IV. The Role of Infrastructure in Collecting Temporary Art. Dreams and Reality

Inessa Rinke

Art Collecting in Latvia

Riga will become the European Capital of Culture in 2014. Still it is impossible to define the real situation of art-related infrastructure as excellent. The exposition of the Latvian National Museum of Art shows artworks up to 1940. The Museum’s collection consists of several thousands of works that could well represent the development of art from the post-war period till the present but the permanent shortage of exhibition space in Riga is an obstacle. Helēna Demakova, Ex-Minister of Culture and a talented curator of contemporary art, devised an ambitious project “Three Brothers”, including the Latvian National Library with an art gallery (designed by Gunārs Birkerts, USA/Latvia), reconstruction of an old power plant for the needs of Contemporary Art Museum (designed by Rem Koolhaas, the Netherlands) and a new acoustic concert hall (designed by Latvian architect Andis Sīlis); but now the last two objects have been halted due to the financial crisis.

In short, private galleries and non-commercial institutions serve as collectors’ guides in the exploration of contemporary art in Latvia. Important contemporary art exhibitions occasionally are shown in museums as temporary expositions. In this situation Latvian collectors tend to prefer established values and traditional media – painting, prints and sculpture.

In the 1980s and 1990s an aggressive style of collecting emerged with upstarts attempting to outshine each other and even setting extravagant goals, like gathering a collection of 1000 items. Processes developed quickly and in many cases no deliberate strategy of collecting can be found. Usually it was based on popular artists’ names and the private taste of the collector. An exception was the architect and entrepreneur Vello Remmerts’ collection; his refined taste and interest in contemporary art encouraged him to support the first conceptual gallery “M6”. Still, it functioned just for a couple of years and failed to attract other collectors’ attention, despite a very remarkable exhibition program. Aivars Zvirbulis, the owner of the Publishing House “Jāņa Sēta”, later founded a gallery of the same name and managed to gather a noted and valuable collection. In both cases genuinely contemporary art was collected. Another extravagant personality was the collector Raitis Gailis, known not just for his refined collection of the art of the 1980s and 1990s; he also sponsored Latvian artists’ flight in a private airplane to the opening of Latvian art exhibition in Paris City Hall and published a catalogue.  

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the boss of SWH Holding Ainars Gulbis started to assemble his worthy collection of artworks. Now his collection includes about 2000 artworks, large part of them deserving to be on view in a museum. Artists of the 1980s and 1990s as well as young artists emerging on the art scene after 2000 make up a large part of the collection. This collection boasts of outstanding examples of Latvian art of the 1920s, the famous Riga Artists’ Group members Marta Skulme, Oto Skulme, Uga Skulme and others among them. Another significant collection gathered by Dr. Guntis Belēvičs was formed in the late 1990s and the first years of the new millennium. Here also one finds such pearls of Latvian art as works by Gustavs Klucis, Jāzeps Grosvalds, Aija Zariņa (sponsored the artist’s catalogue and exhibition in the museum) and many others, arranged in an almost encyclopaedic system.

The cooperation between the Latvian National Museum of Art and private collectors has to be praised. Since the early 1990s the Museum has opened its doors to exhibit several private collections, for example, Belēvičs’ collection “Latvian Art Classics” with a representative catalogue (2008) published by the collector. The Museum’s schedule includes the contemporary art section of the collection as well. 

Guntis Belēvičs also owns AĪDA and MAGIC FLUTE stage design and costumes by Latvian stage designer Ilmārs Blumbergs, being among his best works for opera performances.

New collectors have appeared in the new century, collecting art of a certain period or certain artistic trend; they also actively attend international art fairs, study art literature, follow all the news in the field, follow for artists participations at international biennales at Sao Paulo, Venice, Moscow and Manifest (participated Inta Ruka, Ilmārs Blumbergs, Evelīna Deičmane, Miks Mitrēvics, Katrīna Neiburga and others). Together with Latvian art galleries they visit international art fairs at Chicago, New York, Moscow, Berlin and etc. 

