A Feast during the Plague

Auguste Petre


An express interview with ArtVilnius director Diana Stomienė and artistic director Sonata Baliuckaitė

Despite the fact that the “Covid storm” is still heavily attacking and influencing worldly processes, art life hasn’t stopped. Although twice postponed, this year the most ambitious Baltic-region art fair, ArtVilnius 2020, will open its doors to visitors from 2 to 4 October, presenting 37 galleries from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and even France and Italy, as well as a special project program. The organizers of ArtVilnius perceive the changes that have affected the development of the project, and the cultural sector in general, as a test and opportunity to introduce new art market traditions suitable for the 21st century. The first efforts will certainly be appreciated by anyone who over the next weekend will visit the Litexpo center to, in the name of art, see the offerings for themselves. We invited the director of ArtVilnius, Diana Stomienė, and the artistic director, Sonata Baliuckaitė, for a short conversation about the preparation process of the art event and the specific nature of implementing a project during this threatening time of the pandemic.

First of all, I would like to ask – what are the challenges that you faced while organizing this year’s ArtVilnius?

Diana Stomienė: The biggest challenge in organizing this year’s ArtVilnius'20 art fair has been the global pandemic. With the onset of the pandemic, since March most art events and fairs of the world have been postponed, canceled, or moved to online platforms. So, we had to make a lot of important and quick decisions on whether to move the fair to the virtual space, or maybe change the date, or even postpone it to next year. We chose to take a bold step and go ahead with organizing ArtVilnius’20 this year, although the event had to be postponed twice. From the original date in June, when almost everything had been ready, the fair had to be moved to the end of August. The situation did not improve in the summer, so we moved it again, to October 2-4.
ArtVilnius art fair is an international art event – over 50 percent of its participants used to come from abroad. And when the countries closed their borders, the organizational process was constantly changing. None of the participants were able to give us a straight answer as to whether they would arrive or not. In the same way, we did not know whether the postponed fair would take place or not. We were constantly following the news and hoping for the best. Since spring, the most common question we were asked was, “will the fair take place”? We set ourselves a clear goal – to prepare for the fair – and we worked towards this goal consistently. We have to confess, it took a lot of courage and strength to organize the fair, because the situation was very unstable, changing over the weeks; it is still changing now – due to quarantine, some galleries canceled their participation just one week before the event. So, it can be said that we have organized the fair three times this year.

Diana Stomienė

What significant changes have been made due to the COVID crisis?

D. S.: Until this year, the art fair ArtVilnius has always been held in the summer, at the beginning of June. It has been included in international fair calendars – we’ve had our time, our niche, for ten years. The greatest difficulty in organizing ArtVilnius, in addition to the changed date and time of year, has been the approval of the fair’s program. After each postponement of the fair, we had to confirm whether the program we had planned would take place. And in the end, we are glad that no major changes have taken place since the initially scheduled program. Of course, the number of participating galleries has decreased, but the fair program itself has even expanded.

Sonata Baliuckaitė: We had a backup plan – like other world festivals and art fairs, we would focus on local creators and galleries. However, this did not happen and, as planned, Latvian, Estonian, and French galleries will participate, and the collection of our regular participant, the MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, will be presented in the project area. Of course, the drawback is that not a single foreign participant or gallery manager will be able to participate in the fair on their own but will send their representatives. We have also decided against a printed catalog of the fair, but this decision was made even before the pandemic. The challenges of the pandemic have allowed us to further improve the electronic catalog and to think about the visitor, the viewer who may not be able to come and see the works of art live. In addition to the e-catalog, we have also launched a website with our new image. However, as I mentioned, these changes had been planned even before the pandemic, so regarding the move to the electronic space, no hasty decisions had to be made.

DS.: We looked at the whole situation flexibly and realized that galleries and the art market, in general, were experiencing a difficult period. After the galleries closed in spring due to the pandemic, they lost a lot of customers. Therefore, we applied booth fee discounts to participants and were more flexible on the dates of confirmation of participation. Some difficulties have even turned into advantages. We’ve had the chance to invite famous Lithuanian artists whom we repeatedly invited to participate in the past, but due to their international engagements, they could not find the time to take part in ArtVilnius. We will see the final result at the fair itself.

How important do you think is the impact of this pandemic on the global art scene?

D. S.: The impact of the pandemic on the international art world will be great indeed. As we have already mentioned, some fairs are being canceled altogether this year, others are either being moved to the virtual space or being postponed. The famous Frieze London Art Fair, each year presenting about 170 of the world’s best galleries, has moved into the virtual space this year. Also, this year the prestigious ArtBasel art fair, which presents over 250 selected galleries each year, has been canceled.
I think next year we will see which fairs have survived and which ones will close. Those fairs that are held live are becoming smaller and more localized, like the popular (and my favorite) Vienna art fair viennacontemporary, which will be attended by only 65 art galleries this year instead of the usual 110 galleries or so. Fewer art buyers and visitors come to the fairs. It goes without saying that all fair organizers will suffer financial losses. Economically, strong art galleries in stable countries may suffer fewer losses; it all depends on the countries’ cultural policies and art collecting traditions.

