In this part we want to look into the activities of Art Centrum, an organization which exported Czech art abroad during the times of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. It was established in 1964 and was active until the 1990s.
We are presenting the monumental commission for the Iranian Shah in Teheran year 1977. Before the contract was unexpectedly terminated a year later due to the coup in Iran, Czechoslovakia managed to make great profit and the then Prime Minister Lubomír Štrougal acknowledged the economic contribution of Art Centrum, which was transferred in 1977 under the Federal Ministry of Foreign Trade and was thus saved from being closed down .
We present a view of the synchronization of projection surfaces designed for a representative and at that time a pioneering multiprojection which surrounded visitors to the exhibition.
The footage was shown at the exhibition entitled Building a State: The Representation of Czechoslovakia in Art, Architecture and Design, curated by Milena Bartlová, in the National Gallery in Prague, Trade Fair Palace, from November 20, 2015 to February 7, 2016.
Art Centrum and different forms of international trade with Czechoslovak art before 1989
The film footage comes from a private archive of Alois Fišárek and shows audiovisual programmes which were prepared by Czechoslovak artists and sold by Art Centrum. Until 1989 Art Centrum was the only organization entitled to trade with Czechoslovak art abroad, including audiovisual works which were primarily meant to promote Czech art abroad.
Although the Communist regime suppressed free and independent thoughts, it traded with art that originated from free thinking. Artworks exported by Art Centrum since 1964 represented a pragmatic selection driven by demand, which deviated from the names of artists enforced by the state, however, they guaranteed a flow of hard currency into the state treasury.
In order to show the role and activities of Art Centrum, we need to divide this seemingly intact organization into individual differently functioning parts and to introduce the often antithetical rhetoric related to this organization, which unveils the structure of this institution and the way it worked.
Archive documents (not many survived) introduce Art Centrum as an enterprise based on pre-war traditions. This „experiment“ , in connection with official materials, seems to be an attempt to find a possible way out of the disfunctional economic situation, in which the Communist regime tried to develop previous traditions and economically exploit them. Besides this task Art Centrum was meant to promote – and mainly sell – Czechoslovak art throughout the whole world.
For its former employers Art Centrum was a place where they were able to develop their entrepreneurial plans under the Communist regime and to promote artists abroad. Last but not least, Art Centrum was regarded as „an open place“ enabling almost anyone who brought a commission to Art Centrum, to travel abroad. The former employers of Art Centrum regarded (and still say so today) their position and jobs as a kind of „soft power“ which could, together with political and economic power, significantly influence the perception and promotion of culture within the international context. Most of the former employers describe Art Centrum as an official organization which was completely independent of the state. According to them, official regulations or plans did not play the most important role. It was mainly the personal approach to business and the mutual, joint interest in business mediation, based on the monopoly position of Art Centrum.
On the contrary, external co-workers and those who were forced to cooperate with Art Centrum because of its monopolistic position, often claim that Art Centrum mediated business but did not play a substantial role in closing deals. Their statements deprive Art Centrum of its privileged role in trading with Czechoslovak art but they do not diminish its importance. They draw attention to Art Centrum´s production and billing activities.
At present the institution has also been criticized a lot. Many critics emphasize the fact that Art Centrum was abused by the Communist regime to act as a legal mediator and to gain foreign currency and profit from selling art works by artists who were not even allowed to exhibit their work in their own country. Another objection related to Art Centrum is derived from the opinion that Czechoslovak art was often used to achieve other purposes. According to other people, most developing countries were interested in goods other than Czechoslovak art or audio-visual projects and claim that Art Centrum´s role was to conceal trading with arms and weapons and other major state commissions.
The preset rhetoric connected with Art Centrum is primarily related to personal contacts, experience and acquaintances, which naturally derives from the nature of the business which Art Centrum mediated. The organization thus survives mainly in the memories of individuals which are slowly fading away.
Barbora Ševčíková Pešek
Year of production: 1977
Digitalization VHS: VVP AVU
We would like to thank Alois Fišárek for providing the film material to the VVP AVU video archive, and Barbora Ševčík Pešek for mediation.
In “Window to the VVP AVU Video Archive,” the AVU Research Center (VVP AVU) collaborates with Artyčok.tv to regularly release works from the VVP AVU video archives. The selection for Artyčok.tv focuses on older works (from the late 20th century), works that straddle the line between video art, film and documentation, and purely documentary material related to recent developments in Czech and Slovak visual art.