eng Automatic Translation
  • Sergey Shabohin

How to not/collaborate with art institutions in Belarus?

3 lecture

After the first two lectures on the critique of institutions, we want to deepen the topic by presenting a snapshot of the local situation, as well as discuss strategies for (non-)participation in their work.

The system of cultural policy in Belarus survived by inertia after the collapse of the USSR, adopting all the key diseases: the vertical of power with the minister heading it, who is directly subordinate to the will of the state ideology, as well as managerial centralization with the distribution of budgets and instructions through the ministry. As a result, this gave rise to overbureaucracy and rigidity, censorship and punitive tools.

The lack of flexibility and even prohibitions regarding the provision of conditions for non-state capital to invest in the development of culture, including contemporary art, has led to an art market that has not been born in Belarus, terrible conditions for the operation of private cultural initiatives, and the state institutions themselves in this area.

State institutions of contemporary art – museums, galleries, salons, educational and research organizations, trade unions, publications – in the current conditions can hardly endure criticism of their activities. Almost no one has enough budgets for high-quality work, and the state order and the set standards lead to a permanent race for the development of accountability and, as a result, to regular, but poor quality and hastily done, insulting poverty of the cultural product. Nobody has enough money: exhibitions in are decorated with hastily made explications, poorly printed on office paper; the magazine is produced in such a small circulation that it is almost impossible to get it anywhere; employees of almost all state cultural institutions survive on meager salaries. Under these conditions, many are trying to establish ties with external capital, sometimes successfully, but these financial props are not enough for effective reforms and vital reconstruction. Everything seems to be there, but in reality the situation is rather deplorable, one has only to look at the walls and equipment in the Museum of Modern Fine Arts, get to the next commercial exhibition of honey in , find the necessary publication in the library or look at the resources of art universities.

It is important to decentralize funding for culture in the country, because Minsk is the main target of our criticism, and talking about the situation in regional cities and district centers is like pointing to scorched earth. Belarus needs economic reforms in the sphere of culture, but this is not enough.

Censorship and self-censorship, total control and bureaucracy make it impossible to freely present art and talk about such independent practices at public venues. Uncritical, decorative and design art is the basis of all state collections, exhibitions and publications. Yes, Belarus is not a democratic system, but one that claims to be socially oriented. But is it true, even in this case, that cultural institutions are "provided to the people"? The same Museum of Contemporary Fine Arts has an extremely inconvenient work schedule – working citizens are simply unable to visit exhibitions.

The schedule of the Museum of Modern Fine Arts in Minsk, a fragment of the information block of the museum's website. On the most visited days of the week and hours of all museums in the world, this institution just does not function. The museum should work on weekends, holidays and until late, and arrange non-working hours on weekdays that are inconvenient for visitors.

Despite tiny salaries, employees of all state institutions are forced to sit out for days at work, although it is more logical to give cultural workers the opportunity to choose a free schedule for more efficient work, since the state cannot increase wages. Free time will provide them with an additional opportunity for self-realization, as well as part-time work. For example, teachers at the Academy of Arts would come to meetings with students only when necessary to carry out administrative activities, instead of wasting potential time on a fruitless stay at the university. And this applies to all institutions.

There are so many problems in the current system of culture that we are not able to describe them in detail within the framework of the lecture. Next, we will focus on the example of existing institutions, primarily within the interests of an aspiring artist who wants to engage in contemporary artistic practices.

So, what options does a contemporary artist have if they want to (not) cooperate with art institutions in Belarus?

1. Public sphere

In Minsk and some other cities there are various, but not numerous exposition conditions. We note right away that almost all spaces are limited by external censorship and self-censorship of employees and managers, so it makes no sense to mention this fact in relation to each of the state institutions listed below. Bypassing censorship by cooperating with these institutions is possible by refusing direct criticism, finding other ways of expressing it in your statements. All state institutions, except for ideological ones, are also subject to certain mechanisms and rules.

