ZAGREB, CROATIA — Sabina Sabolovic knew the answer before she asked the question. “Instead of quoting us individually, could you just credit what each of us says as said by WHW?” she asked, sitting outside a cafe in a courtyard in central Zagreb. When told that would not be possible, the curator gave a broad smile. “I figured, but I had to at least ask.”
Ms. Sabolovic, along with her fellow curators, Ana Devic, Ivet Curlin, Natasa Ilic and the designer Dejan Krsic in the curatorial collective What, How and for Whom, or WHW, prefers to answer questions as a unified collective identity. The importance of equality within the curating group (Ms. Ilic is based in Berlin while the other members are based in Zagreb) is the cornerstone of Croatia’s best-known curatorial collective.
“They have a clear concept of collective curating,” said Zdenka Badovinac, the director of the Moderna galerija in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which runs both the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, or MSUM. “The goals of WHW are somehow related to this history of Yugoslav artists collectives that were critical of fake collectivism imposed under Communism. They are more about this genuine collectivism.”
WHW has had critical success curating local shows at Galerija Nova, a non-profit gallery owned by the city of Zagreb but run by WHW, as well as international exhibitions, including the 2009 Istanbul Biennial and the Croatian pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year.
This autumn, WHW is putting together exhibitions across Europe including “How Much Fascism?,” part of which opened at the Basis voor Actuele Kunst gallery in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on Sept. 29 and runs through Dec. 23. (Another part at Extra City Kunsthal in Antwerp, Belgium, runs though Nov. 11). There is also the “Dear Art” exhibition at the MSUM in Ljubljana, which opens on Nov. 29 and examines the question as to whether society still needs art and what makes contemporary art truly contemporary.
Next year, WHW will tackle putting together the seventh edition of “Meeting Points,” a biannual contemporary arts festival focusing on artists from the Arab world. Organized by the Young Arab Theater Fund, the event will open in Cairo in September 2013 and travel to eight cities, including Beirut, Amman, Athens and Brussels.
“They are deeply influential for a few reasons,” said Nato Thompson, the chief curator of Creative Time, a nonprofit art organization in New York. “They have introduced lots of artists and thinkers who many people were unfamiliar with before. But more than that, by their work ethic, their level of commitment — on a shoestring budget — and their sheer force of will, WHW has managed to make a major contribution to the intellectual skill sets and conversations that are out there.”
It was a shared interest in politics that initially brought the members of WHW together. With the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, nationalist rhetoric — including politics and culture — was rife across the western Balkans. “One of the focal points around which we came together was trying to figure out how we found ourselves in a country that was so closed into itself and self-obsessed,” said Ms. Curlin. “We always considered ourselves Yugoslav where there had been strong links between Zagreb, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Ljubljana. We wanted to reopen those links. We were not interested in reinforcing this notion of a state organized exclusively on nationality.”
WHW initially came together in 1999 — minus Ms. Curlin, who at that time was studying in New York — to organize an exhibition titled “What, How and for Whom,” following the 150th anniversary of the publishing of the 1848 Communist Manifesto. Though none of them had high profiles as curators before they began the project — all of them had studied comparative literature and art history and had worked in various cultural fields including journalism, art criticism and cultural management — the show, which focused on questions of economics, met with critical success. “What started as a plan to encompass local artists,” said Ms. Devic, “ended being a big international show with something like 50 artists.”
On the heels of that show, which inspired the name of their collective, they put together “Broadcasting” in 2001-2002, a series of cultural events in various formats looking at issues related to the media. Around that time, the curators — now joined by Ms. Curlin — decided to begin WHW as a nonprofit organization in its own right.
“We felt that working together, we could gain a certain momentum and a certain visibility that we would not have been able to do on our own,” said Ms. Curlin. “We did not decide then that we would work together for another 10 years, but we worked on that project and then another one.”
What has evolved over the last decade — aside from a strong and cohesive curatorial platform focused around politics, philosophy, history and theory — is how the group has learned to work together. It takes, said Ms. Devic, lots of negotiations and trial and error. Despite various members’ strengths, they share all responsibilities — from doing budgets to speaking at public presentations and answering e-mails — so that everyone feels they have an equal voice.
“This fact of not having it like, ‘This is your sector, I do not have anything to do with that’ is strengthening,” said Ms. Sabolovic. “Of course, sometimes it is exhausting and you have a feeling that WHW is almost like this additional member that asks for another kind of attention, time and consideration and somehow also participates in all of it.”
Since 2003, WHW has not only been balancing working on international exhibitions and publications, but also has been organizing shows at Galerija Nova in Zagreb. Its exhibitions include “Looking Awry” (2003) at Apexart in New York and the project “Art Always Has Its Consequences” (2008-2010) with contemporary art institutions in Poland, Hungary and Serbia.
The gallery, which is showcasing the exhibition “Monuments in Transition — Destruction of People’s Liberation War Monuments in Croatia” through Nov. 17, has been one of the most highly regarded art spaces in Croatia since the 1970s.
“We always try to link the gallery project to what we are doing abroad,” said Ms. Sabolovic. “We really liked to be rooted here in the space that we know and it also helps in terms of visibility and having a certain continuity. On the other hand, the pressures of production can be difficult.”
Those pressures, including budgetary constraints, are things WHW have made a concerted effort to be open about in the work that they do. Controversially, they published their budget for the Istanbul Biennial, a decision that was met with mixed reaction within the international contemporary art community.
“It was really remarkable that they published the budget showing where the money came from and where it went,” said Trevor Paglen, a New York artist who has collaborated on several projects with WHW. “That, in and of itself, was incredible. I have never heard of anyone doing that before, taking these questions of politics and society and not glossing over them.”
Mr. Thompson, the curator at Creative Time, believes WHW’s global influence will continue to grow. “They are more revolutionary than a lot of curators,” he said. “I think in terms of the models they are developing and proposing and the ideas of what it means to be a curator, I do not see other curators developing to nearly the same extent at all.”
photo Arzu Yayintas/Istanbul Biennial