Thinking outside the box: Allesandra Svátek on the success of the Stolen Gallery

Photo: archive of Ukradená Galerie

In this week’s Arts Radio Prague talks to artist Allesandra Svátek the co-founder of the successful Ukradená Galerie (Stolen Gallery). The project, which uses abandoned outdoor display cases to show works by both famous and lesser-known artists, was launched more or less by accident, when Allesandra and fellow artist Artur Magrot (nicknamed Áčka or the “A’s” in the street art scene) placed their own work in one such box.

Photo: archive of Ukradená Galerie
Allesandra Svátek explains how things came together four years ago.

“It began in Český Krumlov in May of 2010 and it was certainly not planned. We had been living there for some time, doing street art, and we came across one of those old glass display cases on the side of a building, which were commonly used in the former Czechoslovakia. Many were not really used anymore, such as this one, so we cut the lock and put an artwork inside. We did it to show it to passers-by, to change course of their day. Many of these ‘boxes’ are still in use but this one was abandoned. We had a funny opening with some friends who brought glasses and we had a bottle of wine and we thought that would be it. But everyone liked the idea and we repeated it again at Sunday at midnight a week later and it has been going ever since.”

The idea caught on… the idea of having almost impromptu vernissages sounds like fun…

“Sure, it is. But the main thing about the project is to bring artwork to people who might never step inside a gallery, just to shake things up a bit. Someone might be less inclined to go to a show indoors, so this is one way of reaching a broader audience.”

What was that very first installation?

“It was something like a pirate flag, featuring me and my partner on the project Artur Magrot. We also included the cut lock. We had been working together for a little while in street art before. We shared the feeling that Český Krumlov focused only on tourists and on things that were old, not ‘alive’. We thought the place needed something like an intervention.”

Intervention, nice word for it; has that remained a guiding principle?

“I would say so. But the thing about Ukradená Galeries is that they crop are where they are wanted. It is not our initiative that they spread to different towns or cities but that someone there learned of the project and wanted one and took responsibility for it and we communicate and help each other. It isn’t any easy thing to run, to have a new artist and work every week.”

Alessandra Svátek, photo: Czech Television
Initially, I read, there were some legal problems as well. The display cases often belong to municipalities, has that been a problem?

“Sometimes. With the first instalment nobody noticed for weeks and months until suddenly we got a letter that we should remove the work because the case was rented to someone. But the letter was not signed or anything, we didn’t know if it was a joke. More weeks and months passed and nothing happened. But then we exhibited work by Georg Ritter, a very nice work. And it was stolen. On Monday, somebody came and asked us what had happened, and we thought it might be a joke as in ‘stolen gallery’ but it wasn’t and it happened twice more. After that we had the display case welded shut but then the city suddenly contacted us, saying what do you think are you doing?! Then we changed places and there were no more problems.”

It strikes me that there is a kind of playfulness in a lot of the work: you might not even realize what you are looking at, but then it clicks, you stop and look closely.

Do people generally react?

“I think you can get strong reactions, we certainly have. Many people have told us that they change their regular route so they can walk by at least once a week to see what is new, what has changed. The other thing which is interesting is how artists approach the task: often they find more room to experiment with something than if it was piece to go on display in a gallery. It is not official and many are more willing to experiment.”

I read that something like 700 artists have taken part. Who were some who were better-known and who, if any, made their name through the project?

Photo: Czech Television
“Among those who are well-known, we had work by Jan Hýsek, who later had an exhibition in the Rudolfinum Gallery, we had work by Roman Týc of Stohoven, Jiří David, the late Vít Soukup, Jan Šépka from the world of architecture and many, many more.”

And anyone who was discovered?

“We discovered many!”

Where are all the different Ukradená Galerie now?

“Český Krumlov, Písek, Děčín, Dresden, there is one in Linz but that isn’t really working now, there is one in Banská Štiavnica, one in Lisbon and one will be opening in Milano soon. The funny thing is that they all bear the name of the gallery in Czech, not a translation.”

What do you foresee the future of Ukradená Galerie to be?

“There is a lot of administration involved but also we have quite a few people involved. I can’t imagine, although it would be great to have more time for my own work, but for the moment I am focusing on this. The gallery is going up and we have better and better artists and more places. At the same time, some have closed down. But that’s okay too: it simply means in some areas the demands has lessened.”

Did any artists who took part, who came away with less than positive feelings, by the way? Maybe someone expected something different?

“We had some who maybe approached it like it was ‘just a box’ and didn’t care much. But then they saw all the people who showed up and had questions and it threw them off and they asked for a second date but that’s too late…”

Photo: Czech Television
So they took it as a missed opportunity, that they didn’t commit perhaps as much as they should have…

“Yeah, yeah, yeah: they thought it was just a box in the street.”

It’s never just a box in the street, everybody should know that by now!

“Yeah, that’s right!”