The National Gallery in Prague is undergoing a restructuring in view of showing its collections to the best possible advantage and meeting the standards of a leading European art institution. The man masterminding this transformation is chief-curator Adam Budak who previously worked at the Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC.
“We start with a grand opening at Veletrzni Palace this Thursday, February 19th for the first time with an accumulation of exhibitions on one evening. This very evening we are going to open six exhibitions between the ground floor and the second floor of Veletrzni Palace, very diverse projects from the inauguration of a new department called Moving Image Video and Film Based Work, a medium that is so popular nowadays, but has not had a strong enough presence in the program of the National Gallery, through the groundbreaking exhibition on the work of Oskar Kokoschka focused especially on his productive years in Prague in the 30s. Then, there is an exhibition of Stanislav Kolíbal’s drawings celebrating his 90th birthday, through smaller projects including a new section called Introducing in which a student of UMPRUM (Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Pragues) is going to present his work. So this diversity of media and diversity of scale will hopefully gather a diverse audience and that is our aim – to put people together and to turn the National Gallery into a meeting place, a place where different ideas are exchanged and confronted. ”
“Another very important moment in the calendar is going to be March 19th when in St. Agnes Cloister we will open a very important exhibition on symbolism in the Bohemian lands from 1880 to 1914. One of our summer highlights is an exhibition devoted to the father of modern art Henri Rousseau –an exhibition to be presented in collaboration with the Musée d'Orsay and Palazzo Ducale in Venice will be on view in Kinský Palace.”
“The autumn will bring the very first large-scale retrospective of the work of Maria Bartuszova –an incredible artist who influenced many younger generations of not only Czech artists. This exhibition will contextualize her work within 20th century, her architectural as well as artistic achievements, so we will gather next to Maria Bartuszova the works of Frederick Kiesler, Louise Bourgeois or Sarah Lucas. And there are many, many more smaller-scale projects.”
So basically there will be three peaks –the winter season, the summer season and the autumn season?
“That’s right, like a fashion show collection!”
You yourself are the curator of two exhibitions in the winter season –that of Stanislav Kolíbal and of the Moving Image Department. Why Stanislav Kolíbal? Is he your favourite artist?
“Stanislav Kolíbal is no doubt one of the most distinguished prominent Czech contemporary artists and barely known in the western world. However, this recognition and acknowledgement is growing and the proof of it is an exhibition last year called Other Primary Structures in the Jewish Museum in New York which included the groundbreaking work of Stanislav Kolíbal. The exhibition, which will open on Thursday, focusses only on his drawings as a definite, autonomous art work and discipline but, at the same time, very formative point of departure from the work that he is mainly known for which is cultural installation. We will present the development of his drawing from the 50s up to the present, going through different phases of experimenting with drawing, experimenting towards leaving the frame and going into space, so while observing this exhibition one may have a very interesting input into what the oeuvre of Stanislav Kolíbal is at large, especially with his sculptural installation-like approach. It is a large-scale exhibition which will also include sketches and diaries, his little thoughts, like a laboratory of the mind, so again, an insight into the artist’s brain, his creativity, his conceptual thinking will be highlighted there. ”
“We need to rethink the size of the collection, the use of space and the way it is narrated to the audience”
As chief curator you are supposed to design a new concept for the National Gallery. What is your main idea, what will you do differently?
“My main idea is to develop a program of high intensity and diversity, of extreme intellectual curiosity, of a high visual and conceptual quality –all this in order to turn the National Gallery into one of the leading institutions of art in Europe and beyond. My vision is to introduce and strengthen the current position of the National Gallery among the existing leading institutions, to strengthen collaboration with prestigious institutions in the world, to open it up, to make it friendly, to radiate it with its energy and its power, with the richness of its collections. There is no doubt that those collections are to a large extent iconic and very much wanted by the entire world around us –the number of loan requests for masterpieces from the National Gallery is huge and is growing from one day to the next. So I do really believe that the National gallery can get the “wings” it deserves and become visible and admired at a local, regional and international level.”
Each collection has a strong side and a weaker side –what is the strength of the National Gallery collection that you would like to build on?
“The Trade Fair Palace (Veletržní Palace) which hosts the modern and contemporary collections includes incredible highlights of the turn of the century. One of the most important tasks and challenges will be, once the means are available, to rethink the concept of the collection, how it is hung, how it is structured, how it is being narrated to the audience. Also, one needs to rethink the amount of works, the size of the collection, to make it more accessible and to make it more digestible for a local and international audience. So one of our tasks is to rethink the usage of space in the Trade Fair Palace. I would like to spread the collection or collections between the four historical palaces, the cloister of St Agnes and the modernist building of the Trade Fair to make it live, to create a dialogue between the past, the present and the future.”
“Veletržní Palace is a treasure comparable with the building of Pompidou or with Tate Modern”
Does that mean that you are counting on Veletržní Palace? Because opinions on that vary, we have heard that it is too large, too expensive to operate…there have been ideas to abandon it and so on..
“I do totally believe in the potential of the Trade Fair Palace. I think it is an icon of modern architecture and I am personally going to fight for Veletržní Palace as a site for our modern contemporary collections. I know it was not built for art but it offers many different spaces that I myself, as a curator, find attractive – from spaces such as the Big Hall and what is ironically called the Small Hall with its impressive volume of space that is not comparable with any other contemporary exhibition spaces. It is a treasure I would say comparable with the building of Pompidou or with Tate Modern. It has a certain industrial charm, it offers a lot, it provokes, it inspires…Of course, as you mentioned, given its size, maintenance is a problem –therefore this need to rethink how the space is going to be used. And I hope that we will get a chance to do that with the means it would require. And we will turn this building that only seemingly is too alien to people into a friendly alien – I am quoting here the nickname of the building of Kunsthaus Graz where I worked for eight years prior to my coming to Prague.”
Before coming to Prague you worked as curator for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington – it could hardly be compared to the National Gallery ….
“I disagree! It is totally comparable, because of different reasons. Firstly Hirshhorn is a federal institution, a state institution –it is part of the Smithsonian so the things that we generally associate with a state institution such as bureaucracy, slow processes, public tenders and conservatism –it was all present there. So it wasn’t too big a shock to move from the Hirshhorn to the National Gallery in Prague because the problems that management and employees face are similar, if not identical.”
“Architecturally, I would say it is a similar challenge because Hirshhorn is a Brutalist architecture construction from the mid- 1970s, here we face a pioneering building from the end of the twenties that shaped the identity of architecture in the twentieth century, so again, a very strong architectural identity.”
“As for the collections – Hirshhorn possesses one of the most amazing, distinguished collections of modern contemporary art and we spoke earlier about the iconic collection of the Modern and Contemporary department of the National Gallery. So I do not think there are too many differences, certainly there is no shock, there are many similarities and lessons that need to be learnt from. ”