Glocal understanding of the art-world today

Johan Gustavsson from the Netherlands talks about Project Space 1646 and about the “Naked” project.

Yulia Kostereva interviewed Johan Gustavsson

April 19, 2015
Stockholm, Sweden


1646 is a project-space for contemporary art. A dedicated space for experimental art practices and ideas, 1646 is a platform for new productions and presentations with special emphasis on encouraging artists to realise new projects on location.


Yulia Kostereva: How did the idea of the project appeared?

Johan Gustavsson: In 2004, half a year before I graduated from the Royal Academy The Hague, the person who organised the artist run space called 1646 asked me to take it over. I invited three friends from the Academy to do it with me. At that time the building was used as anti-squat. So we could use it for free, we only paid for electricity and water at that time. But there were not heating and linkages in the house.

From the start we were interesting to make it more international and open up the scene to new influences. That period there were a lot of very local spaces in the Netherlands but nothing that looked international maybe not even national. So we start to invite people from abroad to come and show their works. The group running the space together are inherently an international group. Clara Pallí Monguilod is Spanish, Nico Feragnoli, Italian, Floris Kruidenberg is Dutch and myself Swedish.


Yulia Kostereva: How do you share the responsibilities in the organisation?

Johan Gustavsson: From the beginning we had almost no founding, we got small project funding, once in a while. We sold beer at the openings, in order to pay for electricity and water. In that way we didn’t have so many responsibilities and not so much work. But then little by little – we got more funding, it means we had to work more, and then we rebuilt our building together with the city. And then suddenly our monthly rent became too high, that meant we needed more money, and thus we had more work to do, more administration work and so on. So the tasks grew naturally. People who were good in building spent more time on building of the exhibitions, someone else was good in economy, or in doing photographs so all this things naturally grew into the role of the person within the organisation. We don’t have any hierarchy. Also all of us are artists and from time to time one of us spend month or two abroad so we have to be able take over each other’s roles.


Yulia Kostereva: How does your organisation communicate with audience?

Johan Gustavsson: Quite often organisations and institutions which operate with art and present art, aim to manage the way of how the audience experiences the exhibition, through title or description of exhibition for example: this exhibition is about this and that… It narrows down the possibility of the audience to perceive the exhibition, makes it easy to compare whether the exhibition is read the way it is written or not.

In 1646 we actually do the opposite way. We start from the artworks and we try to expand this starting point and see the different layers, and ways how can one actually look at this story. In the museums and in the galleries people spend more time reading the texts that explain the artworks, than actually experiencing the works.  I think this is great example of how define things, or put things in “boxes” and people rely on that. But at the end, art is much more about the experience. It is not necessary to get a sense of everything, but it is much more important to be open and experience the work.


Yulia Kostereva: What events and program does your organisation realise?

Johan Gustavsson: We’ve chosen solo exhibitions. Because we interested in artists’ practice we going in conversation with those artists. We always commission new works, we give a modest budget to produce a new work, and for each show a new work is being produced. We don’t actually curate, we chose artist to work with. We often find group shows problematic. Such shows usually have a certain theme or curatorial idea and then use artworks to illustrate this theme or idea. Solo exhibitions provide a potential to get into the way of thinking of individual artist. There are three things we try to organize around the solo exhibition, which have deal with practice of the artist. Artist is invited to have an email correspondence with somebody who doesn’t know the artist. A month before the opening the chosen person (curator, writer, or bus driver) starts exchanging the emails with the artist. The person takes a position as an audience member trying to clarify the steps that the artist makes. The conversation is continued during the build-up period of the exhibition and often the last e-mail is sent the night before the opening. We print that correspondence out as a small folder. In this way one is able to track the options that was chose and refused and the steps that were taken.

Another element or tool that we use to get a better understanding of the artists we have invited is so-called «background evening”. We ask the artist to curate an evening. The form of the event is completely up to the artist. The idea is to give insight or present a context of artist’s practice. It takes many different forms, though, always informal. Also we organise “conversation piece” for each solo exhibition. For this we invite another artist, curator or for example a musician, to react on the exhibition. We try to find somebody whose practice is affiliated with art on the show or contrasted to it. All these events are open to public.


