ideas in practice

Prague: The brief life of a museum of young art

Although short-lived, this was a place worthy of note. In its brief life it proved that there is a place for contemporary art at the heart of a historic Central European city, and that it can attract public interest. It also demonstrated that a museum can be more than just a white cube offering a frame for its art, or a voguish postindustrial space.
Downtown Prague, the Royal Way. Throngs of tourists. History, historic buildings, art – medieval, baroque… and the very latest in contemporary art. Concealed behind the façade of a baroque palace, just visible in a courtyard accessed through a richly decorated, arched baroque portal, a truly astounding sight: suspended above the heads of passers-by, four huge pistols in two pairs, aimed at each other. This is an installation by the biggest star of Czech contemporary art, David Černy, and at once the most recognisable image of an art establishment whose life proved shorter than the “youth” of the works it showcased.

David Černý, "Guns", 1994 © AMoYA

The history of the Artbanka Museum of Young Art is as remarkable as the palace it occupied for a year and a half. It was created with the intention of offering support to students and alumni of academies of fine arts in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the spring of 2011, Petr Šec and Olga Dvorak, the proprietors of the commercial dvorak sec contemporary gallery, founded the Artbanka organisation with the self-declared objective of monitoring the local art scene, discovering the most promising artists, and buying works by them for a collection. Artbanka initiated cooperation with six art colleges in the Czech Republic and two in Slovakia. Shortly after that, it founded a museum, which was opened, in record time (the preparations took barely four weeks!), on June 12th 2011 in the baroque Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace. This imposing, 4,000 metre-squared property is administered by the Prague Municipal Gallery, which had, however, never actually made use of it itself owing to its poor state of repair. But what were unsuitable conditions for museum collections of a historical nature, proved ideal for contemporary art. Until such – unspecified, distant – time as renovation could be undertaken, the building was released for use by AMoYA. Yet in spite of its unquestionable success in terms of footfall (with 80,000 visitors in the course of those 18 months, discounting those who only accessed the courtyard, which was open to all, free of charge), on January 15th 2013 the museum opened its doors for the last time.

Although short-lived, this was a place worthy of note. In its brief life it proved that there is a place for contemporary art at the heart of a historic Central European city, and that it can attract public interest. It also demonstrated that a museum can be more than just a white cube offering a frame for its art, or a voguish postindustrial space. AMoYA was an ideal combination of the functional concepts of art institution and exhibition space. “We didn’t simply want to create another ‘museum’ show, but also to define a new laboratory environment for visual art, another communication channel for the necessary direct comparison between the Czech and international scenes, for the exchange of ideas and improvement of the cultural ‘metabolism’ in Central Europe,” AMoYA’s chief commissioner, Vlado Beskid, wrote in the catalogue for its first exhibition. And as one wandered the many chambers, rooms, corridors and staircases, one couldn’t help feeling that this art was a part of everyday life, that it belonged to that space, and that we were guests in a house that had only recently been throbbing with life. The building itself was first built in the Middle Ages, but from the 17th century was gradually converted into a baroque-style palace. In 1848 it was inherited by Duchess Wilhelmina Colloredo-Mansfeld, who together with her husband undertook major alterations, bringing stylistic harmony to what had once been discrete sections of the building. Since the beginning of the 19th century the palace became home to the Colloredo-Mansfeld family’s famous art gallery, relocated by its owners from Döbling Castle near Vienna. In 1818 the gallery was opened to the public, and in 1840 it was the venue for the first annual exhibition of the revived Krasoumna jednota (Union of Fine Arts). The pride of the palace is its two-storey, oval ballroom with a Rococo painting on the ceiling vaulting (Pietro Scotti, 1736–1737).
Vestiges of its aristocratic splendour remain in evidence. Some of the walls are still clad in fabrics and ceilings in decorative coffers, ornamented fire surrounds and historic mirrors are still in place, gilded baroque curlicues wind their way across walls and ceiling vaulting, and equally ornate chandeliers hang from above. At least, this is how part of Section A of the exhibition space looked. In 1953 this building was assigned as the home of the archives of the Academy of Sciences, and it was altered willy-nilly to serve as office accommodation with complete disregard for its historic fabric. Walls were knocked through, others erected, cabling was installed, and the parquet floors covered in linoleum. All this – the grandeur of the aristocratic palace, its abrupt end in the Communist period, and the present day, which failed to take the necessary steps to restore it – became the foil for works of contemporary art. Ahead of the opening, the minimum of adaptation was done. A cash desk and museum shop were installed, but nothing else. There is no lift (and it is a three-storey building with extremely high ceilings), the toilets are more or less as they were installed for the offices, and the walls and flooring are a material reminder of the building’s long and not always glorious history. Section A was designated the space for the big names in Czech and international art. The basement was occupied by an installation by Černy, Shark. At the foot of the stairs a graffiti-covered drinks machine was installed, with the back-lit slogan “Art is business” at the top – a work entitled Graffomat (2010) by EPOS 257. This timeless motto references the art world, including the museum itself, for although AMoYA was a non-profit institution, Artbanka’s purchases of works by young artists make it a major player on the art market.

