The Beginning of Curatorial Practices in Bulgaria

by Maria Vassileva

The history of professional curation in Bulgaria started after 1989 with the opening of the country and the access to worldwide practices. Before that there were different hybrid forms in museums as well as in every other form of the art life. In order to understand how and why the profession of the curator appeared only after the fall of the socialist regime with the development of the democratic processes, we have to shed light on the existing system until that time.

In search of ways to control the artistic-creative intellectual circles, the socialist regime leaned mostly on artistic unions (of artists, writers, composers, architects, journalists) - strictly hierarchical professional structures under the constant control of the governing communist party. These organizations contained all the artists and not being a member of them practically meant not being able to practice their professions. The painters or other artists moved through the quarantine zones of workshops and young authors’ clubs where, along with the acting Komsomol organizations in them, they got ready to participate in the Mother Union. Once in it, they were referred to different sections (according to the existing majors in the Art Academy) with the specific sectional secretaries. In the regional cities there were groups of artists that were also a part of the larger structure. The chairperson along with the operative bureau and the managing board determined the organizational and artistic activities of the members with strong subordination with the Central Committee of the Communist party and the Ministry of Culture. All exhibitions were prescribed from above, including the themes for the representative, the so called common artistic exhibitions (CAE). From then on, the organization was undertaken by different active members of the Union, usually called commissioners by the Soviet model. They were practically the ones that dealt with the technical realization of the exhibitions and had no rights or mechanisms to influence the choice of the theme, the participants (they were always screened by a jury), even the placement, as it was all done by the superior. The commissioners were rarely art critics. Art critics were part of the Critics section (including those engaged in scientific work). This section had above all, union and state policy serving functions. The magazine published by the Union of Bulgarian artists - the Art magazine - was one of the available fields for professional appearance; the rest were openings of exhibitions and rarely - participation in juries.

During the second half of the 1980s it started becoming obvious that the system was not working. The reverberating sounds of the Perestroika in the Soviet Union became an occasion to organize different actions, happenings and exhibitions outside the Union of the Bulgarian Artists. Among the most active at the time as an ideologist and a participant was the art critic Dimitar Grozdanov, who along with his fellow artists realized multiple art interventions at many places in Bulgaria.

The First youth scenography exhibition The Artist and the Theatre[1] is considered a kind of breakthrough in the traditional exhibition making methods; it took place in January 1986 with the scenographer Elena Ivanova and the art critic Philip Zidarov as organizers (the Exhibition Hall at 125, G. S. Rakovski Str.) Initiated by the Young artists' Workshop and making use of the relatively higher freedom that a youth organization had (this controlled from above freedom again demonstrates the clever mechanisms for control and obedience), the exhibition became a phenomenon by showcasing the two "commissioners" at the front. Their work with space, arrangement of works, the series of accompanying events (pantomime, one-man shows, concerts) showed the immense possibilities and potential when making a (traditionally?) boring sectional exhibition. Suddenly it became apparent that the presence of strong personalities unlocked new horizons when showing projects and highlighted the immense need for change in the way the exhibition practices functioned. The exhibition gave up the standard scenography models and sketches for costumes and brought out into the gallery space the real decorations, clothes and participants.  In other words - it removed the curtain between the audience and the theatre and allowed the audience to come closer to the performance. Filled with live performances, the exhibition revealed a growing need of provocations and experiments.

In March 1987 the graphic exhibition Author’s Imprint[2] followed, organized by Kiril Prashkov and Philip Zidarov - made in the same hall, again handing down the tradition, with the ambition to show the use of new languages and materials, to demonstrate the different graphic techniques on the spot and to try and restore contact with the audience that was lost through the years of a seemingly democratic, but actually strictly controlled artistic life. As Philip Zidarov mentioned in his interview with the editorial of Art magazine, unlike the common exhibitions, where every artist presented their art to the jury and the result was always the same, in here: "we started from the idea itself, from the plasticity direction the works in the exhibition should go in to respond to the conviction that, in the broadest sense, new territories of an art field such as graphics have to be discovered." Hence the necessity for an exhibition to include just one group rather than be openly inclusive, as were the earlier practices. He also believed that: "an author can be boosted by the criticism to a certain positive development in their art and not rely simply on their completed products". He also spoke about "ideas, directed to development of visualisation principles in accordance with the new symbols that the present day constantly creates, and not about some made up theme or talks of a high artistic level that nobody can explain". At the start of the 1990s a sufficient number of people already thought in a similar way and that completely changed the practice of exhibitions in Bulgaria.

