East meets West in Prague — but the gulf tells

Conference in Prague on public galleries and private collectors hears of thefts and restitution claims in Eastern museums



Private loans to public galleries and museums were the subject of a conference (26-28 October, 1992) organised by the Goethe Institute, the German government agency charged with promoting cultural links between Germany and other countries. “Galleries and Private Collectors” brought together Czech, German and American gallery directors and art experts for three days of frank, and at times heated, debate.

The German airline Lufthansa, as a long-standing sponsor of joint-projects with the Goethe Insitute, was brought in to talk about sponsorship. Lufthansa is additionally involved in the museum world in former East-block Europe through the new U.S. fund for Arts and Culture in Central and Eastern Europe, for which the airline is providing free trans-Atlantic flights. They are also sponsors of “The Great Utopia—the Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde 1915-1932", at the Guggenheim Museum, New York until 15 December. Thomas Messer, emeritus director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, expatiated at the conference on the “acrobatics” required to finance and negotiate major international shows successfully.

Although the Czech delegation, consisting of the directors and head curators from virtually every major gallery in Bohemia and Moravia, expressed a real desire for a quicker and fuller integration with the wider art world, it soon became apparent that the Czechs are not yet ready to engage fully with their Western counterparts. “It will take a very long time before we can fully cooperate”, said Czech-born Thomas Messer. “I wouldn’t like to put a time on it, but we could be talking years. They are so far away from the market, even though Prague is geographically further west than Vienna”.

These are tough times for the Czech art world. In line with the government’s strict policy of reducing public expenditure, the Czech ministry of culture has had its budget cut every year since the 1989 collapse of communism, so, therefore, have public galleries and museums.

Lubomír Slavícek, director of the National Gallery in Prague, said, “Our funding was cut by 10% in our April budget. It will be cut by another 10% every quarter over the coming year”. With a budget of 70 million Crowns, including a tiny 3 million Crowns (£71,000, $106,500) for acquisitions, Mr Slavícek has had to sack one hundred people from a staff of 550 to reduce overheads.

In order to turn the National Gallery into a viable concern, he will need to find private sponsorship and patronage, but although a Friends society has been launched, attracting sponsorship will prove extremely difficult until a new tax law designed to encourage personal and corporate donations to culture and sport is introduced. Owing to national budgetry complications arising from Czechoslovakia’s split into two nations on 1 January, 1993, this long awaited tax law could be delayed by up to six months. The urgency of the Czech art establishment’s task is not helped by cloying, centralising bureaucracy: when an English-language Prague newspaper requested a photograph of a Schiele drawing from the National Gallery’s collection, it was told to send a formal request to the director, Mr Slavicek. Mr Slavicek was out of Prague that week, and there was no one out of the remaining 449 employees who had the authority to give one black-and-white photograph to a local newspaper. The recent announcement that the National Gallery intend to establish a public relations department may improve the situation.

Art thefts are soaring. Between 1985 and 1988 some seventy works were reported as stolen; in 1991, 695 went missing. When four Picassos stolen last year from the National Gallery were recovered (see The Art Newspaper No. 9, June 1991, p. 2; No. 11, October 1991, p. 2), one had already crossed the German border to Bayreuth. Restitution questions over property nationalised by the State following the communist putsch of 1948 are also damaging relations between galleries and the public. “Our biggest problem is a question of trust between the State institutions and the public”, said Mr Slavicek. The Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague has returned about 700 works over the past six months. The National Gallery has received 150 restitution claims to date, half of which have been satisfied, the rest deferred following negotiations, by keeping the item on long-term loan.

Earlier this year the National Gallery received a restitution claim from the children and grand-children of Vincenc Kramár, a Czech art collector and historian who, according to the National Gallery, as a committed Communist donated a thirty-piece collection to the State shortly before his death in 1960. Kramár’s descendants argue that he was pressurised by the government to hand his collection over, and therefore that the State acquired the work illegally and the paintings should be given back. The collection contains sixteen Picassos, two Braques, two Derains, and ten works by various Czech artists including Emil Filla. Mr Slavícek suggests a conservative value of $10 million per Picasso. The case went to court in September and resumes on 2 December. The outcome will set a precedent with far-reaching implications for the whole restitution process. If judgment goes in favour of the National Gallery, the entire network of Czech and Slovak galleries and museums will breath a massive sigh of relief and receive a much needed morale-booster. If Kramàr’s family win the day, it will shatter the confidence of an already beleagured art world and herald a fresh wave of restitution claims. The chances are that the paintings will go straight onto the market.

All things considered, it’s hardly surprising that the Czech delegation to “Galleries and Private Collectors”, expressed fears about an impending mass sell-off and export of art, and made calls for legislation regarding art and commerce.