“This is the first space dedicated to art to be built in the center of Prague in almost 100 years,” says Petr Pudil proudly, talking about Kunsthalle Praha, the private museum he and his wife Pavlína are inaugurating on February 22.
It is sited in a former electrical substation in the historic center of the capital, and indeed there is a unit in the basement still powering Prague’s trams. But the Pudils assure me there will be no hum or vibrations to distract from the three exhibition spaces they have created in the 5,700 sq m building.
They bought it seven years ago, though the idea of establishing an Kunsthalle had been germinating for years before that. “We already had the idea of doing something for Prague, but we needed to find the right place – and then the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity [to buy the substation] came along, ”says Pavlína.
Neither she nor Petr comes from a collecting background. “I was born in communist Czechoslovakia, in 1974, under a socialist regime,” says Petr over Zoom from Prague, “and it was quite difficult to be educated in any sort of art at the time. There was the National Museum, but it was like a hidden institution and the regime had no interest in promoting it. My first contact with art was after the revolution. ” Pavlína chimes in: “My story is the same, the only things I might have seen were reproductions of Alphonse Mucha posters.”
Things have changed a lot for the couple since then. Petr’s businesses prospered – in real estate, chemicals and venture capital – and almost 20 years ago they bought their first work of art, a painting by Slovak Zdeňka Marschalová. “It captivated us at first sight and we had it on our walls for a long time, although otherwise we often renew works at home,” says Petr. “[Former president] Václav Havel was an inspiration, he opened my mind to art, he was an advocate for culture in general, but was quite visionary about what Prague could be and its position as a cultural crossroad in Europe. ”
They started to haunt galleries, initially smaller Czech ones, but as Pavlína says, “We soon realized we wanted to collect Czech and central European art, but also we wanted to put Czech art into a more international context.” They started traveling to art fairs and institutions around the world, particularly influenced by the programming at the Louisiana in Denmark and by the operational models of US and UK galleries.
Last year the Pudils made a trip to London with their chief curator, Christelle Havranek, to visit Frieze – but they did not buy anything. Petr says, “We prefer to buy artworks displayed in galleries or artists’ studios”, rather than at a fair. “If you see the whole exhibition in the gallery, you can absorb all the interactions between the artworks.” Rather chillingly for the British art market, he adds that his collections manager asked him not to buy art in the UK “because, post-Brexit, it is so much more expensive and complicated these days”.
I ask them if they always have to agree before deciding to buy. They laugh, and each waits for the other to reply. “We have the same taste: 99 percent of the time we agree, fortunately,” Petr offers. “If there is no agreement, there is no deal.”
Their collection now numbers more than 600 pieces, including works by Zhanna Kadyrova, Krištof Kintera, Alicja Kwade and Lina Lapelyte, as well as internationally known names: Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, William Kentridge and Tomás Saraceno.
The museum has one permanent installation, “Cabinet of Electrical Curiosities”, a project by Mark Dion. It tells the story of the building through the industrial objects found on site: the enamel signs, switches and transformers are assembled into a sort of contemporary Kunstkammer. The program, with six to eight exhibitions each year, will focus on contemporary and modern art. Taking its cue from the building, the inaugural show is Kinetism: 100 Years of Electricity in Art, which will explore how electricity has transformed artistic practice from the start of the 20th century to the present. It is curated by Havranek, Lívia Nolasco-Rózsás and the Austrian post-conceptual artist Peter Weibel.
Exhibitions will feature loans from the Pudils, as well as from private lenders and institutions such as Tate and the Center Pompidou. About 20 private collectors have already loaned works. “That way,” says Petr, “we will gradually build a leading collection of central European art.” But “we also aim to bring the best of international art to Prague, and so make a dialogue with the local art scene”.
The museum is ambitious – it has a staff of 30 – and as well as running the exhibition program there is an educational arm, a design store, a restaurant and a café. The couple reckons the project costs them € 30mn- € 35mn for acquisitions and converting the building and anticipate annual running costs will be in “the low millions of euros”.
“The Kunsthalle is non-governmental and non-profit, funded by our family foundation,” says Petr, “but the goal is to cover the running costs.” To this end there is an entrance fee of € 10 for those aged over 26. It has a membership program and might even look at crowdfunding.
Is it going to be sustainable in the long term, though? The Pudils have three children between them and now, with the Kunsthalle, they have “another child to be substantially supported”, says Petr. But, he adds, “We had this in our mind from the beginning, and we hope that we can find patrons and supporters going forward.”
I ask if they are still adding to their own collection. “Yes!” they reply in unison, and Pavlína says, “Nowadays we are more focused on buying what is missing from the collection – for sure, it’s a never-ending process.”
Kunsthalle Praha opens on February 22 with ‘Kinetismus’, which runs until August, kunsthallepraha.org