The New Museum as a Process (Continuation, Cracks, and Pleasant Coincidences)

The MO Museum, 2018. Photograph by Norbert Tukaj

The MO Museum, 2018. Photograph by Norbert Tukaj

This year, a four-day marathon from 18 to 21 October launched the MO Museum in Vilnius, with ‘plenty of life, sound, different voices, and, of course, the MO people,’ according to its organisers. Starchitect Daniel Libeskind’s white box-like sharp-edged architectural project slashed into the silhouette of the Old Town, sweeping many people off their feet (no other museum in Lithuania has ever been built so fast), as well as creating a corresponding festive hustle and bustle. According to Marijus Gailius, all of this ‘had to cause Stendhal syndrome, or at least aesthesia and ecstasy. An art bomb hit Vilnius.’ [1] After such an intense blitz, it is appropriate not only to enjoy the extensive press coverage of the opening events, but also to think how the biggest private modern art museum fits into the broader context of already-existing institutions. Especially since even before the actual building appeared, Danguolė and Viktoras Butkus had been known in the Lithuanian art world for many years, and their establishment had already existed as the Modern Art Centre, although without any exhibition halls.

The current exhibition ‘All Art is About Us’ (curated by Raminta Jurėnaitė) suggests that we reconsider works of art that we have already seen before in the light of day in a new environment, and through ‘the prism of the Lithuanian identity’, as the organisers say. However, having examined around 300 thematically chosen pieces (from a collection of 5,000), one could not help thinking about the more complicated organisational questions, or the further development and prospects for representing Lithuanian art. For example, in order to pitch it, or to enable the collection, cooperation between the private and public sectors is extremely important. In this particular case, individual initiative met and even intertwined with the state’s cultural policy: the MO’s history has gone through manifold processes in its ten years of existence.

A biotechnology and genetic engineering scientist from Soviet times abruptly changed direction: he became a businessman, and eventually a patron of art, all of which took place in the strange and dynamic society of the day. As Danguolė and Viktoras Butkus travelled a lot, they became increasingly interested in prominent foreign museums, visits which made an indelible impression on them. It finally dawned on them that something similar should be done here, at home. Seeing and experiencing masterpieces mesmerised the couple, who themselves were just regular spectators, not related to the experimental art world in any way. They noticed that modern art sanctuaries abroad ran a lot of educational initiatives, and that they were full of children around supposedly incomprehensible contemporary works, as well as interested but ordinary and unpretentious lay people. A museum to inspire interest and attract people seemed to be exactly what Lithuania was lacking.

And it seemed that very little was missing for us to become a ‘normal’ (that is, western) country. Lithuanian culture was not ‘post-Soviet’ any more, and the strategists had already promised to ‘completely sort out’ cultural policy for a long time (it would be hard to name all the instances, dates, decisions by parliament and ministerial resolutions that were to prompt the new normality). Nevertheless, the cognitive dissonance of the local mentality allowed (post-)Soviet tradition to find its way into the new millennium, and into the solid structures of the status quo. Becoming part of the EU has not provided art creators with any assurances about somewhat predictable tax laws, nor has it increased the salaries of cultural employees in general; these are light years away from the European standard, and are pitiful. The relevant laws and formal rules could be changed overnight, but informal unwritten regressive habits can evidently span decades (as do the terms of office of some important Lithuanian institutional leaders). As the country’s centenary was approaching, the government let artists know that there would be no funding for assignations to national cultural institutions. Moreover, the press has again quite recently noted that ‘the first private art museum in Vilnius will open at a time when the Ministry of Finance is planning a cut of almost six million euros to cultural funding for the forthcoming year. [2]

In this context, the MO seeks to enliven, stir up, and broaden Lithuania’s modern and contemporary art scenes, as well as the narratives in which they are told. The new museum has also started to address issues of cultural policy, which have been stuck in a transitional phase for far too long. As was mentioned previously, when this is discussed, the rhetoric of progress and modernisation can be slightly deceptive. It is worth noting that we have already come across quite a few exciting future plans, as well as many disappointments. Great opportunities have been put into action, but there have also been unrealised plans, and even some totally ungrounded expectations. Nonetheless, joining the EU has led to significant changes, although maybe not too clearly visible at first glance: the emergence of new international intellectual exchanges, prolific creative journeys, and other previously unheard-of initiatives. Society is becoming more and more open, whether it likes it or not, and cultural diversity has definitely become more than a schoolbook keyword. The awareness of new art has gradually matured, and has laid the grounds for what we can see around us today.

The MO Museum, 2018. Photograph by Norbert Tukaj

The MO Museum, 2018. Photograph by Norbert Tukaj

For example, the radical changes in the town, the elimination of public spaces during the „wild” nineties, provoked an alternative cultural opposition. This crystalised in the spring of 2005, as the unprecedented pro-test laboratory gathered around the just-closed Lietuva (Lithuania) cinema. Silently, and by rather obscure means, certain businessmen privatised the building: the place was supposed to provide a fast profit. Nevertheless, a decent part of cultural society suddenly decided to unambiguously resist the ‘inevitability’ of unrestrained capitalism. Ten years later, in March 2015, Viktoras Butkus (the founder of MAC Projects) acquired the site, and eventually revealed to the public that he planned to build a museum, and not commercial premises. The new proprietor reorganised the urban Soviet-style space, and thus it appeared that the ‘naïve artists’ who had wanted to keep the city’s cultural institutions intact had not just been dreaming of a Utopia. In a way, the conversion was triggered by the collectors, but it was reinforced by a new kind of consciousness ‘from below’.

