An art activist

Daiga Rudzāte

An interview with Czech art collector Petr Pudil


Spring 2021 will see the opening of Kunsthalle Praha, a new institution founded by Czech entrepreneur and art collector Petr Pudil and his wife, Pavlína. This initiative has drawn the attention and curiosity of Europe’s art world.

Pudil describes his work as art activism and accents how important it is to be a part of the international process, a conviction he has demonstrated already with the name of his new art space, which is still under reconstruction. Kunsthalle Praha merges the German term Kunsthalle with the local name of the Czech capital, thereby highlighting the Czech Republic’s multinational past with Pudil’s desire to look for parallels and collaboration opportunities in everything he does as well as his unshakable opinion that the world is ruled by synergy and openness.

The building that will house the future art foundation – the former Zenger transformer substation – was built between 1930 and 1931. The reconstruction, designed by an international team consisting of the Czech architectural firm Schindler Seko and German designer and architect Axel Kufus, will preserve the building’s Neoclassical facade but remodel the interior, which once housed the transformers that provided electricity to all of Prague’s trams, into a contemporary art institution. The building will in fact continue to provide electricity to the city’s public transportation system, but nowadays all of the technical equipment fits into one small box.

Petr Pudil

“The reason people should go to the institution, to the museum, to the Kunsthalle, has to be more about life and art than about static position or a static exhibition,” says Pudil when speaking about the future of the museum and art space. “That game change has to happen in the near future. Museums have to be more innovative, the concept of the show has to engage people more. They have to be a part of the show.”

During our conversation, which takes place at Pudil’s office in Prague just a day after Living Kunsthalle, the Kunsthalle Praha’s first public event, he states: “In my world, art is for people. Art is not for art.”

Pudil is an active player on the regional art scene. He is also a member of the Tate Modern Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee. “We’re trying to help curators on the Tate team but also other institutions in dialogue with the local art scene. I think it’s about the entire exchange of opinions. Then finally, of course, we can discuss priorities and how to enlarge a particular collection, such as a Tate collection from this region,” he explains. The term ‘region’ is an essential element of Pudil’s vocabulary. “I prefer to use the word ‘regional’ instead of ‘national’. Especially in Central Europe it’s very difficult to talk about national art. We can talk about regional art.”

With Kunsthalle Praha, the Pudil Foundation has become a reference point for the Prague art scene, which the collector himself describes as an energetic, vibrant space. “You can find a lot of really good emerging artists here but also recognised artists. Every quarter, every couple of months you find some new artists. It’s so interesting. It’s just great. And there are a lot of collectors, too. Not only in Prague but in the entire country, which allows the scene to survive. There are also good institutions that are doing quite a good job.”

Living Kunsthalle. Lina Lapelyté, Candy Shop, 2019

Art plays a big role in your life right now. The Pudil Family Foundation has become a significant participant in the Czech art scene. How did your relationship with art begin and evolve?

We started out like many collectors do. You want to make the living room nicer, so you start buying art for your house. Then we started visiting a lot of shows and reading about art. Now I’ve realised that 80 percent of what I read is about art. For me, art is a visual language that allows me to not only understand the expression of an artist but also reflects our history. So, for me, it’s a source of inspiration and knowledge.

Could you give a description of your collection? Do you have a special focus?

We collect modern and contemporary art, and we’re trying to put the Czech line of our collection into an international context. This means that for all of the significant phenomena in our “Czech section” we try to find the right international piece of art to put the collection into context; we try to find a parallel or contradiction or some connecting points between the Czech part of the collection and the international pieces. So actually, this idea of connecting these two worlds, which is the definition, or mission, of our collection, also serves as the mission for our institution.

I think we have a relatively strong collection of modern art. Czech surrealism is especially well represented in our collection and is also enriched by some important pieces of international art from that period of time. But now we’re much more focused on contemporary art and the postwar period. That’s important for the region, and there are a lot of interesting parallels between the Czech scene and art that was made in the West. So, putting it all together gives us a lot of sense. Step by step.

Now the collection is already big enough that we don’t buy whatever we see, and that’s nice. But we like buying things that are missing from the collection. Our collecting practice is more focused now; it’s not just based on emotional drive.

Why is it so important for you to contextualise Czech art?

Regarding Czech art, you can find very similar postwar art movements here and in the West. For example, Jean Dubuffet in France and Mikuláš Medek here. The informal movement here was quite strong, but we were living under Soviet influence. The strong connection we had had with the West in the past, however, didn’t disappear so quickly. Even though there was a wall around our borders, there was still some connection between the artists here and those in the West. There was a very strong generation of artists after the Soviet occupation in 1968, and their reaction to that occupation was something fabulous, which Western institutions are only now starting to recognise.