Philip Zidarov was one of the most active figures in the process of change. In May 1987, he organized a large happening in the backyard of Sofia University which was bound to cause political pressure (mainly because of the participation of the poet Peter Manolov and the poems he read). Taking initiatives and risks was not easy in those years. Philip Zidarov was the son of the artist Lyuben Zidarov - vice-chairperson of the Union of Bulgarian Artists and long-term chairperson of the Art Fund of the Union, which certainly gave him significant advantages. He was intelligent, of rebellious nature, and was able to make the most of the situation and to reveal the possibilities for a new attitude towards the organization of exhibitions. It was no coincidence that he worked with the legendary group The City in the late 1980s and organized their first sizeable exhibition of importance to the contemporary art history (June 1988, the gallery at 125, G. S. Rakovski Str). The odd thing was that Zidarov set the requirement for an exhibition without paintings, which was a serious avant garde gesture in regards to the members of the group - all traditionally trained painters and the situation as a whole, which was still subservient strictly to the division of genres and types of art. We need to remember that this was a time of group activities and sometimes it was hard to equally allocate the roles for organizing a project. However, as a part of the unconventional initiatives for that time, we have to mention the Babylon Tower and the Chameleon of The City group. In 1989, Philip Zidarov, jointly with Iara Boubnova, organized the Eighth National Youth Exhibition[3] in the gallery at 6, Shipka St. and were able to include unconventional works (as the works that did not fall under any of the categories at the time were called) as well as to introduce a different organization and communication of the exhibition.

The end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s were very active years in which major events happened, all of which contributed to the general change in one way or another.[4] An important step was the dissolution of the Young Artists' Workshop of the Union of Bulgarian Artists and the creation of the Young Artists' Club to replace it in June 1989. The basic principles of the club were: 1. Free membership, with no limitations based on education or age  2. Unconventional forms of visual art 3. Free participation in exhibitions without juries 4. Democratization of the management principle 5. Attracting the audience's interest through unconventional activities. These five points alone show the drastic change that occurred at the time. It affected every levels of the functioning of artistic life and even outlined the need for leader figures on different levels that could organize the energy and give it the presence it needed.

Private Archive: Diana Popova

The exhibition "Еarth and Sky" on the roof terrace on Shipka 6 Street, 1989.



  • Description: Friday the 13th 1989, on fullmoon
    On the photo: Dobrin Peychev, Georgi Todorov, Diana Popova, Orlin Dvoryanov, Asen Botev, Joro Rujev

In October 1989, the exhibition on the roof of the gallery of the Union of the Bulgarian Artists at 6, Shipka Str names Land and Sky reaffirmed these processes with the active work of the art critic Diana Popova and the artist Georgi Todorov, who were able to make the exhibition an event of great importance and engage the attention of the community. They still called themselves "commissioners"[5] and regardless of the realization of the role of organizer and the increasing activity of art critics in creating exhibitions, the term "curator" was still not known to Bulgaria at that stage.

In the process of transforming the way the system functioned, a major part was played by the artist and art critic Luchezar Boyadjiev who stayed in New York for family reasons for some time, and in May 1984 he delivered a remarkable lecture with slides about the newest trends in art in the USA and Western Europe, in the Graphic office of Sofia City Art Gallery. His knowledge and active participation in the events of the next years was of significant importance for the change of context. Some of the most interesting exhibitions were based on his ideas, such as: End of the Quote, Happy-end (together with Georgi Todorov), Brush Hair, etc. Diana Popova, Georgi Todorov and Dimitar Grozdanov were also very active in the beginning of the 1990s.

The discussion on the role of criticism was also important and it started on the pages of the Pulse newspaper (an art and culture edition of the Dimitrov Communist Youth Union)[6]. In the "Is the Muse of Criticism Ugly?" column, articles were published that aimed to set Bulgarian criticism free from its subservient role and at the same time to show the new possibilities that were opening to art critics, including the active participation in the exhibition process, making exhibitions, etc. The theoretical substantiation for the necessity of active criticism and the outlining of different perspectives for professional practice of the critics, along with the changes in the field of practice, gave substance and purpose to the ongoing process.

