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Ami Barak, curator: “Contemporary art has gone from maximum confidentiality to a mass phenomenon.”

foto: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

Ami Barak is an important figure in the world of contemporary art. Few know that he is, originally, from Romania.

For 6 years He was in charge of the department dedicated to the Art of the City of Paris and coordinated the first editions of Parisian White Nights.

He is a contemporary art curator and an ex college professor, in a permanent search to discover new talented artists, the one who binds ideas and artistic concepts in the form of an exhibit. 

He was born in Bistrița Năsăud, was raised in Baia Mare and studied Art History in Bucharest. In 1974 he was leaving from under the Ceaușescu regime and starting a new life.

My leaving happened miraculously. Nobody thought that it would happen so quickly. In those days, when you submitted a request to go abroad, it took years. And most didn’t even get to leave. I left after 3 weeks. Only after it happened did I find out how it was possible.

Ceaușescu was waiting for Nixon’s visit that year and an American Democrat senator wrote an amendment in the Senate, through which The Clause of Favoured Nations, which Ceaușescu wanted, was conditioned by the opening of emigrations.

And Ceaușescu, as a sign of so called good will, opened the gates for three months, a period in which tens of thousands of Romanians migrated.

He perfectly remembers the day when he submitted the departure documents. It was the 15th of may.

“All my close ones called me suicidal, they said that they’ll send me to factories or the army, that they will harass me and I will miss everything. My mother cried for a week. In fact, I thought they were right, I felt that I was doing something suicidal.”

The approval came exactly one month later, on the 15th of june. The pretext was that I was visiting some relatives in Israel. I had never seen those relatives. They were a sister and a brother of my father, who had left in 1945 with a ship from Constanța, ended up in Cyprus, were locked up in a camp, then another camp in Palestine.”

With a chemist father, from Piatra Neamț, his mother a bank clerk from Târgu Neamț, Ami Barak has been attracted to art even as a child, without any artistically inclined models in the family. Some art albums fell in his hands and he discovered another world apart from the grey, industrial one in which he was living.

Ami Barak/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

“I saw art history as a refuge from a world where everything was fake. Fake was a five year plan.”

He got to Tel Aviv, where he did two years of master’s degree and had his first exhibits. And in 1982 he left for Paris, where we met him today. 

“It was hard, but not very hard, because I came with a scholarship for a doctorate in Sorbona. I had also been accepted into Columbia and Toronto Universities, but they didn’t offer me a scholarship. So I chose the French.

When I came here, I was seen as an Israeli although I wasn’t one, I was Romanian.

In fact, I have the exact profile of a wandering jew even now.

Even if I have Romanian origins and have kept professional connections with Romania, I don’t have Romanian feelings. The same with Israel. In 1998 I felt like a French person for the simple fact that when France had won the World Cup, I was excited and very happy.”

As he studied more and got in direct contact with the world of art, doing an internship at The Museum of Modern Art in Paris, he became more and more interested in contemporary art. 

“For me even leaving Romania was a thing of the here and now, of contemporaneity. One of my desires in art was to be interested in what is happening today and less about what has happened in the past.”

There weren’t any art historians interested about the present back then. It was frowned upon. Actually, this craft of a curator who is interested in the history of the present, this is a new craft. It was born in may 1969.

Ami Barak/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

There was an exhibit in Bern, Switzerland, curated by a strong figure, Harald Szeemann. The exhibit was called When Attitudes become form. It is considered the event that gave birth to this profession.

There was a concept at it’s basis, and the curator was the one who had the ideas and requested artists whose works were an illustration of that concept.

In the world of museums, exhibits were about historical phenomena, for example, the Dutch scene of the 17th century, or artistic figures seen chronologically – the youth years, mature years. The exhibit phenomenon was not seen as a gathering of ideas.”

“The curator is mindful of what the artist is doing, interprets it and understands the work of an artist and others, that together form a tendency, a movement. This is square one. Then he sets up an event, an exhibit, a festival, etc.”

In 1992 he ran for an institutional position and became the director of a contemporary art museum in Montpellier, in the south of France. 