Ivan Kafka, "From Nowhere to Nowhere" © AMoYA

Sections B and C are different in character – no palatial interiors, but groups of flats, as if only recently vacated by their tenants. At the foot of the stairs on the ground floor, letter boxes still hang on the walls, stuffed with flyers. These flats came into being from the second half of the 19th century. As one goes from floor to floor, the extent of the arbitrariness with which they were adapted becomes abundantly clear – each space was divided chaotically into smaller units (the height of the ceilings also facilitated their vertical division), and toilets and a heating system were installed haphazardly. Wallpaper, carpets, tiles and washbasins are the backdrop for art being created today. Section B housed works by artists from academies of fine arts in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, while Section C was above all a space for alternative curator-led projects. Viewers are welcomed into Section B by a larger-than-life gymnast on the rings, who in spite of his white t-shirt and sweat pants is deceptively similar to a crucified Christ sculpture. This is Superstart, a work by the Czech group Kamera Skura and the Slovak Kunst-Fu, which in 2003 represented both countries at the Venice Biennale (in 2006 it was picketed by parliamentary deputies from the League of Polish Families when it was shown at the exhibition Shadows of Humor at the BWA Awangarda Gallery in Wrocław).
AMoYA had no permanent exhibitions of its collections (all its shows were temporary); it simply gave its space over to both well-known and budding young artists, lending the local art scene an international context. But, perhaps most importantly, it brought art into our everyday life, by presenting it in the context of “home” with all its attendant attributes. The furnishings of both the palace chambers and the flats lent the contemporary works, irrespective of their themes, a human dimension, showing that they do not have to be consigned to a separate, artificially unreal zone (as the neutrality of the white walls in many museums suggests), that, on the contrary, they are part of the space we live in, just like other objects. In 2012, Section C featured paintings, sculptures and installations alongside wardrobes, sofa beds, a television cupboard, an armchair, piles of newspapers, a pair of skis stood up in a corner, and a pram. This was the conception behind the curator-led project The Mad Collector’s Apartment.
In 2011 and 2012 a total of around 250 works were added to the collection. Works from the Artbanka collection were not only shown at exhibitions in AMoYA, but are also loaned to both state and private institutions, thus bringing them to a wider public. The revenues from these loans are spent on successive works. The life of AMoYA itself proved shorter than anyone might have suspected, but although the museum is now closed, Artbanka as an organisation continues to operate and loan works out. The official reason cited for giving up the museum as an exhibition space was the high overheads.

© AMoYA Ivan Kafka, Projekt „Baroque Hall”: "Reality, Fucking 15 minutes", 2011

It is a shame that the founders of AMoYA have no plans to pursue the project in the form of an exhibition space elsewhere, which would be a Czech version of the New York New Museum, which for years operated with no fixed abode, taking the form of a migrating museum. The Czech scene of contemporary art institutions is truly unique on the Central European scale – nowhere else is there such diversity of institutions, organisations and projects presenting new art. There is a monumental department of 20th and 21st-century art in the National Gallery, a private art centre, DOX, and the public Rudolfinum Gallery, the Kampa Museum of 20th-century Central European art belonging to a private collector, another private centre called FUTURA, and many other smaller, although equally significant institutions. It is truly a shame that this one didn’t make it.
The future of the palace interiors remains unclear, and one can only hope that the Municipal Gallery finds a good way to use them (the original plan was that they were to be used for offices). Renovated and modernised, they will look magnificent, although one can’t help feeling that if they are restored strictly to the Baroque and Rococo style of their glory days, they will lose something of their charm. The chaos, ugliness and general patina laid down by the difficult decades of the 20th century lent this space an exceptional character that made it the perfect setting for contemporary art.

Translated from the Polish by Jessica Taylor-Kucia