Māra Lāce could certainly be described as one of the greatest authorities in the scene of Latvian art. She is a long-time director of the Latvian National Museum of Art, art historian and expert, as well as a member of the visual arts council of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia, initiator and supporter of several important art projects. Under her leadership, the Latvian National Museum of Art has experienced a real Renaissance – it has flourished not only visually, experiencing an extremely important reconstruction of the building, but also developed structurally, actually combining four museums under one title, (the Latvian National Museum of Art (LNMA), Art Museum “Rīgas Birža”, Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, and Romans Suta and Aleksandra Beļcova Museum), as well as the exhibition hall “Arsenal”.
As a museum director, Māra Lāce has had to make several important decisions that have influenced not only the development of Latvian art, but also its accessibility for a larger audience. One such important aspect is the actualization of Latvian contemporary art, which the museum is implementing both by the procurement for its collection and by supporting the only Latvian contemporary visual art award, the Purvītis Prize. In such a way the Latvian National Museum of Art continues to care for Latvian national art for all periods of time.
By Auguste Petre, Baltic Editor at Arterritory.com
You have been in this position – the director of the Latvian National Museum of Art since 2001, so it means since the time when contemporary art in general started to develop more rapidly in Latvia and the Baltic region, and artists started experimenting more with media, materials, and forms. The relevance of the Latvian art scene to global trends has become increasingly important during these years. What in your opinion are the most important “milestones” in the development of art during these years?
The Latvian National Museum of Art is one of the largest art institutions in Latvia and has undergone various changes during the period of my leadership. Firstly, these have been institutional and structural changes; secondly, there have been changes related to infrastructure development; thirdly, changes dealing with various content and conceptual issues. Namely, these are questions about the purpose, ideas and mission of this cultural institution. As you said, I have been in the post of the director of the LNMA, but I have worked at the museum for a much longer time – so the whole period of my time spent in work forms one unified view.
Here I can quote a Chinese saying: “I wish you to live in a time of change,” because I might say that all this period, these eighteen years, has really been a time of change. At the time I became a director with full managerial rights, duties and responsibilities, the Latvian Art Museum Association existing at that time was divided into several separate legal entities. The situation was like that – the Latvian National Museum of Art consisted only of this – the main museum building and the exhibition hall “Arsenal”.
The next stage or milestone in the development of the museum that could be mentioned would be the year 2010, when the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design and the Art Museum “Rīgas Birža” (at that time still under the name of the Museum of Foreign Art) were incorporated into the museum. Thus, the structure of this museum changed a lot… As I said, all these changes have brought along some kind of conceptual changes, or the development of conceptual guidelines. While initially we worked basically and exclusively with Latvian visual culture and art, then after 2010 when we got in addition the whole collection of foreign art and also such a separate industry as decorative art and design, we had to develop new guidelines to makethe museum work again as a whole. I have always tended to emphasize that the museum (especially if it carries a single name under which separate units are located) must have a well-designed general guideline. It means that the museum has to talk about the development of the visual culture in the territory of Latvia and, of course, it has to be done in close interaction with the world art processes, which we partly receive in the form of collections.
I would say that the next stage of the museum's development is its transformation and infrastructure issues. These issues have always been extremely important; I remember this and have kept it in mind since I started working in the museum. The time I started to work in the museum was very tight – exhibition halls were constantly closed to make them a simple repository for artworks because there was no place to keep them elsewhere. After that, the next stage began, when the exposition halls were gradually released again and parts of the collection were moved to “Arsenal” and “Rīgas Birža”. Since then, we could start dreaming about some possible reconstruction and development.
I would like to say that the greatest challenge the museum has experienced during my work was to achieve the reconstruction of the building – the LNMA building had been in service without general reconstruction for 105 years.
We involved young architects and let them work with new thinking and approach (the museum's reconstruction project was developed by Lithuanian architectural offices “Prcess office” and “Andrius Skiezgelas Architecture” – Ed.) And it was implemented very well. I consider that the thinking of the young people was the decisive factor that gave rather a big push in restoration of all museums, if I may say so.
Now my topic is infrastructure, but along with that, I would say that emphasis in museum work has changed in general. One thing, of course, is to work with a collection, which is very important to us. Working with a collection basically means replenishing it, where the emphasis is undeniably on today's art processes and their perception. It's not easy, but within the limits of what we have, we do it, and over the last 10 years we have managed to collect a relatively valuable stock, in my view. The latest news is that we've been seriously involved in collecting photos. Understanding that this is a field the museum had not deal with earlier, at this point it is one of our emphases. From the so-called “gold authors” of Latvian photography, we have bought a wide range of different works.