Sonata Baliuckaitė

Given the restrictive situation, the culture sector has sought, and also found, alternative forms of existence. Do you think it is possible to talk about long-term development in the art of the Baltic region at the moment?

D. S.: Long-term art development in the Baltic region is very important to us. By working unanimously, dividing up the segments, we can all achieve good results together. As for the Baltic region and its art market, the Baltic bubble system and the relatively stable COVID-19 control system have certainly made a significant contribution. The unity of the Baltic States and the desire to cooperate have greatly contributed to the fact that we can organize strong events, as RIBOCA2 was – the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art just held in September and which was attended by a lot of strong Lithuanian artists.

As for alternative forms of fairs, I don’t know if the best solution is to move to the virtual space (like online art fairs, exhibitions, etc.). But by moving our meetings, conferences, and discussions to video conferencing, we have become part of the world, distances have disappeared, and we have discovered new forms of networking that can bring us good results in the future.

Lithuania has created many different COVID-19 support funds and scholarship applications have been announced several times for artists and galleries, many of whom have been awarded a number of them. However, the biggest concern has been caused by the uncertainty – what the future holds for us – after all, security indicators and the allowed number of visitors are constantly changing. All this has caused considerable confusion in the cultural community, especially for major festivals and cultural events.

Both Lithuania and Latvia have made several creative decisions during the pandemic and have become clearly visible in the world’s cultural spaces. Last year, for the first time, the Lithuanian pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale of Contemporary Art was awarded the main prize of the biennial – the Golden Lion. After this award, everyone’s gaze turned sharply to Lithuania and the Baltic countries in general.

What are your observations on how the art market has changed during this year?

D. S.: The art market has paused and, until they can see the end of the pandemic, everyone is more cautious. But the purchase of works of art, both in galleries and online, is going on; the process has not stopped, it has just slowed down a bit. The galleries have realized just how useful it is to be on popular international online art platforms (Artsy, Arland, etc.) and how powerful art communication is.

To tell the truth, we wouldn’t really want to assess all the changes in the art market this year, we will see everything more clearly in 2021 – whether we are still living in pandemic moods, or whether we have learned to reconcile and look for alternative forms. However, it is already obvious that people need art and need to visit art events.

Despite all this, the Art Vilnius program is offering visitors a wide range of events. Could you tell us a bit about the main focus points?

S. B.: Artvilnius’20 has maintained all seven of its main links. Of course, we will have the most important link, the gallery area (only reduced), as well as the project hall, where international collections will be presented. At the initial stage of organizing the fair, in the spring, we wanted to emphasize the art of photography, but when the pandemic started we abandoned this idea because not all galleries were able to participate in the postponed fair, so the program had to be expanded. However, some of the main photography projects have been successfully implemented. We have invited the famous Latvian photographer Arnis Balčus, and we will also present a series of photographs by our regular participant Vytenis Jankūnas, a Lithuanian artist living in New York. The series reflects the quarantine mood in New York.

For the first time, the world-renowned Lithuanian artist Augustas Serapinas, as well as sculptor Donatas Jankauskas Duonis, will be presented. This year there will be plenty of performances at the fair – by Lithuanians Evaldas Jansas and Monika Dirsytė, and the Lewben Art Foundation will present Dr. Gora Parasit. Once again, we have invited the National Opera and Ballet Theater, which will bring a portable single-act opera. I am also happy about the international (albeit reduced) gallery program – we will have the galleries of the Latvian and Lithuanian art academies. Lithuanian Artists’ Association galleries are very actively participating in ArtVilnius, and our faithful participant, Nivet Carzon Gallery from Paris, is coming to the fair for the tenth time.

Galleries are seriously preparing for ArtVilnius – most will come and present their new works. We will have an LRT studio, where discussions, lectures, and meetings will take place. There will also be a conference analyzing the concept of metamodernism with the participation of the author of the concept. This year at the fair we will, for the first time ever, do a 3D tour for art lovers who were unable to visit the fair. We will also have live broadcasts and, as per tradition, the large-format exhibition Takas will take place. We are happy with our institutional partners, the Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center and CAC. So, we have managed, even during this difficult period, to maintain the entire original structure of the fair, even expanding it with new technologies to attract even more visitors and facilitate the use of art by collectors.

What encouraging words would you say to ArtVilnius’ regular visitors, urging them to come to this annual event?

D. S.: The virus of art is the most powerful; creativity is what gives us the best emotions. And the artwork you buy will become your best friend in your home. This year, we will gain new experiences at the fair, as artists have created many good new works during this difficult period of the pandemic.

S. B.: It is also important to mention that we will follow all health directives, and all the conditions will be in place to do so. I also believe that we will be able to maintain a positive atmosphere at the fair because everyone – gallerists, artists, and art lovers – are very much looking forward to meetings, so everyone is welcome!

Related articles