Interview with Helēna Demakova
Laima Slava
Next year will be the centenary of the State Museum of Art. Opened in 1905 was a new building intended specifically to serve as a museum - the first such building in the Baltic - and along with this, a new art museum was founded. A century later, this is still Latvia's only true museum building, housing a collection that gives a sequential picture of the professional development of Latvian art. There has long been talk of the need for a new museum for contemporary art, but only last year, when Helēna Demakova took office as Minister of Culture, she declared as her priorities the completion of the National Library building project and the realisation of two urgent projects: a new concert hall in Riga and a contemporary art museum. It seems that 2005 promises definite steps in this direction. Hence this conversation with the minister about contemporary art in particular.

  Studija: In the first place, what are these steps and what does the immediate future hold?

Helēna Demakova: One cannot ask for building work to begin in the space of nine months. When the government took office, on 9 March 2004, the government declaration mentioned three buildings, which became known in the months that followed as "the three brothers": the National Library, a modern, acoustic concert hall and the Contemporary Art Museum. The new government has retained this article of the declaration, thus assuming joint responsibility for it.

An international architectural seminar has been held. Already in spring, we sent out invitations to 50 famous international offices to participate in a discussion on the choice of location. Even before this, a very positive event took place: namely, we signed a statement of intent along with Gundars Bojārs that we would undertake these projects - the concert hall and the Contemporary Art Museum - in collaboration with the city. The city would provide at least 20% of the funds, create the infrastructure, etc. The architectural offices to which we sent our invitations were selected in collaboration with the city of Riga. So far, it's all developed hand in hand. In taking office, I had to cardinally improve relations with Riga City Council: these had been totally wrecked, and there was no dialogue. Without this, no such infrastructure can be created in the capital! We patched up our relations, signed the statement and the State Secretary of the Ministry of Culture wrote to the architectural offices jointly with the city's Development Committee. It's very pleasing to see that 35 out of these 50 responded. We were hard pressed to select ten. In the spring, we had brainstorming sessions together with the city authorities, where we discussed the matter and decided that eight would be international offices and two would be our own Latvian offices. The selection process was very difficult, and when we also had to omit Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, the guru of Vilnis Štrams, it was announced that he would be paid for by the city itself. Thus, the Ministry of Culture paid for ten participants, and Riga City Council paid for one more genius. The seminar was held in late October, and this was an exceptionally exciting time. The conclusion was that the real "postcard" location for building the concert hall is the AB Dam. The question as to the museum's location remained open: it could be the AB Dam, or Victory Park, or Andrejsala, which is about to experience very dynamic development. There were major protests from the greens about Victory Park, with the threat that they would picket, and it was clear that this area would not be developing dynamically. As a result of all this, we came to the conclusion that the concert hall would be built on the AB Dam, although this would prolong the process, since this is a difficult site in terms of construction work, requiring additional study. In talks with the city, the old thermal power station on Andrejsala, at present belonging to the Latvenergo company, was chosen as the most suitable place for the museum. An incredibly beautiful building. Why did I advocate it and why did the commission accept it? It's developing into a lively area, with houses and cafēs around, and this is a gem of industrial heritage - those seven windows alone make it unique in Latvia! There are many examples in the world, such as the Tate Modern in London, and in Liverpool, which is also a refurbished piece of early 20th century industrial architecture. Also, I was very much inspired by what I saw in Austria, where I visited the world-famous Coop Himmelblau architectural office, also participating in the competition, and saw how they work with historic architecture, how they combine the new with the old - literally creating a shell, within which they envelop the historic part.

Also important is the fact that the role of culture is growing in Europe, and from 2007, support for culture from structural funding will increase, as was mentioned by Barroso in the big conference on cultural policy. There'll be more money, and a special programme has been developed for incorporating the cultural heritage into cultural tourism, and I see this as a very important source of funding, so that we could include this building in such a programme. Contemporary art museums attract great numbers of visitors everywhere, and the time is past when such a museum was regarded as an elite venture. The Tate Modern is often full to overflowing. Such are our ambitions too. The present situation is that our State Secretary and Dace Vilsone, the Head of our Foreign Policy Section, have been on several trips to become acquainted with companies involved in feasibility studies - studying the infrastructure and setting. Currently, we are considering the regulations for announcing an international competition, since it's absolutely clear that such capability is not available in Latvia. Our State Secretary has become acquainted with the way such companies work in America, while Dace Vilsone has been doing the same in Britain. We're going to do feasibility study competitions both for the concert hall and for the museum. We envisage that in mid-2005, when the results come in, we'll be announcing a design competition along with a partial technical solution. The feasibility study allows us to lay down the guidelines for the competition. It'll become clear what transport nodes are needed, where the car parks will be, etc., resolving issues that we ourselves might not even have considered. These international companies will help formulate our needs as the client.