Is this collection of photos created by purchasing works from different times?
Yes, photos have been taken at different periods, but the focus is on purchasing art works from the second half of the 20th century. Speaking about earlier periods, I have to say that the Latvian National Museum of Art is relatively self- ufficient in this field – we have really good, more or less complete collections. Let's say, from time to time some work that we need and what we would like to obtain appears in the art market. But in some cases we can do without it. On the other hand, concerning contemporary art, we know quite clearly what we want and what we cannot do without. In the context of the contemporary processes of visual art in Latvia, the idea of creating the Purvītis Prize initiated by the museum is of great importance, and in successful cooperation with ALFOR Ltd. and artistic patron Jānis Zuzāns, the prize this year was presented for the sixth time. Another very important thing is that the museum recently has put considerable emphasis on its educational function – that is, on the development of the museum’s pedagogical programs. And, if I may say, on attracting public interest and even getting the audience into the museum.
That, in a way, has also been facilitated by reconstruction, hasn’t it?
In principle, it was facilitated by the reconstruction, but a much targeted work by the museum's communication and education department is also of great importance. In practice, our goal is to make the visitor feel good and satisfied with the structure of the museum, the building itself, and the services we provide. Step by step, I really hope that in the next five years we will be able to upgrade the “Arsenal” as well.
You mentioned that the museum should be a place where a person wants to be in. Do you think museum functions have changed in recent years?
The function of museums has changed in its own way, although, I have to say, the museum has three basic functions that cannot be avoided. These are stock-building and preservation, research, and the whole communication process that includes both organizing temporary exhibitions and establishing permanent exhibitions, also the museum’s pedagogical programs, working with visitors and so on. The only difference is at what time the exact function becomes more relevant and important. I would like to say that at this moment the museum's communication with the public has become more important. But it doesn't mean we can forget all the other functions.
You mentioned the collection and, in fact, it is so that the art of each time, the artist or his creative contribution can be perceived as a mirror of this particular space and environment. Do you think it is possible to read Latvian code in works of art, which are also in the collection of the Latvian National Museum of Art?
I definitely think so. In my opinion, it was already read, let’s say, in the 1930s, when many exhibitions abroad were exhibited, and publications of that time emphasized a very specific, slightly minor sense of colour among Latvian artists. And then some other time more isolated, more silent and elegiac perception of events and phenomena prevailed. I can’t say we are very passionate fighters; we are, however, relatively restrained and very delicate in our nature and artistic processes. And there are few authors who would break out… However, at all times there have been some who have. For example, if we are talking about the first half of the 20th century, among them have been Kārlis Padegs and Jānis Tīdemanis. And it is the same nowadays – art and artists have always been very different in their manifestations.
But how would you describe Latvian art in general?
I would like to say that Latvian art is calm, harmonious, and maybe sometimes sleepy, as we ourselves are. And I don’t think we can escape from ourselves, not even in art.
Last summer I had the wonderful opportunity to accompany collectors from the Tate Gallery on an art tour to see the First Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA) and we also visited Imants Tillers' exhibition “Journey to Nowhere” in the LNMA Great Hall. Later, the Director of the Tate's International Art Collection, Gregory Muir, said very glorious words stating that the Latvian National Museum of Art is a high- evel art institution. What do you think is the key to LNMA's success?
It's hard to say. I think it is the purposeful work of all museum employees. Perhaps we are not always able to do everything perfectly and brightly, but the fact that we have this desire to do it is undeniable. All employees working here consider the museum to be an extremely important and significant place in the Latvian cultural space, and they work, if not with a mission consciousness, then clearly understanding these goals and tasks. In reality, the museum exists as an institution, not for us to work here, but we work here to make this place necessary for other people, as much as possible. This is the home of our culture, our national wealth. And our job is to do everything to make this home necessary and interesting for others, not just for ourselves. I think the key to the success of the museum really is teamwork, which is based on professionalism, the ability to collaborate and understand today's society's needs. In recent years, thanks to both the enthusiastic activities of curators and European initiative projects (such as “Riga 2014”) and the recentlycelebrated centenary of the Baltic States, several international exhibitions have been organized through the museum. One of these is “Wild Souls. Symbolism in the Baltic States”, which was opened in April last year at the Orsay Museum in Paris.
Is it foreseen to develop such large-scale cooperation projects with other world museums and institutions in future? How difficult or easy is it to carry out such an exhibition?
