In March of 2009, a private foundation called the Contemporary Art Center was established in Latvia. The foundation’s goal was to activate and support contemporary art processes in Latvia. The Contemporary Art Center began its work by financial supporting the publication of several art albums by the publishing house Neputns, for instance, the book Jānis Osis (2009). Right now the foundation is working on a culture map, which people will be able to walk through fully in three years, when Riga will be the European Capital of Culture 2014. “We struck upon the idea to develop an art project in which contemporary art would be quietly and discreetly merged into Riga’s public space,” explains the fund’s director, Irina Vītola. “Yet not Latvian art, but rather masterpieces by artists from Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and Central Asia.”
The idea behind the culture map is to exhibit renowned works of art in several public place in Riga for long-term viewing. Users gradually flag the places they have visited. Since March of this year, Riga’s Russian Drama Theater has featured a large-format photo collage by Sergey Bratkov (1960), a Moscow-based artist of Ukrainian descent; the works will be on display until the end of 2014. “The work is accessible and on view not only for theatergoers. Every time the theater is open, visitors can go inside, walk up to the hall, and see Bratkov’s work of art,” says Vītola. This is only the first viewing point; the culture map project is ongoing. The foundation chooses works of art slowly and carefully to show residents and visitors to Riga; the purchased works are gradually forming the foundation’s collection. Vītola is considering the possibility to show the collection all together in a special exhibit, when the collection has grown in size.
Arterritory.com invited Irina Vītola to a conversation about the newly established foundation, the forthcoming culture map, and the process of forming society’s taste.
If I understood correctly, the foundation’s collection was created from scratch?
Basically, yes. The foundation selects works that are world renowned, or at least widely recognized in their own country, and would be interesting for the Latvian public.
Therefore, the collection is only in its initial stage; it hasn’t grow quickly, because we are choosing works very carefully. Yet our wish list already includes Estonian artist Kaido Ole (1963), Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov (1957), and a very interesting artist from Kazakhstan, Erbol Meldibekov (1964). We might also include a work by the famous Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov (1938). We’re looking carefully to see what could be engaging, and what has never been exhibited before here in Latvia.
I think one of the specifics of the foundation is that you must carefully consider which work to include in the collection, and which not to include, because once a work has made it to the foundation, it will remain there. Unlike private collections, where there can be more freedom in the purchasing and subsequent selling of works. Is that true?
Yes. In addition, the internationally famous works that we are choosing for the foundation are not cheap. If we can’t agree on a mutually satisfactory price, then we sign a contract with the artist and borrow the work. If they are financially accessible, then we purchase them. Another special event is when the artist arrives for the opening of an exhibit. For instance, Sergey Bratkov himself came to the opening of the exhibit at the Russian Drama Theater last spring. This is an opportunity to meet the artist, to speak with him personally about the idea behind the work, and to get to know him as a person, with specific character traits.
How did the idea come about to show Bratkov’s painting precisely in Riga’s Russian Drama Theater?
A coincidence of circumstances. Bratkov’s work is very large, so we had to search for a suitable place for it. The photo collage is more than six meters long and 1.80 meters high. It’s not easy to find an adequate space; a work of art must settle into its environment, coexist with the space—all of these aspects must be taken into account. And so an idea was born: why not at the theater? This, too, is a cultural setting visited by a wide variety of people who maybe don’t go to museums and galleries; but here they encounter art—indeed, contemporary art. Of course, the responsiveness from the theater’s management and administration also played a role.
Sergey Bratkov. Slogan "LONG LIVE THE BAD OF TODAY FOR THE GOOD OF TOMORROW". 2010 neon-text installed onto a sub-construction, photoprint 18.3 x 601 cm (neon) 7.21 x 236.79 in 180 x 635 cm (photo)
Have you already thought about other potential places for the culture map?
Yes, we have several ideas. For example, the Academy of Sciences. We’re also thinking about the Congress Center, though unfortunately the building will be under reconstruction for several years. Another place I find very interesting is Anatomikums [the Anatomy and Anthropology Institute at Riga Stradiņš University]—this dislocation would be able to spark a discussion. We are also open to proposals for collaborations.
So basically you have lots of freedom in your choice of space. But definitely not museums and galleries.