Riga City Council is very favourably disposed, and is ready to purchase the building from Latvenergo, and we'll be concluding an agreement with the council on the use of the building for the needs of the museum. I don't know what the composition of the new city council will be, but there's every possibility of strengthening this positive collaboration. 

Of course, in line with bureaucratic procedure, everything starts with a working group. Thus, a working group has been established at the Ministry of Culture to support the building of the Contemporary Art Museum. I've reached the conclusion that this is a setting for discussion, but there must be someone doing the real work to make it all happen, and this is Astrīda Rogule, a paid worker who sits at the computer and does the correspondence. Astrīda's sphere of work is very broad, and it's a real boon to have a true museum person and teacher who understands museum matters and can say what's what from the client's perspective.

Studija: But who will determine the content that the museum has to encompass?

H.D.: Astrīda is developing proposals based on past international experience, and these need to be tested. By the working group and by others. The discussion has not been widely reflected in the media, but it's not as if nothing's happening. We also have plenty of experience to draw on: the experts have seen many such museums around the world. There is a kind of vision. But that's why we're inviting an international company, which will lay down the major requirements both regarding the concert hall (collaborating with professional acousticians), and the Contemporary Art Museum. These are the requirements that our working group, consisting of art experts who know what's required for the art itself, will never be able to formulate: what the flooring and ventilation system should be like, etc.

Studija: Actually, it's the collection I wanted to ask you about...

H.D.: This is the next step, which cannot be taken without funding. Before funding is extended (mid-2005), a model must be created as to who will make decisions regarding the collection. At present, this is an open question. I've already suggested the idea to several internationally known colleagues, inquiring as to whether they'd like to join such a commission. Certainly, it will include not only Latvian specialists. As regards the funding, I made what was literally a one-day trip to see two ministers: the Norwegian foreign minister and Minister of Culture, and we agreed that we ourselves would be able to decide on how we use the Norwegian aid funding that they contribute to the European Union budget, which appears as aid for the new member states and ends up in the cultural sector. It's actually not true what I was told by officials - that the Norwegian side dictates this. Along with other no less important areas, such as support for wooden architecture, crafts training and Art Nouveau architecture, one of the aspects is support for the non-conformist Soviet heritage. We can use this money to purchase art, document it and do our work. We've presented a concept of our museum for contemporary art, and we can purchase works created up to August 1991. A target programme has been established and approved by the board of the Culture Capital Foundation to provide co-funding, since the Norwegians asked for there to be co-funding of 15%. This means that in the coming five years we'll have an annual sum of 100 000 lats for purchases. I think this is good news. But this will have to cover not only Latvian art, but Estonian, Lithuanian and Russian art too. The Soviet non-conformist heritage is very broad. We'll be buying Navakas and Lapin - art that Latvian viewers deserve to see and which should be in the museum collection. If we look at how Latvian contemporary art has grown, we see that contact with the Estonians and the exhibitions held back then in the Planetarium, organised by Jānis Borgs, and the work of our sculptors together with the Lithuanians in sessions at Klaipeda, are essential links that must be maintained, and local patriotism in the financial sense must be overcome.

A second aspect, on which I am working together with Astrīda, is to offer financing of the purchase of post-1991 art to a corporative sponsor, which would be one of our major companies planning to stay here and work for at least ten years. The Latvijas gāze company currently gives 100 000 lats a year to the opera (Aldaris gave 60‑000 lats), and we have a string of such companies. I think it could be a matter of some 60 000 lats per annum, and the corporate sponsor would have visibility in the museum. If such funding were available for some five years, it would provide a good permanent basis for the collection. This is my view. Such a museum is never going to be very popular with our government: I just listened to a deputy from the PCTVL party speaking from the podium, who said some very harsh words about the terrible things that the Culture Capital Foundation is supporting in contemporary art - "all kinds of abstractions and pornographies", and so creation of the collection should not use taxpayers' money. It's better for it to be private money. Business people have come to understand that the returns will be considerable, since people around the world rush to such museums as to a panopticon, to see "what the artists have been up to". Politicians cannot always comprehend and appreciate what such a museum can contribute to an intellectual society - and not just to cultural tourism. 