Sometimes visiting curators outside the institution choose work that is “dangerous for ideology” and show it on the official platform. For example, within the framework of the Zabor exhibition in , the works of photographer , which depict painted over urban graffiti and depicted a ZhES worker painting over opposition inscriptions and drawings, were censored by the museum administration. The drawing of the white-red-white flag, which the ZhES worker did not have time to paint over, was painted over directly from the photo by the museum worker.

So, some state galleries – , gallery and others like it – are subject to the opinion and choice of the directorate, and if you want to exhibit your work in such spaces, then you should find out the format and personally discuss projects with the administration. Spaces a la the gallery of the Institute of Culture or the gallery (exhibition hall of ) – work for the presentation of works created within the framework of the activities of universities, or are provided for their partners. Negotiations to organize an exhibition in these spaces can be complicated by the inclusion of activities in the planned schedule and waiting for permission from the administration. The Museum of Contemporary Fine Arts and also have a well-established plan, but may exhibit a non-critical fine art project, primarily to close event reporting. in Minsk increasingly provides its platform for contemporary art exhibitions and helps in the production of projects – a positive example of a state institution, but due to its specificity, almost all statements shown within the walls of the museum, one way or another, are unable to ignore the special context and specific exposition conditions of the space of the Azgur Museum.

At the personal exhibition exhibited her sculptures in contrast to the statues of Azgur, turning them into silent spectators watching the "performance".

The Palace of Arts most often exhibits the works of participants , but sometimes it also announces contests. They can hold their own and even conditionally critical exhibition, but at their own rather big expense: everything is negotiated with the management, and paying rent is the only quick way to hold your exhibition on a more or less noticeable official site. Money (sponsorship) can help attract almost any venue. Thus, notable major exhibitions, first in 2009 (group exhibition ), then in 2011 (group exhibition ), were held on the territory of BelExpo and empty workshops of the Gorizont plant, precisely with the support of external funding. Critical statements were presented at the exhibitions in one way or another, but this did not cause (almost) bans and censorship.

At the exhibition Belarusian Pavilion 53 of the Venice Biennale, Grodno artist , among other things, exhibited a video object A Man's Heart Loves the Motherland, where in a TV box pasted over with official propaganda newspapers there is a TV broadcasting a dynamic image of the artist's scrotum.

In other cities of Belarus there are also museums and other spaces that may be interested in showcasing contemporary art: most of them are deeply conservative, but do not want to lag behind the capital and occasionally try to invite or collaborate with artists or curators from Minsk. In any case, the mission of working with the regions is not useless, and sometimes gives artists working with the specifics of the place excellent opportunities.

In 2012, a large-scale group exhibition was held at the state historical and cultural institution . Thus, among other works, it is worth mentioning project , for which he cross-pasted the windows of the palace with German illuminated film, which was preserved on the territory of Belarus after the Second World War.

In the end, the choice is up to the artist: to cooperate or go into opposition with the official platforms, and this choice entirely depends on the ethical and political views of the author. A few days ago, , one of the curators of the once progressive independent gallery , closed in 1998, shows on the official sites – and the Museum of Contemporary Fine Art – an exhibition of artists who collaborated in one way or another with a gallery in the 90s. The Sixth Line did not cooperate with the state and was closed due to the deterioration of the political and economic climate in Belarus. It's hard to imagine, but today the exhibition is held with the support of .

Artist on his page on the social network criticized this behavior of the curator and many artists, pointing out the cynicism of the situation: “[…] ", I can notice that somehow I don't recall that the "legendary" would directly cooperate with the Ministry and other official and cultural-ideological institutions (with the exception of Polish and German institutions). But the repressive apparatus was just beginning to gain momentum at that time. I don’t know about you, but at first I feel scared, and then completely sad and even ashamed when on one poster I see the following hierarchy of convincing signs and meanings: “With the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Belarus and the Main Directorate for Ideological Work, Culture and Youth Affairs of the Minsk City Executive Committee…” and the “Sixth Line” following them[…]”.

