National Gallery’s Milan Knížák warns budget cuts will force gallery to opt for drastic solution: to close doors in winter months

Veletržní palace

Prague’s National Gallery, one of the country’s most respected cultural institutions which includes a number of venues including Veletržní palace, has, along with other state-funded organisations, been told by the austerity government to save 15 percent of its budget next year. The cuts, following the earlier financial crisis, are expected to hit the gallery hard. While some steps have already been taken – a reduction in the number of exhibitions, a cutting back on acquisitions, a lowering of the number of staff – it is not likely to be enough. As a result, this week gallery head Milan Knížák warned of a more drastic solution if additional funds aren’t found.

Milan Knížák
He spoke to Radio Prague’s Jan Velinger on Monday, describing the situation:

“The crisis influenced the gallery a lot because previously we rented space and we always made money by renting. But now some of these institutions withdrew or were no longer able to pay. Therefore, we already had some problems with our budget last year and this year it is about the same. And yet, we are getting less and less money from the government. As a result we are seriously considering closing the National Gallery down for a certain period of the year, a period of around two months in the winter season when the gallery is frequented less.”

The National Gallery, however, includes numerous buildings and exhibitions…

“Yes, but I mean completely. When I say National Gallery I mean ALL the buildings, ALL the collections. If I meant otherwise, I’d say we’re going to close down only this or that collection, the modern collection or whatever. I mean the whole thing.”

Excuse me for saying so, but that strikes me as quite a radical and shocking solution…

Veletržní palace
“Yes, and we have the same feeling. But according to the law we have to have a balanced budget at the end of the year. This is the only solution that will work. I have one more meeting with the minister later this month to officially discuss the budget for next year. Maybe there will be some more money from the budget to cover this very unpleasant situation. But for now, because we always make plans – for the optimal, the usual and crisis periods – the gallery will close down. The original plan was to close it down twice a year, once in the winter and once in the summer. But with the minister, we managed to find funds to cover the summer. However, the winter period remains.”

Do you accept the 15 percent cut as an economic necessity?

“In my opinion, regarding the Culture Ministry, it is completely stupid. Because, the ministry’s budget is so small compared to the other ones that 10 or 15 percent the ministry saves is nothing. It’s nothing, it helps nowhere. The budget of the ministry is so small, around eight billion crowns – and half of that goes to the Church – it’s very little money! It makes no sense to save on museums and galleries! I mean, maybe they can save on grants or whatever but museums… are the memory of the nation! The funds we need are a pittance and even now we are only 12 million crowns short. That’s nothing. Of our 300 million crown budget we have to save 45 million and we have done almost that. Only 12 remain. So hopefully more funds can be found; in my opinion it’s nonsense to have to close the gallery down. But if we are left no other choice we will do it, starting on January 10 to March 21.”

Veletržní palace
I can’t even begin to contemplate the impact: after all, the Czech Republic is a country that prides itself on its long history and its culture… not only for its own people of course but also for visitors. It’s a major tourist draw…

“The problem is that the minister of culture – I don’t mean the current one – but the post, the minister of culture is expected to be a weak minister, with little or no power in the government. And that’s obviously very bad for the Czech Republic and especially Prague. Why do people come to Prague? Because of its culture, its history: not only for food, beer and women as others thought! Yet, the money which is invested in this field is growing less every year and that’s very bad.”

Do you foresee a public outcry if you have to take the step of closing the gallery down for those two months?

“If it happens, we will always say, as I say even now, that we did it because of the government. We reduced the number of shows and some staff and lowered the financial gap to 12 million. But if the government doesn’t budge, then okay, we will do it. I cannot go to the bank, well I could, but what would people do with the loan after? How would it be paid back?”

What other steps have been taken so far? I know that there used to be free visiting hours that were slashed…

“The Culture Ministry wanted that, they wanted us to shut down free visits. I don’t think that is the right thing. If nothing else, at least the permanent exhibits should be free. In so-called Western countries almost all museums are open to the public for free. You can go free to see permanent installations and pay only for special exhibitions.

“We wanted to do the same, at least in the beginning, at Veletržní palác, but the government, along with the previous governments, was strictly against. My feeling is that if people were able to visit for free, they’d be more inclined to buy catalogues, food and drink in the café and so on. In my view, it’s a bad culture policy to slash those visits. But it’s not just a question of this government.”

It seems to me that it would have been a perfect move to have kept the free days out of solidarity…

“Solidarity is needed, for sure, but you know… with all my fingers I voted for saving money. But cutting money has to be balanced with allowing means to make funds elsewhere or must depend on the field. Culture should be basic stuff for us: if not, we will dissolve in our everyday problems and change into machines. Culture - and especially visual culture - brings some kind of peace, and a kind of cultivation.

“If you visit an art museum, you have to involve your energy and find your way to the pieces on view. You have to find your own way. It’s not like pop music which comes to you from every f*cking corner. In a museum you have to find your own relation to the work, that’s why it’s so important. People SHOULD be cultivated because all the kitsch, all the pop kitsch which is everywhere around us, does not cultivate us. It does just the opposite: it ruins us.”