I would say that this is an extremely difficult process; I have to go back to the 20th century and the time when the border of the territory of Latvia was closed in the late 1930s and 1940s and our artists, who were well-known in Europe, lost their chance to continue to exhibit. We really had authors who have had exhibitions in Paris, London, Warsaw, Brussels and had positive feedback on them. Practically a wide range of our artists had the chance to “break out” abroad, they were actively selling their works – London’s Tate Gallery bought Niklāvs Strunke's work and in Sweden and Belgium other authors were bought. So these works became a part of the collections of other museums.
And definitely, if such a normal development had continued, then I think those artists would be known on much wider scale. Let's assume Vilhelms Purvītis, who we mentioned, was well known throughout Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. But when the Iron Curtain dropped for 50 years, the names of these artists were unfortunately completely erased from art history as such. And this is a very, very “hard” topic. We have to admit that there is a lot of competition in the world of art, and no one wants to get new names into circulation. The positive thing is that the history of art is gradually being overwritten in the research process, and this is especially true of Eastern European art history. I think that in the next ten, twenty or more years, a lot of interesting studies and observations will emerge and the creation of artists from the Baltic region will increasingly occupy a more serious place on the international stage. But when it comes to significant exhibitions in collaboration with other museums, it has to be noted that today developing such exhibitions as it used to be in the Orsay Museum is a very challenging task, because… There always has to be somebody who wants to do something and someone who is willing to accept it. And, look, cooperation with such large museums is quite complicated in the sense that these museums themselves are extremely selfsufficient.
I must admit that I look at it as a rather negative thing. Many museums work on the so-called “blockbusters” because everyone, including museums, has to make money and the easiest way to do that is with big names. Thus, to enter a museum of art for authors whose names do not mean anything to anyone is quite complicated. That was the case of Orsay. The development of cooperation was very challenging as it had to be developed between each museum in the Baltic States (the Latvian National Museum of Art, the Estonian Museum of Art, the Lithuanian National Museum of Art and M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art), as well as with the Orsay Museum. Although we, the Baltic museums, are in very good contact and know each other well, communication between us was challenging. As we know, the Baltic unity or the Baltic Union has always been more on paper than in real life.
Actually, the co-operation projects, when we give our museum exhibits to exhibitions anywhere else, are going on practically all the time. For example, on March 19, in Paris, Grand Palais opened an exhibition – “Rouge, art et utopie au pays des Soviets” on various phenomena of Soviet art, directly emphasizing one colour as essential to ideology – Red; it is not just a colour, but also an ideology. This exhibition also exhibits a number of works from our collection. Of course, this is Gustavs Klucis, a very remarkable work by Aleksandra Deineka from our foreign collection. So, this kind of cooperation happens. Another thing is really for these important art and cultural centres to have exhibitions that talk about a particular artist or art period that is important to us, or make up a broader picture of our region's art.
But do you think that this exhibition, which took place in the Orsay Museum, and to some extent thanks to its curator Rodolfo Rapetti, has raised these issues and opportunities for cooperation?
I think it has raised both questions and opportunities. I would like to say that the road to this exhibition at the Orsay Museum was not short and quick. It was a relatively long lasting work of the museum. We had held exhibitions of this period in Belgium. We had exhibitions in Brussels and Luxembourg. We have also shown this period in Warsaw and Sweden. So practically all the time there has been some interest in it, and all the time these works have somehow travelled and appeared in their own way. And, of course, this mutual collaboration has developed through museums and researchers. I would like to highlight that cooperation is formed directly through researchers, because they are the ones who further identify this material. And that is what undoubtedly paves the way for further activities.
You mentioned earlier the development of opportunities for Latvian artists in the first half of the 20th century. Do you think that the art of Latvia and the Baltic region would have had more chances to acknowledge themselves internationally if there had been a different political situation after the Second World War?
I definitely think so.
In Latvia and other former Soviet countries, art and power were practically inseparable. Even today in art, we often talk about some kind of connection with politics. Do you think art and politics are related concepts nowadays?
On the one hand, I would like to say that these concepts have become more distant, because at the moment no artist works under a strict dictate to follow only certain rules and create works devoted only to relevant topics. This is no longer the case. In my view, artists are totally free in this respect. I've never seen artists as free as they are now. But generally speaking, each artist's individual choice is, in principle, a kind of politics. Because you always have relation with the time you live in, with the ideological regime or the environment in which we are. Art has always been in some way connected with the demonstration of power or the representation of power. Looking at it, even from the distance of time – from the Middle Ages to the present – if the artist is socially active he definitely defends some kind of ideas. The fact that one is free in their expressions and can talk about everything they want ... Yes, it really has changed! However, I think that politics and art are still bound concepts. At the moment I am so amused by the young generation of artists who have never lived in the Soviet era, and they suddenly say, “We need to have order works from the museum!” But once the order works were ... They were, of course, a financial gain and so on, but such kind of orders and themes set the certain requirements to be followed by the artist. And then I think, “Ha, you want to have a certain guideline? Interesting, what could we order for you?”
