The perspective of Maria Vassileva, owner of the Structura Gallery in Sofia, Bulgaria.
The global pandemic set the effervescent cultural life on pause. Like many other industries, the art market was left unsettled. Galleries and museums closed their doors, art fairs including Art Basel Hong Kong, and Frieze New York were postponed. Many institutions came up with creative solutions for the short term mainly by inviting their viewers into digital immersions or virtual viewing rooms. However, the economic downturns of this situation remain quite extensive. I wanted to get a closer look at the “behind the scenes” (BTS) of this pandemic in the art business and decided to start this series with the input of Maria Vassileva, the owner of the Structura Gallery in Sofia, Bulgaria to get the answers to my questions.
Maria Vassileva is an art historian, critic and curator. After working for 18 years for art museum institutions, she opened Structura Gallery in December 2017. It is a “commercial” gallery, but as the art market for contemporary art in Bulgaria is pretty much undeveloped, the gallery mostly functions as an independent space, Kunsthalle, showing different projects and working with national and foreign institutions.
Alexia: Upon the announcement of the lockdown, did you have any new exhibitions coming up that were set to launch in the following weeks? What was your first reaction, and how did you adapt yourself to overcome the situation?
Maria: Yes, we had. Two exhibitions were canceled. First by the woman artist Bistra Lechevalier who lives in Paris and who couldn’t travel – this exhibition will never happen as we are not interested to work on it as we were planning because of the dramatically changed situation. Secondly – an international show, supported by the Trust for Mutual understanding, New York, got postponed because of the COVID-19. Art Paris was also postponed for 2021 and we lost a huge percentage of our prepaid fee. The gallery was closed for exactly two months but from the very beginning we started several online projects: #ContactAtADistance – which shows every single day a contemporary work by different artists with the aim to motivate them (most of the works are close or commenting the status of isolation); #ConversationsDuringIsolation – profound written interviews with Bulgarian artists who live in different countries about their art work and about the place of the artist in today’s society; #StructuraProjectRoom – online exhibitions of old and new works. We also announced Free online consultations for artists to the age of 35 to give them the opportunity to show and present their portfolios – a highly successful and exhausting project. We used that time to communicate with our artists more closely and to expand the circle of artists that we normally work with.
Alexia: The pandemic has been a major disruptive element for numerous sectors, including the cultural industries. The cancellation of Hong Kong's Art Basel led to the launch of its online viewing rooms. Additionally, many museums and galleries all over the world started relying on digital platforms. Galleries have been unifying spaces for discussion between artists, curators, and communities for so long.Based on your knowledge and expertise, what would you say is the biggest challenge in curating this type of digital exhibitions and experiences? How do we preserve the essence of a viewer's physical experience when visiting a gallery and transpose this through a screen?
Maria: I don’t think that digital exhibitions could replace the physical ones. They are an addition to the existing practices that can increase our knowledge about art and artists. These exhibitions are kind of a preview or appendix and they have to be cleverly selected. In our practice we prefer to show for example drawings, sketches, preliminary drawings. Sometimes they hardly find their way to the exhibition space and stay forever in the studio. This is an opportunity for them to be shown. Or old works that were forgotten over the years - as an historical archive. Or completely new discoveries – new interesting names as a first step of their promotion. All this works. Of course the viewers’ experience is different but why not? Art can be experienced in different ways if not directly – in the past through books, now through the screen. I will continue this line even after the pandemic.
Alexia: We don't know for how long the virtual world will replace the real experiences. In the long term, how do you think that this will impact smaller galleries? Have you seen examples of smaller galleries dealing with this contemporary challenge?
Maria: Most of them posted their exhibitions from the past years online. That way, they created a kind of archive of their activities, which is good. They have to think about how to “translate” their work from one reality to the other and to be more active on the internet. Now, the competition started and we have to adapt very quickly to it. There are too many galleries acting in a very old fashionable way, not keeping up with the standards and perhaps, natural selection will eliminate them.
Alexia: Can we expect to see a restructuring of the art world post-COVID-19?
Maria: I would wish, but I don’t believe it. Utopian dreams are always confronted with practical reality. The status quo is too strong. But for sure the accent on online platforms will give the opportunity for smaller galleries and unknown artists to receive visibility.
Alexia: As a gallery owner, how do you preserve the copyrights of the artists that you are representing in this virtual era where anyone can access and take whatever they want from the web? Are there new security protocols to undertake?
Maria: I am not obsessed with this topic. We live in an era where we all need all the sources of free information. There is one thing called moral – you can not measure it with restrictions. It is impossible to steal the talent.
Alexia: From what I have been reading, life in Sofia is starting to restore its normal pace. Do you feel that there are some remains of fear in people towards each other? If it is the case, do you believe that this could pose a threat to the return of the cultural life, and how could we overcome this?
Maria: Yes, there is a fear but with every single day it reduces its level. We are not in such a bad situation as theaters. We can always regulate the number of visitors in the galleries. The other problem is the mood in general. Are the people ready to enjoy art and what art? Should we please their expectations? Will they be ready to spend money for art? From the other side for the first time in many years the government starts speaking about the importance of culture and how culture should be supported and preserved. Maybe these signals will play a positive role in the process of increasing publics’ attention.
Alexia: What are your future projects?
Maria: At the moment in the gallery we present a group show. Our next exhibition will be a collaborative project between Boryana Petkova and Michail Michailov – the artists we were planning to show at Art Paris. We just jumped over these two months and we continue further. But we also succeeded in developing some good practices and we intend to keep them.
Picture 1 - Structura Gallery http://structura.gallery/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Cloud-head12-2015-35cm-1500x899.jpg