Of course, some political injections ‘from above’ should be mentioned as well. Particularly the Millennium of Lithuania’s Name, and the Vilnius–European Capital of Culture events in 2009, which launched active Vilnius art fair practices, helped some galleries start international collaboration, and also strengthened the Vilnius Auction, which focuses on art from former times. However, 2009 was most important for the opening of the National Gallery of Art: its collection was closely scrutinised and criticised by many professionals. The criticism was mainly about the NGA functioning as a department of the Lithuanian Art Museum, rather than as an independent and long-awaited new museum. Although it separated from the LAM both physically and rhetorically, the half-public discussion about how controversially exhibitions were planned and arranged highlighted a certain institutional continuity.

The discontent in the contemporary art world was primarily based on the NGA barely presenting any new art, while the eyes of those who were at least slightly familiar with the institution’s finances were caught by the huge lack of funding. After the country’s independence, the system for the state acquisition of new (especially contemporary) works collapsed. Although museum curators continued to make various offers, and funding by the Ministry of Culture included acquisitions by both the LAM and the M.K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum, the extremely limited national support led to the country’s transitional era clearly missing its place in the field of visual art. Therefore, even then, the NGA’s director Lolita Jablonskienė emphasised that the exhibition in 2009 was ‘prepared from the LAM’s collection’, and that in no way was it any kind of inauguration of today’s art.

The MO Museum, 2018. Photograph by Norbert Tukaj

The MO Museum, 2018. Photograph by Norbert Tukaj

The opening of the NGA and the emergence of the Butkus’ initiative happened simultaneously. The latter appeared first in exhibitions curated by Raminta Jurėnaitė, and later transformed into the Modern Art Centre, which is now being presented as the ‘Golden Fund of Lithuanian art from the 1950s to today’. The patrons stress that the state-run NGA does not adequately present contemporary art, or its variety in our independent times, and they wanted to solve these managerial and representational problems; in other words, not only to get pieces collecting dust out of the artists’ studios (back then, ideologically ‘incorrect’ works were of little interest to functionaries), but also to revive the already-declining system for buying art. Of course, these national and private museums differ in size and in administrative and financial capabilities, so it would be incorrect to issue unilateral value-driven verdicts. Nevertheless, however capable individual collectors are of creating Lithuanian art narratives, the NGA will always remain the main guardian, although not a monopolist, of our golden collection. Moreover, there are ways in which state museums and private collectors can collaborate, and there are certain lending mechanisms: directors of art institutions are already discussing further cooperation between museums and collectors.

It is hard to foresee whether the MO Museum, with the aim to tell its stories both to the ‘casual passer-by’ and to veterans of culture, will become an extension of the NGA, a competitor, or a light version of it. Although, the artists represented are more or less the same, we will always have to remember that the MO’s main goal is not solely the growth of the cultural capital (although this is unavoidable, as is clear from the forthcoming exhibition schedule), but the education of youth and the entertainment of the wider public. The MO’s attractive environment has more chance than any other institution of luring inexperienced visitors, leading them in by the hand and providing a specific education. Opening keywords such as creative platform, dynamics and action, have proven this. The wish to be closer to people, to become part of the city’s daily life, was illustrated by the initiatives of the former MAC, such as the Vilnius talking sculptures, or the Literatų Street project. According to Danguolė Butkienė: ‘We really want people who have never encountered art before to walk in and not to be afraid. They will find a friendly environment and friendly surroundings; moreover, one of the museum’s goals is to “enable people to do something […] to become active citizens”.’ [3]

The opening of the MO Museum. Photograph by Rytis Šeškaitis

The opening of the MO Museum. Photograph by Rytis Šeškaitis

Both the NGA and the MO opened quite unexpectedly. The National Gallery was planned to open in 2007, to commemorate the centenary of the first exhibition of Lithuanian art, but the public only saw it later, in the Millennium and European Capital of Culture year, which was a pleasant and rather unexpected coincidence. A similar thing happened with the MO: the museum was only built at the third attempt (the first was public competition for the building to be next to the NGA, on the bank of the River Neris, the second on the site of the former Lietuva cinema, both unsuccessful). Therefore, the final and lucky project happened during the year of another state jubilee. Butkus said ‘it was a coincidence, but a very nice one. It is pleasant to call it [MO] a centenary gift or a centenary project. The script for our opening was also based on the number one hundred as well.’ [4]