He was there for 9 years and left for Paris when he received the proposal to organise the events celebrating 20 years of the French efforts to buy contemporary art with public funding.

Ami Barak/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

“I organised 14 exhibits in all of France with works from the collection. The event was called Trésor Public and I worked tirelessly for these exhibits.

After that I was scouted by a recruitment office and that is how I ended up in the Paris City Hall and handled every art project in public space, but also the Contemporary Art Municipal Fund. ”

He curated the first edition of Paris White Nights, an event that would open the doors of contemporary art to the public.

“In the first years of my career I had 100 people to an opening and I thought that was amazing.

At first, in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and even ‘90s, contemporary art was something confidential. We were used to there being a few people, a sort of closed circuit, we didn’t expect a lot.”

-How do you explain the world’s interest in contemporary art?

In the early 2000’s there was a generational shift. Children that were taken by their parents to museums have become adults. At the same time, there was a democratisation of art.

It’s a complex answer to this question, I have even made some studies with sociologists.

Ami Barak/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

It’s true that contemporary art has passed from a confidentiality phase to a mass phenomenon. 

My bet at the time with The White Night was that we would have 20.000 visitors in one night, which would have been huge. The Museum of Modern Art in Paris was rounding up about 20.000 visitors to an exhibit in two months at that time. So it was a bad bet, I was certain that I was about to lose a bottle of champagne.

Ami Barak/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

The shock was that on that night, RATP had a million riders during the night rides. At the spot, it was full of people. 

Today, at an opening, first of all, you can’t get in. Then, even the privileged ones queue for two hours. Thousands of people come to an opening. 

At the Tokyo Palace there is a one kilometer queue.

It’s an interesting phenomenon. The Louis Vuitton Foundation, that has mainstream exhibits, had an event with masterpieces from Russian museums, a phenomenal exhibit with over 200 masterpieces one next to the other – Monet, Gaugin, Van Gopgh, Pissaro, etc. At that exhibit, the audience was white. They had over 1 million visitors, I’ve seen it a few times and they were all white. 

Go now to the Warhol – Basquiat exhibit, also made by Louis Vuitton. Most of the visitors come from the outskirts. The audience is mixed. Sure, Basquiat was african-american, but it’s a contemporary art exhibit.

So contemporary art has also changed the social profile of the audience and its openness. That also explains the growing interest on an international level.

Then, the actual event part had a part in it, the fact that there are performances, installations, a sort of involvement of the audience in the art.

There is also the fashion aspect. 

There is a market, before there wasn’t one, contemporary art didn’t have any value on the market.

As of the ‘90s, contemporary art started to have a much higher market value than some classical works. Adi Ghenie is worth more than a Rubens or a Rembrandt. It’s super-interesting.

Ami Barak/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

It’s also cool to be seen at these kind of events. I know people who save for a half of year to buy a Louis Vuitton jacket or a Pharell Williams thing.”

When he speaks about the world of contemporary art, Ami Barak shows a big smile, he is passionate and full of humour. To understand better the phenomenon behind some of the artworks to which the public reaction is “I could have done that”, the curator explains what is considered relevant in art and what the difference is between an artist whose works are sold for tens of millions at auctions and others whose works are exhibited in museums, but don’t sell as well.

“Up until a certain point, there is no connection between artistic value and market value. Museums buy a work based on a series of criteria, and market value doesn’t play any part.

Museums consider to what extent a work is ahead of its time, in a historical context. How does it represent an important contribution to a historical unfolding. It’s important that it is unique, it is special.

The market, because it didn’t exist, was formed by the first collectors who learned from artists and from those gallery owners who went head first in promoting contemporary art. These gallery owners taught the collector, who didn’t know anything.

Then the first generation of contemporary art collectors was formed, who were going to exhibits, fairs and started to know what they wanted.

“After that there came the collectors from the world of finance, fashion and advertising, people with a lot of money. And it’s typical for people with money, to them it’s important what they like, they don’t worry if the market value is equivalent to the artistic value. And the more expensive it is, the more they are prepared to pay more. As with Michael Jordan shoes. ”

I had an incredible experience regarding market value, that totally changed my perspective as to why people pay so much money for something I don’t think is worth so much.

