Eastern European cities look to Tate Modern: developing modern museums and contemporary spaces

Budapest, Zagreb and Warsaw raise their game with newer, bigger, better exhibition spaces


For many of Europe’s former communist countries, 2010 marked the 20th anniversary of the beginning of democratic governance. Since then, the global profile of modern and contemporary art has soared with institutions such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Modern in London leading the way in boosting appreciation for post-war art. However, while governments and arts professionals in eastern Europe have also made strides to establish a network of dynamic and innovative museums, particularly over the past five or six years, the pace of development has not matched that in the west.

With the opening up of eastern Europe in the early 1990s, there was an expectation that a cultural renaissance would quickly ensue with art in the East adapting itself to a western model. However, domestic markets for contemporary art remain minimal, with many galleries reliant on international sales. As Matthias Limbeck, the chairman of the Vienna Fair, which focuses on central and eastern Europe, says: “When we started the fair six years ago our expectation was that every few years a lot of new galleries [in the region] would come up. But we feel it’s not gone as fast as we expected.” One of the reasons for the slow pace with which eastern European museums have developed is that the transition from communism remains an ongoing process; only in the last few years have a new generation of museum professionals begun to take over from older colleagues whose mindset remained largely within the framework of communist cultural policy. “My generation has a completely different approach to cultural spaces, to the audience and to the contemporary art scene in general,” says Barnabas Bencsik, the director of Budapest’s Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art. “It is important that we didn’t get things handed down by our predecessors; we had to invent new structures and new content.”

Restitution claims made by the pre-communist owners of numerous museum buildings added a further layer of volatility to development. Such issues have had to be juggled alongside the fact that in any country it can take up to ten years from the point of securing official backing to the actual opening of a new museum building. For example, TM2, the proposed £200m extension to Tate Modern was announced in 2006 and with the 2012 completion date nearing, some question whether this timeframe is feasible.

Among the developing crop of eastern European museums that hope to emulate Tate Modern’s success, three heavyweights stand out: the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb (MSU) and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (MoMA Warsaw). The museums in Budapest and Zagreb now contain sizeable, contemporary exhibition spaces to display their collections, while MoMA Warsaw will relocate in the next four years to a major new building in the heart of the Polish capital.

The Ludwig Museum, which was the first of the three institutions to open in a new building in 2005, is unusual in that it was not originally a homegrown initiative, but came about after German chocolate manufacturers Irene and Peter Ludwig donated a portion of their vast art collection to the Hungarian state in 1989. Unusually for eastern European museums outside of Russia, the Ludwig Museum therefore benefits from a collection containing work by leading western artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, as well as works by Hungarian and Eastern Bloc artists. One of the problems presented by a lack of museums for modern and contemporary art in eastern Europe is the gap in the history of exhibited works of art, with a tendency for displays to stop around 1945. The benefit of the Ludwig Museum is that this gap is not only addressed, but regional works are also seen in relation to contemporaneous works made in the west.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, has built up its own comprehensive collection, providing an overview of artistic development across the former Yugoslavia, as well as acquiring work by international artists. Founded in 1954 and conceived as a gallery for contemporary art, the collection was developed through acquisitions and donations made on the back of temporary exhibitions. In December 2009 the museum relocated to a building designed by Croatian architect Ivan Franic. As a result, the museum currently offers the most impressive exhibition space of any museum for modern or contemporary art in the region. Works on display such as Miroslaw Balka’s, Eyes of Purification, 2009, and Carsten Höller’s slides, which once graced Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, prove the museum’s heavyweight credentials.

Inside MSU, the well-designed exhibition halls, as well as generous basement provision for storage, justify what externally is a modest, unremarkable design. With space provided for temporary exhibitions, concerts and film screenings, the Zagreb museum still remains a conventional museum, focusing on the display of its permanent collection, which on its own is enough to distinguish the museum as a destination venue. Echoing the approach taken by Tate Modern, but in what Tihomir Milovac, the museum’s deputy director describes as, “a less poetic, more educational” manner, the display has a non-chronological layout, with works displayed thematically or in visually coherent groups. Works by artists including the Croatian abstract painter, Vlado Kristl, Ukrainian artist Oleg Kulik, Joseph Beuys, Annette Messager, Andres Serrano, as well as a host of younger, contemporary artists, are on display.

Where Budapest and Zagreb can already enjoy their contemporary palaces for post-war art, Warsaw must wait a few more years for its own Museum of Modern Art to become fully operational. Of all Europe’s former communist countries, Poland, the largest of the new member states to join the EU in 2004, has led the way in championing a fresh, artistic agenda and cities across the country are regularly engaged in showcasing contemporary art. Alongside the current, temporary incarnation of MoMA Warsaw, the city has two further leading public institutions in its Centre for Contemporary Art and the Zacheta National Gallery of Art. In Poland’s second city, Lodz, the Muzeum Sztuki, which holds one of the most important collections of modern art in eastern Europe, overtook MoMA Warsaw in visitor numbers in 2009 when it opened a permanent display of 20th- and 21st-century works.

According to its deputy director, Marcel Andino Velez, MoMA Warsaw intends to develop its own collection of contemporary art. “The museum will actively participate in producing art works as part of its temporary exhibition programme, the rest of the acquisitions will be a result of our research into the central and eastern European scene, as well as other regions of social and political transformation such as the Middle East and Latin America.”

Alongside its collection, the other defining feature of the museum will be its location in the heart of Warsaw on land surrounding the Stalinist tower, the Palace of Culture and Science. Construction of Swiss architect Christian Kerez’s design for the new museum building has begun, with costs expected to reach around E100m. Kerez’s minimalist vision—not dissimilar to MSU, Zagreb in prioritising the building’s interior function—has sparked controversy, being likened to a supermarket. The intention, though, is for the museum to act as an inviting, open public space that will integrate itself into the city centre.

For the political backers of eastern European projects such as MoMA Warsaw, the hope of achieving the fabled “Bilbao effect”, has played a part in persuading them to spend significant pubic funds on new museum buildings. The approach of the region’s arts professionals, however, has been to leverage economic fancy, in order to realise their own more prosaic goals. The dreams of curators and directors lie instead in making full use of the vast exhibition spaces that have previously been the exclusive preserve of institutions such as Guggenheim Bilbao and Tate Modern. To even approach the visitor numbers of such global powerhouses will remain a long-term aspiration for eastern Europe’s developing institutions, but the region has undoubtedly already begun to raise its game.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Eastern European cities look to Tate Modern'