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Sofia, Bulgaria – A nation considers a contemporary art space

Magazine masterminds efforts to rescue art from stagnation

In a situation that’s surely unique for a European capital city, Bulgaria’s Sofia has no purpose-built art museums and no state gallery for contemporary art. Its national collections have fallen into stagnation, and corruption among directors and curators is endemic, with works sold off for personal gain. The National Art Gallery and the National Gallery for Foreign Art have between them made just two purchases in the last 15 years; the National Art Gallery is housed in a decrepit former royal residence and has nothing in the way of modern facilities, either for the display of its pictures or for its visitors. It is some tribute to the recently established Bulgarian offshoot of Milan-based design magazine Abitare that it has managed to get a discussion going. And there is plenty to talk about.

The current anxiety is that the Bulgarian ministry of culture has suddenly woken up and begun to act in a high-handed manner without reasonable consultation.

In January, it published a draft ‘concept’ for the reorganisation and rehousing of the national collections without addressing any of the central questions behind contemporary museums. What should curatorial policy be? What type of building suits a modern exhibition space? How should the museums and galleries be administered and funded? What is the role of the private collector?

One concern is that a museum of contemporary art, a relatively prestigious project, is about to be established in a converted former arsenal in Sofia. To make use of a recent European Union grant, this will be done cheaply, at great speed, and without an architectural competition, which does not bode well for the outcome. A further eyebrow-raising proposal is the foundation of a museum for totalitarian art - including the so-called ‘red collections’ from the former Museum of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship - near the offices of the national traffic police.

In February, Abitare Bulgaria staged a well-attended international conference called ‘Do we need museums?’ which invited curators and architects to suggest answers to the questions that the ministry Urbanus (designer of the Dafen Art Museum in Shenzhen, China) and various curators and artists. One speaker likened the ministry’s high-handed approach to the attitude of Lyudmila Zhivkova, the late daughter of Bulgaria’s former Communist ruler Todor Zhivkov, who apparently determined cultural policy in person in her role as president of Bulgaria’s Committee for Art and Culture from 1975 to 1981. Peter Torniov, editor of Abitare Bulgaria, said that in his country ‘it is the architects who are the radicals among the creative artists’. Let’s hope they get Sofia the museums it deserves.

www.abitare.bg/en/talks

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