The projects mentioned so far show models of work that were unknown for the situation in Bulgaria. They were not somehow copied, but for the most part were discovered instinctively and born from the changing picture of public life. Which is why they were interesting and authentic in a way. They certainly did not provide pre-existing curator models (let me note that this word had not appeared yet and there was no knowledge for the free curator practices), neither did they "fill" relevant and trendy topics with content, but they reacted to what was happening in that very moment and furthermore attempted to contribute to the democratization processes. It is hard nowadays to imagine what the work in such a strongly conservative and politicized environment must have been. Despite the overall enthusiasm, let us not forget it was a time of a totalitarian regime with all the possible restrictions and consequences; in relation to art life alone, a massive apparatus was operating by set formulas for decades on end, which was yet to be brought down and which was by far unprepared to give up the privileges it had previously won. In that sense, every effort, regardless of its scale, was in fact a substantial victory and a serious breakthrough in the system. This kind of effort was, for example, the winning of new territories outside the pro-regime halls of the Union of Bulgarian Artists that were a symbol of the system. "The exit" to the roof of the building of the Union of Bulgarian Artists at 6, Shipka Str. for example (the Land and Sky exhibition; the Beach exhibition - part of Moderate Avant-Garde in the Frames of the Tradition, July-August 1990) or the exhibitions at the west wing of Sofia University (the 10/10/10 exhibition, January 1990, End of the Quote, April 1990) were just symbolic gestures of great importance.

What should be pointed out is the fact that in all cases the results were born from collective actions so naturally there were some inconsistencies as to what role certain individuals played in the processes. Often, the idea for an exhibition occurred to one person and someone else was the organizer. The curator did not yet exist as a leading figure who would usurp all the stages and parts of organizing an exhibition.  Another situation of common occurrence was group curation. But many of the symptoms of a modern project started to appear: a clear concept and a series of accompanying interactive events, among which were happenings (happening based on Luchezar Boyadjiev's idea – a collective creation of a linocut and the printing of it in the exhibition Author's Print), performances (Daniela Nenova and the Yes Group – the performance Kinetic Photography within 10/10/10; readings performed by the Fortinbras Group, participants: Ivaylo Dichev, Ivan Krastev, Vladislav Todorov in End of the Quote), discussions and talks, direct work with the audience (printing graphics on the spot in the Author's Print exhibition), keeping a public journal, a video programme, actions and a theoretical seminar (Land and Sky). Most of the exhibitions mentioned were a mutual effort of various people and the management of the Young Artists' club, renamed in 1990 to the (Eternally) Young Artists' Club.

Of course, it would be fair to note that this was quite a spontaneous organisation of exhibitions in completely unconventional conditions (or rather the lack of any conditions). The so called "curators" at the start of the transition period were subjected to the influence of the common democratisation processes and the opening of the system to new tendencies. In most of the exhibitions we are talking about, the principle of free participation applied, meaning that the organizers did not select the artists or know in advance what works they would be getting. They had to manage the artworks they were given and their part was only to do it in the best possible way to ensure maximum publicity for these works. On the other hand, this was precisely the time when the concept of exhibition making changed fundamentally, when the limits of art opened to new forms and materials[7], when the re-arranged layers needed to be re-organized in a new way. The people who participated actively in these processes remember the enthusiasm and speed with which the events developed as well as the feeling of importance for what was happening regardless of the fact that not everything was fully understood. As Georgi Todorov wrote about Land and Sky: "This was not an exhibition, but an act"[8] and this is hugely valid for all important events during that period.

In the mid-1990s a process of professionalization began. The word “curator” had already emerged and was trying to find its place in the artistic jargon and the work field, which was not an easy task. The system was resisting change with all its might. First, because curators at the time were more interested in "unconventional" forms of art, which were unknown, therefore scary, and secondly, because their choices broke the existing principle for everyone’s equal participation in the exhibition life (it is worth mentioning that this conservative position exists even today). The organized curator courses abroad at that time gave the first generation self-confidence and knowledge to develop their skills and feel part of the professional life. This led to the "First National Course for Young Curators", 2000, Bistritsa village (ICA-Sofia and the Soros Art Centre), which gave much food for thought and stimulated many younger colleagues to continue in this direction.

