IHT/New York Times: Georgian Artists, Doing it for Themselves


(this piece was originally published in the IHT/New York Times on 11 June 2011)

Guram Tsibakhashvili stooped down to pick up one of the several small brown cardboard boxes scattered across the floor of his Tbilisi studio. “This,” said Mr. Tsibakhashvili as he held up a box containing a round white plastic ball splattered with red paint, “is the future Museum of Contemporary Art.”

Frustrated that the Georgian capital does not have such a space, Mr. Tsibakhashvili, an artist and photographer, came up with the idea to build a collapsible museum out of boxes, as both an art installation and a protest at what he sees as a lack of interest and investment from the government in contemporary art. He gathered two dozen similar-sized boxes from a local grocery store, gave them to artists, curators, art critics and historians and asked them to make an art project out of their boxes. On May 10, the group took their boxes to a local park, stacked them on top of each other and declared that the much-desired museum, if only for the afternoon, was open.

“For the last 20 years we have had this discussion that we need a permanent museum,” said Mr. Tsibakhashvili. “The idea with this art action is that we can fold it up and take it somewhere else and we will continue to do this every year until they do create a real museum. We will then donate these boxes to the collection.”

The fact that Tbilisi does not have a permanent contemporary art museum is one of myriad problems facing the city’s art scene, much of which is rooted in the country’s turbulent recent history. During Soviet times, only officially approved art was exhibited, though there was a movement of unofficial artists who worked in secret. Until the 1980s, the teaching of both the Western art movements of the 20th century and of Tbilisi’s vibrant avant-garde scene from the 1910s and 1920s was discouraged by the Soviets, leaving a hole in the country’s art history education. Since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Georgia gained its independence, the country has been involved in two wars (the last one being in 2008 between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia), a revolution in 2003 that brought President Mikheil Saakashvili to power and a crackdown on the corruption that had become pervasive across Georgia throughout the 1990s.

“During these days, there was no time for art because people were concentrating on more existential problems,” said Nini Palavandishvili, the curator of GeoAir , a foundation that provides a data base covering more than 40 contemporary Georgian artists. “The government was not interested to do anything about contemporary art so it was left up to individuals to start taking responsibility for the scene and to build their own initiatives.”

It is largely through these personal initiatives that the contemporary art scene has been able to survive. One of the few public museums, Tbilisi National Gallery (formerly called the Blue Gallery), which has a good collection of early 20th-century avant-garde Georgian works, closed for renovations in the mid 2000s, having not purchased any new pieces since 1988, and has just reopened.

One of the newest and most successful private initiatives was the opening last October of the Center of Contemporary Art , or CCAT. The privately run center, which offers artist residencies as well as courses for students in disciplines including painting, photography and new media, was the brainchild of the artist Wato Tsereteli, founder of the now-defunct Caucasian Center for Cultural Development, which worked as both a school and exhibition space. The locale for the CCAT — originally the administrative offices of a utility company that sits along the banks of the Mtkvari River in central Tbilisi — was donated by a local bank, and Mr. Tsereteli raised funds among everyone from local artists to foreign government agencies like the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation to set up the space.

Mr. Tsereteli said that each of the center’s six openings has drawn more visitors and interest (a new show, “Pattern Flow,” featuring the work of the Latvian artist Voldemars Johansons, opened May 28). “Though we have had success you can never expect people to come to you,” said Mr. Tsereteli. “You have to do something that is interesting and vital and to show something that is not only fun but also to present the world in a different way.”

Showing the world — and Georgia — in a different light is something that Magda Guruli, a curator, and Iliko Zautashvili, an artist, were keen to do when they were commissioned by the Ministry of Culture in 2008 to come up with something “big and international,” Ms. Guruli said. Their answer was Artisterium , which has become an annual international contemporary art festival in Tbilisi that takes place in the autumn. The two-week festival of contemporary art exhibitions, concerts and lectures — from both Georgian and international artists — has grown each year. “If you are in your right mind you should not do something this large and this complicated,” joked Ms. Guruli. “It is a real victory to have the same event four years in a row because nothing is stable here.”

Part of that lack of stability boils down to financing, something that many in the Tbilisi art scene say is increasingly hard to find. It has meant that much of the art scene is dependent on foreign organizations like the British Council, the Goethe Institute and the U.S. Embassy to fund artistic projects. There also is no charity law, which means that businesses and private individuals do not — unlike in many Western countries — get tax breaks for sponsoring art events. But that could be about to change. Last month, the minister of culture, Nikoloz Rurua, asked Nana Kipiani, an art historian who also runs the Arts Interdisciplinary Research Laboratory, to put together a proposal for what artists and curators would want in a charity bill. “He said that he cannot follow what each artist and art critic wants so could we speak to each other,” said Ms. Kipiani. (She will be working with Ms. Guruli and another colleague on the proposal.)

So while there is hope of change, for the short term, at least, the Georgian contemporary art scene will have to remain dependent on private initiatives. “I would say in the last few years there is a lot happening, maybe too much,” said Ms. Palavandishvili of GeoAir, laughing. “Yesterday I went to three art openings and today I have three more I have to attend. Sure, there is the question as to whether what they are showing is good quality but at least there is something going on and this is a good starting point to develop things further.”

Photo courtesy of Guram Tsibakhashvili