Going to Bratislava for ten days at the end of the year was an attempt to rediscover a place whose specifics, especially in the world of gallery institutions, I knew in advance. So, I went there with some pre-understanding. In addition, even today, at least for me, and apparently for my generation and the older one, crossing the Czech-Slovak border does not function as a mental divide; one simply does not experience a cultural shock in Bratislava. But one institution always surprises. Since 2003, when I visited the Slovak National Gallery (SNG) for the first time (the legendary Gothic exhibition by curator Dušan Buran), I have been to Bratislava regularly. The original plan was not to refer about the central institution, but to find some lesser-known, but equally high-quality sites. Although the museum and gallery map of this city is more varied and complex than it may seem at first glance, I have made a clear assessment of the situation – despite its complex institutional framework, the SNG still brings new perspectives and inspiring formats that worthy of our attention. The question worth considering therefore stands as follows – what makes the SNG what it is now?
The SNG is an institution capable of thinking and self-reflecting on the format of an art museum, even though (and perhaps because) its head office has been closed for a long time and it survives in a temporary and cramped environment. Its situation is no way standard. In this case, however, the crisis resulting from the material need and emergency state of the buildings was an impulse to something positive. For the Czech audiences oriented in the current state of the National Gallery Prague (NGP), the current good condition of the SNG serves as a mirror, alarmingly drawing attention to our own shortcomings. Yes, the NGP is admittedly a slightly larger institution than the SNG and its situation is different in terms of the number of buildings, expositions, staff and collections. However, it is undisputed that, despite efforts to increase attendance and attractiveness through famous names of exhibiting artists, the NGP still stumbles in a crisis caused by the frequent rotation of directors (men) and the resulting discontinuity of all its activities. The new exhibitions currently available give a clear signal that, although there is a will to change, the NGP is still treading water, with no clear sense of direction. The SNG, on the other hand, has no space to present its projects, but it certainly has an original know-how. So, here is a brief overview of what the SNG has that we lack:
Strong female director with a vision
Even in the case of large juggernauts, such as national institutions, their leaders set the essential parameters of functioning and the main agenda. For nearly ten years, the SNG’s CEO has been Alexandra Kusá, who succeeded Katarína Bajcurová (yes, Slovakia has been lucky to have women in leadership positions at all levels, except for the current Minister of Culture Ľubica Laššáková). She has been with the SNG since 2000 in various positions, including the curator of the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art. She spent a short but important intermezzo in the position of the chief curator at the Moravian Gallery in Brno (2008-2009). Kusá studied art history at the Faculty of Arts, Comenius University in Bratislava, where she got her PhD and defended her dissertation thesis on socialist realism. Her exhibitions include Slovak Myth (SNG 2005, MG 2007), 60 Years Open (SNG, 2008), Broken Song. Art of Socialist Realism 1948-1956 (SNG, 2012), Filla – Fulla: The Fate of the Artist (SNG, 2018) or the last Library of Kornel and Naďa Földvári (from 16 May 2019). Alexandra Kusá has been able to combine professional work with a managerial position with her typical wit, self-confidence and insight. Perhaps these are the very qualities that made her successful in her dealing with sometimes less-than-understanding politicians.
Under her leadership, the SNG program has long been built primarily on the search for problematic issues that nobody in the Czech Republic is serious about, such as institutional history or art considered controversial given the context in which it emerged. These include such exhibitions as the aforementioned Broken Song or Dream versus Reality (SNG, 2016-2017, curated by Katarína Bajcurová, Petra Hanáková, Bohunka Koklesová), while the latter elaborated perhaps an even more burning topic of the art in the fascist Slovak state (1939 -1945). Although SNG was criticized for exhibiting this type of artistic material (for both exhibitions), Kusá stood her ground and she is still convinced of the meaningfulness of opening such topics. In the introduction to her latest book, The Broken Song, Fine Art in the Times of Stalin’s Cultural Practice 1948-1956, which is based on her dissertation and at last complements the 2012 exhibition, she readily introduces the reader to the issue by responding to the criticism of the exhibition. “Naturally, the [exhibition project] provoked critical reflections in which it revealed, above all, many hitherto repressed social traumas and clichés, but a factual professional discussion of the reception of the art of the socialist era has not been initiated. To this day, domestic (Slovak and Czech) theory of fine arts has not consistently dealt with the art of socialist realism as a topic. The position remains centered on the resistance of modern views in socialist siege. Thus, in accordance with the general condemnation of 1948-1989 as a totalitarian and immoral period, we have similarly condemned the art of socialist realism. For our territory does not perceive modernity as a characteristic of the specific institutional organization of society, but as a positive moral value”.
Although the main building of the SNG, with the most prominent bridge element facing the Danube, is one of the problematic brutalist architecture style created in the 1970s, designed by architect Vladimír Dědeček, it is one of the few buildings created specifically for gallery purposes in the former Czechoslovakia. The generous intervention at that time created a unified framework for an entire set of buildings – the Esterházy Palace and the Water Barracks – and it provide all the necessary gallery facilities. The artistic quality of the project is not diminished by the fact that the bridge was closed due to the state of emergency already in 2001 and since then there has been a long and extremely complicated way to the final completion and reconstruction of the whole building. Authors of the general project are Martin Kusý, father of the current gallery director, and Pavol Paňák. However, they won the competition before Kusá became the SNG director. At present, all building claddings and roofs have been repaired and an inconspicuous and organically fitting extension of the so-called “sarcophagus”, has also been completed. It will partly serve as the main entrance to the building, space for public lectures, but mainly as a quality, functional and modern depository. The curators of the gallery currently have a finished spatial plan for individual exhibitions, while the generous bridge, which offers spaces corresponding to the current trends in gallery architecture, will house a collection of modern and contemporary art. I have no doubt that the opening of the renovated SNG building will revolutionize the operation of the institution and will have a significant impact on the transformation of the art institution scene in Bratislava. It is already clear that the Esterházy Palace attracts attention, and not just due to the fact that the SNG launched sponsored free admission to its exhibitions (even before the Moravian Gallery in Brno, which draws inspiration from their visits to the SNG in many ways, including online collections).
