The Slovak government’s decision to close down the Kunsthalle Bratislava was met with an international petition demonstrations, and the Bratislava art scene’s vigorous actions, which did yield partial results; nonetheless, the institution’s future remains uncertain. The plight of a contemporary art institution in the crossfires of political benefits, the intelligentsia’s needs, and social indifference.
What is a Kunsthalle and Why is it Important?
The kunsthalle-type exhibition space, established in the mid-19th century in German-speaking regions, became popular throughout Europe, and ultimately grew into a highly significant institution of contemporary art. With regards to its form, a kunsthalle is a non-profit, representative exhibition space – funded by the state or a foundation – which, unlike a museum, does not have a collection nor conservation or research activities. However, the profile of the institutions associated with this concept is constantly changing over time and in terms of location. According to the art world’s current consensus, the mission of a state-funded kunsthalle is to provide platform for the artistic interpretation of current cultural, social, and political issues, to catalyze social discourses, as well as to bridge the local and the international cultural scenes, both in the exhibition space and in inter-institutional diplomacy. The interpretation and implementation of missions like these varies, but by all means, the program takes advantage of the kunsthalle’s flexible institutional capabilities to quickly react to current trends. Ideally, a kunsthalle is autonomous and independent of the state in its decisions about the programs, and its financing is secured on a long-term basis.
A kunsthalle can play a decisive role in the life of a city or even a country, for instance, by delineating the local relevancy of contemporary art themes and trends, and presenting them to the public in a comprehensible way – even in ways that could disturb the course of society or political leadership.
A kunsthalle has prestige and power.
At the same time, the kunsthalle has its weaknesses: without its own collection and the apparatuses for ongoing research projects, it is far more vulnerable to state-directed, top-down decisions than classical museums. Especially in places such as the countries of the former Socialist Bloc – where there are no urges for patronage nor serious private investors – the government has absolute monopoly over the cultural field.
The Founding and the First Years of the Kunsthalle Bratislava
Today, generally speaking, every major European city has a kunsthalle-type exhibition space, even if it is not called as such. Slovakia used to be for long an exception; finally, in 2012, after more than 20 years of the cultural elite’s lobbying activities, during the second reign of the populist, social-democratic party, Smer-SD (Smer – sociálna demokracia, [Direction – Social Democracy], in short: Smer), a decision was made to repurpose the space of the former House of Arts (Dom Umenia) that used to be rented out: this is where and how the Kunsthalle Bratislava (KHB) was established. When KHB was placed under the supervision of the National Enlightenment Centre (NEC, Narodné Osvetové Centrum), which does not handle contemporary art matters at all, KHB’s fate was sealed.
Curator Juraj Čarný was commissioned to formulate the mission of KHB, who went on to become the first director of the institution in 2014. Čarný envisioned an institution where visitors could encounter both Slovak and international contemporary art, and where openness and accessibility are ensured by free admission and mediation programs for both adults and children. In 2015, he opened a contemporary art library and a research center as well. He made substantial efforts to promote and increase the international visibility of Slovak contemporary art – for instance, by building inter-institutional relations, inviting curators, and initiating international co-productions. In addition, he insisted that the two floor levels of the KHB exhibition space remain a coherent unit, so that KHB would not be forced to host programs that could disrupt the profile of the institution and the rhythm of the exhibitions.
All of these conflicted with several other interests, first and foremost with those of the Bratislava photography museum’s director, Václav Macek, who intended at KHB to put together a program requiring admission fee, which was contrary to the mission of KHB. In 2016, after Čarný rejected this program, Macek publicly attacked the director and his team. In order to discredit Čarný’s program as well as his personality, Macek falsified KHB’s visitor numbers and accused KHB’s management of overspending when attending representative international events.
To an outsider, Čarný seems to have been carrying out a committed, long-term, large-scale program that is difficult to question in terms of its quality; at the same time, it is quite discernable that his personality and methods are still polarizing within the art scene.
The First Crisis
The Macek scandal was not the only conflict: by that time, severe distrust and constant tensions had developed between NEC’s strict bureaucracy (and amateurish supervision) and KHB’s recalcitrant management. In order to resolve the situation, then Minister of Culture, Marek Maďarič, promised before the 2016 parliamentary elections that KHB would become independent. However, when Smer won the elections again in 2016, KHB was transferred from NEC’s oversight to that of the Slovak National Gallery (SNG). Čarný was dismissed and replaced without a call for applications by Nina Vrbanova as interim director for six months, in accordance with the statutes. Since then, her contract is renewed every six months.
Also in 2016, the Kunsthalle Bratislava was split into two parts, and the old concept of the House of Arts as a rentable space was reinstated on the second floor of the building. This meant that a 530-square-meter space of a representative building in the city center could be rented for only € 1,000 per month. This decision is insignificant in terms of economic gain, yet, it is a serious violation of institutional autonomy, as beyond KHB, the representatives of NEC, the Cultural Ministry, and the House of Arts also vote when selecting who will be using the space. In a 2014 interview, Vrbanova, the newly appointed director, called these rational decisions and reasonable compromises.