Still these tend to be exceptions and a closely defined aim of a collection remains rare. Established values, such as the works of the “golden trio” of Latvian art – Vilhelms Purvītis, Janis Rozentāls and Jānis Valters – still provide the secure sense of worth retained throughout a century. This invites most of Latvian collectors to balance their contemporary art collections with classic artworks.

With the restored independence and development of capitalist economy, newly founded enterprises related to transit business and financial sector were very active to establish their corporate style. Art had a significant role to play in the corporate image-making. Swedbank Latvia has gathered more than 400 contemporary artworks on view at the bank’s central office building. Swedbank is also known as the founder of Swedbank Awards, a significant award in contemporary art in the Baltic States. This award enables the winner to organise a solo exhibition in one of the museums of the Baltic States. Vilhelms Purvītis’ Award in visual arts has been founded in collaboration between the Latvian National Museum of Art and the patron ALFOR Ltd. The financial amount of 20 000 LVL (around 30 000 EUR) is unprecedented for Latvia; the winner also has a chance to organise a solo exhibition. The patron has agreed to support this award for the next ten years. Also, ABLV Bank has agreed to invest 1 000 000 LVL (around 1 450 000 EUR) in the collection of the future Contemporary Art Museum as well as has launched support programs for contemporary art exhibitions, catalogue publishing and support for the artists.

During the last two years new territories have been developed for art in the historical storehouse complex “Spīķeri”, enabled by private-public partnership. A pilot project of Contemporary Art Museum - KIM? (Kas ir māksla? / What is art?) has been launched here to demonstrate video art shows, photography  and installations of Latvian artists on a regular basis, inviting foreign guest artists as well. KIM? along with the nearby non-commercial galleries VKN and FK (photo gallery) have set out to accustom to and educate the public in the sphere of contemporary art. Since 1993 contemporary art exhibitions were organized by Soros Foundation – Latvia, since 2000 – THE LATVIAN CENTRE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART, new media art exhibitions - uncommercial centre RIXC, gallery NOASS and etc.

 The owners of AB.LV Bank Oleg Fil and Ernest Bernis have initiated traditions of patronage, supporting the future Contemporary Art Museum collection. The purchases are decided by an international expert commission; AB.LV Fund in cooperation with the Norwegian financial instrument has already acquired 200 artefacts, representing contemporary Latvian photography, video, conceptual art and non-conformist works. Since 2007 AB.LV Fund invests significant resources to support Contemporary Art Exhibition Programme and catalogue publishing.

Jānis Zuzāns, President of ALFOR Ltd, runs an important support program for young artists. In 2007 he financed the impressive young artists’ exhibition CANDY BOMBER and exhibition’s catalogue. Purvītis’ Award founded in collaboration between Zuzāns and Latvian National Museum of Art is an unprecedented support for contemporary art. Research work on a catalogue and exhibition dedicated to the original older generation artist Auseklis Baušķenieks (1910-2007) is also supported by this enterprise.

No doubt, the owners of important collections in Latvia plan to open their treasures to the public, launching private museums and galleries. Some of these collections are already accessible to a restricted circle of interested people, like researchers and museum specialists. Unstable financial situation and recession have briefly halted these plans.

Wealthy people of other Latvian port-towns, especially in Ventspils and Liepāja, also delve in art collecting.

There is an opinion that collectors in Latvia gather only Latvian artists’ works. Motives for collecting national art are respectful and understandable. Owners of large collections relate Latvian artists’ works to supporting patriotism and national identity. The collection of Rietumu Bank breaks the stereotypes of local artistic contexts, as this collection has been shaped in international auctions, purchasing French artists’ works, like Charles Daubigny, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, American artists’ works influenced by Art Deco, and successfully combined with the most popular Latvian painter Ludolfs Liberts’ works. 

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