Art gathers dust as Serbia museums kept shut

Museum of Contemporary Art director Branka Andjelkovic shows Guy Delauney around the dormant gallery

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Yards of scuffed insulation tape form concentric circles on the floor. Outsized, raised lumps spell out a message in braille on a wall. Abstract sculptures dot the overgrown lawn in front of the angular, glass-and-steel building.

These are the clues that this was once - and may yet be again - the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade.

The insulation tape was put down by the British artist Jim Lambie - and formed part of the last full exhibition to be held here, in 2007. The braille message was a cry for help at a brief show last year called "Whatever Happened to the Museum of Contemporary Art?" And the lawn is not trimmed as much as it used to be - as without exhibitions, there are few visitors here.

Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade - exterior Belgrade's Museum of Contemporary Art has remained closed for years

This striking modernist building on the banks of the Sava River now looks forlorn - stripped of its artworks, and therefore its purpose. The odd objects found inside the various galleries only serve to emphasise the emptiness: an old easel, a battered chair, empty plinths.

Branka Andjelkovic sighs frequently as she guides a visitor around the vacant building. As the long-standing former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, her frustration is understandable.

Artwork by Jim Lambie British artist Jim Lambie created this work with insulation tape
Absent masterpieces

The institution was only supposed to close for a brief renovation that would equip it as an art space suitable for the 21st Century. Instead the process has dragged on for years - robbing Belgrade of what could be a world-class gallery.

Start Quote

Branka Andjelkovic

Politics is a men's game - they would always rather fund sport”

End Quote Branka Andjelkovic Ex-director, Museum of Contemporary Art

"Work on reconstruction started immediately. But there was never a second instalment - we never moved on. There was no political will," says Ms Andjelkovic.

"I blame political elites - because they do not have any interest in arts and culture. And even if they had, those interests don't win political points or votes at elections. Politics is a men's game - they would always rather fund sport."

The prolonged closure of the Museum of Contemporary Art would be a loss for any country. But the situation in Serbia is even worse.

The country's other main space for art - the National Museum - has been shrouded in scaffolding and tarpaulins for more than a decade. It is also a victim of a renovation project that has stretched well beyond its originally conceived timescale.

All this means that the bulk of Serbia's fine collection of foreign and local art - including works by Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh - is locked away.

Start Quote

Irina Subotic

As soon as we have events people are coming, they are really interested”

End Quote Prof Irina Subotic Art historian

Respected art historian Professor Irina Subotic used to be a curator at the National Museum and finds the current situation hard to bear.

"There is an appetite for art. As soon as we have events people come, they are really interested. But we don't have a real art gallery where we could invite good exhibitions from abroad to come. If they open the National Museum without the proper conditions we will be isolated, we will not have connections with foreign countries - we will again be a provincial museum, which Serbia and Belgrade do not deserve."

Prof Subotic and Ms Andjelkovic believe that the lack of galleries is causing serious damage to Serbian culture. At the very least, a generation is growing up with severely restricted access to art.

Improvisation

But a creative spirit remains - sometimes in the most unlikely places. One of the region's most unusual galleries can be found in a smelly alley behind a burned-out cinema in the centre of Belgrade.

Street Gallery shows works in the display cases which used to hold movie posters. It is curated by Mikro Art - a collective which promotes the reclamation of unused public buildings and spaces for use by creative projects.

The gallery has been so successful that it has attracted the attention of Serbia's mainstream museums - much to the bemusement of co-founder Iva Cukic.

"Last year we had 17 exhibitions, and two of them were in co-operation with the Museum of Contemporary Art," she says. "This year we are working with the National Museum - which is very important, but also very sad. When the National Museum called us it was shocking to me - is the Street Gallery the only place in the city where you can exhibit?"

Self-help can only go so far - and it does not usually reach the wider public, who have been starved of art in mainstream venues. The situation may improve next year, when the government says the National Museum will finally reopen following the abandonment of most of the renovation programme.

Plinths Bare plinths symbolise the decline of the Museum of Contemporary Art

The fate of the Museum of Contemporary Art is less clear. Branka Andjelkovic recently left her post as director, with the renovation incomplete. But despite the building's sorry appearance, she says that most of the essential behind-the-scenes work has been done, including the installation of climate-controlled storage facilities, essential for hosting international exhibitions. But there still needs to be a final push to get the project over the finishing line.

"Of course there is a financial crisis all over. But the cost of reconstruction is really not an amount of money that Serbia could not provide if a decision were reached. We would need between seven and nine million euros (£6-7.7m) to finish it up. But I'm not an optimist - I think we'll see more bad things before we move forward, unless something unexpected happens."

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