The Path to a Code of Ethics Does not End Michal Novotný, Leoš Válka, František Zachoval

The first issue of Qartal brought an extensive text by Marek Pokorný in the Q Focus section. We now bring three reactions to the text. Curator Michal Novotný from the National Gallery in Prague and Leoš Válka, director of the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, express themselves from the position of the institutions mentioned by Pokorný in the original text. František Zachoval, curator and director of the Gallery of Modern Art in Hradec Králové, then formulates specific proposals from the parties to the future professional code of ethics, especially as regards the relations between public institutions and private stakeholders in art.

Mikoláš Aleš, Falling Down Drunk, 1891
Mikoláš Aleš, Falling Down Drunk, 1891
Mikoláš Aleš, Pig Slaughter, 1891
Mikoláš Aleš, Pig Slaughter, 1891
Mikoláš Aleš, A Guard of the Cabbage – Shepherd, 1891
Mikoláš Aleš, A Guard of the Cabbage – Shepherd, 1891

A Small Gallery and a Great Nation
Michal Novotný
Director of the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art National Gallery in Prague

In his book Malý český člověk a skvělý český národ (The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation), the social anthropologist, Ladislav Holý, shows how the idealized humanism of the representatives of Czech statehood forms a functional connection with the intolerance, rudeness, selfishness and other generally accepted petty dishonesties of everyday Czech life. Undoubtedly, much has changed since the book was first published in 1996. Even so, for me, a characteristic feature of Czech society remains a kind of jumping between an arrogant patting on the shoulders and the passive aggression of self-deprecation. This feature is also reflected in the perception and functioning of the National Gallery.

The word “National” already carries with it a number of unclear but almost always idealized projections of a small nation. Thus, there is a very unrealistic idea held by the public and politicians, and sometimes seen in the National Gallery’s relationship with itself, about what the NGP is and, at the same time, what it should have been a long time ago. On the one hand, Tate Modern, the Centre Pompidou, etc. are typically presented as the goal, with the usual “we want the West”, on the other hand, some of the recent Ministers of Culture have publicly stated that the National Gallery “does not work”. Hopes are then traditionally placed in an almighty director as the only one who can save the situation.

The reality is rather that, taking into account its given limits, the National Gallery works at a maximum – to the very extremes of those limits. It is an organization with 250 employees and most of those I have met work in it because they believe in it in some way. It is an organization that manages seven buildings with a state subsidy that has not changed for at least twenty years and is able to earn forty percent of its total budget itself each (non-pandemic) year. These baseline figures have not changed in the last three years and under the four directors that I remember. Nevertheless, the grey mass of National Gallery employees, invisible from media and political points of view, (with the vast majority of them receiving a salary amounting to two-thirds of that of a supermarket assistant) have been capable of implementing both ambitious projects (beyond compare in terms of production and funding within the context of our country) as well as dozens of smaller ones in the gallery’s infinite spaces.

The National Gallery is perceived as having to be at the absolute top level in all areas. At the same time, almost nobody has any problem telling the National Gallery, with unshakable confidence, how it should actually do better (and the case of the works owned by Vladimír Železný that were withdrawn from the Medek exhibition and the attitude of the media, absolutely uncritically publishing Železný’s statements, is symptomatic in this regard). Again, this shows the contradiction between the institution as a revered ideal, and the reality, when no one has any problem putting the boot into the actual National Gallery, with neither reverence nor respect. This is also why, as Marek Pokorný correctly writes, the symbolic capital of state-owned cultural institutions in the Czech Republic is so small that it is not even worth investing in them.

As Marek Pokorný stated in the discussion on the National Gallery in March last year, the political support that the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra has always had is crucial when comparing the successes of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra with those of the National Gallery. Of course, there is always a question of what should come first: results or respect and consequent support. However, if there is a border that separates us from a mythologized Europe, it is precisely the border of respect for institutions, including the institution of art which, in the Czech Republic, is still largely viewed as a right that is completely subjective.

Undoubtedly, institutions themselves must work on their own image. However, it remains unclear to me whether it is precisely thanks to the socio-political setting that we are moving in a rather vicious circle when it comes to these national institutions. A symptom of this is the expectation nowadays that ‘messianic- dictatorial’ directors should not only save this or that institution but also society, when they often rather undermine it, as Pokorný writes, all without public reaction.

In other words, it could be said that the Czech Republic actually has a better National Gallery than it deserves. And that the image of the National Gallery, including its self-perception, is actually a pretty good image of Czech society itself.

Marek Pokorný’s Moral Shotgun
Leoš Válka
Director of the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art

The first issue of Qartal magazine published a long article by Marek Pokorný, The Long Path to a Code of Ethics. This extensive text (a total of five pages) is a kind of carpet bombing of the ethically malnourished, sad landscape of cultural institutions and their functioning in the Czech Republic.

