As the world around us – and above all the living conditions that we still take for granted – change, I keep hearing questions regarding the role of visual arts and art institutions ever more frequently from all sides of the scene, in an era that offers hardly any optimistic prospects, anyway. But what should such a transformation of art and art institutions look like? Are all works of art supposed to start addressing the climate change? Are art institutions supposed to hold lectures by environmental scientists? To what extent should artistic creation take into account the production of waste and emissions? These are certainly important issues that should lead to environmentally friendly behavior, but also to behavior that will continue to allow artists to work freely and imaginatively. That is why I am turning my focus mainly on artistic and cultural institutions and try to formulate a new type of institutional criticism.
In the present situation, our efforts to consider the transformations of art and art institutions in the broad context of the art scene and their role as part of socio-political relations play an increasingly important role. The burden of responsibility should not fall on individual authors, teachers or individual cultural workers in galleries and museums. The responsibility for decisions that can lead to mitigating the impact of climate change lies currently in national policy, its ability to act at the transnational level and to correct the influence of large corporate companies, especially in agriculture, energy and burning of fossil fuels. Although these areas may seem distant from what we consider to be art, they cannot be separated. Art presented in institutions requires financial capital, background in the form of access to electricity and the Internet, as well as a favorable political environment that does not censor exhibitions and collections. It also needs material, water, a functional physical place and an audience – things that we take for granted, of course, but that may be at risk in the future.
The aforementioned conditions all change quite rapidly, and we will not be able to mitigate the impact of these changes on our own, unless we work together while being aware of our political options. Therefore, for example, the Appeal of Prague’s cultural institutions to declare a state of climate emergency has been put together and the city councilors and members of the municipal assembly of the City of Prague listened to it at the meeting of the Prague municipal government at the end of April. It inspired a very similar declaration of cultural institutions in Brno. Signed by more than 80 cultural and artistic institutions in Prague alone, the joint statement asked the city council to declare a state of climate emergency and to take the necessary measures to mitigate the effects of global climate change.
State of climate emergency in culture
Of course, declaring a state of climate emergency should not be a mere gesture, but an effort to develop (at the level of institutions, cities, states and international cooperation) a strategic plan for the future. These include, for example, the transition to electricity from renewable sources (contributory organizations of the city or the Ministry of Culture cannot make such a decision themselves), the effort to inform the public about what climate change means (and that it is really happening), introduction of plastic-free, vegetarian/vegan refreshments at cultural events, reducing of emissions (for example by reducing air travel), on reducing of cultural production itself, which is often unmanageable, especially in Prague – in terms of lectures, conferences, exhibitions, performances and other cultural performances. Moreover, the slowdown in production and program generation is not only the result of the environmental appeal, but often appears at different times as a reaction to the accelerated consumption of fine arts typical of the international art scene since the 1960s. However, as we all know, at least on the local art scene, there is a widespread belief that grant committees at municipalities or ministries care more about the numbers of events, lectures and visitors to institutions than about the quality of the program. It is therefore necessary to reduce the number of events on the one hand, but on the other hand to maintain a dialogue with the public and with the state and municipal institutions that call for grant procedures. In both cities (Brno and Prague), negotiations are currently underway between representatives of the cultural community and councilors for culture and the environment, and concrete steps are being discussed that could follow the declaration of a state of climate emergency. One of them is, for example, the implementation of environmentally friendly criteria into the conditions of grant procedures, which should come into force next year in Prague.
Specific steps should ideally also be subject to joint discussion and adapt to specific situations of individual institutions, but the manual (written by members of the network of feminist art institutions) may serve as an inspiration to all who think of changing the current situation in artistic and cultural institutions. In addition to practical advice, the manual has another aspect, which is the effort to think of culture and art scene differently. Think of it together and think of it so that as many people as possible can be involved in this process. Therefore, both the Declaration and the Manual are inspired by feminist principles of behavior that are not based on competition between institutions or on the creation of an exclusive environment such as that which arises in the commercial sphere.
Feminist and eco-minded institutions work with culture as commons, as a means of sharing, knowing and mediating available to the general public for free and seeking to create a society where the ethics of care prevail over the ethics of profit and the idea of endless (economic) growth. Therefore, the reflection on the program of such institutions should also include the transformation of the values themselves, now determined predominantly through the perspective of productivity and exclusivity. Feminist and eco-minded institutions are slowing down, they take care of each other and their audiences, financially reward everyone involved in the program, share guests and hosts from abroad, meet possible ways of collective engagement and create a shared imagination that “articulates the forms of living in Anthropocene in new and creative ways”.
