Lolita Jablonskiene: Never Underestimate

Anna Iltnere


“Context” became a key word in my conversation with Lolita Jablonskiene. It’s important to view an art fact, an art period, and a text about art as inextricably linked to a given situation. One translation of the Latin word contextus is “woven together.” An art museum must make sure a visitor perceives the fabric’s overall pattern, instead of just knitting his brow in incomprehension at the stitch of contemporary art. The Lithuanian National Gallery of Art, a branch of the Lithuanian Museum of Art, is dedicated to the development of Lithuanian art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Alongside the permanent exposition, various exhibits examine Lithuanian art in an international context.

You are an art critic, curator, and the director of the Lithuanian National Gallery of Art. How do you manage all these duties? Do you divide them up according to priority?
That’s a difficult questions, but the issue right now isn’t priorities but, rather, responsibility. If anyone dreams about becoming an administrator, I can divulge that they’ll have to be ready for the consequences. For example, I devote most of my time to another curatorial job—I develop the program for the gallery. This means that I’m involved with projects not so much as a curator but, rather, as a strategist. I consider what we as a museum wish to do, and then, working alongside the curators of the exhibits, we evaluate what would be meaningful and reasonable to actualize, taking into account things like the possibilities of attracting co-financing.  

An art museum and its visitors—what is the ideal relationship model between the two? 
In my inner dialogues as well as in conversations with others about the development of contemporary art programs in Lithuania and abroad, I’ve considered whether or not we actually know our audience. Not just so we remain firmly planted on the ground, but also to make sure we don’t underestimate the knowledge and expectations of our visitors. My answer to this is: no, we don’t know. But we shouldn’t be ashamed of this. No one can determine this beforehand, because a growth in the number of visitors is closely linked with an institution’s development. If the latter falters, then the growth in the number of visitors doesn’t move anywhere, either. And vice versa. 

I don’t like the expression “building an audience,” which is used in museum management. I wouldn’t venture to apply this phrase to a visitor at the National Gallery of Art. Rather, I’d say that we wish to establish contact with them. For this reason we have expanded our educational program. 

We understand this to be not just a collaboration with schoolchildren or families, but also something more. For example, the contemporary art collection that we unveiled in 2009 has been the subject of harsh criticism. That’s why we decided to ask art historians, public intellectuals, and other professionals to speak at the exposition and to show what we have and what we haven’t reached, as well as what we can still achieve. We have recorded these lectures on video, and they are available to all gallery visitors on touchscreen monitors. We also organize a documentary film series, which presents Lithuanian artists from both the modern day and the Soviet period, as well as contemporary art figures from other countries. We screen the films exclusively at the museum, thereby ensuring free entry. The auditorium is always full. The screenings are attended by people of all ages and from a variety of different fields, including artists, who don’t shy away from learning something new. This is how we understand “communicating with the visitor.” Rather than educating them demagogically, we supply them with tools that come in handy when learning about art.

The Lithuanian National Gallery of Art is also home to contemporary art. Viewing contemporary art as history and including it in the museum is definitely not an easy task.
The National Gallery of Art is a branch of the Lithuanian Art Museum. The contemporary art collection is the national collection, and it is comparatively small. Financing was allocated only after the year 2000, so no more than twenty works have been acquired. We show contemporary art both in the permanent exposition and in individual exhibits, for which we use those spaces that don’t normally function as exhibition halls. The National Gallery building is the reconstructed Revolution Museum, built in the 1980s. As is typical of Soviet era architecture, the building has a grandiose foyer with ceilings as high as seven to eleven meters tall. Back then nobody worried about heating bills. In the extensive entrance hall we tend to show works of art that were created for a specific place, not just by Lithuanians but also by international artists.

The modern art museum works with contemporary art in various ways. In Vilnius, the collection was formed in part chronologically and in part thematically. But there is a wide range of possibilities. For example, at a recent exhibit at the Tate Modern in London, the curators chose to mix several periods: surrealist works were shows alongside a contemporary artist’s installation that featured similar subconscious elements. Of course, museums also have exhibits that are dedicated solely to contemporary art.

My personal conviction is that the contemporary must be in museums, even if the museum works with art from other periods, too. We must help younger visitors establish a link between art from various time periods, and to see the context. Though it wouldn’t be correct to focus only on young people.

