An Island of Free Speech



For Maria Vassileva, director of Structura Gallery in Sofia, lockdown was a time to challenge political exploitation of the crisis and to engage more profoundly with artists, visitors, and societal issues.

"Boryana Petkova and Michail Michailov. Craving Nothing" exhibition at the Structura Gallery Sofia, 2020
Installation view, ©/photo: Structura Gallery Sofia

ifa: How did your institution cope during the crisis and how has it managed since? How has the current situation changed the work of your gallery and its conception of itself?

Maria Vassileva: I run a private gallery which has a mixed profile. It follows some of the standards of commercial galleries, trying to educate collectors and enlarge the art market in Bulgaria, and also presenting artists at international art fairs. At the same time, we also act as an independent cultural institution, a type of Kunsthalle, working on different non-commercial projects with the aim of refreshing the artistic scene and encouraging engagement from artists and the public with some sensitive societal issues. 
During the crisis, we were in lockdown. We had to cancel or postpone two major shows, lost some sponsorships, as well as some fees for cancelled art fairs which were only reimbursed in part. 
From the first days of the crisis, we were aware that we had to be very active in order to keep ourselves and our partners (artists, curators, critics, collectors, public) motivated and well. We started several very strong programs online – exhibitions and conversations. We used the time to get closer to the artists we work with and to discover new ones, and we were able to try out new ways of reaching the public. We also built a strong archive of artist's interviews focused on their artistic growth but also on their social role and social awareness. It was important for us as a cultural institution to underline the place and importance of free voices in our society at a time when the health crisis can be exploited for political purposes.
The current situation has definitely changed our work and brought new topics on the agenda. We have also had the time to evaluate the pros and cons of online communication and to discover that there are opportunities which we would like to pursue in the future.

ifa: How do you address your public in this new context? What kind of public do you expect and what do you expect from your public?

Vassileva: We definitely have to address our public more personally. People are very fragile these days and everyone needs and expects a careful approach. It's also a good opportunity for us to talk more to visitors and to bring our relationships to a different level. In the 'normal' hectic times, we don't have time to do this and the contact is very formal and superficial. Nowadays, we have less visitors but we can foster deeper connections.

ifa: What do you consider to be the primary social responsibilities of your gallery?

Vassileva: As a private institution, we are not obliged to play games or to please the authorities. So our primary social task is to be a stable island of free speech. Today in Bulgaria, the COVID-19 crisis is less frightening then the political situation which is spiraling very quickly out of control. The threat to freedom is real. We have to be very persistent in our efforts to discuss the most traumatic social topics.

ifa: How should art institutions convey and reflect stories, images and narrative patterns?

Vassileva: Every institution should find its own way of responding to history and contemporary developments. As a curator, I am always intrigued by re-reading art history in relation to recent events. That's the way to wipe the dust from the museum storage and provoke people's interest. The history has to work for us. Otherwise, it is only a sleeping beauty, a fairy tale, that has nothing to do with our lives.  

ifa: What concepts do you pursue regarding access to, participation in, and interpretations of your exhibitions? 

Vassileva: It's a very delicate and complicated issue how we professionals interpret and explain artworks – and even how we present them to an audience. Tons of images on institutional websites do not work for me. They can only serve for research purposes but not for education. It is our responsibility to show the public the works that are most suitable for the present moment and to speak through them. Flexibility is very important in these turbulent times. We can't rely on the traditional models of historical reading of art. It's boring and can hardly compete with other available entertainment. Mixing classical, modern and contemporary art often brings interesting results and offers a lot of different ways to discuss the world in all its globality and fullness, instead of presenting local stories and fragmentary knowledge.

ifa: Do you see your gallery as a place of political discourse?

Vassileva: I definitely see every cultural institution as such a place. For example, this October–November Structura will show Otto Dix' war drawings. But for me, it's also important to 'transfer' the message in these works to my contemporaries. That is why we decided to include some political works by more recent artists and to organize a conference about art and politics. For me, that's the way we should work with artistic heritage.

ifa: How can cultural institutions work internationally, post-nationally, and responsibly today?

Vassileva: Every institution should get out of its shell, be more open and communicative. The time of the pretentious museums is over. They have to become part of a global art network. They have to work with private galleries, NGOs, foundations, individuals, and so forth. Otherwise, they are locked in their own fortress but people are losing interest in conquering fortresses. They want a friendlier and more open environment. Museums can learn a lot about real life from the small independent institutions which are on the frontline every single day.

ifa: Museums nowadays perform many functions. How would you define what the museum is or should be?

Vassileva: First of all, museums have to be different from each other. We are fed up with copy-paste museums in which every next work is predictable. I prefer the slogan 'museums without definitions'. They need to find their own faces – not in terms of architecture but in terms of showing and interpreting collections. We definitely expect much more from museums. We don't need well-worn statements. We want to be provoked, stressed, delighted. We also need to know that museums are on our side – that they are fighting on an equal footing with us for our civil rights.


Dr. Maria Vassileva is director and founder of Structura Gallery in Sofia.

MuseumsNow

Under the title 'MuseumsNow', ifa asked actors from international museums about their current experiences, challenges and visions –  also against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic. The interviews and reports provide an insight into current museum practices and civil society actions of museums worldwide.

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