US expat opens Prague poster museum

Czech Poster Museum, photo: archive of Glenn Spicker

Hundreds of vintage Czechoslovak posters will go on display this week in the new Czech Poster Museum in Prague. Located in a beautiful 15th century House at the Golden Grape at Malá Strana, the museum was established by Prague-based US businessman Glenn Spicker, a poster enthusiast who spent more than twenty years putting together his current collection. I visited the Czech Poster Museum a few days ahead of its official opening to talk to Glenn Spicker and I first asked him how he got the idea to establish the place:

Czech Poster Museum,  photo: archive of Glenn Spicker
“I am a little bit of a ‘vetešník.’ I am collecting things and it is hard for me to throw them out. When I came to this country in 1992, people were throwing things on the streets, especially the communist type of stuff. That’s how I started collecting.

“I was collecting for the Museum of Communism, and that occasionally led to posters. I didn’t think about it then, I just started to collect a little bit, but I really wasn’t an avid collector, someone who consciously came here to seek poster art.

“I was only collecting posters if I came across them. I was doing business, I had Bohemia Bagel and U malého Glenna and this was sort of side passion and one that was sort of affordable.”

So is this a way to display all the posters you have collected over the years?

“It got to be that way. I was thinking: where am I going to put all that stuff? But that was the beauty of the posters. I bought good shelving for them and the posters remained in great shape even after ten years, without taking up very much space. Whereas the collection I have of print blocks for textiles actually takes up my whole barn!”

So how many posters have you collected over the years?

“I don’t know, really. When this idea came to me, about ten years ago, I probably had around three or four hundred. Now I have about seven or eight hundred.

“It is not a huge collection. I am trying to collect more and more and I had to do a sort of sprint to the finish line to collect some of the great pieces that you see here.”

Is it still common to come across rare posters today?

Glenn Spicker,  photo: Jiří Němec
“Definitely not. In fact, poster art has always been hard to find. You can walk into 15 antique shops and only two of them will have something.

“Ten or fifteen years ago it wasn’t on the world market so much. But now, it is not quite like that. It has gone up in value and it’s more available an international market. Today, you might find these posters in France, for instance.

“So the situation has changed. I don’t have my finger completely dialled on it, because I am not an avid collector and it is not something I do all day. But I know enough people involved in it and I have been lucky enough doing it for a while.”

So how would you describe your museum? I guess it is more than just a place to store your posters…

“In some ways it started like that. And I should have said at the beginning that this project would never be here without my life partner Aneta Pažoutová. This project took a lot of effort and I have to thank her for making it happen.

“Also the timing just feels amazingly right. Now, poster are really sought after, you will find collectors here, Czech people love them. Now it feels like people really start appreciating this.”

How many posters are currently on display in the museum?

“We have about two hundred for these two exhibits. We started with a little bit lighter themes than I originally intended.

“I originally intended to do a visual history of a nation, starting with the inception of poster art and through the First Republic and WWI and II, and up to the Velvet Revolution.

“But I think space and time really constrained us, which is good. Because we decided to open up with one or two exhibits and change it again next year.

“This is both good and bad. That means I still have to collect posters, which is time consuming and expensive. But we would also like to cooperate with other amazing people, such as Nicolas Lowry in New York. We will probably do an exhibit of Prague tourism posters.

“I am also really excited that I met the guys over at Prague’s Světozor, maybe we can cooperate with them in the near future, as well as with other collectors.

“So I think we can keep it exciting for Czech people as well, because they are as much interested as tourists. But if it’s the same all the time, they are not going to come back.

Czech Poster Museum,  photo: archive of Glenn Spicker
“So if we can change the exhibits and do workshops here and bring young people, than I think it can be something a little bit more alive and always changing.”

So can you take me around the current exhibition and show me at least some of the posters?

“The other person heavily involved in this project was Jamie Mandelbaum, a good friend of mine, an artistic director and a very creative guy. I really trust him visually and the layout.

“We had to do this very quickly. When we found this location, we had only four months to put the display together. So we thought: What can we do before we can really work on a beautiful permanent collection and a sort of visual history of a nation.

“We wanted to think of some good themes that people really like, and that’s when we came up with food and drink. And Jamie came up with the idea of retro food porn. Nowadays, people are so interested in food everything you see out there to get people excited to consume food and drink.

“So that was one theme we came up, and the other one is Shopping behind the Iron Curtain.”

“We are standing in front of the first poster. I actually wanted that on the stairwell when you come up, because it is so cute. There is a little pig, drawn by Josef Lada, which says ‘Halo’.

“The idea behind the exhibition is a child that is growing up. First there are animals, then mother’s food, than you have raw organic farm food and as you grow up, you get into industrialisation.

“We wanted to end it visually with this poster which says ‘Kupuji Husí Játra’ (I buy goose liver), which is something children also have to learn about: animals die how the food gets on your plate.

“But visually we didn’t end on it because with the wall space and the lighting, we wanted to end on these large-sized posters.”

What is the oldest poster in this room?

Czech Poster Museum,  photo: archive of Glenn Spicker
“I do have a poster downstairs in the archive from 1897. It was a poster about abstinence, but it doesn’t really fit the theme of retro food porn, so we left it out. So I would guess that it would be something from 1920.

“These posters are some of my favourite. The reason why they look almost brand new is that we use special museum glass, which has no reflection at all.”

So what is it that you like about vintage posters so much?

“I can relate to them immediately and viscerally and enjoy them right away. You don’t have to be overtly knowledgeable about art. They were produced to make people buy this Melta coffee back in 1930. And it worked. That’s how it all started: the art of persuasion as opposed to high art.

“When you look at Alfons Mucha, Toulouse Lautrec and other early poster art, it was too artistic and didn’t really function as well. It’s got to draw you in and catch your attention quickly.

“So it’s aimed at the average dumb subject and that is me. I can look at some of these posters and say: that’s really cool. And this is what a lot of people are going to say. They are going to enjoy it, they are going to laugh at it or maybe find it funny, but I think that’s OK.”