Leoš Válka is one of the founders of the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague’s Holešovice district, which in just a few years has become one of the most important institutions of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe. Válka has a perhaps surprising background for such a significant figure in the Czech art world: for several years he ran a firm in Australia doing maintenance work on high-rise buildings.
When we spoke at his office at DOX, we discussed, among other things, the gallery’s genesis and its relationship with official bodies. But first I asked him: why emigrate to Australia in the early 1980s?
“It was 1981. I simply didn’t believe that there will ever be a change in the political situation, so I basically gave up and decided to move elsewhere.”
Why Australia in particular?
“It was more a romantic notion of, if emigration at all…I hadn’t wanted to emigrate, I thought I would never emigrate, but then one day the decision happened. I wanted to make it a real emigration – not to Austria, not to Germany, not to Europe. I thought, if I’m going, I’d like to go to a serious distance.”
You set up a company doing work on skyscrapers and other high buildings. How did you get into that area of business? Had you been a mountain climber?
“Yes, I used to be a rock climber, more a rock climber than a mountain climber. It was a logical extension of what we used to do here. I used to run a small group of people working on churches and high-rise buildings, not that there were so many at the time, but still there were some. There were many, many people doing exactly the same thing.”
I read that you worked also on the famous Sydney Opera House. What did you do on the building?
Your company was successful in Australia, and I believe it’s still running. Why did you decide to come back here in the mid 1990s?
“It’s quite a long story, but I probably made this decision long before I realised it. Because when I talked to a clairvoyant, whom I met by chance, he told me I should go back to Europe; that Australia is nice, but it’s not for me. As soon as he said it, I realised he was right.”
All that time when you were working in the construction industry, were you greatly interested in art? Were you collecting?
“Well, I’ve never collected anything. But I was always interested in art, architecture and design, and always visiting galleries and museums and design shops. So it was always part of my life.”
DOX opened three and a half years ago or so. How did the whole idea come about to build this contemporary arts centre here?
“It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t a lifelong dream or anything like that. I was involved in small-scale development and I was building residential units. I was looking for a suitable place for typical lofts, by which I mean classic industrial lofts, and I found the building and it was fantastic for this kind of project. But I also realised that it was even more suitable for a gallery.”
You have said quite a few times that you personally, as one of four investors, have put 50 million crowns or more into DOX – that’s over two and a half million U.S. dollars. What has been your motivation in that, given that you are unlikely to in any way recoup the money?
“It was pure interest in seeing this kind of institution happening in the Czech Republic, in Prague, which is probably very idealistic, and also very unusual for Prague. That’s one of the reasons why it is very difficult to explain in a way that would be believable to most of our countrymen, and the authorities – especially the Prague municipality and the Ministry of Culture – that there is simply no other motive than seeing this kind of thing happening in Prague. Which for them, I’m afraid, is completely inconceivable.”
For people who don’t know DOX, what’s your model? You have more than one exhibition running at the same time, all the time?
“The idea is to have a few, usually three or four, sometimes five, projects going on simultaneously. They represent a kind of spectrum, giving visitors the opportunity to enjoy at least something [laughs]. If they are not completely happy with everything, there is a chance they will like something, or they will appreciate something.”
Your biggest competition, if I can speak about competition, one would imagine would be the National Gallery’s modern art gallery at the Veletržní Palace, which isn’t very far from here. In recent years, that institution developed a reputation for being moribund and uninteresting, under the head of the gallery in those days, Milan Knížák. Did it benefit DOX that the National Gallery’s modern art gallery was doing so badly in those years?
“I’m not sure. It would be quite logical to say that if there is not much competition then obviously you are in a better position. But also experiences are that if you have more similar and interestingly inclined in one area – for example Chelsea in New York, where you have 150 or over 150 galleries in a very small area…
“It’s not about competition, that’s the main thing. It’s about opportunity. People have the opportunity to see more things, in different perspectives, in different settings, different agendas, and that’s always mutually beneficial.
“So maybe our perception is reasonably positive, especially in contrast with other institutions. But if there were more institutions, maybe like us or other different kinds of institutions, successful institutions, it always improves the overall understanding or sensitivity or approach to visual art, or culture in general.”
You mentioned the perception, or poor understanding, of DOX on the part of the city authorities and the Ministry of Culture. Have they failed to support you in a way that you would have appreciated?
“Oh, absolutely. I think they don’t understand generally what the attraction of cities, of today’s metropolis is, that the fastest growing sector of tourism is cultural tourism. That’s a well known fact. It’s a repeated opportunity for tourists to come. It’s not that once they come they see the medieval architecture, fantastic baroque and so on; they see it, they go, and they don’t come back.
“But if you have a programme that is changing every few months, then you have the opportunity to come again. And that’s the kind of tourist that cities should be interested in. That’s the very practical, business-like approach to tourists. But there is also the general level of culture. There is the awareness of values which are much subtle and far deeper.
“For me, what is incomprehensible is the fact that, OK, you have four guys, idealistic enough, or stupid enough, to put 250 million crowns, a quarter of a billion crowns, into a project for which they didn’t expect any contribution from the state. Now the place is finished and we are running programmes which cost around 40 million crowns a year, the city gives us five million crowns, which is around 13, 14 percent of our budget, and that’s it.
“They don’t realise that for them it’s a godsend thing. We are quite well known outside the Czech Republic. We have had fantastic articles written about us in many important magazines and newspapers, and this is all free publicity for the city of Prague.”
DOX opened in late 2008. How satisfied are you with developments so far?
“I’m very happy. It has to be said that we are learning. After the idea came several years of construction, and then when we opened the place we realised there were many things we didn’t know and we were learning. But now we are more or less stable enough to programme things in a more confident manner.
“I’m very happy. It has gone beyond what I’d expected. Originally I thought there would be three or four major exhibitions a year, 10 perhaps. In fact, it’s over 25 exhibitions, and many other accompanying and educational programmes and many other activities. We are involved in so many parallel programmes, which go with this kind of institution. We feel very active and like we are contributing.”