Will Czech Republic ever be modern? Notes on the institutional crisis at the National Gallery in Prague

Vít Havránek
Will Czech Republic ever be modern? Notes on the institutional crisis at the National Gallery in Prague
Art theorist Vít Havránek comments on the situation surrounding the dismissed directors of the National Gallery Prague (Jiří Fajt) and the Olomouc Museum of Art (Michal Soukup).

One day before the Easter holiday, Minister of Culture Antonín Staněk (currently in resignation) announced that he removed both directors because of their poor financial management. He also filed criminal suits against both directors. The affair has provoked turbulent discussions both in this country and abroad and the following text should help clarify the situation. In addition, Havránek goes back to the appointment of Jiří Fajt as the General Director of the National Gallery and discusses problems related to the managerial attitude that the Ministry of Culture applies to Czech culture. He also discusses possible solutions that could lead the National Gallery out of the long-term crisis.

According to Czech journalist Daniel Konrád, experts claim that “we resemble a banana republic”, because the Minister of Culture Antonín Staněk (currently submitted his resignation – editor’s note) removed the director of two state-funded institutions due to discrepancies in their management. Although I am one of the aforementioned “experts”, I do not share this simplistic view. One of the simpler reasons is that what distinguishes the racist image of a “banana republic” from the functioning of a representative democracy is the principle of the removability of officials and politicians, unless they do what they have committed to do or what they are bound to do by rules and laws.

Critical voices from the world of arts point out that the low-profile, lackluster minister, a newcomer with no previous experience in the field, has dismissed a director who has opened a sleeping and conservative museum wide to the middle-class audiences, modernized its program and drew attention to the National Gallery Prague (NGP) internationally. Heads of major museums do get discharged now and then – we could mention the resignations of directors of the Metropolitan Museum in 2017, the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, or resignations of museum directors, and not only in New York City, as a result of criticism within the #meeto campaign, but the most damaging for the international image of Czech culture is the fact that the current director has successfully rectified many years of previous stagnation (promoted by the conservative and isolationist agenda of the previous director Milan Knížák), so Jiří Fajt’s removal appears form the outside as a regression and restauration of conservative and isolationist forces.

Unless we are obsessed with a priori neoliberal or extremist distrust of the independence of official government audits, we must recognize that cultural merit cannot justify institutional and economic misconduct in the management of a state-funded institution.

However, the Minister is very anxious to avoid debates on culture and assessment of the NGP activities. Like his predecessors, he wants to be a minister of cultural management, not a minister of culture. At a press conference, he presented a three-page list of transgressions for which the audits and inspections of the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic criticized the gallery management since 2016. It is not a fully detailed report, but it does not appear to be a document created for the sole purpose of criticizing it, either. Unless we are obsessed with a priori neoliberal or extremist distrust of the independence of official government audits, we must recognize that cultural merit cannot justify institutional and economic misconduct in the management of a state-funded institution. In addition, the NGP dramaturgy, largely pursuing the goal of making the taste of culturally enlightened international and economic elites accessible to the mass spectator, is not at odds with the current government policy, but rather mirrors it quietly. Therefore, this is not a struggle with a background of differing policies but rather a struggle of individuals or factions for power within one – liberal/neoliberal – stream.

The problem could also be posed from the perspective of the other side – what attributes would be applied to the minister if he failed to act when an audit by his office revealed serious misconduct? It is alarming that the only body with a truly relevant information today is the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic. The information is not available to the NGP Board of Scholars (which remains silent), staff, journalists, experts. This points to a serious democratic deficit. The current crisis is a challenge that leads all those who are not indifferent to the fate and mission of the NGP to demand structural changes.

