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State of the Arts in the New Europe

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Examining cultural policy in post-Communist Latvia and Hungary

In the United States, we do not always think about other countries in the world that do not have as strong an infrastructure as ours. These countries look toward the West as a model, while we battle with the government to increase funding for the National Endowment of the Arts. Two Eastern European countries, Latvia and Hungary, gained their independence less than 20 years ago, and both were admitted into the European Union only three years ago; they are still in the process of developing their infrastructure to support national arts and culture.

Latvia borders the Baltic Sea and is located between Estonia and Lithuania, while Hungary is landlocked by seven countries and is divided in half by the Danube River (separating “Buda” and “Pest,” two halves of the capital city). Both countries have complicated histories, greatly impacting their current and future cultural endeavors. Latvia, a former republic of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR), had its first period of independence from about 1918 to 1940, and regained independence from the USSR in 1991. In the intervening periods, Latvia was under the occupation, variously, of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. During World War II, first the Soviets, then the Germans, and then the Soviets once more occupied the country.

As for Hungary, in the mid-1930s it was under various Hungarian dictatorships, allied with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at times. For a period toward the end of World War II, Hungary was occupied by Nazi Germany. At the end of 1944, it was first occupied by the Soviets and then became part of the Soviet bloc until its independence in 1989. Although each country is still dealing with issues of national identity, they are also laying the foundation to enter into an international cultural discourse.

With Latvia’s cultural policy in the hands of one powerful woman, Helena Demakova, the Minister of Culture, and the head of the State Cultural Capital Foundation, the country is building a contemporary art scene, while striving to maintain its national cultural identity. According to Demakova, as of January, there are 107 million Latvian Lats (200 million USD) in cultural funding. With a dearth of exhibition spaces for contemporary art, however, building a vital Latvian arts scene is an urgent matter; Latvia is trying to attract cultural tourists other than the voyeurs currently drawn to the region’s sex industry.

The focus of the country’s cultural regeneration is on the ambitious “New Three Brothers” project, which consists of a Contemporary Art Museum designed by world-renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus, an acoustic concert hall, and a Latvian national library, all expected to open in 2010. The project, however, is primarily funded by foreign, private investors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Contemporary Art Museum will be established in Andréjsala, an abandoned factory area and a relic from the era of Soviet rule. Existing organizations include the Contemporary Art Center, which creates temporary exhibitions in different locations throughout the city.

There is also a group, the Latvian Artists Union, which includes sculptors, textile artists and painters, and is “independent from the ministry of culture,” says Demakova. The Union’s roots go back to the Soviet era, when “a lot of artists were expelled and couldn’t display works freely.” Today, the Union maintains a collection and occasionally displays artists’ works from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Budapest has a more established network of institutions, galleries, artists’ colonies and associations than Latvia, which provides for a more active contemporary art scene. This is perhaps due to Budapest being “culturally closer to places like Vienna and Prague, and even Berlin,” suggests Nick Lowe, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Having traveled to Budapest on a study trip with graduate students of the Arts Administration and Policy Program (MAAAP), Lowe observed, “Cultural capability is stronger [in Hungary] than in Latvia.” The scene in Budapest “is less fragile” than that of Riga, notes Rachel Weiss, a professor in the MAAAP program who was also on the trip. She further explained that the underground cultural movement, among other events in its history such as the 1956 uprising, also contributes to Hungary’s stronger cultural impact. Nevertheless, administrators and artists of both countries agree that entry into the European Union offers more economic possibilities to aid in cultural growth.

Despite much progress, Budapest’s art scene does not appear to be particularly cohesive and is laden with bureaucracy. According to András Török, director of Summa Artium, an organization that helps match up corporate sponsors and artistic projects, there has been “no real change” in the city’s art scene in the last 20 years. Török said he could “count on one hand the amount of new cultural organizations” in Budapest. Founded in 2003, acb Gallery (owner János Szobozlai was a guest lecturer at SAIC from 2001 to 2002) is a prime example of the city’s changing face. According to Szobozlai, the National Cultural Foundation may provide grant money to arts organizations, but only in minimal amounts; “in Hungary, the government and state monopolize the financing of culture.” Commercial galleries have to function as non-profit spaces. Thus, according to Szobozlai,“business [must be] combine[d] with very careful selections of cultural projects.” Dora Hegyi, director of an arts organization called Tranzit, says she “looks at the local needs in Hungary” and tries to “initiate projects, which strengthen contemporary art…programs [that] should function in different cities,” such as different films, videos, and lectures.

Zsolt Petrányi, director of the Mücsarnok, a large temporary exhibition hall in Budapest, wants to “present ‘the’ contemporary art in Hungary, both international and local…to be flag bearers of communication between economic and government approach of culture.”

Latvia is also laying the foundation to perpetuate their presence on the international art scene, through their Academy of Fine Arts, which offers BA, MA, and PhD programs. The 85-year-old school, which is subsidized by the government, has a fine art department focusing on a variety of disciplines, including ceramics, painting, sculpture, jewelry, design, art installation, and art history.

In Budapest there is a rigid dichotomy between fine art and “applied” art, manifested in two major schools: The Hungarian School of Fine Arts, which offers a five year BA/MA program, focuses on painting, drawing, art history and theory. The Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design offers BA, MA, and DLA programs, focusing on graphic design, fashion, and other commercially-oriented fields. As government funding decreases in both countries, artists and art institutions look more toward private funding, using the United States as a model.

SAIC students and faculty experience Eastern Europe

Latvia and Hungary: Though these two eastern European countries may not be on the top of everyone’s list of vacation spots, they were the destination for a study trip called, “Cultural Policy and the New Europe,” headed by the MA Arts Administration and Policy Program (MAAAP) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For two weeks in January, 20 students and two faculty members traveled to Riga (the capital of Latvia), and Budapest (the capital of Hungary), to examine their cultural policies firsthand, speaking to important figures of different arts organizations such as museums, galleries and representatives from an artist’s union, in addition to “cultural management bodies,” such as Latvia’s Ministry of Culture.

Aside from the SAIC students immersing themselves in the art scene from morning to evening (and not understanding the wall labels written in Latvian and Hungarian), they also experienced culinary culture–from traditional Latvian food of greasy, fried pancakes to traditional Hungarian food, which includes wiener schnitzel, (a breaded veal cutlet). Some also enjoyed ballet in Riga, a contemporary reinterpretation of Cinderella in which she lives in a brothel; the restaurant with a pole dancer next to the hostel in Riga; Statue Park, where boots from a Stalin statue, statues of Lenin and other Communist figures reside just outside of Budapest; the Turkish Baths in Budapest in the middle of January; the churches; and the castle district.

The international seminar, consisting of the trip, a paper, and a presentation, was a recently added degree requirement for the Arts Administration and Policy program. Interested graduate students not in the program were also welcome to attend, as were Art Institute employees. When asked why the seminar was made a requirement, professor Rachel Weiss cited a number of reasons, primary among them being that, “[t]he arts world has to do with really large distributions and circulations, and to have a program that only deals with the United States is very partial…It’s a good idea to have the experience of moving around and learning from a place you’re not familiar with…Two or three years ago students asked for a seminar with cultural policy. The best way to go about dealing with that pedagogically is by making it experiential.”

Given his past experience in managing a European exchange program at the University of the West of England in Bristol before coming to SAIC, Nick Lowe adds, “As for the global situation with arts administration…it is absolute critical these days to take it on globally…you can’t get away from the fact that what happens in one place affects what happens in another place, across national borders. So, I think facilitating that debate and the understanding of that seems really critical within the program.”

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