Interview with Vít Havránek, Member of the Jury, STRABAG Artaward International 2021–2023

What makes the CCE regions’ art scene unique?

Each region that shares a past, common milestones, exchanges and traumas is specific. Central and Eastern Europe is interlinked by the fact that it was part of the policies of the multi-ethnic Habsburg monarchy, in addition to being a recourse to it. In the nineteenth century, modernization was connected to movements seeking national identification and independence. Then there is the communist and socialist past after 1945. The satellite states were part of the so-called Second World. And if I were to mention at least one specific idea, it would be the collectively shared notion that the present and the future in these societies and cultures are the result of a more or less distant past. That is, the idea of a kind of omnipresent invisible hand of history that determines the possibilities and perspectives of culture in these countries. Art here always invokes arguments from history for its present and future manifestos.  

What do you think, which are the most common stereotypes of the CEE region’s art world?

Within these countries, a big and real stereotype is the focus on the self – on one’s own history, the national history of art, which as a result leads to a feeling of being undervalued in contact with the big metropolises. At the same time, it would be enough to pay more attention to the linguistic and cultural richness of neighbouring countries and minorities to compensate for this feeling. From the point of view of the metropolitan centres, the region was perceived as rather agrarian, where culture came by adopting existing discoveries, and originality was thus perceived more through folkloric patterns, medieval mysticism and alike. After 1989, when Eastern Europe established itself as a cheap factory for Western products, the West stereotypically viewed the region as one integrated area, while it was rather a puzzle of cultures. But even today, we have not been able to create a narrative on our own to answer what Central or Eastern Europe means, how to understand what is happening here, and what a shared vision of cultures within Europe might be.    

What do you think, how representative the Eastern European art in big collections?

From 1989 to the present, the world’s great museums, other institutional, corporate and private collections have been acquiring to their collections CEE works of (mainly) the post-war period. If we take into account the already existing representation of pre-war art and avant-gardes, then I think the situation is comparing to global South, global – post-colonial scope and other transversal criteria like gender, due to the historical situation balanced – there is probably no point in talking about absolute numbers, but above all the dynamics of interest, that is dynamically growing.

How important do you think awards and competitions are for artists today?

In the field of more contemporary art, art prizes are currently under review. Quite logically, critics question whether the principle of competition, known from the free market, should be the deciding mechanism in the field of art, where values and issues are often subjective and significance is not recognized immediately, but often with delays. Personally, I don’t think it makes sense to abolish prizes, but that we need to look for a hybrid solution – to reformulate prizes as support for the development of creativity and thus add some criteria’s to become more inclusive.  

Do you have any advice for artists out there thinking about entering the STRABAG Artaward International 2023 this year?

That’s a tough question. I think that even though we are in difficult times -after the covid pandemic, during the Russian war in Europe, during the continuous economic exploitation of humans and nature, it is inspiring for everyone to look for perspectives that have some transgressive potential to overcome these obstacles. So look for potentials of sustainable hope.

What makes the STRABAG Artaward International 2023 different from others?

For me it is mainly two things. Firstly, I really saw that unlike similar art collections, the employees really live with the art – they see it around them spread out in different spaces, offices every day, they are literally surrounded by it. This is exceptional. Secondly, the regional focus of the collection and its truly diverse breadth, determined by the way it is selected, is also interesting. Last, but not least, it’s also a kind of care and friendly treatment on long-term of the artists and everyone involved. I understand that for practical reasons it is not easy, but focusing on the medium of painting and drawing seems to me to limit the collection somehow, since so much in art today takes place in various medias in parallel. 

What role does this award play within the contemporary art scene?

I can’t make a comprehensive assessment, but I see it as a great motivation that gives support to artists and at the same time integrates their work into a certain corporate and international art context. It would be worth considering and evaluating whether the awareness of what specific works are in the collection are accessible and known to curators, academic professionals and the public, and whether, for example, such rich material as the hundreds of portfolios submitted by artists every year to the competition should somehow be made available.

What advice would you give someone applying the STRABAG Artaward International 2023?

I would say to formulate the artist statement well so that it succinctly captures the artist’s motivations and visions and, of course, compile the visual documentation well, this is always crucial. 

How does the selection process work? Are there particular characteristics that you and the jury look for?

The selection process goes in two rounds. It is valuable that the jury can see the evaluated works with their own eyes in the second round. Furthermore the jury members already know each other a little big. Its not only that they do discuss the works and influence each other’s arguments, but they understand the context and the relevance of these arguments in relation with the local scenes and their discourses. 

You usually receive several hundreds of applications. How long is the actual process of screening of applications and does the selection committee go through all of them?

Yes certainly each of us goes through all the applications and I suppose we all read the artistic statements of all the applicants. In the first round it takes several afternoons or evenings. Apart from being time consuming, it’s extremely interesting, so I think everyone does it with interest and responsibility.

Do you have some personal advice for young artists when it comes to the application process?

I’d say don’t get discouraged, and even if you don’t succeed the first time, make sure to apply next year. More than once this jury has chosen an artist for the second or third time. Also, if the artist is not selected, it says nothing about the quality of her*his work – with a similar number of applicants and the spectrum of the jury, the number of judging criteria is (with few exceptions) very large indeed. 

About Vít Havránek – Vice-Rector for International Relations, Academy of Fine Arts Prague / Member of the Jury, STRABAG Artaward International 2021–2023

Vít Havránek, Ph.D. is an art historian with an interest in the creation and history of artistic exchanges between the First, Second and Third Worlds after the Second World War.  

Havránek spent many years as the director of the art centre, which is part of a network of organisations active in five countries in Central and Eastern Europe. This experience gave him a unique overview of critical and innovative topics that bring together schools, museums, and art institutions in former East Europe, Central Asia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries where he has worked. He has curated many exhibitions of contemporary art, including U3 Triennial Ljubljana, Jakarta Biennale 2017, Manifesta 8. He has lectured at universities in the Czech Republic and as a guest lecturer at universities in the United States and Europe.

His articles have been published in books and catalogues by the Centre Pompidou, MoMA, MIT Press, and Sternberg Press.

As Vice-Rector for International Relations at AVU, Havránek has promoted the school’s international development. In collaboration with the school’s management, he has worked on implementing rules of social inclusion, long-term sustainability and gender equality. He serves as member of the advisory council of the Czech Ministry of Culture and as member of the art collections commission of the Czech Parliament.

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