Richard Drury – English curator at home in Czech art world

Richard Drury, photo: Petr Šálek,

Not long after moving to Prague at the start of 1991, Englishman Richard Drury began working as a curator at the Central Bohemian Gallery, previously known as the Czech Museum of Fine Arts, on Husová St. He has been there ever since. Remarkably for a foreigner, he is also chairman of one section of the venerable Czech cultural organisation Umělecká beseda. When we met, I asked Drury if it had been hard to find a place in Prague’s art world.

“Not at that time. The early 1990s were a period of uncharacteristic openness and flexibility. I was lucky to meet people at the gallery where I’ve been working since then. It was an opportunity that I guess would never have come round again, but the early 1990s were a great period for, as it were, getting your foot in the door.”

What about Czech art at that time – what impression did it make on you? And how has contemporary Czech art developed since the early ‘90s?

“Oh, big questions. Essentially what fascinated me above all I guess in the early stage of my learning about contemporary Czech art was the life story of artists…the so-called ‘70s generation, people who had studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in the late ‘60s, entered the Czech art scene in the ‘70s, a period of neo-Stalinist repression, and had really had their backs against the wall.

“For me there’s a central question of: you’re an artist in a society whose governing authorities don’t want you to show your work or sell it. So for me the so-called ‘70s generation was a…lead in to the whole concept of contemporary Czech art.

“We’ve moved on a long way since then. We’re talking about artists who are now in their sort of early 60s, so you’ve got at least two, three generations that have come up since then…I have to say I still feel a strong bond with artists from this particular generation.”

You work at the Central Bohemian Gallery and you’re in charge of the collections of prints, drawings and sculptures. Tell us, what exactly do you do?

“The job of a curator has various aspects to it. Our gallery owns a collection of modern and contemporary Czech and international art. As a curator in charge of collections, it’s all about…looking after the collection, ensuring the works are being restored, well kept, well stored.

“It’s about working with the collections, presenting them, presenting them in various combinations that show various features of the collection. It’s also about art-historical writing and expressing your views on what’s going on at the moment as well. So it’s partly art-historical, partly a critical role in terms of the art that’s going on outside the walls of our institution.”

Your Czech is unusually brilliant for a foreigner – I’ve met very few foreigners who speak great Czech. Can you also, or do you also, write about art in Czech?

“I have to, I have to. The job I’m in makes no accommodation for the fact that I’m a foreigner. If I don’t express myself in convincing Czech, then I’m not convincing anyone. It’s about knowledge, but it’s also about how you express yourself.

“Having studied four years at Cambridge, my real school came from the time I arrived in Prague, really being immersed in a Czech environment, and writing my texts in Czech and English.”

Would the job of a curator here in Prague, in the Czech Republic, differ in any way from the job of a curator say in the UK or elsewhere in the West?

“I wouldn’t have thought so. I think it involves very similar tasks and obligations. Where the curator stands in Czech society, as opposed to the English curator in English society – I still have this impression that Czech curators, at least of the middle and older generation, are much more academics than people who are keyed into the society. The idea of a curator as also a community figure almost is one that’s very, very alien to Czech curators older than 50.”

Speaking broadly, how would you compare the position of art in Czech culture with, say, in the UK?

“I think Czech art finds itself between being very institutionalised, very much part of a traditional, institutional approach to culture, which means you go to a gallery, you’re quiet, you follow the arrows, don’t annoy the custodian ladies and so and so forth, and art that’s growing up, shall we say in the best possible sense, like weeds, between the paving stones out in, you know, the broader context of the town and city.

“I think in time it’ll balance out, that there’ll be more input from outside the institution into the institution. That’s something I think will definitely come.”

As well as your work at the Gallery of Central Bohemia you’re involved with an organisation called Umělecká beseda. What is that?

“Umělecká beseda is in Czech cultural terms shall we say the grand old father of Czech cultural activity. It was founded in 1863 as part of the Czech cultural revival, so it has this patriotic sense about it. Of course, the irony about it is that being an Englishman, a foreigner in the Czech context, I’m now the chairman of the fine arts section.

“Umělecká beseda is interesting for me in the sense that it brings together not only artists but also musicians and writers, so there’s a great interdisciplinary feel to it. It has this wonderful tradition. It’s something which I would say corresponds to my English sensibility, in that it’s a tradition that you’re able to renew and add a fresh layer to, which is great I think, given the ups and downs and discontinuities of Czech society.”

And what are its actual activities?

“Well, speaking for the fine arts section of Umělecká beseda we unfortunately don’t have a home to call our own. We sort of live as a bunch of nomads really. We’re hoping to get a home, but that’s a different discussion.

“What we do, our main activity, is really exhibiting together. Not just exhibitions including all members of Umělecká beseda, but also in more recent year’s I’ve been doing more conceptual exhibitions with a selected number of Umělecká beseda members.

“For instance, this year in Litoměřice we did a show at a deconsecrated Jesuit Baroque church, which was wonderful, this chance to bring contemporary art into a spiritual setting and see how the dialogue sprang up between the art of today and this Baroque environment.”