A Glass Slipper, or a Toad?

Anna Iltnere


From April 3 through May 21, a group exhibition of works by contemporary Latvian artists will travel to three US cities – New York, Washington DC and Chicago. Nine artists were selected to participate in the show:  Kaspars Brambergs, Harijs Brants, Andris Eglītis, Ieva Iltnere, Ernests Kļaviņš, Daiga Krūze, Leonards Laganovskis, Inga Meldere and Miervaldis Polis. The traveling exhibition was organized by Hamid Ladjevardi, manager of American-Baltic Investments, in cooperation with the Latvian Transatlantic Organization (LATO).

While sitting at the celebratory press conference for the exhibition “Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia”, I get the feeling that Cinderella's beautiful glass slipper is being put on the wrong foot. The crystalline shoe may sparkle, but the foot inside it is painfully cramped.

Looking from one point of view, it really is quite wonderful that art professionals and state administrators, not to mention considerable financial supporters (CEMEX, Latvia's Railways, Domuss Ltd., etc.), have come together to support Latvian art and, even more importantly, to promote it in the US's largest cities: New York, Washington DC and Chicago.

Taking an individual look at each of the nine featured artists, there also doesn't seem to be any problem – a mix of talented Latvian artists from various generations with distinct styles that make up an interesting combination, mainly due to the fact that these artists rarely exhibit with one another (Ieva Iltnere and Kaspars Brambergs, Daiga Krūze and Miervaldis Polis, etc.). In her speech at the press conference, Irēna Bužinska also focused upon the fact that the “diversity and variety” of the works presented are the exhibition's main strengths.

The international selection committee was comprised of not only Helēna Demakova and Irēna Bužinska from Latvia, but also had as members the director of Estonia's Museum of Art – Sirje Helme; Dr. Alla Rosenfeld – one-time curator of the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection; and Eleanor Hartney – co-editor of “Art in America”, and a regular contributor to “The Washington Post” and “The New York Times”, among other publications. The committee's job was, by way of a vote, to select the exhibition's participants and their works – starting with a list of Latvia's 23 most successful artists (something that I'd be highly interested in seeing). Hamid Ladjevardi, organizer of the exhibition, explained at the press conference that he had decided on this type of selection system in order to avoid “Latvia's small-country syndrome”, in which everybody knows everybody else too well to be able to make an objective choice. This was the reasoning behind both the voting process  and the international team of judges. Even though using the country's relative size, and its resulting social situation, as an argument isn't what one would call exactly professional, determining selection by use of an evaluation gradient is not an unusual method. You just have to take into account that when everything is tallied up, surprises always seem to pop up. But when I started putting together all of these above-mentioned aspects of the exhibition, I found that the glass slipper was beginning to rub... and and a blister was forming.

First of all, the exhibition calls itself a selection of “Important Latvian Contemporary Artists”. A title like this is very ambitious, and full of responsibility. In an attempt to explain the narrowing-down of the selected group, the press release describes it as an exhibition of paintings done by the “pearls of Latvian painting”. But when Hamid Ladjevardi was asked at the press conference if the exhibition presents “the best of Latvian contemporary painting”, he answered that it “definitely does not”. As Ladjevardi quickly explained, several artists declined to submit the works requested, for various (unstated) reasons. Which makes one wonder why these artists (or galleries) didn't want to lend out works that would be labeled as created by the most “important artists in Latvia”. What made them so distrustful? Instead of addressing this issue, the selection process was obviously done with simply what was available. Which in turn, leads to the question of: how does this fact fit in with the ambitious title of the show and its surrounding PR packaging – my symbolic “glass slipper”? In addition, Ladjevardi's answer belittled the artists who were selected: in essence, he publicly told them – no, you weren't the best.

And then there's the fog surrounding the issue of “painting” as a requisite for selection, since Harijs Brant's drawings and the works of the conceptual artist Leonard Laganovskis have been included. This, of course, could be simply waved away by expanding the concept of contemporary painting; even the art critic Mark Svede, in his introduction to the catalog, justifies the inclusion of Brant's works because of their uncharacteristic painterliness.

Bu then there's also the issue of the key word in the exhibition's title – “important”. Didn't the youngest (not in terms of age, but in terms of artistic legacy) members of the selected group perhaps feel, even if just for a second, the same way that Māris Štrombergs did when he received the Order of the Three Stars a few years ago? – “joy and honor, along with a strange sense of discomfort” – as the 21-year-old Olympic champion revealed afterward. As I mentioned before, I don't see any problem with the selected group of artists; however, it doesn't completely fit together with such a bold concept – the very essence of Latvian contemporary art. Distilling this essence may be akin to alchemy, of course, but it should be clear that it definitely can't be done with a hasty and premature approach.

Another unfortunate matter is that an immense amount of work and money has gone into promoting Latvia's name in places that are visited more frequently by Latvians themselves rather than Americans. Case in point: the Latvian Embassy in Washington DC is the second scheduled stop for the traveling exhibition. Although the embassy does have an art gallery that displays several exhibitions a year, we are far from assured that they are widely attended by the local American population. To top it all off, the rooms aren't even large enough to accommodate the whole of the Latvian exhibition. The location for the New York-stage of the exhibition (which will start very soon – April 3), at first glance, does seem very charming and prestigious – the National Arts Club. It was founded in 1898 by the art and literary critic Charles Dekay, who worked at “The New York Times” newspaper for 18 years. The private club represents various branches of art, with some members being quite famous, such as Martin Scorsese and Uma Thurman representing the Dramatic Arts; back in the day, Mark Twain was a member, representing the Literary Arts. Last summer, the National Art Club was appointed a new president – the painter and philanthropist Dianne Bernhard; as a result, membership has doubled. Unfortunately, the club is a very closed environment, and it is unlikely that very many art-lovers will get the chance to see the Latvian art exhibition there. To even just find out the opening times of the gallery, you must register on the club's homepage. One can only hope that this exclusive venue might provide the exhibition with viewers that are actually interested in collecting.

The third location that the exhibition will travel to is Chicago's Driehaus Museum. Much like the National Art Club, the Driehaus Museum is also a grand and refined place, with an interior designed at the tail-end of the 19th century. The museum was founded on April 1, 2003 by the Chicago philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus, with the goal of preserving and popularizing architectural and design samples from the past, as well as supporting the craft and tradition of antique preservation. Much has been made of the fact that, during the exhibit's showing in Chicago, the G8 and NATO summits will be taking place in Chicago, with Latvia's president being present as well. It would be great if these international leaders took the time to see some Latvian contemporary art during their stay in Chicago. I just hope that the exhibition doesn't become nothing more than a setting for a fancy reception, and that a wider audience gets a chance to see it. Hopefully, it will truly fulfill the function of a traveling exhibition, and won't end up being a fancy off-site meeting behind practically closed doors.

None of the three locations set to show the exhibition are places where fans of contemporary art regularly go, simply because shows like this are rarely held in these locations – they're just not traditional venues for the exhibition of contemporary art. One can only hope that the marketing of the exhibition will be successful in the US, and that people will hear about it as much as they have here, in Latvia.

Let's just cross our fingers and wish that the selected works look impressive when set up together (we'll be able to judge for ourselves when the exhibition's travels come to an end in June, at the Latvian National Museum of Art). Here's to hoping that the “glass slipper” doesn't turn into a toad.