Drawing by Max Máslo

Appoint and remove

Another criticism focuses on the “brutality” of the removal, which has not been discussed in political circles or with the broader expert public, but took place unexpectedly and with an immediate effect. As a witness, I have to return to the appointment of Jiří Fajt, which was similar to his removal. The then Minister of Culture, Alena Hanáková, initiated a tender and appointed a commission (of which I was a member) to select the director from three candidates who participated in the previous tender. The Commission has met several times and asked Jiří Fajt to update the program with which he applied for the position of the director of the largest Czech art museum. Before he and the other candidates were able to update their several-year-old programs, the minister has appointed Jiří Fajt directly, without the commission’s knowledge. It should be noted that Minister Hanáková had resigned a month earlier, with the entire government. Neither the commission’s protest nor the letter from former NGP directors to the new minister pointing out the weak legitimacy of the procedure had any effect. The politicians’ power approach, which failed to seek any consensus with artists and experts from universities, the Academy of Sciences and the non-profit sector, which represent a strong cultural capital together, had an effect on all involved. Politicians have long been building an unqualified, purely managerial status for themselves, making them unpopular in educational and scientific institutions, which are artificially separated from the political and executive apparatus. All this was reflected in the way the NGP itself was managed and led.

If the museum director has been appointed without having to formulate a program that is in agreement or at odds with the cultural policy, without having to defend it before a committee assessing its relevance from the standpoint of museology studies, without having to go through a series of interviews with ministerial officials about the organization and economics of its management, and when he has been appointed by authority from above, what else than political support can he rely on?

One of the consequences of the distrust (among politicians, but also among arts managers) in standard republican power-sharing mechanisms and mistrust in autonomous bodies (administrative, scholarly, expert councils/boards, etc.) which are often dismissed with reasoning pointing to visitor numbers and popularity, is that there is no routine use of consensus procedures or conceptual documents. In the event of a crisis, the debate lacks a substantive basis and slips into a political cabaret on culture. If the museum director has been appointed without having to formulate a program that is in agreement or at odds with the cultural policy (provided it had been written), without having to defend it before a committee assessing its relevance from the standpoint of museology studies, without having to go through a series of interviews with ministerial officials about the organization and economics of its management, and when he has been appointed by authority from above, what else than political support can he rely on? What criteria will be used to assess whether he has fulfilled his mission or successfully started the transformation of the institution? This situation concerns not only Jiří Fajt, but it is rather a chronic condition in the NGP (and it also concerned its previous directors – Jiří Kotalík and Milan Knížák). It is a “one-man show” built on personal political support, or, in only a slightly better scenario, on popularity with the visitors. Both avoid public declaration of the museum’s historical mission in connection with the concept of the government support of culture, when fulfilment of institutional goals depends on the fragile personal relations. These goals are never realized by one person, but by a large team of gallery employees. After all, high-quality exhibitions such as František Kupka retrospective, Marie Lassnig exhibition, Julian Rosefeld Manifesto, re-installation of the 1918-1938 permanent art collection, and Space for the Moving Image, and others were created thanks to the historical wealth of NGP collections and the efforts of curators and numerous gallery employees, but to the outside world, due to the institution’s hierarchy, are presented as a merit of a single man.

Why should the National Gallery become a branch of the Centre Pompidou – as it was agreed between these two institutions – instead of being a “critical museum”? From a global perspective, it is well known that this is a long-known strategy for such centers to promote their cultural hegemony in exchange for a tourist-attractive brand.

The danger of the current situation, which sets us back to 2011, when economist Vladimír Rösel was appointed to head the institution, is that the principal mission of the director will be organizational and economic stabilization. In this late era of the managerial approach to government administration, it will be entrusted to an economist associated with the leading government party ANO, whose chairman and prime minister is accused of subsidy fraud. How many of such stabilizations have we had so far? It looks as if the NGP were doomed to oscillate between two periodically alternating states – organizational-economic stabilization or “one-man show” artistic leadership. Both these states are autistic in ignoring the complex challenges faced by the museum in relation to transforming social and economic conditions, evolution of knowledge about the world, history and art on a global scale.

