from his current position, yet Knizak steadfastly remains.

The National Gallery’s collections of Classic and Modern art are commendable with outstanding works by Frantisek Kupka, Josef Sima, Bohumil Kubista, Petrus Paulus Rubens, Peter Brandl, Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt Harmensz.

Van Rijn, and are displayed with a sense of grace, but the downfall of the entire institution lies again with organizational and procedural disasters that fall directly from Knizak’s hands.

Some other prominent state funded art institutions include The Czech Museum of Fine Art, Galerie Manes, Galerie Rudolfinum, and Obecni Dum. The Czech Museum basically presents exhibitions of 20th Century Art with some poorly put together shows of Contemporary Art mixed in.

Their funding is adequate, but again poor curatorial projects and the dreadful institutional system don’t make it even worth the effort. Galerie Manes is an ongoing saga in itself.

Located right on the river in the center of the city, one would think it could turn its’ troubles into water under the bridge, but far from it. With law-suits by former curators still in process and current management by a twenty year-old amateur swimmer (literally) who has no background in fine art, who knows how long Manes will stay afloat.

Possibly by charging over US6, 000 dollars to have an exhibition there, has allowed them to remain functional. Every so often in the past they housed decent foreign exhibitions, but since twenty year-old Pecka Jr. has enthusiastically taken charge saying, “I enjoy the competition”, nothing of interest has turned any heads.

Galerie Rudolfinum is an ornate Neo-Renaissance building that also houses the Dvorak Concert Hall. Known for bringing larger exhibitions of Contemporary Western Art to Prague, the Rudolfinum attempts international museum standards.

Unfortunately, since most of those foreign exhibitions are lousy “package shows”, the program has become mostly hit-and-miss. Obecni Dum is another wonderfully reconstructed Art Nouveau building also with its own concert hall that has spaces reserved for exhibitions of anything from architecture to photography.

Their program generally holds something pleasing to all kinds of visitors, but the steep entrance fee may discourage the average art-goer. Most of the state-funded institutionsloosely use either the term “museum” or “gallery” to describe themselves, even though they are uncertain what those terms actually represent in the new system, and what they should be doing in order to classify themselves under those terms.

Prague has been called “the city of galleries” and with the sign “art gallery” found literally on every corner of Old Town and Mala Strana, it isn’t altogether easy to make the delineation between professionally working spaces and hobby art.

The top Contemporary commercial galleries such as Gandy Gallery, Jiri Svestka Gallery, Galerie Behemot, Galerie MXM, and Galerie Vaclava Spaly have remained relatively true to themselves and continue to show an interesting and unique exhibition program. Both Gandy Gallery and Jiri Svestka Gallery exhibit renowned international artists as well as local Czech art stars. The French-run Gandy Gallery appeared in Prague just after 1993 and has held its own among the murky Czech gallery scene.

Remaining independent has allowed owner Nadine Gandy the dignity of exhibiting whom and what she wants, which is more often than not enjoyable and intriguing as far as commercial galleries go. Since most of her clients are foreign, she is able to sell enough art works to keep the Prague branch running strong. One sad aspect is the weak public turn-out at openings.

Gandy Gallery is obviously shunned by Czechs simply due to its’ program containing mostly foreign artists. Jiri Svestka Gallery came along later in 1995. “I saw a need here in Prague and wanted to fill it,” says Jiri. He was the big hope on the Czech art scene due to his past as chief curator at the Kunstverein in Germany. However, going out on his own didn’t really work for Jiri and he turned his sights more to selling Modern Art than on creating a solid contemporary exhibition program. Jiri does participate in international art fairs, which supports and spreads information outside about Czech art, but considering his background, connections abroad, and the open-ended situation with private galleries in the Czech Republic, he should be so much more successful than he has been so far.

Galleries Behemot, MXM, and Spaly continue to present the very best of established and up-and-coming Czech and Slovak artists. Galerie Behemot was one of the very first Czech commercial galleries in Prague. Its owner, Karel Babicek, has been of great help the younger generation of artists. “I wanted Behemot to be a space where artists could come and experiment,” says Karel.

Front entrance to Gallery Behemot in Prague (Courtesy of Galerie Behemot).

Many of the currently internationally exhibited young Czech artists had their first solo-shows at Galerie Behemot such as Katerina Vincourova, Jiri Prihoda, and Polak-Jasansky. Karel Babicek also continues to financially support many Czech artists by buying their works for his growing personal art collection and sponsoring individual projects and works. Galerie Behemot still presents interesting projects, but now tends more toward exhibiting the older generation and no longer takes as many chances on younger, more unknown artists.

Galerie MXM emerged just after Behemot and is headed by Jan Cerny (and a group of artists and curators). MXM still presents challenging Czech exhibitions that influence the local art scene, and represents artists such as Jiri David, Petr Nikl, Tomas Cisarovsky, and Alena Kotzmannova. “I’m always looking for new faces in art,” says Jan who does sell work and keeps a solid exhibition program.

MXM hasn’t done much to expand in the direction of a more international gallery because of financial and, again, organizational problems. Galerie Vaclava Spaly run by Jaroslav Krbusek is a large space located smack-dab on one of the main streets in Prague 1.