We'll be discussing the matter, and I hope it'll start in summer 2005.

Studija: But what would be the optimal financial model for maintaining an establishment of this kind? I've heard negative comments regarding the involvement of private money...

H.D.: The optimal form of funding will always be state support, and the state in collaboration with the municipal authorities should create the collection, should continue to develop it after the museum has been built and should maintain the museum. This happens when the people making decisions on public money can already see the results. I think those who take a negative attitude towards private money are the one's who haven't accomplished anything themselves. Now, when it's finally going ahead, I really don't care what they say. Because in politics there's little time: I have a maximum of two years, and I want to establish the foundations of the museum and the collection, to make this an irreversible process. Nobody's going to give large amounts of public money - not next year or the year after - in order to create this collection. That's absolutely unrealistic. But we have to move ahead, we have to take the path open to us, and there's nothing illegal about it.

Studija: And almost all of the world's big museums involve private funding...

H.D.: Just opened in Berlin was an extension of the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, built specially to house the Flick collection.

Studija: But is the basis of truly valuable, important collections not the vision of one individual: is it really possible to create such a museum with the help of a "working group"?

H.D.: Of course, this would be the ideal case. But ours is a democratic country and we have to observe certain procedures. The major authorities in contemporary art have not, after all, become part of the collective consciousness. Thus, we have to go through all the competitive procedures, and nobody's going to apply for the post of director until the museum is built. And it's absolutely clear that we have to hold an international competition. At present we cannot pay this individual for five years, until the museum is built, that's absolutely clear.

Studija: But the collection is being created and a museum is in reality a collection. The Kiasma too was created years in advance, knowing who would be the director.

H.D.: In the Finnish model too, it wasn't a matter of one individual. There was a team working on it: Tuula Arkio and Maaretta Jaukkuri, along with the curators. Right up to the last moment, it wasn't clear which of them would be director. And now the director has changed. Likewise, in America, it's not an individual, but a board. This is the way the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art is being created. It's interesting from a historical perspective too. Chicago is a very anti-Semitic city, and the Museum of Contemporary Art was created as an alternative to the Chicago Art Institute, where for a long time no Jews were employed. And then the Jewish community put their money together and built this Museum of Contemporary Art. It wasn't one person's vision, it was a community that put together several hundreds of millions, and the board began creating a collection. The possibilities are various. In our situation in Latvia, bearing in mind the unnecessary commotion and suspiciousness we have, it's hard to say who should actually be creating the museum.

Studija: Do you yourself have a vision of what this museum should be like?

H.D.: Personally, I do. My vision, and I'm going to put it up for discussion, is to use this collection to show the roots, to show how contemporary art has developed. This means that we wouldn't start with the video work of F5, but instead with the abstract art of Zenta Logina and Leonīds Āriņš and with the line of Modernism from which contemporary art developed. With regard to post-war art, this means Abstract Expressionism. Such tendencies are present in some form in every contemporary art museum. Thus, my vision is to show, through a link with international movements, the logical development of this art. To show our avant-garde art of the sixties: Lancmanis, Vasiļevskis, and exactly the same trends in Estonia and Lithuania. Ideally, the Russian work too. But this would require additional funding from international foundations, to enable the purchase of art of this calibre. However, the idea would be to look back at the history so as to be able to analyse contemporary processes. This being the history from the end of the Second World War, as is the case in Western contemporary art museums. To trace this line of contemporary art by means of the collection also means a great deal of research work, discussion and publication. And the Norwegian funding permits this. In a sense, it also means reinstating historical memory. I was quite shocked by the Ministry of Culture's 1996 study on cultural policy, where we are presented as a nation without dissidents, without non-conformism, suggesting that it's all proceeded smoothly, that it's all been much the same. It really wasn't like that. Āriņš stayed in his town of Tukums and never got involved in anything. The work of Zenta Logina wasn't exhibited during her lifetime...  This line too needs to be shown. The local vibes need to be shown, so to speak: the vibes that differ from those of other places. I look at the paintings of Barbara Gaile: it's not cold Abstractionism. Rather, there's something very poetic and emotional. It hasn't come from thin air: there's a degree of continuity. And I think the aspect of consciousness needs to be included in this collection. But it may be that a different approach is decided on. After all, I too pretend to a professional view of it, a view I can express, but this doesn't mean I'm going to dictate.

