Since its first mention back in 1459 as the residence of the Wallachian prince Vlad Țepeș (pronounced Tzepesh), more infamously known as Vlad the Impaler, or the more marketable Dracula, Bucharest has gone through a series of transformations. From citadel, to capital, to stronghold, to worldly metropolis, to occupied territory, to communist experiment, to capitalist kindling. Much like a faulty etch-a-sketch that leaves some markings behind when you turn it upside down and shake it, the city’s been partially destroyed and rebuilt to fit whatever current leader’s need or fancy.
In its most recent transformation, Bucharest is striving to become a regular European capital, with office jobs, historical buildings, monuments, hipsters, and an art scene. The process has been extremely slow-moving, better understood by looking at the paradox rather than trying to explain it.
Since the December 1989 Revolution, one can say that a lot has changed, and that also not much has changed, in Bucharest. An effort has been made, using EU funds, to restore what is left of the city’s old, architecturally unique, buildings and private mansions, that somehow escaped Ceausescu’s mad drive to homogenize the city in drab, utilitarian Communist structures. You’d hardly notice it though, as you leave the tourist-friendly, government-populated center of town and pass post-apocalyptic-looking buildings as old as the Regal Palace. Just last year, outside my cousin’s apartment near the city’s train station, an old movie theater collapsed. It was beyond repair.
Take also street traffic for example. Major avenues and boulevards, as well as some central streets, have been impeccably repaved to offer drivers and bicyclists smooth, safe rides around town. The number of cars, though, has exploded so astronomically in the last ten years that it is nearly impossible to get from one end of the city to the other without assuming the risk of an aneurysm from road rage.
I’ll skip over the “one-step-forward-two-steps-back” political undertakings, the strategies of which my comfortable mind has no energy to scratch at, and go straight to the seesawing trends in contemporary art. It too has seen some paradoxical dichotomies.
Much like the so-called Romanian film industry (where films are being made but seldom seen for lack of movie theaters), the art market for contemporary Romanian art doesn’t really exist. Romanian contemporary art, though, does. In a way. One gallery owner, Diana Dochia (Anaid Art Gallery) described the system needed in order for a culture to have an arts discourse. In no hierarchical importance, it consists of: the artist, the critic, the gallery, the art dealer, the collector, the appraiser, and the museum (in here we include the director and the curator). The reality in Bucharest is that this system is, at best, a loose scaffolding, making for a making for a loosely structure, haphazard, disorganized art scene.
The number of new museums and gallery spaces being built in Bucharest is zero. Despite that, art exhibitions, with new art made by young artists, do happen. They happen in the old buildings, left to near abandon over the years, located away from main avenues and bustling centers, on tree-lined streets, with dimly-lit entrances. I was fortunate enough to be there for the “Gallery Night” a sort of Art Crawl event where “galleries” stay open until the early morning hours. As my friends and I drove from one place to another, each place seemed to be getting smaller and smaller. One space didn’t even have windows. But as I walked into each one, I could feel both a sense of history and continuity. These old houses were once the homes of members of a bourgeoisie who, back in the golden age, back before that whole soviet calamity hit, patronized art, artists and all things related to cultural innovation.
There were about 40 places to see on the list for our late Gallery Night, and I expressed my enthusiasm at there being so many. Then I was made aware of the fact that 40 “galleries” in a city of two million people was not an impressive number, and that, further, only about five of these were actual galleries, meaning commercial institutions which seek out and sell contemporary art under a well-defined and consistent agenda. The rest of the “galleries” open for our Gallery Night were mostly pop-up spaces thrown together for this particular event, artist-run spaces which did not stay open to the public most days, and even artists’ studios, which usually didn’t hold exhibitions. More disappointingly, my friends pointed out that even the galleries that open up don’t survive for very long. I looked around at the people gathered in the isolated “gallery” with us and decided that, yes, for a cosmopolitan city with two million residents, those gathered to support artists and their work were very few in numbers.
The reason behind this lack of space lies in the current buzz-phrase frequently on everyone’s lips in the small Bucharest arts community, a reason which conversely sounds as if the very phrase would create the much needed space: promoting the artist. The idea is that artists exist, and they do their work, but in order for their work to matter, like the tree that falls in the forest, it must be witnessed, and it is not witnessed because art, or artists, are not promoted. Or in other words, they’re not marketed, neither culturally or commercially.
Young curators, who might bring with them their connections to undiscovered talent and truly contemporary movements, vie for space in MNAC (Museul National de Arta Contemporana), the city’s only museum devoted to modern and contemporary art, but few of them get the opportunity to put up a show, losing out to more established artists. Galleries could be doing more to promote artists. Artist-run spaces could be doing more to promote their art. The media could be doing more to promote art. (As far as I know, there are only two publications devoted strictly to contemporary visual arts in Romania: Decat o revista and Tataia.)
The general opinion is that everyone involved could be doing more to promote artists and their work. However, and this is the inevitable and touchy side of the art question, can we promote artists if there is no one to pay for their art? Art, for the most part, is a commercial luxury good, and in the post-1989 economic climate, money for luxury goods has been scarce. Also scarce have been people who value art enough to invest in it. As for public programs that subsidize and support artists, the funding for those has been negligible. It’s a hard truth that artists deal with as they take day jobs to supplement their income, and galleries deal with as they close their doors year after year.
“What would you like to see happen?” I asked my friend Dan Piersinaru, who is both a curator and a talented photographer in his own right, living and working in Bucharest. “I’d like to see people, collectors, curators, art enthusiasts, who are truly curious and truly devoted to searching for genuine, original, and innovative art and ideas. Not just someone who has lots of money and wants to get rid of it in a tax shelter, but someone who values originality and beauty.” I thought of all the places we’d seen during the Gallery Night, of all the work done by artists who do it without any other support than that of their own drive, hidden in this or that old mansion on a small street, shielded from the sidewalk traffic by thick foliage. There’s a lot to be discovered here.
The decades of communist dictatorship left Romania nearly culturally bankrupt, and the economic fiasco that marked its transition into capitalist freedom didn’t do anything to remedy it, but it seems that a younger generation has shaken itself off, has brought back ideas from their travels to the West, and is trying to improve on what’s there. Where my mother’s generation tore down what their great grandparents built, my contemporaries look to what’s survived and try not only to make it their own, but to imbibe it with a new life and purpose. Perhaps this will inspire a new generation of collectors to take a closer look.