Prague’s independent art spaces by Vyara Mlechevska

Our foundation “Art Affairs and documents” successfully emerging organization is trying to establish residency exchange with other similar institutions and organizations abroad. For us it’s very important to extend our experience in practices of residency management, such as; possibilities of funding, selection practices, interaction with the local scene. During my stay in Prague I met cultural figures that have established successfully working residencies. I had working talks with the team of “Futura”, with the team of “Meetfactory”, “Trafacka” with the publishing house “Divus”, “Jeleni” gallery, “Nod” Gallery. I learned from the first two institutions the principles of interaction between the host institution, the supporting co-operating institutions and the residential partners. From all these organizations I learned how do they manage their program and how do they organize their activities and how they fund their work.
My stay in Prague was important for me as a curator. I got familiar with the Czech art scene, with young and emerging artists, and with the Czech art history. That is very important for my future development and work as curator. Marketa Stara was really helpful to introduce me with Czech emerging artists and to organize for me studio visits.
Regarding the solutions that I think will work for our organization is the method of collaboration of “Meetfactory” and their partner institutions. Our potential in organizing residency is very limited and we are extremely dependant in other partner institutions that are interested to fund this initiative. The formula of interaction of “Meetfactory” is closer to what we can achieve in Bulgarian situation. “Meetfactory” counts in great extend on the cultural institutions from the respective country where the resident comes from. Below you will find a record of my research into the conditions on which Prague’s independent art spaces function.

There are 65 art galleries on Prague’s art map. The number includes the state-owned galleries that have something to exhibit, commercial spaces and a good many independent galleries that vie for the public’s attention. My goal in this feature is to tell about the independent ones and explore their ways of existence.
In 2003 a factory in the industrial area Prague 8 was transformed into one of the most important and largest spaces for contemporary art in the Czech Republic. The project was started by the civic association Karlin and an organisation called Futura. The building is now the home of seventeen studios of Czech artists and a large exhibition space; it also hosts the Entrance Gallery, a smaller space whose name is due to its location at the factory’s gate. Also the Divus publishing house has been there since 2006, as well as the editorial desk of the Umelec magazine. The Karlin Studios rent out its premises to artists, some of whom pay with their own work. The access is not free and is regulated by Futura. Separately, there is a library, which is serviced by volunteers.
Futura uses two other buildings: a smaller one, a former mannequin-manufacturing factory in the Smichov quarter, and a castle in Trebesice. Both are the possession of an Italian architect who founded the organisation. The building in Smichov is an incredible space of more than 1,000 sq m that ordinarily promotes international projects. Since 2003 Futura has been managing a permanent exhibition programme that features international and Czech participants. A residence programme for visual artists has been in operation since 2005.
And yet the keystone of Futura’s operations—and for the art community as a whole—are the Karlin Studios, which is the stage for a considerable part of what constitutes Prague’s contemporary cultural life. Ever since the studios started operation, their future has been in the hands of the investment company that owns the property. While the existence of the Karlin Studios is vitally dependent on its owners’ commercial agenda, the factory and the neighbouring land are barricaded in the last corner left free of construction in this quarter. Everything around has been turned into modern glass-fronted offices. The building's occupants are uncertain about their future, which is laid down in the two-year contracts they sign with the owner.
There’s a piece of graffiti scribbled on the wall of another art space that reads we believe in crisis. All the tenants of the studios believe, or at least hope, that the economic crisis will put on hold construction plans at Karlin.
To carry out its work Futura relies chiefly on the Prague Municipality as well as on fixed-term grants.
Currently a really curious exhibition is on view at the Smichov studios dedicated to Russian video art. Its central theme is the history of video art and pirate TV since the day they first started, back in the USSR era. I will confine myself to say that the exhibition is the result of a tasteful selection and presents various aspects of video culture. The Karlin Studios have been strategically savvy to open two exhibitions in the same evening accompanied by a studio visit of the Futura resident artist.


