Ljubljana: a city of major cultural achievements where one can still grow one’s own lettuce

2. 11. 2020


Photo: Mateja Jordovič

Blaž Peršin is a perfect example of a modern cultural manager. And not just because he is modern – he is also well-read, articulate, responsive and professional. He believes in the power of culture and art, in their necessity and indispensability, which is why he is able to call his job as Director of Ljubljana Museum and Galleries his calling. As a member of the Bid Team, he applies the same passion and acumen to the drafting of Ljubljana’s bid for the European Capital of Culture 2025 title. Peršin lives in Trnovo, a Ljubljana district he says is famous for its sincerity and iceberg lettuce.

Our discussion is taking place a day after the Government of the Republic of Slovenia passed a new package of measures for the “fight” against the novel coronavirus. What do these measures mean for our museums and galleries? The visitors’ current experience of them must surely differ from the experience before the pandemic. What is it that is different?

The effects of the closure of cultural institutes for Ljubljana and Slovenia are catastrophic. We must understand that art and culture are activities that don’t immediately show results. They underlie our understanding of who and what we are. Culture, and with it art, define our relationships to the place and time in which we live. We must not let the pandemic to bring culture to its knees. It is the responsibility of the politicians and decision-makers to stop that from happening. Now, for museums and galleries, the pandemic has of course transformed the way we operate, the way we interact with our audiences. During the pandemic, we have launched e.g. the Corona Belongs in a Museum project, which addressed these critical moments of our lives; we asked our public to contribute object, photos and stories related to this time. It will surely be interesting to look back and see how our lives developed – or were suspended for a while. And looking back in such a way lies mostly in the province of art and culture.

How forcefully has the “new normalcy” affected Ljubljana’s bid to become the European Capital of Culture 2025?

The course of the pandemic turned everything upside down. Ljubljana, the city with the most developed cultural landscape in Slovenia, suddenly received a powerful blow. We have thus based our bid even more firmly on solidarity and mutual trust. The administration of the City of Ljubljana understands our mission very well, as they’ve been aware for quite a while that culture equals investment in the future rather than spending. We hope that state authorities come to realize this as well.

Ljubljana’s bid for the ECoC 2025 title thus ultimately rests on the paradigm that culture means development, that it’s a tool with which to integrate tourism, urban development, social cohesion and the private sector. Ljubljana and its region want to offer up an example that even when you’re severely wounded, you can still find ways to get back up and develop.

As Director of Ljubljana Museum and Galleries, you’re a man of many international connections from which you can draw good practices. Are there any foreign galleries or museums that inspire you?

Development trends change swiftly, e.g. Barcelona, which had been celebrated until recently, is now suffering greatly from mass tourism. There are many good practices, but they all have a common denominator – that museums should be open and should reflect the community in which they operate. Also, that we should invest in human resources and training, that we should facilitate development rather than hinder it. Build capacities necessary to accomplish things. And all of this depends on the human factor.

The ideal gallery and museum understand the environment in which they operate, developing their collections and projects through communication with audiences. Museums and galleries have long since moved on from being mere guardians of the past – they are our cathedrals of learning, of opinion-sharing; one could also call them conflict-solvers.

And how could Ljubljana become an inspiration to other cities?

(Laughs.) That’s the million-dollar question. Still, the city of Ljubljana stands out in terms of quality of life. Some time ago I met a Norwegian who was looking for the perfect city. He had travelled quite a bit of the world carrying out comparative studies. He now lives in Ljubljana. The city is just the right size, close to Mediterranean ease and mountain peaks, a mixture of the Central-European mentality and Balkan vehemence. A city where safety is not just an empty word and where the green belt provides a sense of environmental awareness. These are perhaps our most pronounced attributes, those that cannot be found anywhere else. And that is why Ljubljana should be able to inspire others. However, to do so, we should also improve our mentality somewhat, as we could use a bit more cosmopolitanism.

One of the key pillars of the bid and the ECoC 2025 project, as well as Ljubljana’s vision of becoming the European capital, is the construction of the Cukrarna Gallery. Why is this so significant?

Establishing the Cukrarna is important for the capital because it will inaugurate a new understanding of the relevance of modern art in Ljubljana, in Slovenia, as well as the country’s international environment. Ljubljana currently lacks a large-scale venue for visual arts exhibitions and contemporary art. The Cukrarna Gallery won’t operate as a museum, preserving and exhibiting its collections, but rather as a living organism that will facilitate contact with the current production, both Slovenian and foreign, as well as with important contemporary artistic practices using a multitude of media. Cukrarna will provide access to relevant artistic production that will engage the spirit and allow us to develop. It might even take a step further from being an exhibition space, or Kunsthalle, in the classical sense, becoming instead a venue where art is performed.

What will Cukrarna mean for artists of Ljubljana – and elsewhere?

The international nature of Cukrarna’s operation will facilitate interactions between domestic and foreign artists and practices. Slovenia lacks a certain verve in this regard and could benefit from becoming a bit more audacious. We’re used to representing ourselves as “small but interesting”, however, that often involves being unable to look beyond our borders. Perhaps we should try being a bit more significant than we seem to ourselves. Cukrarna will thus be an opportunity for our art scene to take ownership of the relevance that it is due.

Cukrarna sits on the banks of the Ljubljanica. The river is considered a piece of “living” heritage, meaning that it is the site of ever new archaeological discoveries and studies. What kind of studies are currently being carried out on the river?

The rich archaeological heritage of Ljubljanica’s basin is the source of a ceaseless series of discoveries that show us what a storied history this area had had. From the oldest known wheel in the world, through the discovery of a large boat from classical antiquity, to the creation of the Museum of Ljubljanica in Vrhnika, archaeologists and other experts are constantly working to preserve this heritage while at the same time thinking about which aspects could be used to draw tourists to the region. Today’s globetrotters and seekers of boutique archaeological points of interest have come to personify the new, more subtle type of nomad. And Ljubljanica can offer the kind of archaeological high points few other European regions can.

The ECoC Ljubljana 2025 project has a very modern outlook but nevertheless thinks, considers and uses Ljubljana’s heritage – including Plečnik’s “collected works” – at every step of the way. Why is it so important to integrate the past and present?

Plečnik’s creative credo was to establish Ljubljana as a capital based on a humanist, almost renaissance-like vision of a connection between people and their urban environment. So why not upgrade his vision – from a contemporary perspective, of course. Heritage is most alive when it has a function, when it reflects the potential that surrounds it. Ljubljana is not a megalopolis, and we should be aware of that – instead of acting like a bull in a china shop we should carefully consider every change we make, as the consequences can be quite long-lasting. Mr. Koželj often describes this approach as a series of small steps towards a greater change. And a change towards solidarity must necessarily be leveraged by a vision. I think Ljubljana’s candidacy for the ECoC 2025 title is a step towards that goal, towards a joining of social integration with the powerful potential of the desire to create a better tomorrow.

Interviewer: Ana Schnabl


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