By Lindaurova, Lenka
The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs , Vol. 12, No. 1
On the 19th of October 2008, one of the biggest events on the Czech art scene happened since 1989. The massive street advertising campaign that preceded this day was, however, met with a lukewarm reaction from the Czech media and cultural institutions. On this day a monumental center for contemporary art--DOX--opened as the first such Czech institution dedicated to the display of temporary art exhibitions, something like a Czech "Guggenheim." DOX was literally born from nothing; its founders, Leos Valka and his partners are neither gallery owners, collectors, nor let alone millionaires.
But the question is, why was such a cultural event not given its due glory? The answer is simple. Culture, specifically modern art, comes second to the Czech's other social interests. While in the first half of the 1990s, the Czech Republic tried to incorporate itself into the "Western" context of modern art, the situation (not only for us) has changed. We have now found ourselves stuck between the globalized market for art and, speaking like Derrida, on the "indecisive" self-colonized periphery of this market.
Our forced separation from the transatlantic culture did great harm to us. Nor were we able to recover from this harm during the 1990s. The local institutions that cater to visual art missed out on interesting and valuable collections (including
Western art), failed to find experienced managers or appropriately orientated theorists, and lacked the necessary autonomy. To this day they are still managed under outdated laws. The need to establish a place in Prague to display contemporary art was much discussed throughout the 1990s. During the renovation of the convention and trade hall, which was the de-facto National gallery during socialism, people discussed erecting a brand new building for modern and contemporary art far outside of town near the airport. As Jaroslav Andil, the artistic director of DOX said, to this day, if culture is not part of a political or commercial gain, it will be sidelined to the periphery of people's awareness.
Leos Valka is an unremarkable and quiet man inside his fisherman's vest. No one would guess that he is the main developer and manager of the entire project, which has cost more than 200 million Czech koruna.
Valka studied neither the history of art galleries, nor even the history of architecture. Rather, he specialized in the renovation of tall historical monuments. He learned this trade following his immigration to Australia, where he had traveled with some of his coworkers in 1981, and thereafter established a company in high-rise construction. In the mid-nineties, he became the sole owner and director of an international construction company, which specialized in skyscrapers. After 1989, he periodically returned to the Czech Republic, where he also established a building renovation company. His income has never been spectacular.
From the time he was a child, he followed trends in art, architecture, and literature, and throughout his travels he became interested in not only what was housed inside the museums and galleries, but in the structures themselves--the functionality of their architecture and interior design. While searching Prague for interesting loft s, he discovered what was to become DOX: an abandoned factory building in the district named Holesovice. He and a Dutch business partner (who helped finance his building renovation business) decided to put their profits towards building a gallery. Valka collaborated with the architect Ivan Kroupou, and eventually bought the entire site of the former factory. And just as the original budget expanded, so did his new ambitions: coffee shop, gift shop, auditorium, and restaurant. Finding more financing for his project wasn't easy. In the end he built the gallery with only a few partners. But without the necessary prestige and programs, he was unable to entice foreign investors. …