It was actually a very unique moment in the world’s art history. A lot of performances happened here that have influenced the current movement in performance art. Sometimes you can find the similarities, and sometimes you can find completely different forms of expression in art. I think it’s important for today’s world to learn from the history of others as much as possible. I also think it’s interesting for Western countries to see what was happening here. Why and how the artists reacted under the communist government.

I think especially today it’s a big advantage of the Eastern Bloc that we know what it means to live under a communist regime. Especially seeing how many young people in the West believe that socialism is actually a solution for all current problems. But I understand that it’s maybe very difficult for politicians and other statesmen to convince them that it’s actually not a solution. Because they don’t have this historical memory that we have. It’s a big advantage for us. I don’t believe that such a movement could happen here.

Also, you can reach and touch people very easily through art. For instance, you don’t need to read a book about what happened in Hungary if you see some photos of performances or demonstrations that happened at that time. It’s visual. People nowadays don’t like to read so much, which is very much a pity, but that’s the way it is. We’re living in a digital time. Everything is in a hurry. We all know that we’ve reduced the number of books we read, so actually art is like a visual language, a visual memory and a visual expression of certain ideas. It’s a much quicker learning process with art than with reading.

If we talk about very complicated and difficult things, no matter how well you know the language, sometimes it’s very difficult to express what you really feel. But art has no limit.

Roman Ondák, Eclipse, 2018

Because it’s visual.

Yes, it’s visual. There are more words in art than in any language. Art is a visual language. Art is about communication. That’s actually what I like about art, that it’s a way in which people can communicate. Together.

The concept of “Czech art” appears very often in this conversation. Is there even such a thing as national art spaces in today’s world?

I prefer to use the word ‘regional’ instead of ‘national’. Especially in Central Europe it’s very difficult to talk about national art. We can talk about regional art. We also try to express that in the name of the institution we’re launching – Kunsthalle Praha. So, we combined the German expression for a house of art and the Czech name of our capital. It’s our message to people that we’re very proud of our modernism. If you ask anyone in the Czech Republic who is their favourite artist, you’ll probably hear names from the modernism movement, including big surrealist names.

This whole movement, which is internationally recognisable, was actually born in the multicultural city of Prague. Germans, Jews and Czechs all lived together in a melting spot of  cultures, and that was Prague for many centuries. Prague was a culture spot in Europe. But then we somehow forgot about that. Now 90 percent of the people here are Czech who have been living here for all those reasons everybody knows: the results of what happened during the Second World War, and after that we lost many of our neighbours.

We chose this name as a message to show that it’s actually not so easy to define what’s ‘national’, what ‘nation’ means in the very centre of Europe. In the past, there were people here who spoke purely in German yet they called themselves Czechs. Language is not really a narrative of nation. Language is a communication tool. But culture is something slightly different. There are a lot of influences, of course. But culture, language and nation are not the same thing. People don’t understand that. In this region, they’re being manipulated by the definition of ‘nation’. And we all know what was the angle of the trend for nationalism in the past.

I don’t like to use the word ‘nation’ or ‘national art’. I prefer to talk about the region, because actually there are various cultures and subcultures in this region.

When you speak about ‘region’, what do you mean by this word? What does this region associate itself with? The former Austro-Hungarian Empire? Eastern Europe? Or something else?

For me, ‘region’ is a place that is not strictly defined by existing countries and borders. Czechs have contact with and influences from a part of Germany, for example. Bavaria is definitely very close to us. We live in central Europe, but culturally we’re not far from the surrounding areas. We’re very close to Austrians, for example. Czechs are very similar to Austrians in terms of culture, but we speak different languages. For us, the region is actually…many regions covered currently by Poland, Germany, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, to some extent Bulgaria, to some extent Romania, but also to some extent the Baltic states. I don’t like this country-driven, national-driven selection of interests.

Chiharu Shiota, State of Being (Chair and Paper), 2016

But there are still national pavilions at the Venice Biennale.

I’ll give you an example. As one of the initiatives we’re doing to try to support the local art scene, we did an open call for the residency programme at the Delfina Foundation in London for curators and artists. We defined that applicants much be “Czech artists or artists living in Czech Republic”. And we received so many applications from people who were not Czech but living in Prague. So, from this very small case you can see that the world is becoming global, despite the fact that some people don’t like this. And, of course, there are bad things about globalisation, too.

But there’s a trend for people to want to understand different cultures, and they want to feel like global citizens. It’s unstoppable. And I think the Venice Biennale will also understand sooner or later that those national-driven interests are not forever, although I do understand the long-time history of that setup. But sooner or later it’ll start feeling artificial.

You took part in a public discussion at Art Basel about the future of museums. What do you think are the changes that will affect the museum as an institution?

