Arts News round-up

In this week’s Arts, we have a round-up of recent stories from the Czech arts scene. In this edition: how a new project called Artbanka is helping emerging young artists in the Czech Republic and Slovakia; the highly-respected Prague theatre Dejvické divadlo launches a new play based on the life of early 20th Czech adventurer Jan “Eskimo” Welzl; and a precious B&W photograph by František Drtikol – stolen two weeks ago – is returned to Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts.

Artbanka launched

Photo: ArtbankaPhoto: Artbanka The Czech Republic and Slovakia both have excellent and respected arts schools but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for emerging new talent to always gain a foothold in the outside world. A new not-for-profit organisation called Artbanka (Artbank) would like to change things, buying works of promising young artists which in turn can be rented by either public or private firms. The idea is both to highlight interesting work and to improve public and private spaces, often uninspired or not used to maximum effect. So far Artbanka has accumulated some 200 works which can be viewed online; the project’s Petr Šec told me more about it this week, talking first about the difficulties students face when simply trying to break through.

“Generally if you take the number of students who finish art school in the Czech and Slovak Republics annually is a round 150. But after two years only 10 or 15 percent of them are still trying to work in the arts. Usually they can survive from their artwork alone. The idea behind Artbanka is to assist talented people at the beginning of their career.”

So essentially a lot of people give up unless they receive some kind of support...

“That’s it: many start working in advertising agencies and that kind of thing and obviously that’s a shame because contemporary art is important in society.”

How long did it take to put Artbanka together?

“We first began discussing it one year ago and it took nine or 10 months to get it all together. There were many details to work out. This week had a vernisage and officially launched the project. It needed some time: it is sophisticated, the system has its own website and there were all kinds of contractual procedures to work out. A lot of things had to be solved.”

What is the procedure for work to be taken by Artbanka and who makes the decision?

Photo: ArtbankaPhoto: Artbanka “We had an institution which is called the curators’ board, headed by Dr. Karel Srp from the Prague City Gallery. The board ran three rounds and tried to choose the best work. At the beginning of the process there was a selection of 120 artists, in the end 30 of the best were chosen.”

Of these young artists, are any of them well-known already or on the cusp of becoming better known?

“There are two or three who might just be getting to be a little better known, but the others not yet. There aren’t that many household names in the Czech Republic when it comes to the art world: you have David Černý, Jiří David, others of course, but those better-known who are under 30 are less common. So this project can help them get their start.”

How does Artbanka work in practice? I’ve read that it is a not-for-profit organisation...

“That is correct. Three weeks ago we began to buy the pieces for the collection and the basic funds were provided by Artbanka’s founders. The next step is to offer pieces for rent to private and public businesses and corporations to generate new funds to acquire still new work.”

To come back to the works that were selected, what kind are they? Is there a preference, for example, towards paintings?

“Basically there is no preference but in reality there paintings prevail. Eighty percent or so of the current collection are paintings, and then we have photographs, video art and some sculpture.”

To come back to the role of Artbanka, how would you compare its aim to that of the schools themselves? You could argue that in many ways it’s the schools’ responsibility to prepare their students for when they enter the ‘real’ world...

Photo: ArtbankaPhoto: Artbanka “Well, they do what they can. You know, the budgets of art schools whether in Prague or Ostrava or Košice are pretty tight. But they were involved in the project. You could say we had ‘scouts’ at the different schools who helped us try and find the best talent. So they were definitely involved and they would be happy to do more but the budgets: that’s the problem.”

When you look at public or corporate space one of the interesting things that strikes me as very interesting about this project is that often the spaces offer very little or just cheap reproductions... do you think that there is a lot of room to push more interesting work into the public space?

“That’s really one of the main ideas. Because contemporary art can very much influence society and the first feedback has been very positive. We met with certain CEOs and people from businesses and they were very enthusiastic. There is a lot of space in the public area, municipalities, Czech Railways, Czech Post and so on, so we believe we can cultivate the space and influence peoples’ relationship to it and to contemporary art. Too often in our country this is neglected.”

Seeing an original is also a different kind of experience, isn’t it, then seeing endless Impressionist prints all over again?

“That’s right. Sometimes I am really surprised that so many major corporations have just calendars on the walls or nothing even. And we would like to change that. We made some efforts already and the first reactions were very impressive because you know this kind of thing can really change the impression a company makes.”

If you’d like to look up work on view at Artbanka be sure to look them up on the web; www.artbanka.cz

Adventurer ‘Eskimo’ Welzl the subject of new play

If you’ve been following Radio Prague for more than a few years you may be familiar with the adventures of Czech arctic adventurer Jan “Eskimo” Welzl, a famous figure who spent more than 20 years in the frozen wastes of Siberia and North America and eventually died and is buried in Dawson. In 2002, we profiled his exceptional life in a two-part series, he has also been the subject of an illustrated children’s book by famous New York author-based author Petr Sís and the subject of several films.

Now, the early 20th century explorer comes to life on the Prague stage, in a new play called Wanted Welzl, written by Karel František Tománek. According to the play’s director Jiří Havelka as well as author Tománek, the story focuses less on blurry areas between fact and fiction in Welzl’s adventures and more on the character himself: most important is the fierce dominance of spirit. Karel František Tománek says this:

“What is so fascinating for me about Welzl – and is very close to my heart – is his ability to live according to what he chooses. That’s how I’d like to live as well.”

Survival is an equally important aspect in Wanted Welzl, as one actor in the production admitted only one person in the story in rough-and-tumble Dawson survives to the final curtain. You can find more information at Dejvické divadlo’s website but be warned – as is all-too-often often the case with the popular Prague theatre all performances of Wanted Welzl (at least as far as April is concerned) have already sold out.

Stolen Drtikol photo recovered

Two weeks ago a precious B&W nude called The Wave by the great 20th century Czech photographer František Drtikol was stolen from Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts: but this Thursday, thanks to an art gallery owner in California who was offered the print by a seller, it was returned. Police investigator Tomáš Rubeš described how the gallery owner helped in the case.

"California businessman Joseph Bellow played the biggest role in helping us find the stolen photo. He contacted people at the Art Loss Register in London and they contacted the museum which let us know what had happened. Then steps could be put in place for the print to be returned."

The stolen print, it should be noted, was an unsigned predecessor of the final recognised version but had still nevertheless been insured at one million crowns. Following the theft the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague has confirmed it has strengthened security.