Right At Home With Art
Just a 20 minute drive Southeast from Bratislava in Slovakia lays the provincial town of Samorin. On passing through, Samorin seems no different than any other small town in Central Europe still bearing the scars of war, occupation, and neglect. Yet through the endeavors of one average couple, Csaba and Suzanne Kis, Samorin is gradually finding its place on the map of Slovakian fine art. Neither Csaba nor Suzanne studied art, nor do they have any experience with running an art institution. Nonetheless, persistence and patience have finally brought the couple a place where both artists’ and their own dreams can be realized. Their newly renovated “At Home Gallery” didn’t happen overnight, and as in most Post-Communist countries, certainly not without its own set of obstacles and dilemmas. The fact that all these activities are now happening in an old Synagogue built in 1912, seems even more absurd, especially considering neither of the Kiss’ is Jewish. Csaba applied to the Centre of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia in order to request the right to manage and reconstruct the space, regardless of his religious orientation The beautifully decorated Synagogue had fallen into severe disrepair since being used as a warehouse (as happened with most Synagogues throughout Eastern and Central Europe) under the Communist regime. In 1996, after more than fifty years, the Synagogue opened its doors once again to the town of Samorin – and this time to the art world as well.
Suzanne Kis: Well, Csaba’s brother is an artist, and we had such a large flat with a lot of empty walls and no furniture, so we thought it would be nice to have an exhibition right at home.
M. P.: Had either of you done any kind of curating before that?
S. K.: No, we had never done anything like that. It just kind of started, but it was great because people actually came and really enjoyed it. At first it was just locals who were interested, but we soon had interest from others. We would let the artists come in and take over our whole flat, so soon we were living out of just one bedroom. Local people had never really seen something like that before, but the response was very positive.
M. P.: In August of 1996 you moved the activities of your “At Home Gallery” to the local abandoned Synagogue. Why the Synagogue and not one of the other derelict buildings around?
S. K.: Csaba’s old family home is right across the street from the Synagogue, and we had been inside it and saw how beautiful it was, and thought it was sad to see such a nice place being totally unused. We wrote to the Jewish Community to ask if we could start our activities there, and they agreed!
Csaba Kis: There are no more Jewish inhabitants in Samorin. Before WWII there were 700, and after, only 35 Jewish people were left. Then the few remaining moved away before the Communists took power in 1948.
M. P.: So many Synagogues and Churches in Central and Eastern Europe were taken over and simply used as warehouses and dumping grounds under Communism. Was this also the case with the Samorin Synagogue?
C. K.: Yes. It was also covered in Pigeon droppings inside and almost all the windows were broken. So we had to begin the long reconstruction by simply cleaning.
S. K.: Csaba broke both his arms after falling off a ladder, and we’ve had threatening run-ins with skin-heads, but now things are easing down and we have a good group of friends around us.
M. P.: You also reconstructed this beautiful house (the former Jewish children’s school) right next door to the Synagogue where you both now live, so obviously you still want to keep that “at home” atmosphere.
S. K.: At the flat we didn’t have room for artists to stay with us, so we decided to make a residence for artists as part of our new house and as part of our program. We are both very interested in the actual creative process. The first artists we invited to stay here were a group of four Tibetan monks who created a mandala in the Synagogue, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama opened our house by planting a tree in our garden! People from all over Slovakia came to Samorin to see this event so from then on we have had a lot of outside interest in our space as well.
M. P.: What kind of artists do you usually invite and how do you go about deciding?
S. K.: We want to be open to everything. Artists, writers, musicians, etc. can apply to stay here and we also invite artists who we find interesting. It’s mostly been Slovak and Czech artists so far, but we plan on having more international artists. We are now in the process of building a stage in our garden where we can hold outdoor concerts and live events. We don’t have any facilities or equipment. What we offer is a nice place to stay, a chance to work and exhibit, and food! We like to cook for our guests.
M. P.: How do you finance this whole project, and is the government supportive of your activities?
S. K.: We have to apply for funding and grants for each project, which usually comes from various cultural centers and foundations. At first, we didn’t receive any government support, but that seems to be slowly changing. We also have private sponsors, and we organize local and international student projects here. It’s a family business. At the openings Csaba’s brother sometimes cooks goulash, his mother and sister-in-law help out, and our dogs run around.
C. K.: We want people to feel welcome here. The atmosphere at other art openings isn’t always friendly and people can feel isolated by that. We want to make it a different kind of experience to be involved with art.
For further information on the program or to find out more about the residency program, feel free to contact the address below:
At Home Gallery Mliecnanska 6, 931 01 Samorin, Slovakia e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.