Studija: What, in your view, determines a museum's image, its recognisability in the world, and what, in this case could make our museum unique?

H.D.: I can see we're going to amaze them all by the location. It'll be a place where ships come in and people can stroll; there'll be one of Navakas' brilliant works, the first to greet passengers, and this area will be a place for art, with amazing architecture, and in the midst of it all - this gem of architectural heritage, somewhat more ornate than examples elsewhere. In the first place, we'll surprise them all by the aesthetic setting. I very much hope the detailed plan of Andrejsala will be a sensible one, and I'm looking at it quite optimistically, since we've already learned something from the barbarisms that marked the urban environment here in the nineties. At the beginning of the 21st century, we have every hope of making this setting a most attractive one.

That's a utilitarian view. Since I have to say that I doubt we'll amaze anyone with our collection, but we will enhance the general picture with our regional perspective. Why shouldn't we specialise: on Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Scandinavia? The Baltic States and Scandinavia do, after all, inhabit a kind of common mental space, without hypertrophied social conceptualism. A special poetic element distinguishes the mental space we inhabit. I don't think we're going to amaze anyone, but we're certainly going to interest them by our perception.

Studija: Contemporary art museums around the world often display works by the same names again and again...

H.D.: I think this regional aspect will break that up. And it's not really the case any more that the names are always the same. For example, one of my favourite contemporary art museums, in terms of its collection and programme, is the museum of contemporary art in Frankfurt, created several decades ago and headed at present by an outstanding director - Udo Kittelmann. His professional work and education has been related to optics research. He was curator of the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001, when it obtained the Grand Prix as the best pavilion. There were long queues, since it meant crawling into a space full of unexpected developments. Right after that, he was invited to the Frankfurt museum. His programme there is simply outstanding, and there are no repeated names in the exhibition. He's brought his exceptionally private view as an optics specialist to bear on the collection and on its presentation. We can create a dazzling collection from the works by artists in our region, but this doesn't exclude the possibility that there might be loaned works too. It's no secret that the big private collections are looking for a home. Take the Flick collection again: displayed in Berlin is only a small section of what he's collected. I don't exclude the possibility that in the future we might simply be able to borrow works from some famous collections for an extended period, while our own collection is being built up. If the museum administration sees that some particular aspect is missing, then I can see it would be possible to discuss it with the Americans too.

Studija: Which of the world's museums do you regard as most closely reflecting Latvia's needs (rather than the actual  possibilities)?

H.D.: Of course, a model approximating very closely to Latvia's needs is the Kiasma. This is a name on everyone's lips. But I don't accept the mark imposed by the architecture of the Kiasma. The building itself I'd prefer to see as a church or some religious building of that kind. It's not suitable for displaying art: neither the walls, nor the floor. The display of art requires something more ascetic. But the Kiasma is an excellent functional model in terms of its life as an information centre, an educational centre and an enormous creative laboratory with very precisely-thinking curators in different fields. A museum that presents itself not only as a collector and a displayer, but also as a producer and catalyst for various processes of creative fermentation. And it's also a model of collective activity. In the Latvian situation, any one particular individual filling this role is bound to be ousted in a year's time!

Studija: And the one that best presents a picture of the age?

H.D.: Of course, it has to be MOMA! I've spent a long time in New York - the collection is enormous. And with such a huge collection, you can always extract some special aspect of it. We'll never have anything of the kind.

Studija: But after all, why do we, a small, poor country (as the official economic figures indicate), need a museum of contemporary art?

H.D.: I think we won't be poor in the future, and culture is not the field that should be made to wait. I liked Oļegs Tillbergs' approach at Riga City Council in 1995, when we were explaining what we wished to exhibit in the city within the frame of the big "Monument" project by the Soros Centrefor Contemporary Art. Pēteris Pētersons, who was no lover of contemporary art, said that this wasn't Latvian art, and then Oļegs exploded: "Am I just some stray dog running past? I too am Latvian!" In my view, this is an argument: Latvian art is the art created by Latvian artists. This makes it national. It's not a matter of the country's wealth or poverty, but about the fact that there are creative individuals here, and the work they produce should bring spiritual culture into society, and the state should create the "frame" for it, the possibility of bringing this product to society. We cannot wait any longer, since at some point a significant aspect of spiritual life will be found to be missing.

