“The art world probably doesn’t need as many of us”

You’ve come to your curatorial practice from two different areas: design and academy. How do curators become curators? 

 I did my BA in design, and after graduation for five years I worked as an interior and furniture designer. I was very passionate about my profession and was planning to pursue it for the rest of my life. And in parallel, I was interested in contemporary art. Even though I graduated from the Vilnius Academy of Arts, my focus was design, and back then in the beginning of 2000’s, there was not that much taught on contemporary art. So I started reading a lot, and then decided to participate in an open call with one project. It started as a design project but somehow, it turned into an art project. One thing followed another, and for a few years, I worked as an artist. It was mostly a duo with my husband. And it was a very intense and very fulfilling moment. There was this feeling that I was discovering some extraordinary new world, and I had to keep navigating between profitable design gigs, and exciting art projects. And then the financial crisis of 2008 badly hit the construction industry, and my interior projects nearly stopped. At the lowest point, I received a proposal to join the curatorial team of the Klaipėda Art Centre (KCCC), in the port town of Lithuania, where I was based – and so I accepted it. I think if I had received the proposal a year earlier, I would not have accepted, but in this case, the circumstances were dire. This is how my curatorial career started. I felt good and lucky; from my design background, I knew how to work with space, objects and people. As an artist, I was creative and passionate about art, and as a freshly cooked curator, I was eager to learn what was lying ahead of me.

Did you feel the necessity to receive a kind of professional institutionalized educational status of “curator”? 

At some point working at the Klaipėda Art Centre (KCCC), I felt a need for more profound studies in the curatorial field, so I entered MA in Curatorial studies at the Vilnius Academy of Art. These were very intense two years; I worked full time in Klaipėda, and two or three days a week, had to be present for my lectures in Vilnius. However, through my curatorial position at the KCCC, I got involved in a few projects with people from Paris, who told me about the École du MAGASIN in France. Not everybody knows that it was actually the first curatorial school established in Europe in the late 1980’s, and many important curators, gallerists, and even artists studied there, including Esther Schipper, Florence Bonnefous from Air de Paris, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and many others. 

It made a huge influence in the art field of the area, even though it was barely known in Lithuania, and I was lucky to enter the school directly after my MA in Vilnius. I moved to France in September 2013, and spent nine wonderful months studying there. We were five curators coming from various backgrounds and different regions of Europe selected to participate in the program. From the very beginning, we were proposed to work on a big solo show by Liam Gillick. It was a year of adventure, where we were travelling in France, Switzerland and Germany, meeting many professionals from the field, including Fabrice Stroun who back then was director of Kunsthalle in Bern, Beatrix Ruf, who used to be the director of Kunsthalle Zurich, Andrea Bellini, director of Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, Giovanni Carmine, director of Kunsthalle Sankt Gallen, and many others. Their openness, respect for artists, and dedication to their work made an enormous influence on me, shaping my own vision of the curator I was willing to become. 

Liam Gillick ‘The Light is no Brighter at the Centre’ at the CAC, Vilnius, 2017, curated by Neringa Bumblienė. Photo by Andrej Vasilenko/CAC.

Was it a classical academic study? Do you see the contradictions in the core of “curating” as something revolutionary from some point and the very classical academic training in curating? 

Studies at École du MAGASIN were not in the frame of the academic system. We mostly just had the main exhibition by Liam Gillick, which was to be made at the end of the academic year, and a few smaller projects on the run. There were no lectures or exams, but the school provided much needed tools and framework, so that we could meet with people whom we had found to be related to our projects. We could travel, read, write, and discuss many topics. It was a situation where we learned by doing. The exhibition by Gillick was focused on his work from the 1990’s, and in the past, there were not as many sources to learn about the epoch. We decided to meet with the most important people who were working alongside Gillick during the time, and to make a film based on the conducted interviews. We travelled to speak to Pierre Huyghe, Nicolas Bourriaud, Éric Troncy, Esther Schipper, Florence Bonnefous, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Stéphanie Moisdon, Douglas Gordon, and many others. The film was never finished, but no one can take from me the knowledge and experiences I gained while shooting and preparing the film. 