In connection with the unusual installation of the above-mentioned library of Kornel and Naďa Földvári, you can encounter a stuffed horse in an exhibition that functions as a meeting point, relaxation and study space. For no particular reason… In the words of the SNG director, it is the only stuffed horse far and wide, and the SNG had to have it made.
It is clear from the above points that the SNG stands out in all basic parameters of its operation, which are not secondary or marginal, but rather an essential setting of an institution that can clearly formulate its purpose outwards and defend its positions while being aware of its complex activities with regard to the place and time in which it exists. In this respect, it is similar to many foreign institutions, such as the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in the Netherlands or the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódž, Poland, which are characterized by a sense of continuity and at the same time self-reflectively present artistic material which they study and approach in various ways, and not just the formal ones. For this type of museum, art is a challenge to rethink not only the past but also the present, and even the future – of not only the field proper, but also the society in which we live. In addition, the SNG also has the ability to work innovatively and showcase activities that are otherwise hidden to visitors, such as the care for collections, including digitization (book: Mária Bohumelová (ed.), Ritual of the Museum of the Digital Age, SNG 2015).
So far, I have outlined a few points here, but they need to be elaborated on. I would like to expand on two. One is living in a makeshift environment and the other is opening up of “taboo” topics. During the Prague boom of exhibition spaces in 2000s, no institution on our territory has yet tried what the SNG has. Closing of the bridge in 2001 and the state of emergency of the remaining premises of the Water Barracks and the Esterházy Palace, which underwent reconstruction in 2004-2005, meant a reduction in operation and mainly a reduction in exhibition areas for many years. However, the SNG as a central institution, had to continue to fulfill its basic mission – to collect, take care of and exhibit its collections. In 2006, temporary exhibitions of interwar art and art after 1960 were created, while the halls presenting old art were still in operation. And this is where the phase of successful experiments begins. Already in 2001, site-specific projects of contemporary artists began for the Collection of Old Art, which later led to combining of the art of various periods in permanent exhibitions (old and new). The exhibition of Slovak Gothic art in the Paris Musée de Cluny (D´or et de feu, 2010-2011, curator: Dušan Buran in collaboration with his Parisian colleagues) then gave cause to replace the missing exhibits with interventions of contemporary art. Thus, the SNG was one of the first institutions to begin working with this format, though, according to Dušan Buran (interview in the 69th MG Bulletin/2013, pp. 84-90), the gallery was aware of its temporary nature. The crisis has taught the curators of the SNG to view their work not only as a routine service, but as a creative activity where humor, flexibility and adaptability are not lacking. In short, the SNG had to do with little, but also create something that they would not be ashamed of. Therefore, I still remember the liberating feeling when I first saw that the labels could be written in pencil directly on the wall, which can be wallpapered from top to bottom, or that the gallery could include a climbing wall as part of a work of art. The Water barracks were closed in 2012 and the offices moved to Hurbán’s barracks in 2013. Since then, the SNG has been presenting its collections – again in a creative manner – only at the Esterházy Palace and continues its mission through Nestex (abbreviation of Temporary exposition) to expositions that are awaiting implementation after the headquarters reconstruction has been completed.
In the meantime, there were countless exhibitions dealing with various types of art history issues. Among the most deserving projects are the ones presenting and processing art that the society has ignored for a long time. The art of socialist realism or works from the period of the Slovak fascist state is undoubtedly a minefield where it is necessary to be very careful. As it follows from the above-mentioned passage from the book Broken Song, neither Alexandra Kusá nor the curators of the exhibition titled Dream versus Reality wanted to merely support the established thought schemes, but through these topics they meant to speak to the present and explore phenomena that are still alive. This is not only about where art freedom ends and where it begins, but also about activism in art, which is especially topical today. The majority idea, based on a shared experience after 1989, of what art is and what it is not, is based mainly on the question of who was and who was not favored by the previous regime. During this time, we have become accustomed to the fact that the majority interpretation of art history was not defined by a complex interpretation of the visual culture, but rather by a selective view through the glasses of avant-garde and modernism. And the projects such as the aforementioned exhibitions have a subversive potential that will allow the past to be seen in a more differentiated manner, rather than on the black and white scale. At the same time, similar exhibition formats prove to be essential, in particular, because they do not ask questions of artistic character regarding the artistic material, but study them as visual representations of the thinking and culture of the period.
The Slovak National Gallery is an example of a mature and consistent institution, whose success is, in my opinion, mainly due to the professional continuity guaranteed by the staffing of the team and its flexibility. In 2021, it will have been exactly twenty years since the bridge was closed, and these twenty years of progressively worse and worse makeshift solutions were a clear challenge for the SNG curators, who were able to make good use of this apparent crisis. It is obvious that everything is slow in the museum world, but a quality and long-term cooperating and capable team is the guarantee of success. When the NGP creates such a team headed by a male or female director who lasts longer than one winter, we might also see similar results in twenty years.
English translation: Petr Kovařík
 Alexandra Kusá, Prerušená pieseň, výtvarné umenie v časoch stalinskej kultúrnej praxe 1948-1956. Bratislava: Slovenská národná galéria, 2019, p. 30.
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of the International Visegrad Fund.
Cover image: Ľudovít Križan: Žatva. 1952 / Interrupted Song: The Art of Socialist Realism 1948 – 1956, Slovak National Gallery, 2012