Studija: What is the history of your relationship with contemporary art?

H.D.: Unlike Kittelmann, I'm not from a science background, but from the general Latvian intellectual milieu, and I don't differ very much from my present colleagues. It's simply that perhaps I had the chance to travel somewhat earlier - already in the late eighties. There are contemporary artists among my close friends, such as O¬egs Tillbergs and some others. I've had the chance to be present when they were working on their projects, in the processes where art is created before your eyes, where you work literally hand in hand with the artist, as a theoretician and a producer, being completely involved in it. Already some time ago, I was able to obtain international experience. It doesn't help in my work as minister, but it does help in my professional work. I consider that a person can be a good minister even without knowing anything about contemporary art. A good example is my friend (and I can say I have two ministers in Europe who are my friends), the Croatian minister Božo Biškupic, who is a great collector of art, but doesn't like contemporary art. He has a large collection of paintings, a collection of Modernist work. For many years, he published graphic art. But he's building a museum. It's going to be a grandiose museum in Zagreb. He regards it as his lifetime project, and has fought for it in politics for ten years. "I probably won't set my foot in it," he says, "I don't care for that kind of art, but I'm going to do everything I can to make the museum a reality!" He understands that a modern European country cannot do without such a museum. 

I've written this and that, I've put together exhibitions, I have favourite projects and projects not so dear to me, but I think the 1995 "Monument" exhibition  was unique. Without denying that the Sculpture Quadrennial last summer was very important, with objects in the urban setting, in the case of "Monument" we were working in the city's central locations: opposite the Arsenāls Exhibition Hall, on the site of the statue of Lenin and elsewhere. These objects weren't tucked away somewhere. Streips talked about the vertically raised tram in his radio shows, others were alarmed about Tillbergs' "insect"‑- the airplane turned on its back not far from the Russian embassy... I think this was the most ambitious project, and I won't be ashamed to tell my grandchildren about it.

Studija: Which period of the 20th century most attracts you?

H.D.: I don't know. After all, living in the 21st century, I'm interested in what artists are doing right now... Maybe it's the age that grows around certain individuals... That which surrounds Bruce Naumann, and Robert Smithson before him. Possibly, he's my favourite. It's somehow difficult to picture Duchamp as an artist of the second half of the 20th century, although my analytical perception of art has developed precisely through following Duchamp's approach. I've seen a great deal of his work, and read a lot about him, but it's Robert Smithson whom I regard as a giant opening up a whole new age. His conceptualism, his breadth, his endless humour in those small-scale works - yes, he's my favourite.

Studija: I thought you'd say: Beuys...

H.D.: No, no, no. He's interesting, but nevertheless the Americans are dearer to me. Duchamp has nicely expressed why he went to America, why things have flourished over there: in America, a person feels exceptionally free, open to experiments. Warhol has a wonderful little work, where he's filmed Duchamp.

Studija: And the novel features in 21st century art?

H.D.: Very promising seem the things that the F5 group is doing. I think something new is emerging here. It's been said that art is now coming about through a clash between artist and politician, between artist and researcher, or maybe even between the artist and the alien from outer space - that's my own free interpretation. I just found out what F5 will be presenting at the Venice Biennale. It's a research project. Not in the sense of the dry, conceptual social or linguistic projects of the seventies. It's a partly scientific and partly poetic study of light. The project is further developed by means of various media. It's not just a real installation in space, it has many virtual elements, extensions, reaching into an area we've never really thought about as being suitable for art. I think they've hit on the real nerve of the early 21st century, and I place great hopes in them, hoping that we'll finally have someone known worldwide, apart from just Gustavs Klucis.

Studija: Why should a national state support contemporary art at all, if its ideological potential has lost its functional role?

H.D.: At present, the ideological motivations are as strong as ever. (For me, as an art professional, it's sad to have to recognise this.) Namely, we now are one of the capitals of the European Union. And an EU capital must have a Contemporary Art Museum. If this is absent, if there's no modern concert hall, if there's no impressive National Library, then we're simply provincial. The wish to be a capital city in the European Union, to be a metropolis: this is a powerful ideological motivation, no less important than national pride. It shows that a country is modern, dynamic and competitive. Without all this, we're just bumpkins.
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