At the start of 2015 Călin Dan, art historian and artist in the duo subReal, was hired as director of Romania's National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), following the death of the museum’s founding director, Mihai Oroveanu, by heart attack in August 2013.
MNAC opened in 2004 in one wing of the largest administrative building in the world, built at great human sacrifice by Romania’s former dictator Ceaușescu as his own palace. Before the fall of communism the building was called the House of the People, and now it is the House of Parliament, seat of the Romanian government. MNAC opened here to great debate and protestation from many vocal members of the art community, who considered the site and the proximity to the organs of power a great compromise to the integrity of contemporary art in the country, and a symbol of submission. But as the building was left mostly unused and rent was free, Oroveanu, who had brokered the deal for the establishment of the new institution with some members of government, went forward with its placement in a building that for so many represented the worst years of the communist dictatorship. In Fall of 2014, an open call was announced for exhibition proposals from artists and independent curators, for the museum's three large floors and its auxiliary spaces in the center of Bucharest, raising concerns from some about the curatorial vision.
In the 1990s, Dan was director of the Soros Center for Contemporary Art before moving to the Netherlands where he remained until recently. A large retrospective of subReal was staged at MNAC in 2012. I had the chance to speak with Dan about his directorial vision for the museum and the future of the institution in the context of the euphoria of the Romanian election, which resulted in the unexpected election of Klaus Iohannis, seen as a major change from the corrupt former president, Victor Ponta. This atmosphere of hope and renewal is also reflected in the art community's wish for Dan to bring radical changes to a museum that is still seen by some as compromised.
Entrance to MNAC, Vernissage November 27, 2014
Olga Stefan: MNAC is still a very contested space. Why do you think that is? What is the museum's history?
Călin Dan: I have to differ: MNAC is not a “very contested space,” certainly not by the thousands of visitors it receives every month; not by the people, mostly very young, that attended our grand re-opening from November 27 in large numbers (over 4,000 by our survey); not by the curators, art critics, artists, cultural managers from Romania and internationally who are visiting us and seeking our collaboration.
MNAC has a complex history, like most institutions in post-December 1989 Romania. It took over infrastructures and patrimonial goods from the cultural institutions of the communist dictatorship period; moreover, it has been placed from its inception in a problematic location, namely the Palace of the Parliament, formerly known as the Palace of Ceaușescu. In the beginning of the years 2000 there has been a heated debate around this choice of location, and rightly so. The pragmatic attitude of former director Mihai Oroveanu prevailed, and the political decision of installing MNAC where it functions now was implemented eventually.
There still is a small group of contesters who made MNAC the hobbyhorse of a ranting against the brutal history of the building, an attitude that I find unwise and hypocrital. Unwise, because it translates the focus from a thorough debate about the Palace of Ceaușescu—about the political and economic processes that made it real—to an institution which has been hosted, a decade after the political changes, in a segment of its premises. Hypocritical, because it is precisely the task of the polemicists, as members of the civil society, to stimulate the debate and the analysis of the whole building, of the ways by which it was implemented in the urban tissues, and of the historical consequences of this act. MNAC has been and will continue to be interested in any project that addresses the problematic history of the building where the museum has one of its venues; so, we are eagerly waiting proposals of exhibitions, performances, spatial and public interventions, colloquia etc. that will deal with the heavy history of the Palace.
OS: The first director of the museum, who was also its founder, Mihai Oroveanu, died last year. How do you position yourself vis-a-vis this legacy?
CD: We are now in a totally different situation than in 2001, when MNAC was created. Through various developments, and for the first time in modern history, visual culture becomes central to the Romanian society, and visual arts are setting the tone of the public discourse. I am not sure what “legacy” means in this new context. I am operating with the institutional tools and within the infrastructures at my disposal. They are mostly inherited, and they will be adjusted according to the priorities of my management plan. This plan is focusing on the ways through which MNAC will become a central player of the Romanian cultural scene in the following years, while expanding strategically its connections in the region.
Installation view of Dispositions in Time and Space, 2014–2015, Exhibition generated by the Mobile Bienniale 1, Curator: Adrian Bojenoiu; Courtesy of MNAC – Muzeul Național de Artă Contemporană, București
OS: What is the current situation of the museum? What are the challenges and obstacles that it faces?
CD: MNAC is confronted with the same challenges as any cultural institution of the 21st century: decrease in state financing, competition for attention, pressure from the commercial art market, inflation of art production. Next to those, there are specific challenges, namely the readjustment of the public image according to our policies; the streamlining and predictability of our program; the difficult public access to our main venue from the Palace of the Parliament; the rigid legal and budgetary frames where we operate.
OS: What is your vision for the museum and how do you plan on implementing this vision considering the socio-political context, and the challenges and obstacles mentioned above?