I frequently mention an experience I had during the gallery’s opening exhibit in 2009. It was dedicated to Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875–1911), the renowned Lithuanian artist, modernist, and composer. The exposition also included a technically equipped wall unit where visitors could listen to music by Čiurlionis and his contemporaries, and, using the touchscreen moderns, get to know the artist’s biography. We were convinced that this would engage younger audiences, who know Čiurlionis only from chocolate candy wrappers. We were wrong. People of all ages, and particularly older people, were excited to soak up information in this way and to see that a museum doesn’t just mean standing eye to eye with a painting—there are other ways to feel, hear, and touch informative materials. This made us realize that contemporary art is a very good instrument for giving people a solid ground to think over serious matters, and for communicating with various art periods. 

In Latvia, we’ve heard the opinion that the economic crisis has made artists focus their energies more and has stimulated the creation of more meaningful and full-blooded art forms. Have you observed something similar in Lithuania? 
Not exactly. There’s a certain number of Lithuanian artists from the nineties generation that work creatively not just for production and exhibition. Their activities are closely linked with the international art arena. They are certainly not much affected by the recession. Yet for art institutions this period is a real challenge. Not a collapse, but a challenge, because you really have to consider how not to become simply modest, but what to do with modest resources. Even if I say that right now I work only on administration, that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking as a critic or a curator. It’s unfortunate that a project or discussion hasn’t been organized in Lithuania where we could discuss the possibilities for how to utilize the recession to the benefit of creation and the presentation of created works. That would be interesting. 

At the 54th Venice Biennale, Lithuania will be represented by Darius Mikšys. Could you tell us a little more about him as an artist?
Darius Mikšys is an individually minded artist who blazes his own trail. He began his artistic career in the mid-nineties in the field of new media and electronics. In the late nineties, the platform Euda Show was established in Lithuania. This is similar to the new media culture center RIXC in Latvia, only Euda Show didn’t develop to the institutional level. Darius Mikšys was a member of this platform.

The project submitted to the Venice Biennale is about Lithuanian cultural policy. Darius was interested in studying the procedure and results of grant allocation by the state. 

He has contacted artists who have received state financing from the Lithuanian Culture Ministry in the last two decades (1992–2010), and asked them for permission to use their financed works in the exposition. A collection will be compiled from these works which will then be brought to Venice and stored in a warehouse. The works will be presented to pavilion visitors in a staged commercial gallery setting with a specially published catalogue. If a visitor becomes interested in any of the works, the artwork will be removed from the warehouse—actually hidden behind a white curtain right there in the pavilion—and displayed in real time.

The beginning and end of Darius Mikšys’s art projects are always open. In other words, he doesn’t force a certain approach. He is interested in how a work itself develops from its original idea, which grows like a snowball. Darius doesn’t determine any apriori conditions for his ideas. In a sense, I admire this approach. But at the same time, the project will be presented at the Venice Biennale, which is supervised by a state institution (the Lithuanian Contemporary Art Center), so there are individual elements that I am curious about—I’m curious to see how they will work. I’d like to see a more clearly formulated approach in how a state-financed institution and a state-supported artist relate to a commercial gallery space. I’d like to see what is intended by this, so that the gallery does not just become an empty signifier for a “cool space.” And why precisely this concept—an art dealer’s space? Yet it’s clear that this work, too, by Darius Mikšys is a study with an open beginning and an unpredictable ending.

I’ll ask you this as an art critic: what does it mean to write good art criticism? What should a reader gain from good art criticism? 
Art critics write for various publications. There is a different between writing for an international art magazine or writing for a local paper with a wide readership. Each context has different requirements. That’s why you can’t assert that articles about modern art should always be addressed to the wide masses and explain contemporary works of art in an informal style, so that people can understand it and grow accustomed to it. The discourse of art is a discipline in and of itself, just like philosophy or cultural theory. It needs a space for the development of a professional discourse.

Before I started working at the gallery, I mostly wrote for a professional audience. In my texts, I always tried to look at art in a specific context, or, more precisely, in several contexts. I wanted for the reader to see my understanding, too, about how a specific fact of art is situated in the link with culture, politics, and aesthetics. But right now my experience as an art critic is expressed mostly when giving interviews—that is, when talking about what we do at the gallery and why.

To my mind, the most important thing is to never underestimate the reader. He can turn out to be much smarter than we think. Art exists in an open context. People go to the theater, go to the movies, read books, watch debates on TV—these things form their attitude and also their initiative toward what is going on around them. That’s why I try not to oversimplify things.