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State cash for private gallery sparks dispute

DANUBIANA, an art gallery in the shape of a Roman galley sailing on an man-made peninsula along the Danube River, has made headlines after being granted a €7-million public subsidy. The money should both keep the gallery afloat – so to speak – and transform the institution into a national centre of modern art, at least according to the vision set out by Culture Minister Daniel Krajcer. While the concept of a Slovak ‘Kunsthalle’ appeals to some members of the art community it has also sparked criticism from others, who suggest that there are better ways to spend the limited public money. The critics also argue that there should have been a wider public debate over both the concept of a public museum of modern art as well as the use of the money that is being spent on what was until very recently a private institution.

Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum(Source: Jana Liptáková)

DANUBIANA, an art gallery in the shape of a Roman galley sailing on an man-made peninsula along the Danube River, has made headlines after being granted a €7-million public subsidy. The money should both keep the gallery afloat – so to speak – and transform the institution into a national centre of modern art, at least according to the vision set out by Culture Minister Daniel Krajcer. While the concept of a Slovak ‘Kunsthalle’ appeals to some members of the art community it has also sparked criticism from others, who suggest that there are better ways to spend the limited public money. The critics also argue that there should have been a wider public debate over both the concept of a public museum of modern art as well as the use of the money that is being spent on what was until very recently a private institution.

The project foresees the transformation of Danubiana, which is located about 15 kilometres from Bratislava, into a state institution, as well as a change in the gallery’s ownership. A private organisation Via Danubiana, which currently administers the institution and was founded in 2000 by Dutch art collector Gerard H. Meulensteen and Vincent Polakovič, will be replaced by a state non-profit organisation, Danubiana. The name of the institution will change to Danubiana – Slovak Centre of Visual Arts.

“After 20 years the whole property, buildings, inventory, as well as the property which Danubiana obtains during this period, will come under state ownership,” Culture Minister Daniel Krajcer told a press conference on December 19, 2011.

Public money will be used to expand the gallery’s current exhibition space by 2013. A new permanent exhibition, presenting Slovak as well as international pieces, should open to the public in 2014.

“They [the Culture Ministry] are not only offering the money, but mainly showing a sign of positive thinking,” said Meulensteen, the 68-year-old founder of Danubiana, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

Yet some members of the Council for Art, established by Krajcer in 2010 to serve as an advisory body to the minister on issues of culture and its development, said the project for a new centre for modern art has several shortcomings and that the decision to enter such a project was taken with unnecessary haste.

“I see two problems here: the speed, and the lack of transparency in the actions of politicians and their lack of understanding [which could] even [represent] an insult to the qualitative criteria of institutions of the Kunsthalle-type,” Marek Adamov, deputy chair of the Council for Arts, told The Slovak Spectator.



Saving the gallery



The Danubiana visual-arts gallery, which displays collections by contemporary artists, was founded in 2000 and over the years has become a must-see for official state visits to the capital including those by Queen Sonja of Norway, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and the French actress Catherine Deneuve.

Nevertheless, Polakovič, who has been running Danubiana since its inception, said in late November 2011 that it was struggling to cover its operating costs and that if it did not receive more funding it would have to close as early as January 2012. Moreover, Danubiana’s financial problems emerged after the gallery had announced its plan to expand and build a pavilion of Slovak and international art, a development which could contribute to its recognition by the world cultural organisation UNESCO, the Sme daily wrote.

Danubiana had requested about €100,000 from both the City of Bratislava and the regional government. At the time Ľubomír Andrassy, spokesperson for the mayor of Bratislava, commented that Danubiana was important for tourism in the city and that the city would propose some solutions. However, Andrassy also said, as reported by Sme, that it was not clear how much the city could contribute to the rescue of Danubiana.



Criticism of ‘state culture’



The art community remains divided over the €7 million in state aid that will go to Danubiana.

“Real life has shown how it works in Slovakia: the businessman makes a deal with the politician who then takes millions of euros from state coffers, which until then, according to his words, had been completely empty and then they quickly try to find a way to legalise the whole thing by establishing a non-profit [overnight], thus avoiding any public debate,” Adamov told The Slovak Spectator.

On the other hand, Pavol Kráľ, the chair of the Slovak Visual Arts Union (SVÚ), said he supports the idea of a gallery operated by the state, arguing that Slovakia has neither a permanent exposition of modern art nor appropriate spaces to exhibit such art.

Kráľ compared the project to create a Slovak modern art centre to the Guggenheim Museum in the Spanish town of Bilbao, which has attracted significantly more visitors to Spain since the museum opened.

“I believe that Danubiana has the potential to grow,” Kráľ told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the gallery’s visitor rate is above the Slovak average and that one of the big advantages of Danubiana is its location within a triangle formed by three European capitals (Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest).

He believes the controversy over the project is due to a lack of communication and information provided to the public.

Adamov nevertheless suggested that it would be better to support culture through organisations operating in non-state sectors which would participate in public procurements and grant competitions and provide better and more effective cultural services.

“The spectrum of non-state culture has grown to a significant extent in the last 20 years despite a total lack of money,” he told The Slovak Spectator, adding that such activities are rescuing the reputation of Slovakia and improving what he called “the dank smell of culture” by creating a space for new, high-quality art.

“If we look at the inquiries, festival competitions, visitor rates or media outputs – how many of these events, pieces, performances, films and successes are due to the state or public institutions?” Adamov asked.


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