CD: MNAC operates from three venues: the main one in the Palace of the Parliament, where we are hosting the collections, and where an important space is dedicated to the long-term (so called permanent) exhibitions. Those exhibitions will be focusing every time on a specific theme significant to the local post WW2 art history. We consider the ground floor space (the so called Marble Room) as the iconic space of the venue, where the initial intentions of Ceaușescu’s architects were preserved by the renovation in a post-modern, ironic way. Those two rooms have a great appeal for international artists, and we will strive to host site-specific installations or exhibitions carved for the space. The other three floors will be opened for various projects generated in-house or co-produced with outside collaborators. The venue in Calea Moșilor will be a beehive of different programs and initiatives from young curators, artists, architects, performers, hosted in a 1930s, seven story, former warehouse situated in the hottest, up-and-coming area of the city.
The Dalles Hall, situated in another top location of the city’s historical center, will be transformed into the flag carrier of the MNAC programs, with a focus on the international positioning of the visual cultures of Romania.
Implementation of those strategic lines depends on the financial and logistic support from the Ministry of Culture, and also on our ability to gather support from the business environment, and—why not?—from the concerned communities of artists and specialists.
subREAL, Draculaland, 1992, © subREAL (Călin Dan, Iosif Király, Dan Mihaltianu)
OS: As an artist you were part of one of the most important art collectives to operate in Romania post-89: subREAL. It influenced that entire generation of artists with work criticizing the system, institutions, and politics. subREAL had a large retrospective two years ago in MNAC. As the director of an institution that is located in the House of Parliament and in front of the largest orthodox church to be built in the country—between the two major symbols of power (a reality that you acknowledged with a piece made for your retrospective)—how do you see your role as director of MNAC and how do you plan on maintaining your independence? Do you feel that the space of the museum can remain in its present location?
CD: I never had a feeling that the independence of MNAC has been under threat due to its special location. My old friend and colleague Mihai Oroveanu was an extremely discrete person, who saw his role mostly as an unconditional protector of the events hosted by MNAC; but still I think he would have informed me if the two exhibitions that involved me and that were critical to the location of MNAC (Anturaju’ and Other Stories, my solo show from 2010; subREAL Retrospect, the one you mentioned, from 2012) would have raised questions in the power circles.
As for moving a institution of the size of MNAC to another location—this is a discussion involving many agencies, and it definitely goes beyond the frame of this interview.
Installation view of What About Y(our) Memory, 2014–2015, Curator: Irina Cios, Iosif Király, Architect: Attila Kim
OS: How will you balance your interests as artist and your role as director in the selection of exhibitions produced or shown at the museum? How will curatorial decisions be made to limit conflicts of interest?
CD: Chronologically, before being an artist I have been a full time art critic, art historian, and curator. Over 30 years experience in those fields helps me make informed choices as manager of MNAC. Besides, the curatorial decisions in the museum are and will be the result of negotiations with colleagues and with representative actors from the art scene.
As far as the conflicts of interest are concerned, the only possible conflict would be to start promoting my artistic activities in the institution—which is unthinkable. Other than that, I will be as objective and also as subjective as any other person who uses historical, cultural, and taste instruments in order to draw a cultural strategy from the leading position in an institution. The fact that I am an artist should not and could not make me less free than any other colleague curator, critic, historian, in my judgments and also in my choices for the museum. My strategic vision for the MNAC is published on the site of the institution, and has been subject to a public competition organized by the Ministry of Culture. My future activities are easy to check against this frame. More than that, MNAC launched in October its first open call for curatorial projects, and the response has been beyond expectations—over 80 proposals. Those proposals will be analyzed by a commission composed by people from MNAC and people from outside, all specialists in visual arts, visual culture, and/or communication. They will draw a list of priorities that will be submitted to the Scientific Committee, an international board of experts, which will draw the final program for the period April 2015–April 2016. Those proceedings will be kept and reiterated as long as I am leading the museum.
Installation view from Bucharest Artistic Education and Romanian Art After 1950, 2014–2015, Exhibition for the 150th anniversary of the University of Visual Art, Curator: Adrian Guță, Architect: Attila Kim
OS: Tell us about the current exhibitions, which were a huge success. How do they communicate the direction you have in mind for the museum?
CD: Deimantas Narkevicius’ solo show Cupboard and a Song is a comprehensive retrospective of this very sophisticated artist who challenges our memories of the communist system. His discourse is suggestive also for our curatorial vision about the ground floor, where the Marble Room will host sparse, minimalistic interventions with a heavy conceptual load. Moreover, Deimantas, coming on the international scene from Lithuania, illustrates our intention of strengthening links with countries from the former communist block, and with the countries from the Balkans, in order to build a powerful regional profile.
The exhibition New Beginnings, from the 3rd floor, with recent acquisitions from the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade is as well part of this strategy; it shows the amazing capacity of renewal manifest by the one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the region, and also it gives a view of the (former) Yugoslavian scene, so rich and so vivid at this time. Dispositions in Time and Space is a hybrid event, started from a collective performance in the shape of a trip and ending in a collective installation about the art language and its limits. What About Y(our) Memory is a dense survey of the most important artists connected as teachers and/or students with the Photo-Video department of the Art University of Bucharest. Finally, Bucharest Artistic Education and Romanian Art after 1950 is MNAC’s first attempt at a long-term exhibition with a theme encouraged by the collection of the museum.
(Image at top: Călin Dan; All images courtesy of MNAC – Muzeul Național de Artă Contemporană, București)