It’s changing now already. It’s quite visible that many museums are starting to become like a Kunsthalle. They understand that if they want to keep the attention of people, they need to bring in new art, temporary shows. It’s clear that there are only a few museums around the world that are purely based on a permanent collection and still very successful, well-visited, with a good education programme that people follow. There aren’t that many museums that are well-attended by people.

We’re entering the digital era. We’re just at the beginning. The influence of the digital world will become more and more important and visible in our everyday lives. The young generation is so familiar with this already that it’s having a big impact on how the institution works. In my view, the museum institution has to be very innovative to get the attention of people and convince them that they have to follow it. The reason people should go to the institution, to the museum, to the Kunsthalle, has to be more about life and art than about static position or a static exhibition. That game change has to happen in the near future. Museums have to be more innovative, the concept of the show has to engage people more. They have to be a part of the show. Otherwise it’ll be very difficult to keep the attention of people. In my world, art is for people. Art is not for art.

Jorinde Voigt, Immersive Integral/Zenith XVI, 2018

Will you try to bring these ideas to fruition in your own art space, Kunsthalle Praha, which will open in 2020? How did you arrive at the idea of creating your art institution?

Step by step. The first action was setting up the family foundation. That’s when all of the artwork in my and my wife’s collection become the property of the foundation. This is the artwork that our children will hopefully care for after my wife and I are gone. This is an essential question for art collectors. Time, age and size of a collection. But...that was just collecting. Which is a great thing, but we were interested in something more.

We identify ourselves more as art activists than just collectors. So, we wanted to put our energy and our financial support into creating a new art space here in Prague that connects international art with regional art. And this mission is also super-emotional and super-important for us. It brings some positiveness into our lives. We’re hoping to create something that’s not only for us but is like a platform for all people who are interested in art.

Kunsthalle Praha is directed by a curator. Do you trust he will properly embody your vision?

Whatever we do in our business, we have to trust people. You need to find the right people, and you need to give them that trust... Nowadays there are technologies all around us, we’re overcome by innovation. But it’s just technology. It’s just machines. The value is still created by people. And people are able to do their best if they feel that they have the trust of others. Because if they have trust, then they’re driven by their decisions, their passion and their responsibilities. So yes, we really have lots of trust in our curators. And I operate the same way in my business; there’s no difference.

Just like in art, you’re trying to build a bond between the local Czech architect and the architect from Berlin during the reconstruction of your building. What was the main task you gave them? Architectural image plays an important role in today’s art world.

We did a very unusual setup. We put together two different architects, each of whom is by himself a developer or manager of some part of the construction. And we did so despite the fact that this is not at all considered a good idea. But we did it, and it’s been working quite well.

So, we brought together the local architectural studio Schindler Seko with the Berlin-based designer and architect Axel Kufus. And they’re all preparing the project together. Already from the beginning we knew that we wanted to ask local architects to do it, because we think that there’s plenty of really good architects here who are capable of doing such a conversion of an old building into a new gallery space. At the same time, we also wanted to bring in someone with international experience. Something fresh. The local architectural firms don’t have experience with transforming old buildings like this into art spaces, because there haven’t been any projects like that here in the past few decades. It’s a completely new experience for a local architect. So that’s why we brought in the international element and experience. It was quite simple logic.

We have a historical building – a transformer station built in the last century for supplying the tram system in the city of Prague. And it’s still supplying, even during the reconstruction. The interior of the building will be completely transformed, but the facade will remain the same; it has to be like it was in the past. Actually, we didn’t want to launch a museum that’s driven only by architecture. We like to have an institution that’s driven mostly by a programme. And we should respect all these fantastic buildings that were built around the world. Most of them are great buildings. Super architecture. We as founders of a foundation would rather support artists and arts programmes than super-huge, innovative architecture.

Our architecture will be prefect, I think. It’ll be a fantastic building.

Living Kunsthalle. Xavier Veilhan, Systema Occam, 2019

The first project of your emerging art space was a “pure” cross-genre phenomenon. For one evening, on June 16, Living Kunsthalle hosted the Prague National Theatre’s New Stage (Nova Scena) and, in a way, embodied the ideas you’re talking about.

It was a very big moment for us. We did a very nice event that was unique here – putting international and Czech artists together. It had a lot of visitors, and people reacted very positively. Performance is not an expression of art that’s for everyone. People in eastern Europe are not yet so familiar with this form of art. It’s relatively new here, especially if you put it at the centre of attention. In the past, it was an undercurrent of artistic expression, but if you put it in the spotlight, it’s something new. I think it was a very unique evening at the theatre.

Performance is a real challenge for a collector. Do you also collect performance art?

No, we don’t collect performance art. I just had a discussion about that yesterday, whether it makes sense to collect performances or not. I’m very open to the views of other collectors, but at the current moment, my wife and I find our work as art activists to be much more meaningful. For us, it’s more important to put that money towards a performance event like this and to have wonderful memories and some record of it. It’s a complicated issue.