Political manipulations of art

Why should the National Gallery become a branch of the Centre Pompidou – as it was agreed between these two institutions – instead of being a “critical museum”? From a global perspective, it is well known that this is a long-known strategy for such centers to promote their cultural hegemony in exchange for a tourist-attractive brand. Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Centre Pompidou Malaga, Louvre in Abu Dhabi… No one has produced a slightest argument regarding the meaning and function that the Prague branch should fulfill, except for the outdated 1990s idea of having to catch up with the West and the big centers through non-conflicting, ahistorical adoption of their conception and form and “aesthetic contemplation” of the culturally superior central canon. This was precisely the case with the exposition Possibilities in Dialogue in the Salm Palace where Czech authors were added to the mainstream Western canon according to color, genre or thematic similarity. If we keep treating local and international art in this way, we will never understand or change its history. The all too well-known dependence of provincial culture on the seamless and unproblematic glitter of the center thus comes back. But what better explanation can we expect from the new NGP leadership? Isn’t building a Centre Pompidou branch a purely political operation to culturally connect the western part of the former Eastern Europe to one of the European Union centers? Such a pro-European idea should be explicitly formulated at the political level, which could finally result in a politically ambitious debate. On the cultural level, it would be meaningful only if the prime minister (and all politicians) stopped approaching the culture manipulatively, as the owner of cultural capital, and if they begin to respect the division of power allowing cultural autonomy and independence, one of the historical achievements of Europe.

Another issue that should not be ignored in light of the controversy surrounding the NGP is the removal of the director of the Olomouc Museum of Art. In this case, the reasoning behind the removal seems to be really weak. The Minister, former mayor of Olomouc, does not like the architectural design of the Central European Forum (SEFO) by architect Jan Šépka. A minister’s aesthetic taste should not suffice to challenge a long-term plan for the center building which was approved in the previous decade. The technical weaknesses of SEFO design have been aptly described by Ondřej Chrobák, who, in my opinion, rather calls for a truly competent Central European debate on the aims and possibilities of the project in 2019 rather than for an actual canceling of the plan. In addition, the question arises whether the above-mentioned presidential (Emmanuel Macron) – prime ministerial (Andrej Babiš) masterplan with the Pompidou Center in Prague might be in a real conflict with building of SEFO in Olomouc, or whether someone had the idea to simply move the investment from Haná to the center.

If we want to end the thirty-year-long cyclical crisis in our principal museum and give it a chance to develop in the future, the Ministry of Culture must reorganize itself and create a ministry of culture from the ministry of cultural management.

Since the 1990s, when the rather heated debate about the functions of a museum of modern and contemporary art began, I am convinced that we should get rid of the smothering grip of the centralist National Gallery and divide it into the Old Art Gallery, the Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, while the collection of non-European art should be merged with the Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures. Experience from around the world suggests that museums divided in this way can be managed more effectively, flexibly and professionally. Of course, the solution at the institutional level will not automatically bring a quality mission and program for any of the newly created sections. To do this, the founder’s expertise needs to be radically improved and we need to recruit expert and organizationally skilled directors. But until the NGP is split, the institutional ordeal will no doubt continue – the new director will strengthen central management and control under the slogan of stabilization. But what the NGP needs is the direct opposite – decentralization and financial and programming autonomy of individual collections. And if an economist were to be accidentally replaced by an expert, the expert would have to suffer from strong schizophrenia to voluntarily pass on his powers and financial responsibility to his subordinates, which, by the way, would cause major organizational difficulties. The other immediate step should be changing the rules of appointment and removal of museum directors by the minister through boards of trustees, members of which would be representatives of the founder and of scientific, educational, non-profit and civic structures. These boards, regularly used in European countries, would rid the museums of the purely personal nature of the relationship between the founder and the state-funded institution, and among other things, in the future they would have to be one of the bodies entitled to receive and assess the information that we lack today in the case of the removal of the two directors.

If we want to end the thirty-year-long cyclical crisis in our principal museum and give it a chance to develop in the future, the Ministry of Culture must reorganize itself and create a ministry of culture from the ministry of cultural management. They must use publicly transparent bodies composed of experts and stakeholders to find a consensual solution on how to reformulate the function of boards of trustees, pursuant to which the director would be appointed and removed, they must split the NGP and eventually organize tenders for the heads of the already split museums. Various plans to establish Center Pompidou branches, the Center for Contemporary Art under the former Stalin monument (the plan of former Mayor Adriana Krnáčová) and megalomaniacal reconstructions are just a hysterical concealment of uncertainty about the meaning of cultural identity and should be suspended or subordinated to a conceptual solution. All this must be done with the close attention of all involved, so that Czech politicians who have only recently noticed the symbolic and media potential of culture for popularity could are no longer able to make decisions on culture according to their short-term interests using the services of private cultural lobbyists.

Translation into English: Petr Kovařík

The article was originally written for Artalk.cz and was published in Czech.

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