Focus Institutions

The Possible Institution

The Museum as an (Open) Project
by Vladiya Mihaylova

Analytical narrative essay based on personal experience as curator of the Vaska Emanuilova Gallery (1)

In 2007, right after graduating from Sofia University, I applied for a job at the Sofia City Art Gallery. It was a challenge. The City Gallery was looking for a curator of its newly opened branch, the Vaska Emanuilova Gallery. I must admit that, just as the other applicants for the position, I too was tempted by a supplement to the open call. The new gallery was to also house the Meeting Place project. Launched in the smallest room of the City Gallery at the initiative of Maria Vassileva in 2003, this project had quickly become popular because it presented young artists and curators. I came from another field, that of Cultural Studies, but it was already clear to me that the project provided access, and that access was an event, a chance and a privilege. Contemporary art in Bulgarian museums wasn’t that popular, and there was almost no room for young artists. I knew that “in theory” since I had recently completed my final-year dissertation on the art of the 1990s in Bulgaria, where I described the battles of and for contemporary art in its quest for legitimacy and place in Bulgarian institutional life.

Institutionalization did not necessarily have negative implications. I realize that in the Bulgarian case, it was a necessary and expected process of recognition, of affirmation of meaning, which had strong political implications. It wasn’t limited solely to new media, artists and works – it was much more comprehensive. It required a change in the attitude towards art, in the practices of institutions, in professional standards, in the horizon of ambitions, in cultural self-identification, in the habits of viewing and communication, etc. Contemporary art as a project was transforming the City Gallery, just as the City Gallery was facilitating its promotion and recognition in Bulgaria.
It was a critical agent in the foundations of the existing institution at the very least because its horizon of aspirations and assessments lay beyond the national culture and its museum representations, beyond the canon of the Bulgarian artistic tradition. After 1989 this meant, above all, restoring contacts with the Western world, which had
been interrupted by the period of socialism. The “new” move towards the West was, in essence, a project – a “project for filling the blanks”² in art as well as, more generally, in the system of institutions and organizations in which art develops in Bulgaria.

Project = Task
The Vaska Emanuilova Gallery is located right next to a small park and is a space with large windows. Through them passers-by can see the permanent exhibition of sculptures by Vaska Emanuilova, which she donated to the City Gallery in the 1980s. The inner, side rooms house exhibitions of contemporary art and young artists as well as other, temporary, historical exhibitions. Vaska Emanuilova’s distinctly classical sculptures of female nudes are poetically present in the gallery’s space – captured in moments of contemplation, “dreams”, “reverie” (as their titles also suggest). The subtle approach to the female body in some of the sculptures is combined with a clear social message in others – the figures of women harvesters, women from the mountains, as well as in the historical (and some ideological) works. The ideological imprint of the socialist period in Bulgaria (1944–1989), in which Vaska Emanuilova spent most of her life, is also present in the exhibition, although the sculptor is primarily known for her nudes. Despite this, her early social convictions and topics, found already in the years before 1944 as a commitment to “‘the native’ understood in the most democratic, popular sense”³, never left the artist’s thoughts and work. Their intertwinement, the eclecticism of classical, modern and social, the equal attitude towards the working woman bent over wheat sheaves and the woman in a coquettish posture of “expectation” (that can be interpreted as urban, bourgeois culture), reveal a creative individuality guided much more by feelings and intuition than by particular concepts and (political) ideas. They reveal an element of frankness and untamed freedom.

Maybe that is also why the young artists’ attitude towards Vaska Emanuilova’s works was driven mostly by intuition and by an unspoken but obvious desire to “free” the sculptures and images (the images in the sculptures). To “see” them beyond the official narrative, tradition and/or history as a pure, immediate presence, through mirrors, collages, various contemporary sculptures and objects placed side by side with them, by rearranging, outlining zones in the gallery’s space; as well as through many unrealized ideas – to dress them, to turn them into objects on wheels moved by remote control, etc.

