Jump into the Water and Swim

AUTHOR / Pia Prezelj

This article was originally published in Delo in September 2021.

A former lawyer and producer has been running the Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana (MGML) since 2009 with an approach that ties together heritage and contemporary art.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Blaž Peršin produced exhibitions, performances, festivals, and concerts, co-founded a music label, and an alternative music store. Photo: Jože Suhadolnik

Some people are accustomed to putting on their boots and trudging through what others find pointless, impassable, too strenuous; through a swamp where, if you’re not sufficiently skilled, you can quickly find your foot well and stuck. Blaž Peršin does not walk along Ljubljana’s Poljanski nasip in boots, but in sneakers. Three hundred and fifty windows testify to the largest exhibition space in Ljubljana. The newly opened Cukrarna, which operates under the auspices of the Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana, is provoking controversy among the general and cultural public alike, but Peršin is no stranger to such situations. He assumed management of the largest public institution established by the City of Ljubljana through the merger of the City Museum and the City Gallery in 2009; today, he manages a complex conglomerate of exhibition spaces on ten different locations. The combination of museums and galleries brings not only an economy of work processes and marketing, but also an intertwining of heritage and contemporary art, as well as non-governmental and institutional practices. And even if the latter is often used as a convenient platitude, Peršin puts it into practice with genuine zeal and enthusiasm.
As the son of painter France Peršin, he spent his childhood among artists (the architect Stanko Kristl, the painters Gabrijel Stupica and Karel Zelenko, and a host of other architects, actors, and visual artists). Then – perhaps surprisingly, but under the influence of films, he claims – decided to study law, passed the bar exam, and served in the court, all the while always involved in the alternative scene. He was the first to run a gallery in the cultural KUD France Prešeren, produced the first exhibitions of Alan Hranitelj and the dance performances of Sanja Nešković Peršin (now long his wife), was active within the Muzeum theater group, co-founded the first domestic independent music label Nika, and the first local alternative music store Rec-Rec, where he sold records and CDs for a year. By that time it had already become clear to him that “artists need help realizing productions, selling and exhibiting art, and fundraising.” He saw the birth of the Slovenian independent scene and how it began to develop. (Today there are 400or 500 independent societies and institutes today; back in the mid-1980s there were 7 or 8, he reminds us.) But he also recognised that the scene needed both encouragement and space.

When he left the court and started working at the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (“which sounds ridiculous, I know”), he was encouraged by the then director Janez Kromar to devote his time looking for abandoned and heritage sites in addition to working in the monument protection service. Among other things he encouraged the renovation of Stara Elektrarna – the city’s Old Power Station – while securing sponsors in the absence of public funds, mastered production, and then obtained a European Diploma in Cultural Project Management, which in the late-1990s in Slovenia operated according to the maxim “jump in and swim”.

As the Director of Culture in the Ljubljana City Administration he soon focused on working to expand the independent scene and connect non-governmental creators with institutions. He still believes that the best independent professionals, owing to their openness and international connections (and which some more locally-oriented programs lack) should go to work in institutions – another more or less convenient platitude, you might say, but Peršin made this kind of transition himself (and later, a good part of his staff too), first with the management of the City Museum of Ljubljana and then the entire MGML network.

Former director Taja Volk, looking to effect a more modern treatment and contextualization of heritage, invited him to collaborate; and after “some wandering” they set up a new permanent exhibition and opened the museum to the public. Over the years it was transformed from a relatively unknown building, which had been closed for seven years during the renovation, into one of the central locations for urban events. “When we think of museums, we think of halberds,” he says with amusement, “but museums – especially those dealing with heritage and modern urban planning and the built environment – need to open up to local and international communities; they have to become urban centres, encompass social climate considerations and pose questions, as programs have the power to change social reality.” The City Museum of Ljubljana raises questions with an “almost theatrical approach” made meaningful by contemporary artistic practices. Next year, as a tribute to Jože Plečnik, German artist Olaf Nicolai and Luca Lo Pinto, artistic director of Rome’s MACRO – Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome, will intervene in Plečnik’s house with a small exhibition called Seen-Unseen. Such effects and deviations, introductions of secondary viewpoints into the Slovenian art system, are characteristic not only of MGML, but also of Peršin’s understanding of his own role. This role is also based on a personnel policy that “directs the developmental, creative potential of professionally qualified people” and moves away from (often politically motivated) the proverbial staff dumping ground that hinders the development of both individuals and the sector as a whole.

He leaves art gallery directors and curators like Alenka Gregorič, Blaž Vurnik, Marija Skočir, Jani Pirnat, Barbara Sterle-Vurnik, and Miloš Bašin plenty of latitude as regards content and formal decisions and encourages them to identify and employ new approaches. One such instance is the comic series by Blaž Vurnik and Zoran Smiljanić, which includes the successful comics Memories and Dreams of Kristina B. and Ivan Cankar: Images from Life, and which will continue with a comic biography of Jože Plečnik in two month’s time, since it is crucial “that those of us working in cultural management recognize what the future mainstream is. You have to see and know which direction to take, which comes in part from experience, but intuition is key. And that you try several times; that you get your wrist slapped here and there. Partial failure is also part of progress.” Leading cultural and artistic processes means. in Peršin’s experience, listening, providing opportunities, being concise and recognizing the contexts that are shifting and developing around you. Internationalization of space and mentality are absolutely necessary and should be accompanied by in-depth and meaningful reflections of the local community.

The successes of international integration projects and the acquisition of external funds (both Plečnik’s house and the Cukrarna contemporary art space were renovated with European funds) are those that largely direct and characterize Peršin’s work. He was part of the Venice Art Biennale a number of times as commissioner of the Slovenian pavilion (also in 2013, when Slovenia was represented by Jasmina Cibic with one of its most successful projects ever; a year later he was awarded the title Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy). In 2019, under his leadership, 33 select liturgical vessels designed by Plečnik made a pilgrimage to the otherwise inaccessible Vatican Museums – the monumental exhibition Plečnik and the Sacred, which charmed the smallest independent country in the world with a design scheme in which the chalices in the display case appeared as if suspended in the air, was seen by 300,000 people. If many people are turning to the international arena in search of “personal priorities and satisfactions, it should really be a kind of altruism – it is not you alone in the foreground, but the scene as a whole. It’s also crucial that you have someone who can listen to you; that projects are supported by local politics.”

Peršin stresses that case Cukrarna – which operates as a multidisciplinary gallery under the artistic direction of Alenka Gregorič and brings new production capabilities and practices with simultaneous involvement in the local and international art system – is a cultural and political gesture as well; it represents the first new major infrastructure project in the four decades following the construction of the Cankarjev dom cultural centre. And although Cukrarna will “significantly contribute to the position of contemporary Slovenian artistic practices”, in addition to new ones, support must also be given to the already existing, independent spaces and projects, “ensuring that the big ones do not devour the small ones; without a multiplicity of artists creating content, we are left only with empty rooms.”