Young Russian curators visit a European visual arts institution for one month: That is the residency programme EUNIC has been organising in Russia every year since 2012. In the interview Stefan Ingvarsson, president of the EUNIC cluster in Moscow, speaks about the recognition the programme is receiving from the arts scene and how curators can operate under conditions of limited freedom of expression.
The exchange programme for young Russian curators kicked-off in 2012 and has been organised on a yearly basis ever since. How has it evolved from the first edition to today?
Stefan Ingvarsson: The format of the programme has not changed so much in fact. Each EUNIC member is responsible for finding a hosting institution in their respective home country. The EUNIC cluster then coordinates the Open Call. Curators can apply for serval countries, ranking three preferred options. The EUNIC cluster then makes a shortlist of applicants for each hosting institution. We don't make the final choice; the hosting institution actually chooses the candidate and they do it differently: some of them do quite extensive Skype or telephone interviews with the potential candidate. Sometimes it is not even about being the best candidate but about finding the profile that fits best with the hosting institution.
What happens after the curators return from their residency stay?
After all curators come back to Russia, we have a closing event in Moscow. EUNIC sponsors a scholarship that one curator can win. There is a curatorial battle, after which a jury made up out of more experienced Russian curators coming from different arts institutions makes a choice. The best idea wins the grant – usually around 4000 to 5000 Euros. It is not enough for a whole project of course, but it is a good starting point. Each year, the final event is held in different local cultural institution in order to involve as many actors as possible. Last year it has been at the Garage and this year it will be held at Stanislavsky Electric Theatre, which is a theatre that also works with visual arts. And normally there is always a panel discussion on a topic that is interesting for the curators’ community in Russia.
One of the objectives is to create long lasting relationships and collaborations between actors within contemporary art in Russia and in the European Union. How do you follow up on that?
The whole programme has become famous because we now have quite a number of alumni and they are all active curators and managers in different arts institutions around Russia. The EUNIC scholarship programme is therefore really well respected among young art professionals. Since the EUNIC cluster has no additional personal resources at all, the EUNIC members where the winner was hosted will follow up with her or him. If the winner has been doing his one-month internship in Germany, then it is the Goethe-Insitut that is following up. Sometimes this institution follows up with some financial support in order to get projects realized. Sometimes it is about getting two artists together to collaborate here in Moscow. Those follow up projects are very easy to handle; at the same time, they are having a great outcome.
It seems like EUNIC has become a recognized partner within the contemporary arts scene in Russia. What would you recommend to other EUNIC clusters to become a relevant actor in their host countries?
EUNIC has become known because we organise this programme every year. EUNIC is quite visible in this curatorial exchange and therefore has become known at least in the contemporary arts community. While there are many mobility programmes for visual artists, there are not that many for institutional cultural professionals. We found a niche and this has worked well for us.
As I said, our EUNIC cluster has no additional personal resources. When the presidency changes, it can be difficult to keep the institutional memory. However, this project has been passed on from year to year and it works so well because the format of the programme fit the way a cluster works.
Russia has a vast contemporary art scene, while the space to freely express opinions seems to constantly diminish. How do European cultural institutions operate in an environment with restricted freedom of expression?
It is very important to say that with the challenges the civil society and the media outlets face a lot of the investigations that would be normally done by journalists are done by visual artists and by theatre. We are trying to work with young curators both from state and independent institutions because we feel that through visual arts some of the perspectives and values we might associate with free artistic practice in the EU can be spread and enforced here.
Sometimes there are big challenges for cultural institutions to operate. It is very important to stress that compared to China or other countries that have an outspoken censorship, in Russia there is no such thing. So when you face problems, they are never linked to artistic content. They would never say “You cannot show this exhibition”, but you will experience technical problems. That is of course the challenge because you don’t get the direct message. It is something that you always have to keep in mind, you have to be intuitive and sensitive to where the unofficial and unspoken limits are.
How does the EUNIC cluster work with the EU delegation?
We inform the colleagues about everything we do here in Russia. For example, when it comes to freedom of artistic expression we just discussed, we always exchange with the EU Delegation. There is a new law on film screenings that from the very beginning looked as if it would make our work with the national film festivals very difficult here. Such topics are always discussed with the Delegation to sort them out.
Find out more about the 2019 edition here.
Stefan Ingvarsson is the Cultural Counsellor at the Swedish Embassy in Moscow. He has been the EUNIC president since 2018. He represents the Swedish Ministry of Culture in Sweden, he has a background in literary publishing and has previously been the artistic director of the festival Stockholm Literature at The Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm.
Copyright image: Evgeniya Balantseva