In the process of specialisation, various events focused the incidental efforts in one spot and gave them shape and visibility. Such were the Process - Space Festival in Balchik (first edition in 1992, with organizers: Dimitar Grozdanov, Boris Klimentiev, Diana Popova, Lidiya Georgieva, assistant); the embarking on the international scene such as the participation in the Third Istanbul Biennial (curator Luchezar Boyadjiev, participants: Lyuben Kostov, Georgi Ruzhev, Nedko Solakov; curator of the fourth one was Iara Boubnova, with participants Luchezar Boyadjiev, Nedko Solakov and Pravdolyub Ivanov), as well as the subsequent participations in the biennials in Johannesburg (1995, curator Boris Danailov with participants Kiril Prashkov, Sasho Stoitsov and Tsvyatko Siromashki), Sao Paolo (1994, curator Iara Boubnova) and Gwangju (participant Luchezar Boyadjiev); the active work of private galleries such as Ata-Rai (1989-2002) and Lesedra (presenting contemporary art in the period 1992-1995) in Sofia and Akrabov in Plovdiv (1992-1995), XXL Gallery in Sofia (1996-2002). The Ata-Rai Gallery and its owner Raymonda Moudova played an important role in stabilizing art processes, as they not only worked with curators for all exhibitions but also hired young art critics to whom they gave the opportunity to educate and specialize (curator education in Bulgaria does not exist even today); the creation of Section 13 in the frames of the Union of Bulgarian Artists, 1994; the creation of the Soros Art Centre and the organization of yearly exhibitions (1994-2004); the creation of the Institute for Contemporary Art-Sofia (officially since 1995).

Amidst these processes, the profession of the curator and the word “curator” found a more adequate realization. Its hesitant use began even in the early 1990s, however some the first consciously organized curator exhibitions done by the rules of the profession were: Object in Bulgarian Style, (Eternally) Young Artists' Club at 6, Shipka Str., Sofia with curators: Iara Boubnova, Maria Vasileva and Diana Popova, October 1993; An Idea About Bulgarian Art with curator Ruen Ruenov, November 1993, Ata-Rai Gallery; Dermatology? Art., Medical Academy, Dermatology Department, Sofia with curator Dr. Galentin Gatev, March 1994; In Search of Their Reflection, Old Plovdiv with curator Iara Boubnova, June 1994. These exhibitions followed European and American models of curation, which became quickly accepted by many and entered the practice widely.  

[1] The Artist and the Theatre. First Youth Scenography Exhibition. Art Magazine, 1986/10, p.2; Vasileva, Maria. The Artist and the Theatre, Pulse newspaper, 4th February 1986.

[2] A talk on the youth exhibition Author's Print. Art Magazine, 1987/9, p.16; Ensure uniqueness. Discussing the youth graphics exhibition Author's Print. Pulse newspaper, 21st April 1987.

[3] Grozdanov, Dimitar. Demythologizing of Perceptions. Eighth National Youth Exhibition. Pulse newspaper, 21st February 1989; Popova,Diana. In Search of the Third Person. Eighth National Youth Exhibition. Pulse newspaper, 28th February 1989.

[4] See: Chronology of the Contemporary Bulgarian (Unconventional) Art 1982-1995. Authors: Iara Boubnova, Maria Vasileva, Diana Popova.

[5] Land and Sky, Art Magazine, 1990/4 p. 16. For the exhibition see also: Varzonovtsev, Dimitar. The open door between the land and the sky or their projection on the roof-terrace at 6, Shipka Str, and the hall at 108, G.S. Rakovski Str. Pulse newspaper, 24th October 1989; Lozanov, Georgi. The blue light of the traffic light. Rituals of freedom. Pulse newspaper, 21st November 1989.

[6] The discussion started on my initiative as an editor and manager for the arts in the newspaper at the time. In the period March-August 1986, articles were published by Mila Santova, Maria Vasileva, Diana Popova, Boris Danailov, Lidiya Vlahova, Filip Zidarov, Chavdar Popov, Encho Mutafov, Dimitar Grozdanov, Ivan Marazov and Atanas Bozhkov.

[7] Due to this in the pages of the Pulse newspaper, January-May 1990, another important discussion occurred about the experiment in art under the column "The B of Avant-Garde".

[8] Todorov, Georgi. Land and Sky – an attempt for art of the human presence. Art Magazine, 1990/4 p. 18. 

Maria Vassileva, 2019