Its dramatic vocabulary, strong criticism and overall tone imply the author’s moral sovereignty (the intellectual purview is somehow, perhaps as a joke, clear from the individual subtitles, such as Fear and Trembling or The World as Will and Representation). The call for a code of ethics, the non-existence of which is leading us into a state of “uncertainty and aimlessness” is concluded with a challenge: “…Every large institution should incorporate its positions on these issues into a kind of constitution or code of ethics so that it can be predictable and consequent in future negotiations.”

The overall language of the article evokes a strange aftertaste of the world of cultural managers and their desire for clear rules, whereby “the written letter remains”, and correct, ethically regulated behaviour will automatically follow.

The main motive for my comment on this article is a short, yet substantial passage about the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art of which I am the director. For clarity, I’ll quote it here: “In the early days of the existence of a private institution such as DOX, there was a need to support certain values. To this day, DOX perfectly fills the role of a venue that nurtures a certain type of audience (such as the middle class), gives its needs a certain direction, and meets certain ideas regarding quality of life. But the moment we ask whether everything truly is as this private institution proclaims, we encounter a very ill-tempered response. Several years ago, DOX failed in the first round of a grant process to receive the large amount it had requested because the members of the committee did not recommend the gallery’s project. Soon, the media were full of interviews with this private institution’s representatives about the injustice they had suffered. A perfectly ordinary situation that has happened to more than a few people, but not everyone has the prime minister’s telephone number. It is a model case: a private institution asks for support from the public purse but is taken aback when not everybody appreciates the quality of its public service.”

A seemingly kind introduction is followed by the revelation of a truly “abominable state of affairs”.

I quote: “DOX […] nurtures a certain type of audience (such as the middle class)…”

DOX definitely does not nurture anyone, nor does it want to. It seems that Mr Pokorný still has a weapon or two from the years before 1989. I would really like to know what is meant by the middle class in relation to visitors to cultural institutions. Socio-economic category according to income? Social status? A Marxist point of view leaking through?

I further quote: “[…] gives its needs a certain direction, and meets certain ideas regarding quality of life.”

Probably an echo of a cultivating, educational, patronizing view of the role of exhibition institutions.

The second part, concerning the grant proceedings of the Prague Municipal Office in 2017, ends with a reminder that the denial of a grant is a common situation, but only DOX is taken aback “when not everybody appreciates the quality of its public service”. What Mr. Pokorný does not say is this: He was a member of the grant committee in the year in question. The committee that declined to support DOX. Unfortunately for Marek Pokorný, it turned out that he had a conflict of interest. A transparent summary is offered in a text by Jan H. Vitvar published on the website of the Respekt weekly on 17 March 2017: “This week, Marek Pokorný resigned from Prague City Council’s committee for awarding grants in the field of culture and the arts. The art manager of the Gallery of the City of Ostrava, PLATO, did so shortly after it became clear that, as the chairman of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award jury this year, he had decided to substantially increase support for the company organizing the competition. The rules of the grant committee, on the contrary, make it clear that its members must not be associated in any way with the projects they are assessing and, if this happens, they must notify the committee and abstain from voting. Pokorný did not do that. I would like to point out that, in addition to Marek Pokorný, there was another expert in the committee: Helena Musilová, curator of Museum Kampa. The committee granted a subsidy to three institutions in the field of fine arts: CZK 1.6 million to the Czechdesign company and the rest of the subsidy, worth almost CZK 13 million, was divided between the Jindřich Chalupecký Award and Museum Kampa.

What is striking about it, however, is that with the exception of designers, the committee divided the subsidy only between two institutions, in the programme of which both of the above members participate. The head of the Chalupecký Award jury, Pokorný, does not see a conflict of interest in this. ‘The world is simply complicated. However, this does not mean that we have to be paranoid,’ he reacted.“ Marek Pokorný had to resign, but in order to simplify the bureaucratic proceedings, all the decisions of the committee remained in force. DOX did not receive any support, the Jindřich Chalupecký Award received a significant financial amount. It is a pity that at the time of the morally demanding decision-making of the grant committee, Mr. Pokorný did not have an approved code of ethics at hand which would have made his decision-making easier. Maybe next time.

Update of the Code of Ethics
František Zachoval
Director of the Gallery of Modern Art in Hradec Králové

The current Czech Professional Code of Ethics for Czech Museums of Art, based on the ICOM Professional Code of Ethics for Museums, is not necessary for the operation and regulation of public exhibiting institutions in several respects since many aspects of gallery operation are addressed by current legislation. On the other hand, in the thirteen years since the last update of the Code, the cultural scene has changed significantly. Thus, there are significant gaps in the ethics of running galleries that we should address.


The Gallery of Modern Art in Hradec Králové, which I represent, is a public exhibiting institution. Many similar institutions in the CR permanently preserve, register, professionally process, scientifically research and make accessible works of art for all citizens in a way that guarantees equal access. The standardized public benefit service also means that the gallery provides information on collections on an ongoing basis, has strict administration of depositories, ensures that acquisition activities are supervised by an expert board, strictly supervises the export of collections abroad, has a strict regime governing the management of its collections as well as a sophisticated security regime, but above all, it retains its professional credibility. At the same time, being an employee of the gallery is a responsible commitment to the public, i.e. a commitment to build and maintain the highest degree of objectivity. In short, a gallery is an institution serving society; it develops the education of society, bringing it benefits.