MeetFactory is run by David Černý, the artist who has accumulated quite a notoriety in Bulgaria (1.) The name is the inheritance from the first enterprise at the premises, a meat processing factory, and is a pun on the words meet and meat. Today MeetFactory is housed in former glass works in Smichov. To get there you need to travel by tram to an industrial zone, where, in the area between a railway track and a road, there is an island of a sort formed by industrial buildings and halls. There’s a shortcut to the building that crosses the railway. You can reach the place in a roundabout way, too, but many people prefer the shortcut. From all over the building huge drops of pink blood “drip”, and graffiti cover the outer surfaces. On the facade you can see two cars dangling, resembling very much two chunks of meat.
MeetFactory was slated by the municipality to offer free use to the tenants in exchange of their contributions with repairs and upkeep. When David Černý entered the building he had to shovel off tons of filth and drive away the squatters who had been living there. There was neither electricity nor water; there were no floors and no ceilings. With the help of friends and using personal funding, he started renovating the space, and was later assisted financially by the Municipality. The city council offered to provide half of MeetFactory’s budget, but the organisation has remained independent as concerns its activity, despite the risk of giving in to conformism and compromises. All this is due to the fact that the appropriations committee is made up not of municipal councillors but of culture leading lights who think it wiser if the money is spent exclusively on contemporary art. This helps balance any occasional political jostling that’s not always to the organisation’s benefit. All this is Černý's version of how things stand. On its part, Prague's art community has different thoughts and emotions about their colleague. Some put down the money flow towards Černý's organisation to his close relations with some municipality officials.
In fact, the situation resembles the optimist-pessimist joke about the half-full-half-empty glass of water. Competitor organisations see Černý's glass as half full, while MeetFactory complains of money problems. Without a doubt David Černý is helped by a strong lobby, which has been the subject of much fanciful speculation about the money that’s going into MeetFactory. Be it what it may, but the municipal authorities offer financial assistance to most of the independent organisations, and any criticism is not directed to how well the money is spent but to how much should be spent at all. The majority of those affected by Prague's cultural policy say that despite allotting money for marginal events, the municipality has the understanding for and provides assistance to the independent spaces.
In the MeetFactory case this assistance automatically attracts new EU funding, which is used to cover the remainder of the organisation's needs. The most important aspect, however, is that it also helps expand the range of activities. Currently MeetFactory has exchange agreements with organisations in Germany and the Netherlands, and has a collaboration with the Visegrad Fund. The outlook for expansion opportunities seems pretty strong. There’s a theatrical troupe housed in the building, as well as a residence programme for visual artists and theatre professionals. MeetFactory hosts all this and also has an open invitation to put forward projects, which the organisation does not finance but offers space to.
Apart from these sources of funding, MeetFactory relies also on the money it receives from renting out studios to independent artists. For example, MeetFactory is the lessor to Krištof Kintera and David Černý himself. The larger halls host commercial parties and music festivals.
The buildings have been given the necessary renovation. The basic installations are there, but neither are the walls perfectly white nor is the floor coated. At first glance—and particularly while you're crossing the railway track to get to the building—you might think that this is a place run by hippies searching for artistic expression. This is by no means the case. MeetFactory has a staff of 10, who handle the project coordination. There is additional personnel such as technicians, gaffers and cleaners, who are not permanently employed. There is also a manager and a PR officer. The organisation's programme has an exhibition plan that is divided between a gallery (the Kostka Gallery) and the central space. And as we are talking about an independent space, I should emphasise on the careful selection: not everything gets exhibited. All applications are reviewed by a committee made up of David Černý, Zuzana Blohova and Tomas Pospíšil. For example, in the hall dedicated to Polish Actionism, there are historical names such as Katarzyna Kozyra and Zbigniew Libera. Here are also artists who are not directly recognisable outside their own scene but are ones whose work the jury believes deserves to be exhibited. Zuzana Blohova and Dušan Zahoranský, who joined recently, are rather artists than critics. In fact, the lack of a curator is part of the more serious criticism that has been levelled at MeetFactory—in a significant degree the programme is run by the preferences of the artists.
It’s still unclear to me if the position of Tomas Pospíšil, who is currently listed as a MeetFactory collaborator, is permanent. Currently he is among the most active young curators in the Czech Republic.