The side-by-side presence of Vaska Emanuilova’s sculptures and various exhibitions of young artists delineated diverse spaces, paces and rhythm of viewing, open to different, and occasionally intertwining, temporalities. By this last I don’t mean only historical time but also the time of perception of the works, of their life in the present, the conjunction of past, present and future contained in images, according to Georges Didi-Huberman⁴, as an invariably present possibility, as a fundamental potential. This intrinsic conjunction and the possibilities for different combinations and constellations between them was the imaginary task of the Vaska Emanuilova Gallery project – an offer, a particular instance, and a space where tradition can be contemporized, while contemporaneity can be reflected in tradition.

The “policy” of mixing objects, spaces and times upon the opening of the Vaska Emanuilova Gallery already existed in curated exhibitions at the City Gallery (and long before that, back since the end of the 1980s, in different works and exhibitions of Bulgarian artists). A case in point was “Presences/Absences” (2006) – an exhibition curated by Irina Genova and Lyubinka Stoilova, which displayed a mosaic of Bulgarian women artists and architects of the 1920s and 1930s. Several contemporary women artists were also invited to take part in the exhibition. This type of juxtaposition was (and is) offered by “The Other Eye” project, in which the City Gallery invites non-art theorists or non-curators to curate an exhibition of works from its collection. The first exhibition (“Artist in the Storage”, 2010) within the framework of this project was curated by the artist Luchezar Boyadzhiev, who applied the principle of montage and collage based on delineation of meaningful axes within the gallery’s space. A similar idea of placing artworks side by side, not necessarily within some theoretical framework, informs the principle of “intuitive” curating, which underpinned the exhibition “Art without/with the Times?” (2020) curated by Daniela Radeva and Luchezar Boyadzhiev.

All those curatorial practices contained, to one extent or another, a critical potential. They changed the hierarchy of genres, the differences in the forms of representation of historical periods, the chronology, thematic or stylistic organization of the exhibition space, etc. They also changed the theoretical approaches, the methodology at the basis of exhibition practices, creating new potential narratives and possible reflections. We may say that, in a certain sense, they freed (laid bare) time in the images. Let us not forget that, along with contemporary art, the term “visual (vizualno) art” also made its way into Bulgaria, replacing the term “pictorial (izobrazitelno) art” (or “fine art”) and focusing theoretical interest on the creation, perception, representation, and circulation of images.

Project = Process
As we know from Johan Huizinga, play is a culture-forming factor. The reshuffling of meanings in the play-based approach to the exhibition space contained (and still contains in some cases) a critical potential. It contains a potential for reconsidering the place of the museum (the institution), for its reinvention in contemporary times, which inevitably involves finding its public role and position in the present, too.

In a broader context, art theorist and curator Nina Möntmann has pointed out that in the 1990s, some progressive art institutions internalized the critical potential of artworks of the 1970s and developed an auto-critique in their curatorial practices:

“Indeed, curators no longer just invite critical artists, but are themselves aiming to change institutional structures, hierarchies and functions. Reacting to the current developments, ‘institutions of critique’, from the mid- or late-1990s on, deployed a criticism of globalized corporate institutionalism and its consumer audience.”⁵

The context framing Möntmann’s reflections is related to the neoliberal processes, globalization, and fundamental changes in the financing and role of art institutions, in which public resources and hence the public role and interest have gradually declined or are at least endangered. Art institutions have become increasingly dependent on the market and private corporations (private interest as a whole), making them more conservative in their policies and less experimental. They have begun to resemble “malls” looking for a good commercial effect in producing blockbuster and spectacular exhibitions. The public sphere as such has changed. Globalization has cut museums off from their local audiences, reorienting them towards an imaginary (consumer) audience.

