When we think of “artist-run,” “self-organized,” “grassroots” initiatives, we easily group together different contexts. From the perspective of Hungary—where the political polarization over the last 10 years has demarcated the (abstract and very real) dividing lines between an independent and the state-run infrastructure of art—the independent Czech art scene is easily simplified to appear as the proliferation of artist-run, non-profit art galleries supported by a well-functioning system of state cultural funding. Prague’s independent art scene then is equated with the programs of MeetFactory and FUTURA gallery, and the country’s multi-centered art map is largely confined to Prague and Brno. However, when you look at this map more closely, the less visible points of the non-profit, self-organized scene are slowly emerging too. The present article discusses these very points. What does independence mean in a place where the boycott of the state (and of state-funding) has not yet adhered to this concept, as it is the case in Hungary? What are the generational differences that determine the various collaborations on the periphery? What can self-organization and contemporary art reach at all in a secluded art scene such as Ústí nad Labem?
The industrial city of Ustí nad Labem, located on the northern border of the Czech Republic, is still the center of one of the most heavily burdened regions in the country with economic, ecological, and social problems. At the same time, the environment of right-wing extremism, xenophobia, and segregation is also a fertile ground for a self-organized art scene that is also visible internationally. There are no commercial galleries, no regional museums in Ústí; the large institutions and the small, outdoors artist-run galleries equally define themselves as “independent,” and they are driven by the peripheral position of the city and of arts—and of course by the Jan Evangelista Purkyne University. Despite the fact that the budget of each cultural institution includes city or state funding, communication with the city administration is difficult, and cultural funding is by no means a priority. The central concern of Ústí’s emerging art initiatives is to broaden the boundaries of the artistic context produced by the university rather than issues of dependence on or independence of the state, as in Hungary.
Beyond Prague and Brno, which can be considered centers in the traditional sense, regional art centers in the Czech Republic were established from the 1990s on. The result of this program in Ustí nad Labem is the city’s three large, mutually reinforcing institutions—the university’s Faculty of Art and Design, the Emil Filla Gallery, established in 1986, and the new research and cultural institution, the House of Arts that continues the program of the Emil Filla Gallery. Michal Koleček and the young artists around the Emil Filla Gallery (including Jirí Cernicky) laid the foundation for the contemporary art scene in the early 1990s. However, today, the small but internationally embedded academic art scene that has emerged from the 1990s self-organization not only generates local cooperations, but it also defines its limits. In addition to the above-mentioned institutional triangle—which operates symbiotically at the level of funding and programs as well—over the last decade, artist-run art galleries, organized mainly by university students, have also surfaced. Subsequently, in 2014, a cultural center, the Hraničář Art Gallery opened, which presents the young generation of artists and curators.
The Emil Filla Gallery is a socialist residue—which was the only art institution in the city after regime change of 1989. Michal Koleček began in 1993 to revitalize the then defunct Emil Filla Gallery through an international program of collaboration with cities in the Central and Eastern European region that are also peripheral, similarly to Ustí nad Labem. Koleček set up an alternative network, partly linked to the regional Soros Centers for Contemporary Art (SCCA), established by the Open Society Institute, which also included in Hungary the ICA-D in Dunaújváros and its co-directors at that time curators János Szoboszlai and Lívia Páldi. Today Koleček is a central figure of the city’s art scene. He founded the Faculty of Art and Design (FUD UJEP) at the Jan Evangelista Purkyně University, and he was the dean of the faculty from 2007 to 2015 as well as the senior curator of the House of Arts since its foundation in 2016. Today, FUD UJEP is the absolute center of Ustí nad Labem. The University and the Faculty constitute almost the only alternative in financial support to the city administration that still appears to be problematic an incapable of genuine cooperation. Furthermore, besides the art and design majors, the university produces its own environment through university courses in art theory. The program and the running of the House of Arts is likewise determined by the Faculty—and through presenting the current trends in Central European contemporary art, Koleček in effect pursues the concept he formulated previously as the head of the Emil Filla Gallery, and thus further develops its regional network.
Today, after many relocations, mostly due to insufficient budgets, the Emil Filla Gallery operates in an industrial district of Ustí nad Labem, in the social and urban ghetto of Předlice. The cultural center of Armaturka—which houses the gallery—was supposed to address the marginalized district, with sensitivity to its local, social problems, however, hardly anything remained from these original plans. The second floor of Armaturka, which would provide venues for workshops and art studios in the 2000s, now houses a gym. The Emil Filla Gallery on the second floor is thus a lonely island that, similarly to the House of Arts, presents its program developed in partnership with FUD UJEP. Předlice, however, is far away. While the city’s each art institution foregrounds the theme of local economic and social issues, this seems to be possible to do so only in the city center’s gallery spaces. Running the gallery is thus not only difficult due to the low number of visitors, the high costs, and the scarce funding (partly from university, partly from the city), will eventually force the gallery to relocate again.