Does that mean you don’t need to feel that something belongs to you?

It depends. If you take a work of art as an object, you might have the feeling that you’d like to own it, or maybe you’d like the fact that this work of art belongs to you. But if you’re talking about a performance as an experience, as a memory...for me, at least, it’s not important to be the owner of it. I feel very happy that I can support the process, I’m happy that the performance can exist. And I’m very happy that I can share that experience with others. It doesn’t make much sense for me to be the owner of that memory. I like that other people share the same memories with me.

Living Kunsthalle. Adéla Součková, Landing, 2019

How did you arrive at the idea that Living Kunsthalle was necessary?

It was very spontaneous. It was October when we decided to organise it, which was quite tough. Normally we want to prepare our exhibitions much further in advance. For example, we already know our programme for the first year after opening. Our team has been working on that for many months already, and I think that’s important for our institution. You have to be a little bit spontaneous from time to time, but if you want to deliver the right quality, you need to plan in advance.

What is a collector’s greatest responsibility?

This is a big issue. It’s difficult to define, because for me, collecting is a free decision. I’m doing all of this... because... I’m not obliged to do it. And I’d like to keep that freedom for all people who are collecting. No matter why they collect. Because you need all layers of collectors for the art scene to flourish: sophisticated collectors, spontaneous buyers, those who buy art just to put on the walls because they want to decorate their houses. You need them all. If you have only super-dedicated and super-sophisticated collectors, the art scene will probably die sooner or later.

I would give freedom to all people to decide what they want to buy. Freedom to decide why they’re collecting. Not make it like a definition of what they should be. This means that if you ask me about the responsibility of collectors, it’s different depending on your mindset. I’m not sure I can give you a precise reply regarding responsibility. I can only speak from my own perspective. Regarding contemporary art, we’re trying to support emerging artists to be able to grow in the way they want to, to do things that are challenging for them.

The art collector is one of the maintainers of the art ecosystem.

I think that it’s actually very important to buy art from galleries, to buy a piece of art that has already been shown in a gallery. Because in our view, this means that the artwork has already been presented, shown to the public; there’s been interaction between it and viewers, interaction between the different works of art in the show; there’s been some critique, and the art has already gone further, so to say; something has already entered the world and is interacting with people who are interested.

Some collectors tend to buy only from artists’ studios. But such works of art have never been presented anywhere. So it’s a question of what the purpose is and what the value of that work of art is. These pieces have never been exhibited, viewers have never seen them, and they just end up in a collection somewhere.

Maybe I’m wrong. But for us, it’s very important to also support the gallery system, because in my view, all artists need this system. Most art really needs the support of galleries. Artists need someone to care about their future plans, about their exhibitions, about their material needs. So I think it’s good to keep that alive.

If you’re buying older pieces, though, you can go to the estate of the artist or you can go to the artist’s studio, because the work has already been presented somewhere. We also buy from auction houses. At the same time, however, it’s important for me to get to know the artist. It’s important for us to know the way of thinking behind the artwork we are considering to acquire. That’s also a component of being a collector, that you have this interaction with artists and you listen to their words, their opinions. That’s not something you can collect, but it’s an inspiration, because usually artists are fantastic people and can give you another perspective on various issues and paths in life.

Péter Türk, Untitled, 1970

Is the financial value of your collection important to you?

I’ve never thought about selling my collection, so I’ve also never thought about its value. It’s not that important for us. We don’t consider our collecting activity as an investment.

Do you feel like a part of the Czech art scene now that you’ve founded the Kunsthalle Praha?

Yes. However, we’re still newcomers. It’s still a virtual institution. After we open, we’d like to become more visible and more attractive for any kind of cooperation.

A few days ago, during a conversation about former KGB buildings that no one wants to rent, I heard a suggestion about using art to “cleanse” the buildings. Do you believe art has the power to do something like that?

Yes, I think it does. Not always, but yes. Art sometimes becomes like a symbol of some specific period in time. And many people connect memories to certain art objects, which then become really important.

For instance, here in Prague we have Letná Park, which is just above the river and a very popular place with a nice view. In communist times, they put a statue of Stalin there. And actually from that time forward, the site became really important for us. Why? Because the art that’s displayed there symbolises the values we share. The communists themselves soon destroyed the Stalin statue, because the Communist Party no longer accepted Stalin’s way of running the Soviet Bloc. So they destroyed it, and then the site stood empty. Now we have this metronome of time on the site, which is actually a very simple object. And it represents freedom. The simplicity of that object is actually the expression of the freedom we’ve enjoyed for the past 30 years. So it’s very important for local people to have it there.

Pavel Tichoň, From A to B and Back Again, 2015

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