Five years of the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague

Leoš Válka, photo: CTK

It’s hard to believe that it has already been five years since the opening of the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Holešovice in Prague. Founded by Leoš Válka (who lived and worked for 15 years in Australia) DOX has since become one of the capital’s most exciting spaces for art goers. I caught up with Leoš Válka this week to ask not only about five years of the centre but also his original aim as a developer, which – it turns out – was not to found a gallery at all.

Leoš Válka,  photo: CTK
“The original idea was to build a loft type of an industrial residential building, so the intention was to find an industrial place which could be converted into a residential building which then would be sold as a normal development project. The whole project was profit-driven, so to speak.”

If that was the case, what changed your mind, or you and your colleague’s minds?

“It was my mind! There were no colleagues yet at the time. As soon as I walked into this place, I realised it was unique and made for a gallery or a cultural centre. It was the obvious purpose for which it should be used, and I also realised that I am probably the only one, in my humble opinion, who would be able to switch from a commercial project to a non-commercial project.”

It was financially-feasible, you mean?

“Well it is not that I was so rich, but I realised that the potential for a money-making project of this kind was enormous and that the temptation for anyone would be to make it a profitable project. The temptation would be too great. But because I am interested in art, architecture and design for many years, I realised this is a place which is meant for a gallery.

“The reason why I thought there was a potential for a gallery was the scale, the character, the light and the large industrial traditional windows of the building. The whole thing was like a mini Tate modern gallery.”

One of the very vibrant elements of the gallery is that it doesn’t reveal itself at once. There are all kinds of nooks and crannies, archways and roofs where you can have installations...

Photo: archive of DOX
“Well, it should be said that as it is today, it’s a completely new concept- from the original building there is very little left. But we wanted to preserve the sprit and the character. At least 80 percent, probably 90 percent of the building is new. But you are talking about these unexpected corners and twists and different levels and difficult to understand ways of how to go around. It was designed for a purpose. The visitor shouldn’t be able to understand immediately where he stands, or how he orientates himself to the perimeter wall. It was meant to make the visitor feel a little disoriented.”

There are other important galleries of course, but when DOX was complete architecturally and when you were set to open, was there any other space in Prague which was being used in a similar way as this one?

“No, not really. Definitely not a private space but also not a state-owned space. This classical example of an industrial or brownfield structure being used for cultural purposes; they have been used several times on a temporary basis, but has never been used as a permanent institution. And in this sense we are the first and also the largest, it is 6,000 square meters and that’s quite an expensive adventure for a private investor.”

It took of course millions in investment to get DOX started. Was there any point when you thought to yourself ‘I’m going crazy, this is too much of a risk’?

“Not really, this decision was made right at the start of the project, the project became twice or three times as large as originally intended. I had to find other partners to help me financially. It was clear from the start that this was going to be a money losing project, not money making - not even a break even proposition. We knew this would take years before we would achieve zero position. So the desperation and frustration was continuous, but it was never enough to stop us.”

What were some aims that were laid down by you from the beginning in terms of the kind of gallery you wanted it to be? What are some important aspects that you wanted to set out from the start and maintain?

“First of all, it was set out to be a Kunsthalle, which means a gallery which doesn’t own a permanent collection. So the exhibitions, installations and art would be coming and going - they would be created here, but we were not going to own anything, no artifacts, no art. We wanted to represent the contemporary art scene: so basically living artists, from this century and last century. It is visual art, architecture and design, and the understanding that the boundaries between these fields are not so clear anymore. We are open to just about anything that’s related to visual art. The character of the building is so that it shouldn’t be a clean white box concept but it should be a dirty, industrial kind of environment.”

Are any of the pieces here - I’m thinking specifically about the outdoor pieces - permanent or are they all on loan? What is their status?

“Everything is on loan, everything is temporary.”

Some for longer periods than others I’d imagine?

“Some are lent without formal terms, like David Černý’s skull for example. So as long as we are not bored with it or he doesn’t want it back, it’s an open ended arrangement.”

Every time that I come here, I always feel like I am in many different cities. It’s not just Prague… in fact, it’s not Prague at all.

“Well that’s exactly what we wanted to achieve. We wanted to have an institution with an international or global feel to it. Approximately 30 per cent of our visitors are foreigners, so we usually get these kinds of comments. Firstly they are surprised that something like this exists in Prague, secondly they are surprised that it is not a state institution, and thirdly they are pleasantly surprised that it’s got an international feel.”

It was recently the 5th anniversary of the opening. I’ve read that there have been more than 100 shows during that period, not to mention many different events, talks and discussions and so on. What would you say were some of the most significant shows during that period? For many people the late Karel Nepraš will come to mind…

“I think there are two or maybe three categories of exhibitions that we normally put together. One is the real, in a sense, classical one-man show from the likes of Karel Nepraš - someone who could have a show at the national gallery who is a very well-known, admired and well loved artist and should have got an enormous retrospective at the national gallery but somehow didn’t happen, so we thought we should do it. He’s a star of the Czech scene.”

“Then we have the international stars like Douglas Gordon, and that’s a real top category of artists considered to be one of the ten most important living artists officially. He had his show here and was very happy with it. Then there are the shows which we put together which usually have a social or critical agenda. Things are usually more complicated, things which you usually have a mixture of international and local artists and art.”

Could you mention a specific show?

“For example, the last exhibition that closed a few days ago was Disabled by Normality, and we presented an exhibition related to the way that society views people with disabilities, not just physical disabilities but also mental disabilities. The social perspective is also part of these disabilities; we should be more critical towards ourselves, and the culture of society is in a way dictating the way we treat people with disabilities.”

“There are many different aspects of this programme and part of the exhibition is the 100th anniversary of Jedličkův ústav, which is the largest institution caring for disabled people in the Czech Republic. So it is a complicated, rich and very important exhibition which is not sexy, metaphorically speaking, because this is an exhibition where you are encouraged to confront things which people generally don’t want to face. I think this kind of exhibition is our forte. I think we should do this more and more because it’s something which nobody else wants to do, precisely because it is expensive, time consuming, complicated and in a way has only a small potential audience. But that is part of our philosophy: to do things against the grain.”