Over the past 20-25 years, the above-mentioned triangle has created from scratch an active but isolated infrastructure for art. That is, the audience of international exhibitions, conferences, and public art projects (but also of music and theater programs) is made up of university staff and university members—visiting professors, heads of department, and students. At the same time, even though, this infrastructure provides work opportunities for young, newly graduated or undergraduate artists and curators, it also binds these young art professionals. The institutional framework in Ústí nad Labem serves mainly as a springboard and, after graduation, students mostly move to Dresden, Prague, and other centers. However, there are those who remain in the city, and they are motivated in part by the university, the institutions’ academism, the dominance of this approach, and the isolation of the art scene.
Ústí nad Labem’s currently functioning low or no-budget artist-run galleries, In Vitro, DESKA, and Bytové Gallery, can be found in various public spaces of the city, or in different apartments each week. DESKA, organized by a group of architects and artists called Obraz doby, operates on a defunct billboard that is also specific from an architectural point of view. The mission of DESKA is to organize a program that reaches the public directly, outside the classical gallery system and moves across the boundaries of architecture and art. Developed through the organizers’ personal contacts, the program features both local and international artists—mainly young Czech and German artists—but DESKA also works with well-known artists such as Jiří Kovanda. In addition to presenting a clearly defined art program, the primary function of artist-run art galleries is community building, as the city basically lacks cultural community spaces. The newly opened Music Club, organized by university students, responds exactly to this need. Even though only these three galleries operate from the public space artist-run initiatives that were launched in the 2010s, the Hraničář cultural and community center has emerged precisely out of this context that now presents the young generation’s activities and methods in an institutionalized format.
Hraničář defines itself as an open platform that connects contemporary art and its social contexts. Located in a former theater building since 2014, the association organizes exhibitions; performative, music, and theater programs; screenings; conferences; and talks. The institution is run by a self-organized community of young artists, curators, graphic designers, architects, and designers, which, both in its structure and focus, conveys the interest of this generation. In addition to the exhibition program that reflects on ecological and social issues, Hraničář realizes collaborative projects not only internationally but also in Ústí’s region with the attempt to reach audiences beyond the realm of the art scene. Their various projects include a walk, and a publication, with local architects exploring the relationship between socialism and urban architecture, a discussion on the future of the artificial Lake Milada that was created as a by-product of coal mining, or joint activities with self-organized groups of urban gardening. Last year, Hraničář’s main partner institution was the GEH8 Kunstraum und Ateliers e. V, both of them have similarities in operation and missions. The one-and-a-half-year long cooperation was to lay the foundations of a sustainable network with a focus on the wider social, urban, economic contexts of the two regions through study trips, workshops, and a public symposium.
The self-organized institution comprises a total of about twenty young artists, designers, architects, and other professionals, and the programs of its various parts are organized by a group. And while Hraničář deliberately confronts the infrastructure of art previously developed in Ustí nad Labem, it does not shy away from it either. Although the small size of the art scene makes the generational differences more sharp, the infrastructure is healthy. Hraničář hosted several events and exhibitions related to the program of the Sonic Ecologies and Beyond / Murmurans Mundus conference organized by the university in October this year. The House of Arts regularly organizes buses and educational programs for students in the small towns of the region as well as in Prague to promote only their own, but all of Ustí’s cultural institutions.
There is no shortage of local and international cooperation, the confined infrastructure is loosened up by recent initiatives, and the university is continuously producing the new, critical generation of art professionals. While the city is just over an hour away from Prague by train, Ustí does not seek points of connections with the capital, rather with other peripheral points in its region—as it is the case with Hraničář or with the Emil Filla Gallery in the 1990s. The real question of the art scene, however, is what emerges from these new juncture points. Whether a network can be built to re-interpret the already given framework of contemporary art that truly addresses the local and regional contexts; whether an initiative can remain flexible in the long run, in the midst of institutionalization, and how much these networks become visible within the art scene. These are all questions for the future, nonetheless.
Translation by Eszter Szakács
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of the International Visegrad Fund.
Cover image: Veřejný sál Hraničář. Fotó: Hraničář Facebook
 One of the most tangible examples of self-organized networking is the 1999 regional public art project, Public District, and its subsequent conference. Concomitantly with the project’s inauguration, the wall on Matičná Street was erected, segregating the area into parts inhabited by Romani people and white people. The artworks at the stadium, grocery stories, and on billboards reflected on the decades long segregation and racism manifested by the city leadership’s move, with participating artists from Central and Eastern Europe, such as Slaven Tolj from Croatia, Michaela Thelenová from the Czech Republic, and Antal Lakner from Hungary.