And here again the Ministry of Culture has announced a competition for the curatorial concept for the Biennale in Venice, planned for 2015. Collaborations with the state in the field of contemporary art are dangerous, at least for the reputation of the artist. Therefore, many artists practicing new approaches in art fundamentally ignore such proposals and structures.

2. Private spaces

The private sector – galleries, co-working spaces, cafes, garages, empty warehouses and others – is owned by private capital and works for rent (for example, the space). You can avoid out-of-pocket renting with the help of acquaintances with the owners of the space, external sponsorship or during special offers. Thus, the gallery of contemporary art "" offers artists the opportunity to exhibit their projects without rent, but only if the management approves the format of the submitted projects, while the gallery itself often seeks funding for exhibitions. The gallery is in a permanent search for projects and artists and is carefully studying new proposals, making a special bet on young artists, every year giving space for the first solo exhibition of one of the artists with whom she began to collaborate. Prior to the solo exhibition, the gallery offers smaller spaces within the gallery as part of special programs for emerging artists, and also includes works in group projects at the gallery and abroad. There is little self-censorship here, unlike state institutions, but, as elsewhere in Belarus, there is a place to be, primarily in matters of radical political statements.

At a recent exhibition at the contemporary art gallery Ў, dedicated to issues of gender identity and sexuality through the optics of queer theory, artist showed a work of pornographic content, which is difficult to imagine on other public sites in Belarus.

Gallery Ў is practically the only private gallery in Belarus, precisely because of the political and economic factors. Many small initiatives closed due to censorship by the authorities. Economic conditions, as we wrote at the beginning of the lecture, are unfavorable for such a business and for those who want to sponsor culture. For example, in the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, there was a noticeable boom in the opening of private galleries in Belarus, but because of the onset of the regime, they all closed and hardly appear today. In many ways, this situation was influenced by the closure of , the most important institution that supported the development of contemporary art in the countries that were part of the USSR in the 90s. The consequences of the closure of the foundation in Belarus are still noticeable, if we compare them with the impressive results of the activities of this institution in neighboring countries.

3. Against everyone

The refusal to cooperate with both private and state institutions was just noticeable in the late 90s – mid-00s, when the artists chose the so-called "guerrilla strategy" of finding alternative spaces. Apartment and visiting plein-airs, performances in public space and actionism, street and street art are some forms of non-institutional form of work of artists today.

Thus, the issue of (non)cooperation with art institutions depends entirely on the ethics and political views of the artist. What matters is the relationship with the curator and his/her (in)ability to defend the artist's statement, as well as the relationship with the administration or landlords of the institution. The most obvious choices are public institutions with outright censorship, private galleries and spaces with financial difficulties. At the same time, one should not forget about the importance of non-institutional and non-market practice in the search for new spaces for experiments, contacts with other areas of knowledge and development of other areas of art.


  • Sergey Shabohin
  • Aleksei Borisionok
    editor, консультант
  • Maria Kotlyachkova
    editor, консультантка
  • Siarhei Hudzilin
  • Tamara Sokolova
  • Igor Savchenko
  • Irina Bigday
  • Siarhiej Babareka
  • Alexey Lunev
  • Kanstantsin Haretsky
  • Museum of Modern Fine Art
  • Mastactva
  • Palace of Arts
  • Belarusian National Arts Museum
  • Leonid Shchemelev Gallery
  • LaSandr-art (gallery)
  • Academy
  • Belarusian State Academy of Arts
  • National Center for Contemporary Arts of the Republic of Belarus
  • Zair Azgur Memorial Studio Museum
  • Belarusian Union of Artists
  • БелЭкспо
  • Гомельский дворцово-парковый ансамбль
  • Sixth Line
  • Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Belarus
  • Belarusian Pavilion in Venice
  • Tseh space
  • Y gallery (Ў)
  • Belarus Soros Foundation