Pre-litigation notice for institutional criticism
It is precisely this emphasis on culture as commons that makes sense nowadays, mainly because of the gradual and inconspicuous transformation of the Czech art scene with the arrival of new private entities such as Kunsthalle Praha or the planned cultural center that Robert Runták, the collector and head of the Executor’s Office in Přerov, wants to build in Olomouc. These institutions will soon be on the map of the Czech art scene, they will certainly exhibit great foreign artists, the program will undoubtedly be interesting and the collected works will be contemporary and progressive. Gradually, we will get used to their presence and position, maybe there will even be a hall in the National Gallery named after Pudil or Runták (this state institution is already generously subsidized by The Pudil Family Foundation), their visibility will be great, and they will not lack funding. Small galleries that call themselves „independent” but are totally dependent on subsidies from the city or the Ministry of Culture, will have increasingly tight budgets, especially with the emerging right-wing nationalist political regimes (see the situation in Hungary or Poland), and their positions will be gradually taken up by small private entities, as is already happening in Prague. Kunsthalle Praha, however, is a problematic institution not only because of its private character, but also because of its funding. Its founder, Petr Pudil, is one of the former controversial owners of the Most Coal Company, which siphoned off money through the so-called Anstalt in Liechtenstein (a form of legal entity under the Liechtenstein law) and later benefited from generous state support for solar energy business. And it is precisely from the mining of coal and the Liechtenstein funds that form the financial basis of the Pudil Family Foundation subsidizing Kunsthalle Praha.
The icing on the cake was the pre-litigation notice from The Pudil Family Foundation, which landed on the table of the online platform Artyčok.TV, where the essay entitled Privatization Artist Petr Pudil by publicist Václav Drozd was published this spring. The text, which has been removed from the website under the threat of a lawsuit and is currently undergoing modifications for new publication, precisely described the genealogy of the business of the former coal baron resulting in the construction of the gallery.
The process of new “normalization”, which has been consolidating since the 1990s with the worshipped ethos of privatization, is also manifested by the fact that laws apply differently to different people. For example, some people have been allowed tear down a cultural monument almost down to the ground, build a new and sterile clean facade, which is supposed to correspond to its historical appearance, but the ground plan of the building does not have to follow the original functionalist building at all. The emptied building then works great as a metaphor for the “emptied critical art” that Kunsthalle Praha will present: one current example is the participation of the Lithuanian musician Lina Lapelytė at the Living Kunsthalle event at the National Theater in June, with two other artists with whom she has prepared an opera performance for the Lithuanian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. The performance is called Sun & Sea (Marina) and it is quite straightforward and critical of contemporary society-wide apathy in relation to the changing global climate. But is it not a bit paradoxical to feel sorry about the melting glaciers for money from the coal business? The privatized character of the Czech art, which stakes its ground with Kunsthalle Praha, therefore receives a brand new coat and we should discuss it and prepare for it, because in our local environment we are not yet used to activist institutional criticism such as Fossil Free Culture or other collectives drawing attention to the sponsorship of cultural institutions by oil and coal companies in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the US.
Searching for new forms of institutions
Activating the art scene is one thing, but discussion within and between institutions, seeking solutions that are environmentally responsible without ignoring the social dimension of culture and the possible ways of intervening in contemporary political discourse are a different issue – as for example, initiatives to declare a state of climatic emergency in the territory of Prague or Brno, or protests at the Brno City Hall and the open letter to the Brno City Council about the suspension of social programs to eradicate homelessness. The key focus is therefore on finding different ways of affecting the political decisions concerning how we will live in the future. Therefore, to answer the question of how to create (environmental) art, which will go its own way anyway (the way it should be), I answer that we should rather ask how to create such a context and institutional conditions that will allow the very creation and presentation of works of art.
However, as I wrote at the beginning, the situation we find ourselves in brings a rush of new imagination to the current condition, so it is good to take advantage of this and start thinking about steps towards positive transformations of art and cultural institutions, which can hardly follow similar goals they did hundreds of years ago when the first museums and galleries were founded. Moreover, there are initiatives that reflect and implement such new forms – be it artistic interventions, student activities (environmental and activist student cells have been created in Prague at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design, the Academy of Fine Arts and the Film Academy of Performing Arts), institutional cooperation and/or creation of new platforms for critical and political discussion, which alone fills me with the hope that nothing is lost yet.
English translation: Petr Kovařík
This essay was first published by Artalk.cz in Czech and was translated with the financial support from the Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague.
Cover image: Ovidiu Anton: System Change! / The House of the Lords of Kunštát, G99 Gallery, Brno, 2018