I was in Seoul and I went to an auction with a Coreean colleague. THe auction was not selling works of art, but boulders, rocks. When I say boulders, I’m not exaggerating. There were rocks, of different dimensions, smaller, bigger. THere were some things that I found extremely ordinary. The highlight was a small boulder of about 10 kg, that looked like it was from the street.

  • How high do you think the auction went?
  • Tens of thousands of euros?
  • 3 million dollars. Then I realised that what is being spent on and how much is being spent is a completely different planet.
Ami Barak/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

Then, regarding contemporary art, is it fair to say that an artist can be ranked high at auctions, but not as visible in great museums or galleries?

It’s frequent. But it’s works the other way around. If it’s seen by a museum, at some point it will intersect with the market.”

Even in our times, although contemporary art is a worldwide phenomenon of wide interest, it continues to spawn strong controversy and amazement sometimes. And it is normal that it does, we learn from the vastly experienced curator.

Ami Barak/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

History will give us clear answers and help us understand the present, how we got, for example, from Renaissance art to NFT’s. In 2021, the artist Beeple became the third most expensive artist living, after his work, “Everydays: The first 5000 days”, a digital collage made out of 5000 illustrations, sold at an auction as an NFT for 69 million dollars.

“In 1913, a French artist called Marcel DUchamp, decided that a work of art can be an object that was not made by the artist. The first ready-made object was a chair on which he put a bicycle wheel. So the artist didn’t create the object, he chose it.

Duchamp gave a definition “who is an artist? The one who makes the art. And what is art? It is what the artist makes.” It’s tautology. Why do I mention this?

In 1913, the roads split. The field of definition of art changed. When you speak about Leonardo and Duchamp, you don’t speak about the same artistic field. It’s clear that you can’t be understood.

If a granny says that this is not art, she is right, you can’t even argue with her.”

Ami Barak/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

She knows that art can be one way, we know that it can also be in another way.

In contemporary art we have painting, sculpture, but we also have ready-made, installations, artificial intelligence, multimedia.

And another thing happened when photography was invented. Something that can be multiplied infinitely has no market value. And we come today to the digital world. To give it a market value, the NFT was created. It becomes, then, unique. The non-fungible token is just for you. But a photograph without it being an NFT, can be multiplied infinitely.

And the speculative character raises the market value.”

While contemporary art events all over the world are evolving along with technology, public museums in Romania look like in the 19th century, says Ami Barak, former president of the International Association of Contemporary Art Curators. In the Romanian language, the word curator has not even been included in the dictionaries.

Ami Barak and Alexandra Tănăsescu/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

Ami Barak was part of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest’s board for 9 years, but in the last years, he has only worked with the private sector.

This year he is curating several events in Timișoara, European Capital of Culture, an exhibit in Cluj and is closely following the artistic scene in Romania.

“The first museum in Romania that functions on a model of modern art museum is MARe. In Romania, private centres, unconventional spaces, they work very coherently.”

His time is split between work, exhibits and travel, and in Paris he enjoys concerts conducted by Cristian Măcelaru, musical director at the French National Orchestra, regarded by the French as a superstar.

He is the father of two, his daughter following his passion for contemporary art, while his son, film school graduate, has become a butcher.

Ami Barak/ photo: Bogdan Iordache, Cultura la dubă

He lives in the heart of Paris, close to Place de la Bastille, where he met us, at the end of a work day, in which he had met several young artists.

One of them asked him what should he do to be noticed. Ami Barak answered this:

“When I go to an exhibit, I immediately know that this work belongs to this one. How do I know? Because I have seen before and it is a specific thing of the artist, a signature, a style. It’s him and nobody else. That is what I told him: Make it so that when I walk in to an exhibit and see one of your works, I will know iti is yours. It doesn’t mean that you will be rich, but that you will have your place in the history of your time.

Van Gogh only sold one work in his lifetime, he died a poor man and today he holds records. For a work to be valuable, at first it has no value. Picasso said the same thing. The idea of speculation only works this way.”

***This story is part of the “France Week” series, a Cultura la Dubă project supported by BNP Paribas.

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