Sporting a large store-front window that faces right out onto the street and its cellar-style space below ground has produced some interesting site-specific projects by artists in the past, and its program extends to exhibiting foreign work as well. It consists of four exhibition halls and mainly presents solo-shows.

Unscrupulously however, most artists have to reluctantly hand-over an art work or two or three to the owner in order to get a show there, and there isn’t much done in the way of public relations so it becomes a kind of do-it-yourself gallery.

The majority of private galleries, with the exception of Gandy and Jiri Svestka, are based on the reliance that all the work surrounding an exhibition including making the art work, organizing the press information, and creating and sending the invitation cards, should fall solely on the head of the artist. The idea that a private gallery should support, assist, and mainly further the careers of its artists hasn’t hit the Czech Republic as of yet.

Another example of commercial gallery gone sour is the latest addition of Galerie Tvrdohlavi to the scene. With an amazing, huge, daylight filled space just off crowded Vaclav Square, what could be one of the best galleries in Prague is simply a show room for selling art. Started by the art group who coined themselves Tvrdohlavi (meaning Stubborn Ones) in the early 1990’s, this gallery’s single goal is an effort to make a better living by selling their members own art works.

The problem is their works are already on offer at so many other galleries both in Prague and around the Czech Republic, that it becomes a simple waste of beautiful space. It is no wonder Prague’s commercial galleries can’t make ends meet, when there are eleven art auction houses in existence and counting throughout the Czech Republic.

These auction houses are run mainly by resident foreigners and suck up all the big foreign buyers before they have a chance to check out any other options.

However, these auction houses cater more to selling Czech Modern Art, as owner of Forum 9.11 Martin-Georg Weber says “there is such a small market in the Czech Republic for selling Contemporary Art”.

The most encouraging sign for the struggling Czech art scene is the emergence of alternative art centers and spaces around Prague. Universal NoD, being the first of its kind has recently gone through some major changes and has switched hands, so will soon be turned into a private art club (see previous article on NoD).

However, two other art centers are planned to open in 2002-3 and promise to be much more inviting and hopeful. Nadrazi (meaning Train Station) will contain two art galleries, an internet stand, studio residency program for artists and writers, film screening-music listening room, publishing house, bookshops, a small restaurant and cafe, and even a sculpture garden and club.

Run by Divus art publishers headed by Ivan Mecl, Nadrazi aims to attract a wide audience from different fields of art and to provide the public with an energetic and active space for arts, culture, and entertainment. “Nadrazi will definitely be the first space of its kind in Prague, says Ivan.

The Meat Factory, which will open in the industrial district of Holesovice in Prague, will play more to the local art community by containing spaces for fine art, theatre, and performance. Run by artist David Cerny, it will take a fortune to turn the gigantic ruin into a reigning art glory, but Cerny is innovative enough to make it happen.

These new spaces are a needed relief from the stuffy and cold museum ambience that pervades throughout Europe, and the fact that they offer free entrance and a friendly atmosphere make them all the more appealing both to Czechs and visitors. Compared to Vienna’s new Museum Quarter opening September 2001, with it’s high entrance fees digitally-displayed like an E-ticket to an amusement park, Prague’s rawer and less polished alternative spaces will certainly put something like the Kunsthalle to shame.

Other artist-run activities that hold ground around Prague by offering a surrogate to the museum/gallery game are Bubec and Umelec. Bubec is basically a huge hanger-style studio space open for low monthly rent to artists (mainly sculptors).

Interior View of Bubec Gallery. (Courtesy of Studio Bubec).

They also sporadically organize small exhibitions and events, and although it’s a ways out of the center, they keep a good following. Umelec is the Czech answer to Frieze Magazine. Created in 1997, they have now expanded to two separate issues (one in Czech and in English) and are distributed worldwide.

Focusing on Contemporary Art and culture, it mainly discusses current happenings on the Czech art scene, but doesn’t limit itself to that. With a range of writers from both Europe and the States, Umelec keeps readers abreast on alternative and mainstream happenings and trends in art, while setting a new standard in art criticism. They also organize exhibitions and have been seen at international art fairs kindly peddling their wares.

With EU membership on the near horizon (suspected for 2004), The Czech Republic has a long way to go before it can join in with the big boys. A consistent standard of professionalism can oftentimes prove boring, making occasional lackadaisical or clumsy methodology a bit more appealing.

However when the latter is the standard, then only chaos and endless frustration prevail. And when it comes to the art community at large, a certain successful working structure must be in place in order to set its future development and evolution. The Czech Republic is still riding on the coat tails of its not so distant past, looking for a way to jump off but not knowing exactly how, and the answer to this cannot come from without, but must arise from within.

The solutions can’t be found within the younger generation either, yet they have been handed the means of change. The most optimistic difference between then and now is the possibility of inter-racial and multi-national collaborations. These new spaces and projects seem to have sprung up from a secret suppressed desire for a more culturally diverse and internationally oriented city.

Most of the above-mentioned newly opening spaces are collaborating and working side-by-side with foreign residents, which could be the recipe to their potentially lasting success.

In a city where the constant flux of superficial change has become unavoidable, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that it’s just a matter of time before that unstoppable flux reaches the very core, and Prague can finally relinquish its lost horizons.