In Bulgaria, the situation is somewhat different, although the dynamics of the processes are similar. The sudden withdrawal of the state after 1989 led to sudden impoverishment of museums; until then, the state had been the only patron of art. Museums turned into venues for various events, and the funds they received were insufficient to cover the maintenance costs of their huge infrastructure. Museums were “abandoned” to the market – but, given the absence of private capital and patrons,
there practically was no art market in Bulgaria. Thus, the very “identity” of museums remained buried in the past; their collections were not updated and their practices of displaying and presenting art not only did not develop, they actually deteriorated with regard to basic standards. The public sphere was in crisis also because the “new” situation enabled the exertion of various private, personal influences which could provide access to resources and which controlled or even dictated the activity of institutions.

The institutionalization of contemporary art in Bulgaria took place precisely in this context of a shrinking public sphere. This process was further aggravated by the concomitant collapse of the authoritarian state in which the public sphere was dominated by ideology and was in fact a pseudo-public sphere based on political and ideological subservience, not on freedom and access. The critique (mentioned above) inherent in artistic and curatorial practices was twofold. In terms of ideas and expressive devices it had parallels in the neo-avant-garde movements of the second half of the twentieth century; in some respects it was left-wing insofar as it critiqued the framework of art production and presentation, and attacked the system rooted in the political (party) conjuncture as well as the tradition produced by that system. On the other hand, however, because of its late emergence and the political context of “shaking off socialism”, this critique was in fact right-wing and insisted on following professional standards, opening up to free enterprise and the market, and creating new authorities and stars.

Let us return to the particular case of the Vaska Emanuilova Gallery. Being the branch of a larger museum, the gallery has never had its own administration and accounting department; the space is too small to serve as a venue for external events or to rent out. This proved to be convenient insofar as it allowed the exhibitions in the gallery to follow very clearly planned programmes, to have their own focus and rhythm, and thus, to build a general context over time. On the one hand, they collected an archive about Vaska Emanuilova herself; on the other, they contextualized her art historically and, at the same time, opened up fields for free interplay of meanings between her works and the works of young artists; between the museum as history and as the present, here-and-now time of one exhibition or another. The gallery has always been admission-free and over the years it has managed to attract a young audience that would hardly be a potential audience of the permanent museum display.

The space was accessible, it opened up to contemporary urban culture, to the park that is immediately in front of it, and gradually joined different networks. In 2016, together with the weekly "Literary Newspaper (Literaturen vestnik) and part of its editors, including Kamelia Spassova, Maria Kalinova, BVB and Ognian Kassabov, we organized a DADA NIGHT⁶ in honour of the 100th anniversary of Dada. The gallery was open from 10 pm to 7 am, and the programme featured readings of contemporary Bulgarian poetry, seminars, sound performances with squeaking balloons, and puppet shows. Among the people who attended the event were members of the New Left Perspectives collective, as well as anarchists who wanted to persuade us to join the strikes of workers in France. This was a wide opening-up of the museum, bricolage and play that could be elaborated further and built upon, and which provided an opportunity to reconsider the museum’s position. What’s more, in an imaginary space, the free play with images and accessibility continued the down-to-earth, friendly, close to people line in the oeuvre of Vaska Emanuilova herself.

The gallery has always been slightly aloof from the main processes on the Bulgarian art scene. It appeared at a time when the Bulgarian public sphere slowly began to “recover” and to expand.

Project = Opportunity = Future?
“...genuine, pure play is one of the main bases of civilization...”⁷
The last few years have seen signs of development of the museums in Bulgaria. Public funding has been gradually increasing – albeit not for all museums, but at least for
those which have managed to improve their contacts with municipal administrations and to work well with them. Various programmes providing small grants for projects
have appeared, and the digitalization process, flawed as it may be, has begun. With the exception of several museums, however, as a whole, the relation of the museum to contemporary art and society in Bulgaria has not improved; nor has its public role been reconsidered. Striving to attract audiences and additional funding, some museums have resorted to commercial projects, such as setting up bookshops and gift shops on their premises. We are yet to see whether commercial activities will contribute to the gradual decentralization of the museum and create opportunities for autonomy and revenue that will complement its budget and secure greater possibilities for autonomous action and programming. In any case, although late, with tiny steps and with their post-socialist specificities, museums in Bulgaria are now following the general international trends which, according to many critics, are turning museums into malls.