Therefore, the MO cannot exist separately from the nation; and not only because it is intended for the ordinary citizen rather than the expert. It has been mentioned on many occasions that the museum is a gift to the country from the patrons, but the question of its institutional maintenance remains open. The overall cost, according to Butkus, is around 600,000 euros a year. Financial plans have been drawn up to attract the funds, and much hope is being put into the museum’s managerial resources, but the hypothetical sources of income mentioned by the owners are not guaranteed. This beautiful initiative is ready to be ‘given to Lithuania’, but first and foremost it requires a solid commitment from the state. And politicians have refused the gift. Butkienė said: ‘We offered to give the museum to the country, or the city, as a gift, but there is currently nobody to give it to, really,’ as ‘everyone clearly understands that once it’s been accepted, it will have to be taken care of.’ [5]

Viktoras Butkus once talked about the really good art in Lithuania, and yet the potential international public simply does not know about it, and neither do ‘ordinary’ citizens. Hence, one of the most important tasks for the MO is to symbolically legitimise and popularise the art collected by spinning it out and spreading it broadly. This is a very difficult task, because the value of art in today’s (post)capitalist world is determined not by the emotional principle of ‘(not-)liking’ (although for the regular viewer, such recognition is, of course, important), but by the art market. And works by Lithuanian artists are not currently circulating round international art epicentres at all. Thoughts inadvertently lead to the Soviet era again. Most of the works in the MO collection were conceived at a time when Lithuanian society was very insular, or just as it was beginning to escape the mind trap. Thus, unlike the great names of the world, paintings, graphics and sculptural objects by Lithuanian artists are not popular in the open and long-globalised art world. Local artefacts from more recent times are being sold at fairs or through narrower channels, although works from the previous decades are hardly an enticement in auctions abroad. Therefore, despite a few cases that have long been known to Lithuanian art critics [6], the Lithuanian golden funds have not yet been validated by hard currency.

The opening of the MO Museum. Photograph by Rytis Šeškaitis

The opening of the MO Museum. Photograph by Rytis Šeškaitis

It is still difficult to speculate on the popularisation of Lithuanian art in a wider, maybe regional, context. Neither chronological starting points nor the artists’ place in history can be set permanently: prevailing hierarchies tend to be readjusted unexpectedly. One such case is the emergence of the MO, which in a way illustrates Butkus’ playful reasoning about investment and ‘outvestment’ (his own term). Naturally, collecting symbolic capital disables the cold rationality in concepts such as ‘price’ or ‘return on investment’. Debt is another paradoxical term, which describes patronage in a (non)financial way. We have definitely heard of the sensible rich turning their private collections into a public good, in this way giving back to the society that produced them. Thus, rhetorically, the focus can be put either on the wider world, or in a different direction. For example, the TARTLE Lithuanian Art Centre, the initiative of Rolandas Valiūnas, another prosperous collector, opened (although not completely to the public) in Užupis at the end of last summer, and declared its intention to bring cultural values back to this country (the centre aims to collect and bring back scattered historic and little-known works by Lithuanians from abroad). In spite of the different objectives and relationships with viewers, and even state structures, as was mentioned before, the only way the long-term success and status of works of art can be guaranteed is for authoritative arbiters to grant these to them.

Perhaps the timely challenge by private institutions to the country’s politicians, and to Lithuania’s new rich, will stimulate unexpected educational measures? Or maybe it will impel artists who have yet to make their way on the global art market to do more and make more? Either way, an important shift has already happened in our cultural life. I am not talking about new artistic expression or new broadening critical horizons, but about another step towards a ‘normal’ society. In cultural planning literature, we can find, and sometimes with some irony, that every self-respecting city must have great restaurants, fashionable shops, and a close-to-central artistic district (this advice is clearly very valid, as we see many attempts to present Vilnius’ Užupis district, not without making one smile, as the new Montmartre). We have to admit that today Lithuania’s capital is represented by almost all these ingredients: the Contemporary Art Centre, the National Gallery of Art, galleries appearing more and more often at foreign art fairs, and now the libeskindian museum, whose MoMA-like logo will easily be recognised by anyone who is at least minimally acquainted with modern art. Let us hope that this city does not lack cultural tourists, and that the public becomes increasingly eager to learn.

The opening of the MO Museum. Photograph by Rytis Šeškaitis

The opening of the MO Museum. Photograph by Rytis Šeškaitis

[1] Marijus Gailius, ‘Mano MO, mano’, Literatūra ir menas, 2018 10 26. (‘My MO, Mine’ in ‘Literature and Art’ magazine, 2018 10 26).

[2] ‘MO muziejaus įkūrėjas V.Butkus: su D.Libeskindu susitarėme per 3 sekundes’, www.lrt..lt, 2018 10 18 (‘MO Museum founder V. Butkus: we made an agreement with D. Liebeskind in three seconds’, www.lrt..lt, 2018 10 18).

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Kęstutis Šapoka, ‘Prieš startą. Pokalbis su viena iš MO muziejaus įkūrėjų Danguole Butkiene’, Kultūros barai, 2018 nr.9. (‘Before the Start. A conversation with one of MO’s founders, Danguolė Butkienė’ in ‘Bars of Culture’, 2018 No 9).

[6] One of the most important collections of Soviet art abroad is at Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum in the USA. Norton and Nancy Dodge gave the museum their nonconformist art collection in 1991.

Skaidra Trilupaitytė
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November 29, 2018
Published in Detour
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