Over the last thirty years, the museums sector has undergone significant restructuring, and some public services have been transferred to the private and commercial sectors in the legal forms of foundations, limited liability companies, funds, agencies, etc. Fine art has become a profitable business item and investment for the private sector, i.e. a form of depositing money and protecting it from unforeseen economic crises (inflation, recession, weakening of the economy, etc.). There is also art and its creators, or even forgeries, that the private sector needs to appraise in order to increase their price. Often, the behaviour of stakeholders in private exhibiting institutions is masked by seemingly altruistic goals such as concern for public space, education, and the cultivation of society. But we also find here political (power) objectives and the related strengthening of the social status.

Owners of private exhibiting institutions pose as patrons, altruists and philanthropists.

The private sector simply cannot do without public exhibiting institutions. Credibility, tradition, research and the interpretation of the acquired knowledge provide the basis for trust even for the private sector. In addition, public institutions systematically invest in their own resources, which can no longer be said about the private sector.

The update of the code of ethics should define the relationship to the activities of privately-owned exhibiting institutions, collectors (actively trading in their collections), art foundations, private galleries and limited liability companies in the field of art, joint-stock companies in the field of art, investment funds in the field  of  art  (all  collectively referred to below as “private stakeholders in art”) that also have, in addition to a declared public interest, the art trade as the subject of their business along with other activities that sometimes are rather odd. It is certain that in many cases relations and cooperation between the private and public spheres are beneficial for both parties. Under no circumstances is it possible to generalise and apply particular controversial cases to the whole environment. Numerous private galleries, foundations and collectors selflessly help artists, which I appreciate and support.

Update – Private Stakeholders in Art

The update should refer in a substantive way to several pressing issues. It is obvious that we will always have to tackle the criteria when evaluating specific points. The update primarily aims to see the given area of phenomena in real terms, i.e. to name unethical cases in a non-directive way.

(a) We should be cautious to borrow works of art from “private stakeholders in art” to exhibit them, as the presentation of their works of art creates an appreciation, that is, an advantage in the art market.

(b)  If a “private stakeholder in art” offers exhibitions/exhibits for which public institutions do not have experts in the given field, works of art with questionable authorship can quite easily appear in the exhibition (consciously but also unconsciously).

(c)  We should be cautious to cooperate with persons who are in employment relations or have a property relationship with a “private stakeholder in art” or their representatives because of a conflict of interest. Thus, if such a person has some interest in, is paid or otherwise motivated by a “private stakeholder”, they certainly do not represent the public interest even if they themselves get the impression that they must all of a sudden act in the public interest.

(d)  We should be cautious to use the services of “private stakeholders in art” who offer to ensure communication with other, often unknown and sensitive, collectors who think that direct dialogue with  a  public  institution will jeopardize their anonymity and privacy. The public institution will then not have fully verifiable information about the owner (hence the provenance) of the work of art in question.

Borrowing works for an exhibition in this way is extremely problematic. If it is later proven that the borrowed work is a forgery, the public institution also becomes, through its lax approach and lack of scrutiny, a partaker in the fraud, i.e., an accomplice.

(e)  We should be cautious to borrow works of art from the owners of collections who have their collections primarily because they provide a kind of cleansing of past or even current socially problematic business activities.

(f)  We should be cautious in respect of curators and historians of art, self-appointed curators, who are, at the same time, analysts, investors, private gallerists, financial partners of private collections or shareholders of private galleries, investment funds and similar market investment activities. Their professional or curatorial activities may again represent a conflict of interest and do not give a transparent and credible impression in the space of public institutions.


Institutional criticism,  self-regulatory tendencies and defining the public and private spheres have been developing in the context of public exhibiting galleries in the international environment over the last sixty years. The text is a probe into the issues associated with relations between public exhibiting institutions and the private sector. Hidden mechanisms that accompany the interaction between the public and private spheres were presented in such a way as to make these relationships transparent to the general public.

The  local  collection-creating  institutions after 1989 (apart from replacements of directors and other staff adjustments) have not undergone a fundamental self-reflection, without which, unfortunately, we cannot currently establish  a  strong  position  for these public institutions in the 21st century.

A partial institutionally critical, artistic and research project, examining  the  state  of public collection-creating institutions, was the Representation of the Nation project (Isabela Grosseová, Jesper Alvaer, 2008). However, it did not provoke an adequate professional and public discussion. I can see no defensible argument as to why a standardized public benefit service should legitimize the activities of “private stakeholders in art” and increase their utility. The stereotypes regarding cooperation with the private sector from the 1990s are still present, so it cannot be assumed that tomorrow everything will be ideal, and above all transparent, for the public. If an appropriate phase of self-regulation or clarification of the positions of the involved players does not appear in the near future, then we are heading for a situation whereby, as Jürgen Habermas put it, the public has been replaced by a pseudo-public and sham-private world of culture consumption.