Then you have to assign a specific theme…
Exactly. By the way, we have one example – last year, when all the projects devoted to the centenary of Latvia were implemented, such kind of exhibition “The Future State” took place in the exhibition hall “Arsenal”. It was really based on the fact that artists create new works on the topic of the future utopian vision, the future state. And, I have to say – the results were very mediocre.
So this means that the theme is, however, a limiting factor for artists, in some way?
I think the theme definitely limits. And, of course, works of genius do not come every day. Surprises can always occur. So I still think that the link between art and politics is undeniable. We see it in films. We also see how it works in places where there is a certain connection with existing ideology.
How, in your opinion, has the attitude of the public towards art changed since the 1980s and 1990s? We cannot deny that at the end of the last century, if we may say so, there was some sense of community.
It was the circumstances and the emotional environment that created a sense of community. And some common goal. As we know, people are strongly united by either a common enemy or something acceptable and positive for everyone. It seems to me that Latvian art in the nineties was one of the most interesting, productive and brightest periods of time known by very strong artists’ personalities. These were individuals for whom everything that was around them was very important. They developed as personalities in that time; they understood it and had something to say. In the 20th century we can highlight several periods that are important, but the nineties, in my view, is a particularly important phase in art. It is also the time period which addresses me personally and is interesting for me.
But the change in public attitudes… If we talk about the later Soviet years, then art was the area where people got some sort of fulfilment, some response to their feelings. People in the arts gained satisfaction and joy for the eye and heart. Then came the 1990s, or times of change, when the socio-economic situation became very, very complicated. For example, we saw in the museum how the number of visitors dropped dramatically. It was a really difficult period. Sometime after 2005 visitors gradually began to return and we realized that they had not disappeared completely. At the moment, viewers have multiplied. And we have already discussed here the various reasons for that. And the audience has also learned to see more. You know, I remember the year 1994 – we had an exhibition here in the museum, “Jānis Mitrēvics exhibits Vilhelms Purvītis… Ivars Runkovskis”. (The exhibition presented paintings by Vilhelms Purvītis, supplemented by site-specific installations of J. Mitrēvics – grains, skins of sheep, calves, etc. – Red.) An absolutely legendary exhibition. It was something incredible to the mind what was going on here in the museum. I was not the director at that time, but a contact person for the exhibition and I had to talk to all the frustrated public. The phone was ringing from morning till night – you know, there was no social network at that time. Visitors screamed and cried because everyone was outraged at the depths of the heart – how one can one afford to treat Vilhelms Purvītis in such a manner. Because Purvītis was a kind of saint. But at that time we had a convention, which I definitely continued to support, that in such a small national country the main art museum must be inside the ongoing art processes. We cannot be isolated in a place where we cautiously “handle” these really high classical values of art ... We have to work with the process of live art. By the way, because of this convention I have received a lot of reproach, I have been told that museums do not have to deal with it, that we do not have to make artists personal shows and so on…
Latvia is still one of the few European countries where there is no permanent establishment for contemporary art. Despite the regular exhibitions of contemporary art held at the Latvian National Museum of Art, we do not have a Museum of Contemporary Art.
The fact that there is no Museum of Contemporary Art in Latvia is a huge problem. We have never had such a permanent place in Latvia where the visitor could be in constant contact with contemporary art. We, the LNMA, have been trying to “mend” this situation.
There are so many problems and discussions and questions around the Museum of Contemporary Art – will this museum exist at all? Will a contemporary art collection be created?
It also hinders the National Museum of Art from working properly. There was one moment when we realized that a collection of contemporary art was being created and this part of art was no longer in our focus. Seven or eight years ago there was a moment when we were sitting here and talking about nothing happening with this contemporary art collection. There is no development for a new museum. And all these contemporary works of art are “passing by”. So we made a decision to resume buying contemporary art.
This again creates competition between institutions.
That's the point. But at the moment it is also a kind of deadlock. We're working on it.
Do you see a solution to this situation with the Museum of Contemporary Art?
I think there should be a political decision, otherwise nothing will be solved.
To conclude, I would like to ask you if there is any Latvian artist of the second half of the 20th century or a contemporary artist, or a piece of artwork that you would like to highlight?
I would like to highlight one author rather than a specific work. And for me, the artist number one from the 1990s is Kristaps Ģelzis. A very subtle artist, delicate in feelings, but also ironically wise – Ģelzis has always been like that. Kristaps Ģelzis is a meaningful and perfect master in all forms of self-expression. I value him very highly.