And then, of course, Liam Gillick himself was such an inspiration. During all of the working process, he was very open and extremely generous. He is not only an amazing artist, but also a prolific author, designer, actor, and many things more. He was a great teacher for me, even without being one directly, from whom I continued to learn for years after graduating from the school. We did a great show of his work at MAGASIN CNAC in Grenoble, and after I came back to Lithuania, we made another one at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius in 2017.

So answering your question, yes, it was a great time of studying, and I felt so lucky to be there. Funny enough, after more than twenty years of operation, the school was closed a year after my graduation. But I am still in touch with some people I met there, and still miss the mountains. 

Daniel Steegmann Mangrané ‘Phantom’ at the CAC, Vilnius, 2018, curated by Neringa Bumblienė. Photo by Andrej Vasilenko/CAC

There are lots of prestigious and fancy curatorial programs all over the world now. And annually from Bard College hundreds of new-born “professional” curators went for free floating. Does the art world need so many of us? 

The sad truth is that the art world probably doesn’t need as many of us, and no one really knows how some people manage to find their place, and some don’t. 

A good school can help in many different ways, but I guess a lot depends on how much we can take from the experience. A year ago, I met with my former colleagues from the École du MAGASIN. It was a five year anniversary since our graduation. There are some of them who said that they regret spending a year at the school and I am the only one who pursued my career as a curator. 

I guess there is no common answer, and certainly many coinciding factors lead us to certain places. However, I do believe that with passion, determination, hard work, and a bit of luck, many things can be accomplished.

For more than 6 years you have been working as a curator in the Contemporary Art Center in Vilnius, releasing the 13th Baltic Triennial as well as personal exhibitions, like the last one with Michael Rakowitz. Are there any institutional restrictions that influenced and framed your curatorial practice?

I feel really lucky as the CAC provides me with many opportunities and lots of freedom. I knew the director of the CAC (Kestutis Kuizinas) as he was one of my professors at the Vilnius Academy of Arts, and after I came back from France, I proposed to him a solo show of Daniel Gustav Cramer’s work. I have been dreaming of working with Cramer for many years. This is how I entered the institution, curating not only the Cramer’s exhibition, but many other wonderful shows that followed. I don’t differentiate between my institutional and freelance projects, as most of them are inspired by my sincere curatorial interest. For example, last year, I had curated a solo exhibition of Robertas Narkus as a freelancer at the Vilnius gallery “Vartai”. This had somehow paved a path for me to become a curator of his project at the forthcoming 59’th Venice biennial, which is organised by the CAC.

Robertas Narkus ‘The Board’ at the gallery Vartai, Vilnius, 2020, curated by Neringa Bumblienė. Photo by Robertas Narkus

How has the Lithuaninan art scene changed from the time you have started your career at the CAC in Vilnius?

From the very beginning, I was eager to learn about the most visionary artists and the most influential shows in the world. Of course, you have to start from where you are, so when I worked in Klaipėda, I mostly looked at what was happening in Vilnius. After moving to Vilnius, I started looking for what is happening in other places. From starting my work in Klaipėda to what I am doing today, the majority of my most important curatorial projects are made with different artists from around the world.

In general, I believe the Lithuanian art is closely connected to the global art scene, in the way that our economy and politics are. There are Lithuanian artists who are visible internationally and sometimes are even more represented abroad than here. Additionally, I think for such a small and young country as Lithuania, it is important to have broad horizons. 

When our borders were finally opened after 50 years of Soviet occupation, everybody was willing to explore the world and see what was in store for us. Perhaps in the 1990’s and 2000’s, there was an urge to leave the country, but now we are at the stage where we also want to stay. I think it is important to have a strong connection to where your roots are, but it is equally important not to get held back. 

Can we say that “to be famous” Lithuanian artists should leave their country? And what are the criterias of success, then?