Some smaller spaces

For them the Biblical guidance “knock, and the door shall be opened to you” applies. All three galleries that follow are situated in residential buildings at various locations in Prague’s central area. The Czechs have an obsession of locking the front doors of the buildings they live in, which makes visiting these spaces a carefully planned operation. The Jelení Gallery is run by a couple of people, among them Alena Bojka from the Umelec magazine. This is one of the series of engagements that she has, giving it the same amount of energy that she invests in the magazine. The exhibition that was running while I was there was of a young artist, who hadn't even graduated from the art academy.
For the most part the Chemistry Gallery presents the work of young artists, mostly ones who have just started their education at the Art Academy. In terms of quality of the works, this gallery’s selection seemed to me the most liberal.
The Nod Gallery is part of the well-known Roxy Club, the Number One destination for Prague’s young guests who have arrived to taste the city’s night life. In fact, the gallery is connected with the cafe. Like the other spaces, the Nod Gallery offers stage for visual arts, theatre and music. This is the formula, by the way, that applies for all alternative spaces. It's way less expensive and has the added effect that the performances turn out to be the crossing point of the types of art I’m talking about. The exhibition that was on view at the Nod Gallery was about the Czech sense of absurdity. It can be argued that the selection had a logic of its own and that the subject could be seen in the exhibits (despite the fact that there was no English-language information).
Transitdisplay is a small space in the cellar of a residential building. The exhibition it was staging was also of a young artist who had yet to graduate from the Higher School of Applied Arts. I couldn't work out what the thing was about—it was some mixture of Japanese and American Pop culture.
Trafačka is rather an art location than anything else. Where the old bourgeois residential cooperatives in Prague end the industrial and business area begins. In fact, these places stand in contrast with Prague but nevertheless efforts are being made to give the quarters the best infrastructure they can get. Commercial interests are less pronounced there, since the place is at once not that beautiful and far from the central area. Trafačka is an odd set of buildings. A residential building and two quite large industrial spaces are connected into a trianglelike figure with a yard in the centre. Some 15 years ago all this used to be a transformators factory adjoined by the buildings that housed the workers. Today the building belongs to a real estate company. It was bought for investment purposes, which are yet to take place. For a while the entire place was populated by vagrants and was awash in litter. This prompted the owners to start thinking about husbanding the complex; they chose to hand its keys to a young artist who had worked for the company.
Helped by friends, he set about to open the doors of 26 studios and two pretty large halls that had been vandalised and then abandoned.
Currently the whole place is inhabited by all manner of artists, who self-organise and share the building’s upkeep. One of the halls functions as a gallery. All the available information such as working hours (which they are very cavalier about), former and current exhibitions, as well as the designation of the parking space is sprayed on the halls' walls.
And yet the place is a legal entity, which helps it in its search for funding. The programme is laissez-faire; two or three events are planned for a couple of months ahead, interspersed by many chance ones. The man who greeted me has often thrown parties with music and film viewings from his own studio on a very short notice.
I met an artist who works with new media, and uses sound and computer-generated visualisations. We entered a studio in which there was a cat, a dog, a beads curtain, a fridge pasted all over with stickers, and a mess of a kitchen. The work space was a simple desk that resembles a cockpit. There were control panels with little round knobs and sliders; all kinds of cables hung on the wall; there was a black display; nothing was there to indicate any interface or design.
He related with pleasure about Trafačka as a place in which things happen offhand. The first thing about it was that people there have fun, work on their own projects and would sometimes stage an event.
As a whole, the people at Trafačka are open for suggestions for all kinds of events, fashion shows, spectacles, parties and exhibitions. The organisers are handed a ring of keys and can have the halls that serve as a gallery space. It’s up to them how the access to the event will be organised. For this reason the gallery works, more or less, by virtue of a preliminary agreement, except when there is an event going on; but even in such a case you can read about it in the local art guide, artmap. The Trafačka people prefer using a mailing list. Trafačka is a place that’s preferred by younger people, skaters and hip-hoppers, because there they can drink and smoke and listen to music without paying. They are also allowed to spray the whole building in graffiti without fearing prosecution. Two street art festivals have taken place at Trafačka so far. The first, funded by sponsorship and featuring international participants, was almost completely blotted out by the graffiti of the second. Regretfully, the second event proved to be a complete disappointment: the participants turned out to be drunk teenagers who spelled their names absolutely illegibly.
These forms of organisation are a shining example of how a city's art life expands and progresses. All of this takes place with the conscious and purposeful assistance of the Prague City Council.
The money that comes from the government is not enough to ensure the existence of such spaces, but remains of vital importance. The organisations with strong structures manage to increase their revenue also by supplementary sources, which usually come from the European Commission or international funds; such funding would be inaccessible without a basic capital.
That there are so many different spaces helps the diversification of cultural and also ignites competition. The resultant stimulating effect is that each space strives to present more events, chiefly such as hold greater interest. But still, the Prague scene remains limited; evidence of this is that works of some artists -- Josef Bolt for example -- can be seen at three exhibitions at the same time. All this makes each of the organisations rely on a residence programme for visiting artists with all the opportunities the current moment can offer.


(1.) In 2009, to mark the Czech EU Presidency, David Černý exhibited in Brussels a provocative installation called Entropa. It consisted of a puzzle of 27 works, each of which represented one EU member state. Bulgaria was depicted as a squat toilet, which gave rise to stormy reactions in Bulgaria by members of the government, the media and large portions of the public. A scandal arose that became the top news item for more than a week. Eventually, on the insistence of Bulgaria’s foreign minister, the Bulgarian installation was covered with black cloth. Černý’s work, as well as the reaction of the Bulgarian authorities, polarised the public in Bulgaria.