Not for Rent

Galerie Display
Bubenská 3, P7

Eighteen months ago, artists Zbynek Baladrán and Tomáš Svoboda and art historians Ondrej Chrobák and David Kulhánek took over a small storefront in Holešovice that formerly housed a recovery center for alcoholics. With a bit of time and even less money, the ambitious young team quickly turned Galerie Display into the most exciting alternative space for contemporary art in Prague.

Their goal from the start has been to increase communication between the local and international art communities. In addition to showcasing the work of young Czech artists such as Chalupecký Award winner Tomáš Vanek, Display has also introduced the work of artists from the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland, America, Austria, Poland and Slovakia to the Czech Republic. Its current exhibition, running through April 20, showcases Lithuanian video artists Laura Stasiulytç and Arunas Gudaitis; on the 24th it will reopen with a show by O.J. Ness from Norway.

Besides its regular three-week exhibitions, Display also runs a series of one-off events under its Sub:label program, featuring film and video screenings, performances, artist lectures and presentations. It has also organized exhibitions of Czech artists outside the country, and was recently invited to curate an evening of Czech video art in Graz, the EU-designated European Culture Capital of 2003.

In an age when most local galleries have either closed or switched to a "rent-only" model in which artists must pay to show their work, Display is the most fiercely independent art space in town. Tomáš Svoboda recently took some time out from repairing the gallery floor to discuss the philosophy of Display, the Czech art scene today and its uncertain future.

Pill: What has been the local reaction to Display? I've noticed your openings are always packed.

Svoboda: I don't know. You'll have to ask the local art community. I think we're definitely known. We've gained a name in a very short time. Most of our visitors during the week are art students, young people coming in after school. This is why we're only open from 3 to 6 Wednesdays through Sundays, although we usually stay open until 7. Occasionally we get some curious people from the neighborhood who stop in on their way to the Metro.

Pill: What's impressed me so far is that I never know what to expect when I walk in here. I've seen video installations, performances, Avdej Ter-Oganjan putting blue footprints all over the ceiling. How are you able to maintain such a rigorously non-commercial stance?

Svoboda: We're not interested in being businessmen. If someone is interested in buying something, I give him the artist's contact information. We don't represent artists and we don't take commissions for any sales. We receive funding from the Ministry of Culture, the Prague Foundation for Contemporary Art and the Prague 7 Municipality. When we have shows by foreign artists we usually get funding from their home countries as well. This provides enough money to pay for the artist's travel, accommodation and some materials, but not the exhibition itself.

Pill: Do you do all the curating yourselves, or do you have outside curators?

Svoboda: Sometimes we use curators from outside. There is one Czech curator, [WAANJA], who lives in Holland. He curates two shows a year of Dutch artists. We do it mostly ourselves, though, and it all comes down to personal taste. All of our decisions must be unanimous, or at least 3 to 1.

Pill: The Czech art scene is undeniably in a state of depression at the moment. Do you see things lifting up at any point in the near future?

Svoboda: I think the biggest problem with local artists is passivity. Once you lose this passivity you can do anything. You can compare the scene here to Germany. There, young artists have more possibilities to show their work, not in major institutions, but in underground spaces. There is a proliferation of these types of spaces in Germany. They're not as nice, they're dirtier, but they're all artist-managed spaces. This activity doesn't exist in Prague. People in the scene complain, but the attitude among artists is, "We can't do that because we have to work." But we're doing it, and we also have to work. So maybe we are on the last level of this depression. We are at least trying to be active.

Pill: Yet the art scene in Poland, another former eastern bloc country, seems to be flourishing at the moment.
Svoboda: Yes, there is a big art market there right now. Many young Polish artists are receiving international attention. But I think their attitudes toward art are rooted in their national identity. Czech people are different. ... I don't want to use the word "apathy," but I think the general attitude here is one of passive resistance. Not just in the art scene, but on all levels of society. Normal people here don't have any interest in contemporary art. They don't try to understand it, they don't take it seriously, they don't see how it can be valuable to society. A big problem is that it's not taught in schools-but then the teachers don't know how to teach it because they can't understand it! The attitude towards contemporary art is very much, "Anyone can do that."

Pill: Do you think the country's entry into the European Union will improve things for local artists and galleries?

Svoboda: It will definitely make it easier to put on exhibitions of Czech art outside of the country. We recently organized an exhibition of young Czech artists in Stuttgart. I was at the border for two days. That's how long it took for me to get the art over the border into Germany. Once the European Union happens, it will become much easier. There will also be more opportunities for funding.

Pill: Will entrance into the European Union generate more international interest in the work of contemporary Czech artists?

Svoboda: No. The only time there was any interest in Czech art from the outside world is right after the Velvet Revolution, and this lasted for maybe three or four years. People took a sudden interest because it was this exotic thing suddenly available-"Oh, let's go see this art coming from a post-communist country." It also became an attractive opportunity for international artists to have a show in Prague, where they hadn't been allowed before, to take a small vacation here. Now Europe and the rest of the world just see us as a normal country. But we are a very small country. This makes us easy to overlook.

Pill: Are there any local collectors buying contemporary art?

Svoboda: I know of four. None of them are rich, though. They all collect art as a hobby, so they get it for very cheap. It's rare for young artists to sell their work here, and it's an honor when one of these collectors wants one of your pieces, so the artist is practically willing to give it to them for free. So usually they sell it for next to nothing, 2000 crowns maybe.
Pill: Do you know of any international collectors who buy Czech art?

Svoboda: No.

Travis Jeppesen is at [email protected]

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