Under her leadership, international networking was halted, the library was closed down, and KHB’s independent marketing and press department was shut down. Surprisingly, these decisions did not provoke any major resistance at that time: KHB eventually lived on; there were no major changes in the profile of the exhibitions, “only” the behind-the-scenes work at the institution got severely damaged.
1.5th Crisis: “Creative Centers”
The next blow came in March 2018, with the appointment of Ľubica Laššáková as the new Minister of Culture. People with measuring tapes appeared in the KHB building in November. KHB’s management only learned from an already signed contract with a construction company that the Cultural Ministry was planning to establish a “creative center” in the KHB building. Regardless of the fact that the Ministry has still not been able to (or did not want to) explain the point of this development, the completion of the project would have meant closing down the Kunsthalle. It quickly became apparent that there were practical considerations behind the decision. In 2014, Slovakia successfully applied for €260 million from the European Union for regional cultural development. The purpose of the measure was to spend this cultural funding as quickly as possible, as this fund can only be used until 2020. The Cultural Ministry intends to spend most of the amount on establishing four so-called “creative centers.” The question immediately arose as to why Laššáková’s Ministry did not look for a different location for the center. The reason for this is also pragmatic: besides the central location and cultural embeddedness of KHB, the Kunsthalle comes in handy also in the sense that rebuilding it would be much easier than to completely rehabilitate a long-vacant building.
Stojíme pri Kunsthalle
As the plans for KHB came to light, which were seen as an attack by the institution’s supporters, an activist group called Stojíme pri Kunsthalle (We stand with the Kunsthalle), comprising mostly artists, began to foreground KHB’s situation in the public discourse. This resulted in a unique, transdisciplinary collaboration in the field of culture: visual artists, members of the theatre, literature, and architecture scene; students and professors have formed a united front, on the one hand, to stand up for saving KHB, and, on the other, demanding that the Ministry find a long-term solution for KHB’s ever unstable situation. In addition to organizing impressive demonstrations, the group also prepared serious and detailed proposals for the funding of KHB and for the transparent distribution of cultural funds. They not only sent these to the Cultural Ministry and the Prime Minister, but they were also published as an open letter.
Smer, on power since 2012, does not pursue the type of open Kulturkampf that is detectable in Hungary, yet the measures associated with Laššákova evoke a populist political logic, which does not put forth a cultural policy but rather appeals to gestures in which she sees short-term political benefits. Laššáková allocated €1.5 million to support traditional folk art and folk culture, an amount which she has shortly doubled, motivated by the professed popularity of the call for their funding. Through the bishops, Laššáková provides larger funding to the Catholic Church than before. Whereas she refused to give funding to LGBTQ cultural projects, in spite of their positive reviews, and she radically cut back on the funding of existing cultural institutions. KHB applied to the Cultural Ministry for €180,000—which can by no means be considered much—to realize its programs, but it was instead granted only €15,000.
Recognizing this, Laššákova was criticized by activists not only for the KHB case. The group now accuses the minister of unfathomable decisions also with deliberately polarizing Slovak society. Stojíme pri Kunsthalle, now called Stojíme pri Kultúre, calls for the resignation or the replacement of Laššáková, as soon as possible.
The future of KHB
As a result of the demonstrations, Laššáková backed down, and assured the protesters that KHB will not be closed, and that from January 1, 2020 on, KHB can continue its work as an autonomous institution, independent of SNG. However, as seen above, KHB’s position has never been ideal, and its future does not appear so either.
What does Laššáková’s promise of independence actually mean? Not much in fact.
KHB will become independent in terms of receiving its funding – the amount of which, however, has not yet been approved by the Finance Minister at the time of writing this article. Yet, even if the amount is granted, this government support will only provide for just over half of the budget needed to run KHB. Beyond creating a new profile for the institution, fundraising for the other half of the amount needed for KHB’s operational costs, the incoming director will also have to reorganize KHB’s administration, its marketing and press profile, as well as any other tasks that had been previously undertaken by SNG.
Nonetheless, Laššáková has not given up on the plan for the creative center, which she still imagines to be in the KHB building. Thus, KHB will be forced to share its space not only with the House of Arts, but also with the creative center, the mission of which is still unclear. Simultaneously, the call for a new director is being drafted.
The short history of KHB is illustrative of the institutional vulnerability mentioned at the beginning of this article, in which none of the conditions needed for a well-functioning kunsthalle – such as long-term financial security and institutional autonomy – have been met.
The situation is further complicated by the upcoming parliamentary elections in March 2020, and that the demands of Stojíme pri Kultúre – which thus far have been articulated primarily in terms of the cultural field – have not yet found popular support. Without the support of civil society, the current government’s political aims will define the next months, the ramifications of which could mean that both the institution and the activists easily become political targets as well as instruments in the further polarization of society.
Translation by Eszter Szakács
Cover image: myartguide.com
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of the International Visegrad Fund.