Yulia Kostereva: Is it important for cultural institution to articulate its political position?

Johan Gustavsson: I guess it very much depends on the place in the world where you are and the situation you are in. We don’t have direct political statement in 1646. Though, everything is political. We are democratic non-hierarchical organisation. And our political believes are naturally reflected through the artists we chose and the themes that they handle. But as a non-profit organisation funded with public money, we can’t have a truly outspoken political agenda.


Yulia Kostereva: What is the mechanism that ensures the financial independence for your organisation?

Johan Gustavsson: There are many opportunities to get funding in the Netherlands. Even though, the last few years, the funds for the culture were cut increasingly in the Netherlands, and it might get worse in upcoming years. Our organization was fortune, and we worked very hard to secure our funding. Now we have four years of support from city, and at the moment we have also two years secure funding from Mondrian foundation. That creates huge amount of freedom to work. If we need to fundraise for every project then it would be a lot of paperwork, and then we wouldn’t have time to focus on what really important, while even now we spend a lot of our time for administrative work. At the moment we are in a good position, at least for two more years and then we don’t know.

In the Netherlands we also have to try to find own funding or generate own money, so 1646 has started a “friends” program. You can donate money to 1646 and then you became friends. And we have contact with some of very good artists who give us editions of their work as the presents to our friends, and that how we can generate some of our own money.


Yulia Kostereva: What is ideal institution for you?

Johan Gustavsson:1646 is close to my ideal. There is not so many places around the world that have the same kind of freedom/experimentation in their programming. And, at the same time economic stability and a beautiful location – that combination is not very common. The artist institution from Anthony Huberman in New York is a very interesting place as well.


Yulia Kostereva: How does your organisation affect the cultural policy of the state?

Johan Gustavsson: I don’t think it affects very much. We have very little power in that sense. Due to the cuts of funding there were a lot of demonstrations in the Netherland. Small organisations and big institutions started the petitions to sign. It became obvious that art-world is very unorganised – everybody did something but it didn’t turn to big solidary protests. Artist-run spaces and art spaces don’t have this big triangle with one director on top. When nurses has to go on strike there is one huge organisation with one very well paid director that can mobilise people to be on demonstration or lobby with influential individuals – that doesn’t exist in art world. At the same time there are a few organizations in the Netherlands who are trying to influence politics and investigate the role that art plays or can play in society. There has to be a kind of central organisation in the Netherlands that is able to react in intelligent and in strong way, to serve as one consolidate voice of the exhibition spaces. On a local level the authorities normally open minded and all of the cultural players have good possibilities to communicate with the municipality or the institutions that provide the funding.

The Netherlands politically is quite calm, has a fairly good social system, and there is no war there. It seems that there is less of urgency for political art or engaged art. We have very good engaged art but it is often more formal than it would be in the place where people have more contact with difficult situations. So there is a very different functioning and different understanding of art.


Yulia Kostereva: Can you say a few words about the “Naked” project?

Johan Gustavsson: The “Naked” started four years ago (in 2011). The idea was to create a big event. We wanted to make an international exhibition. But we were unsure how to make international exhibition. All of us were upset by seeing the same show or works in Stockholm, New York, Tokyo and Kyiv, or, the same artists in all of the biennials. A few international artists that are able to travel become famous and successful. I know a lot of artists that are amazingly good who never became a part of the big shows. So we are interested in these kinds of “pearls” that are not famous but are very good. So I ask, for example you, who are those local pearls in Kyiv? – very interesting artists who are not a part of the big international art world, it’s rules and codes. So, we invited people from our international contacts and network, mainly artist-run spaces and independent curators to propose artists from their local context. We asked them to describe the social and political context they work in, and then to propose three artists. The “Naked” is a collection of artists and situations around the world that would be the base of curatorial choice for the biennial at the end. The biennial has hopefully happen one day but for us it was exciting to think about how to make a truly international exhibition. The “Naked” is promoting a glocal understanding of the art-world today, a global view from the different local perspectives.