The question is how, in this fragile situation of still-forthcoming commercialization, can we preserve the potential of museums to be something else? How can we address the issue of reconsidering the public role of museums (as well as of institutions in general)?

According to Nina Möntmann:

“Therefore, a conceivable new institution of critique would be one that maintains and expands its participation in (semi-) public space, and at the same time creates free unbranded spaces and negates dependencies. It could counter the corporate globalization that neo-capitalism created, instead enabling an active and immediate global exchange of diverse public groups and individual voices, and a critique of the nation-state. It would have to widen its scope, consider
cross-genre collaborations with established as well as alternative organizations, and initiate multi-disciplinary activities.”⁸

Much of what Möntmann is talking about is contained as a potential, as an ongoing project in the experimentation with critical curatorial strategies and practices mentioned above. For the time being, however, they remain rather within the realm of play, insofar as they have not been transformed into a strategy or comprehensive museum policy. We may probably imagine, though, how the (new) relations generated in play become development strategies – towards critical studies of the past; towards opening up more and more new zones of freedom of images; towards shortening the distance between museum and audience and addressing the latter not as part of an imaginary nation but as people from particular communities; towards the city and the space around museums; towards possible real-life and virtual networks and spaces (knowledge exchange programmes, conferences, joint research projects); towards the
digital world, etc.

Such a public, critical, social, and educational mission of the museum is not necessarily in contradiction with the need to integrate it into the contemporary economy. It is a matter of judgment and balance as well as of clear political definition of the role of the contemporary museum in society. In a sense, it would continue developing further the critical potential of contemporary art in Bulgaria by opening a new page of institutional critique beyond “the shaking-off of socialism” (the shaking-off of communism) which, in many respects, has led to the forgetting and displacement of the social perspective and way of thinking. To quote Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell: “Museums, as social institutions, have the opportunity and the obligation to question the way in which society is manipulated and governed. Activism also means resistance – the critical questioning and re-imagining of the status quo.”⁹

I have always believed that the Vaska Emanuilova Gallery could be a possible model in this regard.


  1. This essay does not represent an official position of the Vaska Emanuilova Gallery.
  2. Vladiya Mihaylova: “The Bulgaria Case: Contemporary Art beyond the Battlefield of Language Games towards Strategies of Possible Political Solutions” (in Bulgarian). Piron, No 4 (17 December 2013) THE MUSEUM: Expanding the Field (in Bulgarian),
  3. Dimitar Avramov, “Painting and Aesthetics in Kiril Petrov’s Popular Primitive Art” (in Bulgarian). In: Bulgarian Artists, ed. Dimitar Avramov. Sofia: Stefan Dobrev, 2014, pp. 299–320, here p. 312.
  4. Georges Didi-Huberman: “Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism”. In: Compelling Visuality: The
    Work of Art in and out of History, ed. Claire Farago and Robert Zwijnenberg. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003, pp. 31–44.
  5. Nina Möntmann: “The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism: Perspectives on a Possible Future”. In: Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, ed. Gerald Rauning and Ray Gene. London: MayFlyBooks, 2009, pp. 155–159, here p. 155.
  6. The joint initiative and part of the programme were published in “Literaturen Vestnik”, no. 24, 15–21 June 2016.
  7. Johan Huizinga: “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture”. London, Boston and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949, p. 28.
  8. Möntmann, “The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism”, p. 158.
  9. Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell, “Posterity Has Arrived: The Necessary Emergence of Museum Activism”. In: Museum Activism, ed. Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell. London: Routledge, 2019, pp. 1–12, here p. 6.