Exactly. In 2014 Riga will be the European Capital of Culture; museums and galleries will devote their attention mostly to Latvian art. There are lots of good local artists whose works should definitely be exhibited during this period. However, our project has a different focus: artists from other countries.
What was your main goal in establishing the foundation?
To provide financial support for art. There will never be enough money. Culture as a whole will always lack money, that’s why a civil initiative—that’s what I call it—must come to its assistance. We must act, and try to attract private funds, because right now there are donors who believe in our idea. My basic idea is to make Riga more beautiful, more attractive, to touch up a certain dose of provincialism. So that we don’t recognize and enjoy just local art. We want to provoke a discussion, to encourage thoughts about the question of “what is art.”
The idea to establish the foundation came about after observing the situation and concluding that galleries in Latvia have become sufficiently strong, and it wasn’t necessary to open a new one. So we decided to follow the project format. When you complete one project, you can start another, you can work in several directions. It is possible to form a collection that takes shape over time as a whole, a totality. Later, it can be given back as a gift of great value.
I think the initiative to emphasize works of art and display them publicly, making them widely available, is exemplary.
Yes, and viewing the works will be free of charge. You don’t have to buy a ticket in order to see the works exhibited in the culture map. An audience of people who enjoy art has already taken shape, and they are very demanding. At the basis of the foundation’s activities is the mission gradually to educate people further. So it won’t be the case that, in 2014, everyone suddenly realizes they must rush somewhere and quickly do something. Instead, viewers will have grown up over these couple of years, their taste will have formed, and additional interest will grow.
Have you seen similar projects elsewhere in the world, where famous works of art are exhibited for a lengthy period of time in public places?
This year at the Vienna Art Fair we saw private and corporate art collections exhibited in the form of “satellite events.” Yet this specific project is our own, not an idea borrowed from somewhere else. I can’t even remember if I’ve seen a similar project elsewhere in the world. Perhaps the opposite will be the case: someone later will borrow the idea from us. (Laughs.)
But we’ll be able to enjoy precisely contemporary art in your culture map project?
Yes, but I like the formulation “current art,” used by Dmitry Ozerkov [head of the contemporary art department at the State Hermitage Art Museum in Russia –A.I.]. There is modern art, there is contemporary art, but in the end it is no longer clear what is what. That’s why I too want to start using the term “current art.”
Kaido Ole is a painter; he’ll have paintings. Bratkov has a photo installations. Erbol Meldibekov, whom I mentioned before, has photographs, sculptures, and video. We want for the media to differ, so that people understand what is current art, and see how manifold it is—so they start to think about it and learn to understand it.
And there isn’t much time. Soon it will be 2012, and there are only two years left until 2014, when everything must be ready. I hope that the culture map will be ready by September of 2014, with about 10-12 viewing places in Riga.
I assume that it is very inspiring to work on this project?
Yes, the relationships being spun are incredibly interesting. Which artist agrees to participate, which artist doesn’t. Finding the right spaces, observing how the work feels there. For example, with the Kazakh artist Erbol Meldibekov we have already arranged a meeting—in Kazakhstan in November—to see both his old and his new woks, as well as works currently being created. Selecting and getting to know an environment. Bringing it here. I must mention another plan: we want to stage a larger exhibit for Meldibekov in Riga, and, alongside that, also leave a work for long-term exhibition as part of the culture map. New ideas are constantly born during this process. For instance, at the ARTVILNIUS’11 fair in Vilnius, we discovered the Lithuania photographer Rimaldas Viksraitis (1954). We will definitely bring his photographs to show in Latvia too.
You mentioned that you visited ARTVILNIUS’11 this year. What was your assessment of the fair?
I discovered Belarus. There was a very good Belarusian gallery at the fair — called Y—which exhibited miniature works and earned the title of best foreign gallery stand. After I saw the exhibit, I realized how much I had neglected this country, Belarus. I don’t really even known what is going on in the country’s art scene, and what artists work there. It’s interesting to see how art is created in this political regime. As well as the fact that artists don’t come into the crossfire by taking a stand against the regime directly, but rather by showing fundamental values and proving that it is possible to survive under this regime without losing your “I.”
Though the fair has many critics, I admit that I like it there. I was there for the second year in a row, and I’ll go next time too. It is great that we have a city like Vilnius nearby to promote a healthy competition.