My Prague – Camille Hunt

Camille Hunt, photo: Ian Willoughby

For nearly a decade Camille Hunt has been co-running Hunt Kastner, a private Prague gallery that represents leading local artists such as Eva Koťátková and Dominik Lang. In 2013 the gallery moved to Žižkov from the Letná district, which the Canadian-born Hunt has long called home. Our tour of “her Prague” begins with a drink on the terrace of the Letná Chateau, which is adjacent to a beer garden with stunning views of the city.

Camille Hunt,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I have lived in Letná for 15-plus years. I love this part of the city because of the parks, mainly. And it’s a very quick, nice walk into town through the park, so that’s lovely. You don’t have to cross any highways. And it’s nice being high up.”

How you would you characterise the neighbourhood?

“I wouldn’t say it’s any different… Well, maybe it’s a little bit less ex-paty than maybe Vinohrady [laughs], which is the area that people seem to favour more, because it has maybe more restaurants and more shops, and is also a very lovely part of town.

“Dejvice is also very nice and maybe more foreigner-friendly, just because it has access to more shops and restaurants and amenities.

“Letná is actually surprising, because we always say, When are the good restaurants going to open? [Laughs]. Because it is such a lovely part, and so close to town, and so many people come here on the weekends.

“There are some good places [to eat], but they’re few and far between.”

How would you say Letná has changed over your decade and a half living here?

“Not terribly much. Of course there are better shops and restaurants, going back to that.

“And the park is maybe better maintained. The lovely part about Letná is the parks. But because we have so many trees and greenery in the parks they don’t put many trees on the actual streets, which I keep on thinking they will do eventually [laughs].

Letenský zámeček,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“So that’s the difference with Vinohrady – it’s got nice leafy trees everywhere, which makes the streets really beautiful.”

I don’t know if you find this, but Prague is relatively small and I still find myself hanging out with people who live near me. It’s not London or somewhere. There’s no particular reason that I wouldn’t come over to Letná to go out – but I just don’t do it.

“Actually we have a sort of running joke with our friends. We have a lot of friends who do live in Vinohrady and there’s a sort of battle between Letná and Vinohrady.

“We always say that it’s much better here. At least the beer garden is better than at Riegrovy sady. And I stand by that [laughs]. Because of the views.

“But maybe as we get older we’re less inclined to travel even short distances. I’m always in Vinohrady and Žižkov, because the gallery moved there almost two years ago.

“The gallery was in Letná, around the corner from where I live, so I probably got out less. I quite like that it’s not close by and I do have to actually travel to get to work. It’s a nice way of clearing your head.

“Also after work I go and do more things before I get home. If you live around the corner from where you work it’s kind of hard to think of going away and coming back. So I prefer this arrangement – for now anyways [laughs].”

You were telling me earlier that you think Prague is starting to become livelier at weekends than it used to be.

“Yes, it definitely is. We always used to have openings at the gallery during the week, usually on Thursday, or even Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

“But we never thought of doing it on Friday because everybody would tell us that nobody would show up. And we also thought that.

View of Letná beer garden,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“But in the last or so we started doing them on Fridays and there’s no difference. I think young people don’t necessarily take off on Friday immediately for the cottage, because there’s so much more going on in Prague nowadays.”

I used to live in Vršovice and there was a pub there that closed at the weekends, which to an Irish person was just inconceivable.

“[Laughs] Exactly… A few people said to us, Oh, Friday. But it’s proven to be fine.

“Actually the problem was when we did openings on Thursday we were competing with so many other events. That’s the reason we thought of doing it on Friday.”

I guess Prague has become more attractive at weekends, with all the farmers’ markets and other activities – little festivals, and so on.

“Yes, exactly. People are staying in town. Obviously many people still have country cottages and they do go, but it’s not every single weekend, I think.”

Bistro 8,  which may have kickstarted blossoming of Veverkova,  photo: Ian Willoughby

In recent times Letná, long one of the most desirable locales in Prague, has if anything become even more hip. Helping drive that resurgence has been Veverkova, which today boasts the kind of funky cafés and shops one might find in a the cool quarter of a Western European city. As a long-term resident of the area, Hunt has watched the street flourish with interest.

“There’s quite a few interesting new places that have opened up here in the last couple of years. The first one was Bistro 8. They serve quiches and good coffee.

“Actually they also have very good art exhibitions. Quite a few of our artists show there too. They’ve enlisted the help of a good curator to do those for them.

“Then there’s Page Five, a nice art bookshop. And there’s a place called Sneaker Barber that sells sneakers and I think vinyl records.”

My friend had a bag design shop [Luciela Taschen] across the street in what is now part of Bistro 8.

“That’s right. They’ve expanded, yes.”

I haven’t been here for maybe a year and there are a couple of new places, including Page 5. How quickly has this area, or this street even, become hipster central?

“Just in the last year and a half or two years. Very recently, yes.”

Do you think the renaissance here is in any way linked to the fact that we’re quite near the Academy of Fine Arts? Or is it only a coincidence?

