Not having own space helps London Czech Centre forge fruitful ties with UK partners, says head Tereza Porybná

Tereza Porybná, photo: Vojtěch Brtnický / Czech Centres

For the last two years, Tereza Porybná has been the director of the Czech Centre in London. Under her leadership, the UK branch of the international network of cultural institutes is working to cultivate a cool, modern image of the Czech Republic via projects in fields such as the performing arts and design. Last week I discussed its work with Porybná in her office at the Czech Centre, which is in the fashionable Covent Garden district.

Tereza Porybná, photo: Vojtěch Brtnický / Czech Centres
“We cover a wide range of activities in the field of culture and education.

“To briefly explain how the Czech Centre in London works, we don’t have our own building and we don’t have our own exhibition space. And we don’t have them on purpose.

“If we really, really wanted to I suppose we could arrange them but for us it’s very important to bring Czech culture and Czech art to our UK partners, to reach a new audience and to create bridges that are long-lasting.

“So we try not to do one-off events but to create some sort of long-term networks.

“Apart from organising events, in the offices that you see now we have language courses. That’s one part of our activities. It’s actually quite big – we have over 100 students in each trimester.

“As for the events, we work in visual arts, performing arts, design and fashion, literature, music, film of course – as most Czech centres do.

“Our special focus is the performing arts. It’s something we focus on a lot, especially contemporary dance and physical theatre.

“Since I came we started working a lot more with fashion, bridging fashion and visual arts. And we have a long tradition in film, as well.”

Do you have to coordinate that programme with Prague? Or is it the case that once they chose you to lead the Centre that they kind of leave you to it?

“I think they leave us to it, pretty much. I think it’s amazing. It’s a big privilege but also a big responsibility because within the means you have you can do almost whatever you want.

“Of course there are some priorities set by the HQ. For example, you have to do a little science project. Or you should do the language courses or somehow cover all the fields.

“But otherwise I’ve never had any comments on my programme. We just do what we want and what we believe is best.”

Lenka Dusilová, Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen, photo: Eliška Stejskalová / Czech Centre London
There are so many things happening in London all the time. How do you make yourselves heard over all that cultural noise?

“I think it comes back to what I said earlier, that we don’t have our own exhibition space. So we work with people that are London-based or Bristol-based or Edinburgh-based that can make themselves heard.

“That’s how we do it. All our events are full, basically. We don’t have a problem with not having people coming to our events. That’s because we are able to choose and to work with the right partners.

“And even if it’s a niche event, we are sort of able to navigate this niche. I’m not sure whether that would work if we had our own space.”

Is that the approach of Czech Centres in other cities – that they have their own space and hold short-term exhibitions, that kind of thing?

“For some of them. But I think a lot of us who are heads of Czech Centres… I think we are as an institution moving more towards cooperative projects and really integrating Czech artists or filmmakers or whoever within the scene as it is in the cities.

“I think if you look at the programme in Berlin or Bucharest or any other centre it’s good and it reflects not just what’s happening in the Czech scene but also what’s happening in the scene of the particular city.”

Are there particular kinds of events that you know will be a hit if you organise them, that tend to be popular?

“Classical music concerts obviously [laughs], which we don’t organise because it just seems too easy. That’s always a hit. People love Czech classical music. It’s a huge phenomenon here.

“But it’s also something that would happen anyway. So we try to help the underdogs a little bit, rather than getting involved in something that’s so sure.

“It depends on who you want to target. We don’t do it, but whenever Chinaski is playing here, these big bands, it’s always packed with all of the au pairs, all of the young Czech people working here. They love it.

Once Upon a Time: Czech Fashion at the International Fashion Showcase 2015, photo: Lucie Desmond / Czech Centre London
“For us in terms of what we do we have a very successful film festival and people always go to that. There’s a hunger for seeing new Czech films.”

And say if a Czech band comes here, like Chinaski, do you contact them? Do they contact you? Do you just ignore some of these bands and just leave them to it?

“We tend not to support big mainstream bands. Just because it’s not my priority.

“With the bands I work with it’s a mix. We have a Czech jazz night series with a jazz club in Soho and which we co-curate with the jazz club.

“My colleague will send some suggestions and they will say what they like, and then we as the Czech Centre approach the band.

“There are all sorts of different types of cooperation. For example, we had really beautiful concerts of Floex and Clarinet Factory in the past two years.

“They were playing with the Scottish band Hidden Orchestra and it sort of organically shaped up that I met Floex, he met Hidden Orchestra and they approached me about doing a concert together.

“We did it, it was good, and now it’s continuing. They invite Czech bands almost every year to perform with them.

“So there are various ways of making that work. We work a lot with DJs as well, either inviting them to be part of our events or festivals.

“Of course we get lots and lots of approaches from people asking for support. Everybody wants to be in London and we have a tiny budget, so we can’t help everybody.

“That being said, we fundraise a lot. We basically work like any other private culture agency. We write grants, we have sponsors and so on. Because it’s really an expensive city to do things in.

Inspired by Martinů, photo: Wonki Baek / Czech Centre London
“But even with quite successful fundraising we can’t meet everybody’s needs to be here. So we reject a lot of people, while trying to explain what the Czech Centre is for.

“I think what the Czech Centre is for introducing stuff that is maybe not a hit in the Czech Republic but has the potential to be a hit in some sort of a scene here.

“That’s what’s beautiful about London. You have an audience for everything.”

At the end of the summer I met the new acting head of the Czech Centres network, Zdeněk Lyčka. He was telling me that he wants Czech Centres to place more emphasis on science and innovation. Is that something that you are getting involved in?

“Yes, that’s the reason I was a little bit late today. As well as being the head of the Czech Centre I’m also president of EUNIC London, which is a network of all European cultural institutes working in London.

“I don’t really believe in pushing national topics in London. When you were asking about how to bring people to events in London, unless you are doing really expat oriented events, you won’t bring them to Czech things.

“You will bring them to topical things, you will bring them to something they are interested in because it’s an important topic for them. Be it, I don’t know, video art or be it the immigration situation in Europe.

“That’s why I like working with EUNIC, because this larger platform really forces you to think about these topics and how you can merge them through these national institutes.

“One of our big projects, which is opening on February 4, is about video gaming and virtual realities. We’re focusing on the indie scene but also looking at games that have for example an immigration aspect or a mental health aspect.

“It will be at the Finnish Institute and there will be a coding school for girls that will be led by a Finnish academic who is a star in the area.

“We will also be part of the London Games Festival at Somerset House. Then we will be part of the Future Fest, where some Czech games will be exhibited.

“And just now we talked to the university in Greenwich about doing some projects around their medical conference and looking at ways how digital art and gaming can actually contribute to the healing process.”

London, photo: Cnbrb, Free Domain
If we could end on a personal note, you‘ve been here for two years as director of the Czech Centre in London – how have you enjoyed the experience?

“I love it. It’s great. It’s a privilege to do the job and it’s super interesting.

“I came for the job, not for the city. I’m more interested in cities outside the metropolises of Europe, so I think Bucharest would be the choice of my heart.

“But I’m really happy to be in London. It makes you grow in really unexpected ways. So the two years have been quite amazing and a really big change for me. Professionally and personally, as well.”