Think of Eastern European businessmen, and unsavoury images of tracksuited heavies doing deals in saunas may spring to mind. But beyond these hackneyed stereotypes, some who have made a packet are ploughing it back into society.
Jānis Zuzāns is one such enlightened entrepreneur. After making his fortune operating gambling halls, he has become Latvia’s largest private patron of the arts, lavishly bankrolling awards, stipends and publishing. Over 30 years, his family has amassed the world’s largest privately held collection of Latvian art, embracing over 25,000 paintings, sculptures and other media. And he has just unveiled an innovative space where the public can admire these treasures.
Popping the corks
Travel east of Aleksandra Čaka iela in central Rīga, and al fresco cafes and posh boutiques give way to a century of accumulated soot and sweat. But even in these parts, many fine buildings from the city’s industrial heyday sit waiting for some tender love and care.
The handsome brick edifice at Lācplēša iela 101 has recently enjoyed just such a makeover. Originally built in 1910 as a factory making corks, it hosted festivals and parties in the 1990s, before Jānis Zuzāns acquired it in 2017 for his Zuzeum project.
According to Ieva Zībarte, head of exhibitions at the Zuzeum, the restoration has struck a balance between revitalising the site and intelligently repurposing what has accumulated over the decades. Mindful that the construction industry is the second biggest producer of waste on the planet, a carwash shed has been turned into storage for the collection, while a plastic and aluminium hut is a small exhibition hall. On the other hand, an ugly fence was pulled down to create a new public square, which is dotted with sculptures and is regarded as another exhibiting platform.
As a trained architect who has also branched out into art curation and writing, Ieva brings many talents to the job. She believes that starting with the Berga Bazārs plaza in the 1990s, private investors have shown the way in breathing life into neglected corners of Riga, and the Zuzeum is a continuation of this proud tradition.
“Capitalism or communism, all of these ideologies bought into the great modernist utopian ideas, which displaced heritage with giant motorways, cities designed for cars,” she says. “And now the trend is to try and turn this around, by narrowing streets to reduce traffic, and restoring human scale to cities. Because nothing is more delightful than an Italian piazza.”
Inside, contemporary Latvian paintings hanging in the café/lobby further blur the line between functional and display areas. The main exhibition hall is housed in the old factory machine room, with the ceiling still crisscrossed by original ventilation pipes.
The museum is accessible for people with disabilities, and except for the main exhibition hall, all the areas are open free of charge. This includes the rooftop terrace where even in winter people will be able to come and sit with a rug and a cup of hot chocolate and admire the view of post-industrial Riga. Hulking chimneys mingle with the church spires of the Maskačka neighbourhood, as trains rumble down to the nearby central station.
Ieva sees parallels between their journey and the museum’s mission of giving Latvian art a wider audience.
“I’m glad we’re near the railway, because it once connected Riga with Berlin and Paris, and with the Rail Baltica project hopefully that link will be re-established,” she says.
The show must go on
The Zuzeum officially opened last autumn and operated with various restrictions until harsher lockdown rules closed down all museums in December. In early June this year, the doors were unlocked again, but visitor numbers are limited and functions, its main source of revenue, are still off limits.
Ieva makes no secret that this has been a tough time. She argues that a well-ventilated, responsibly managed institution like the Zuzeum should be allowed to remain open.
“Clearly, we need to find a way to live with Covid, and a way needs to be found for businesses and cultural events to function,” she says. “Complete shutdowns are very depressing for everyone – management, staff and the public as a whole.”
In any case, the Zuzeum is adapting to the times. There will be cinema under the stars in the courtyard this summer, and the capacious indoor areas will host yoga classes for vaccinated people.
And then there’s the art, of course. The current main exhibition is devoted to works by Indian artists. According to Ieva, this is to showcase some of the less known parts of the collection, in contrast to the Latvian works which Latvian connoisseurs are already familiar with. This will be followed by a show bringing together all the private collections in the Baltics, followed by a tribute to the Russian modernists collected by Zuzāns.
Ieva believes that even as society becomes ever more digitalised, the joy of physically visiting a museum will remain.
“Painting, and sculptures created in an analogue format can only be experienced in their physical presence,” she says. “And besides, what can be nicer than meeting your friends in this unique environment and sharing an artistic experience? You can’t get that in the clutter of your own home.”