“I think it’s a coincidence [laughs]. But maybe I’m wrong.

Bookstore Page Five,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I was always bemoaning the fact that the art academy is here and for so long there was a dearth of nice cafés and nice places to go to.

“But I think every area of Prague is thing going on where there are some nice little new shops, design shops, restaurants, cafés. Like in Vršovice – that’s quite recent as well. I don’t think it’s particular to Letná.”

When I see this bookshop with all kinds of art and design books I wonder, Do people have the money for this stuff?

“I guess they do. You’d have to ask them. I think that’s the thing – these shops don’t open because they think they’re going to make tonnes of money. It’s like when we open a gallery – there are lots of other things we could do if we were planning to make a lot of money.

“This bookshop, Page Five, has beautiful books. I don’t think they’re flying off the shelves, but that wasn’t the motivation for opening it.

“That’s what’s nicer – in Prague people aren’t opening shops just to make tonnes of money. They do a business but it’s more about contributing to the quality of life and having nice places to meet up with people, eat good food or read good books.”

Sometimes when I see these places it seems to me, maybe uncharitably, that they’re kind of playing at being in Berlin.

“Oh, I don’t think so. If you look in this Page Five they do have a lot of Czech books but of course there are less art books being published in Czech than in English or even in German.

Veverkova,  an unassuming street containing several hip stores,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“So they do carry a lot of foreign books. But they’re about art so even if you don’t speak English or German fluently you might appreciate the books…

“I’m really happy because for a long time we were complaining that in Prague there was a lot of very high-end stuff and also very low-end. There wasn’t something in the middle – it was either very fancy big labels and name brands or the bottom of the barrel.

“So now it’s nice to have these kinds of shops that are focused on nice things, even if it doesn’t make a huge amount of money [laughs]. But I guess that’s why they’re located in Prague 7 and not Prague 1.”

From Veverkova it’s a short walk to the Veletržní Palace, a huge Functionalist structure that houses the Czech National Gallery’s modern art collection. Sitting in the institution’s airy Café Jedna, gallerist Camille Hunt and I discuss recent changes at the National Gallery – and the Prague art world in general.

“The entire National Gallery and Veletržní Palace have gone through a revival of sorts. There’s a new director and a new head curator.

“So we hold out much hope that the programming of the National Gallery will be better – and it already is better – and that it will open to exhibitions abroad and bringing foreign artists here.

“For a long time it was a very controversial place and a lot of artists kind of shunned it.”

Café Jedna at the Veletržní Palace,  photo: Ian Willoughby

Was that because of the previous head of the gallery, Milan Knížák?

“Yes, exactly.”

What’s the relationship between a gallery like yours and a big institution like the National Gallery?

“We should all work in concert. Normally what happens is that the institutions buy from galleries. Because promote the artist and develop their career, and the institutions are supportive of that.

“So institutions, galleries, artists and collectors should all be very supportive of one another. That’s how the system should work.

“But it doesn’t always work like that…[laughs]”

So I guess you have a great interest in the National Gallery becoming more progressive?

“Yes, exactly. Their budget is very low so they have not bought anything from us.

“Because the state and city institutions don’t have high budgets they ask artists to loan them pieces and give them pieces. That hopefully will change because artists can’t just give and loans pieces [laughs] – otherwise they can’t be artists.

Veletržní Palace,  photo: archive of Radio Prague

“Mainly we’re just happy that the National Gallery and other state and city institutions have better programming so they can bring more interesting shows here, bring curators who will look at what Czech artists are doing, that these institutions will cooperate with institutions abroad to bring their shows here, and vice versa.

“For a long time they were working a little in isolation and that’s not good. So things are changing. Slowly but surely.”

How has Prague changed as a city in which to run a gallery and deal in art?

“It’s better. The market here is very small but it’s developing. At first we would only sell paintings to local collectors, but that’s also changing – they’re a little more adventurous and not so risk-averse.”

Apart from your gallery what other small galleries would you recommend to visitors?

“That’s easy because there not that many. There’s one around the corner from us, the Lucie Drdová Gallery.

“There are quite a few that have opened up in recent years. There’s Filip Polanský, who is just up here. He used to be in Smíchov but now he’s on Veletržní, so that’s another plus for the Prague 7 scene.

“There are some other galleries in the neighbourhood where our gallery is. There’s Mikuláš Nevan…

“There are a lot of good small gallery spaces, artist-run spaces. The problem is that there are not many commercial galleries that are not really many commercial galleries that are promoting artists’ work abroad. Hopefully that situation will also improve.”

The bar at the enormous Café Jedna at the Veletržní Palace,  photo: Ian Willoughby

Is it a competitive world?

“To an extent. But I always say there are a lot of good artists in Prague and not many galleries. There are many more artists we would like to represent but we just don’t have the capacity to do so.

“So in that way it’s not that competitive. We’re not always trying to poach each other’s artists. That is more the case abroad, where there are many more galleries so they often want the same artists. Right now it’s definitely more collegial than competitive.”