I guess ‘famous’ generally means ‘visible’, and in order to become visible internationally, one has to work internationally. 

However, there are so many ways to operate in this world, and it is such a privilege to live in a place where one is more or less free to choose what they want to do, and whom to become. Accordingly, the criteria of success can be so many different things.

Daniel Gustav Cramer ‘Nineteen’ at the CAC, Vilnius, 2016, curated by Neringa Bumblienė. Photo by Andrej Vasilenko/CAC

The institutions frequently invite well-paid “star curators” who in many cases are not aware enough of the local art scene. And the local art workers are doing all back-work, sometimes precariously. How do you manage with it being an institutional curator? 

This is an interesting question. However, I am not aware of any enormously well paid star curators who would be gaining their fortune from the Lithuanian art scene. We are not that big and unfortunately not that wealthy. 

For me it is always fulfilling to work with someone who has more experience than I do, so I can learn. Of course, it is equally important to have room to be able to speak with your own voice. A good balance between those two parts is what I am trying to accomplish. I think it is somehow true for the Lithuanian art scene. You have previously mentioned the Baltic Triennial 13, which was artistically directed by French curator Vincent Honoré, and even though the triennial was held in three Baltic states, I was the only curator from five, who was from the region. This is also somehow reflected in the participating artists list, as we had around 30 percent of artists from the Baltic states, and perhaps only one third of them was from Lithuania. But now the CAC is preparing for the 14th edition of the Triennial. This time it is curated by Lithuanian curator Valentinas Klimašauskas and João Laia, who is Portugese and is based in Finland, and their focus region is Eastern Europe. So there is a certain balance if you look at things from a bigger perspective.

Dora Budor ‘The Preserving Machine’, 2018, Baltic Triennial 13.GIVE UP THE GHOST at the CAC, Vilnius, 2018. Photo by Andrej Vasilenko/CAC
Laure Prouvost ‘A Way to Leak, Lick, Leek’, 2016, Baltic Triennial 13.GIVE UP THE GHOST at the CAC, Vilnius, 2018. Photo by Andrej Vasilenko/CAC

How does this balance of global issues and the local art scene be released? Is it a curatorial duty to fight for local artists to be visible and well-presented in such kind global events, like Triennial?

I do not think that they are underrepresented. There are many projects at the CAC and in other institutions in Lithuania that show local artists. At the moment,  at the CAC we are preparing to open two solo exhibitions by Lithuanian artists and the upcoming Baltic Triennial 14 is focused on this geographical area.

We have mentioned above big institutional projects and quite famous artists’ names you have been working with, what is the way for young artists to open the door of a big institution to be presented there? 

I believe nowadays there are definitely more opportunities for young people in the country than let’s say ten years ago, and as a curator, I am very interested in the oncoming generation.

At the CAC we have the JCDecaux Prize, which is an annual exhibition series established by the CAC and JCDecaux in 2016, aiming to promote work of young artists based in Lithuania, their dissemination in the country and abroad, and public interest in contemporary art. It’s been five years since the annually announced open call, where dedicated young curators select five artists to participate in a curated group exhibition held at the CAC. For the selected artists, the institution provides a budget and assistance to bring new productions to life. And the one-time prize of 4000 euros established by JCDecaux Lithuania is awarded to one artist or a team participating in the exhibition, which is selected by an international jury. We invite young curators to work with it, and since 2019, I am the coordinator of the project. It’s been exciting to see how new names, like the winner of the JCDecaux Prize in 2019, Agnė Jokšė, or the 2018 winner, Anastasia Sosunova, rather quickly become an intrinsic part of the Lithuanian art scene, and whose work is now shown at important international projects such as Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art or the next Baltic Triennial. 

Baltic Triennial 13.GIVE UP THE GHOST view with works by Augustas Serapinas, Darja Bajagic and Miriam Cahn at the CAC, Vilnius, 2018. Photo by Andrej Vasilenko/CAC