Prague’s new private museum is electrifying

“It is the first space dedicated to art to be built in the center of Prague for almost 100 years”, proudly declares Petr Pudil, speaking of the Kunsthalle Praha, the private museum which he and his wife Pavlína inaugurate on 22 February.

It is located in a former electrical substation in the historic center of the capital, and indeed there is a unit in the basement which still supplies power to Prague’s trams. But the Pudils assure me that there will be no buzz or vibration to distract from the three exhibition spaces they have created in the 5,700 m² building.

They bought it seven years ago, when the idea of ​​creating a Kunsthalle had been germinating for years. “We already had the idea to do something for Prague, but we had to find the right place – and then the unique opportunity [to buy the substation] came,” says Pavlína.

The Kunsthalle Praha is located in a former electrical substation in Prague © Lukáš Masner

Neither she nor Petr come from a collecting background. “I was born in communist Czechoslovakia, in 1974, under a socialist regime,” says Petr on Zoom from Prague, “and it was quite difficult to be educated in any kind of art back then. There had the National Museum, but it was like a hidden institution and the regime had no interest in promoting it. My first contact with art was after the revolution. Pavlína intervenes: “My story is the same, the only things I could have seen were reproductions of Alphonse Mucha posters.”

Things have changed a lot for the couple since then. Petr’s businesses flourished – in real estate, chemicals and venture capital – and nearly 20 years ago they bought their first work of art, a painting by Slovak Zdeňka Marschalová. “It captivated us at first sight and we had it on our walls for a long time, although otherwise we often renew works at home”, explains Petr. “[Former president] Václav Havel was an inspiration, he opened my mind to art, he was an advocate for culture in general, but he was quite visionary about what Prague could be and its position as a crossroads culture in Europe.

A middle-aged woman in yellow and a man in a suit jacket stand in front of a tree

Pavlína and Petr Pudil photographed in front of their house, with a sculpture by Czech artist Anna Hulačová © Jan Zatorsky

They began to haunt the galleries, initially the smaller Czech ones, but as Pavlína says, “We quickly understood that we wanted to collect Czech and Central European art, but also that we wanted to place Czech art in a more international context. They began to travel to art fairs and institutions around the world, particularly influenced by Louisiana programming in Denmark and the operating models of American and British galleries.

Last year, the Pudils took a trip to London with their chief curator, Christelle Havranek, to visit Frieze – but they didn’t buy anything. Petr says: “We prefer to buy works exhibited in galleries or artists’ studios”, rather than at a fair. “If you see the whole exhibition in the gallery, you can absorb all the interactions between the works.” Rather frightening for the UK art market, he adds that his collections manager has asked him not to buy art in the UK “because after Brexit it’s so much more expensive and complicated from our days”.

A flat blue checked skirt

‘Second Hand’ (2017) by Zhanna Kadyrova © Kunsthalle Praha

Oil painting of orange and green human figures

‘Ease’ (1923-24) by Max Ernst © ADAGP/DACS. Courtesy of Kunsthalle Praha

I ask them if they always have to agree before deciding to buy. They laugh and each waits for the other to respond. “We have the same tastes: 99% of the time we agree, fortunately”, adds Petr. “If there is no deal, there is no deal.”

Their collection now numbers over 600 pieces, including works by Zhanna Kadyrova, Krištof Kintera, Alicja Kwade and Lina Lapelyte, as well as internationally known names: Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, William Kentridge and Tomás Saraceno.

The museum has a permanent installation, “Cabinet of electrical curiosities”, a Mark Dion project. It tells the story of the building through the industrial objects found on site: the enamel plates, the switches and the transformers are assembled in a sort of Kunstkammer. The program, with six to eight exhibitions per year, will focus on contemporary and modern art. Taking inspiration from the building, the inaugural show is Kinetics: 100 years of electricity in art, which will explore how electricity has transformed artistic practice from the early 20th century to the present day. It is curated by Havranek, Lívia Nolasco-Rózsás and Austrian post-conceptual artist Peter Weibel.

A man in a workshop with electrical appliances

‘Cabinet of electrical curiosities’ by Mark Dion © Johana Pošová

The exhibits will feature loans from the Pudils, as well as from private lenders and institutions such as the Tate and the Center Pompidou. About twenty private collectors have already lent works. “In this way”, says Petr, “we will gradually build up a leading Central European art collection”. But “we also aim to bring the best of international art to Prague, and thus establish a dialogue with the local art scene”.

The museum is ambitious – it has 30 staff – and as well as running the exhibition program there is an education arm, design shop, restaurant and cafe. The couple estimate that the project will cost them between 30 and 35 million euros for acquisitions and the conversion of the building and predict that the annual operating costs will be in the “low millions of euros”.

“The Kunsthalle is a non-governmental and non-profit organization, funded by our family foundation,” explains Petr, “but the aim is to cover running costs.” To this end, there is an entrance fee of €10 for over 26s. It has a membership program and might even consider crowdfunding.

Surreal photomontage of eyes and microscopes

Image taken from ‘Emak Bakia’ (1926) by Man Ray © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP

The words 'In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni' in red neon in a circle

‘In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni/We Go Round and Round in the Night and are Consumed by Fire’ (1997) by Cerith Wyn Evans © evn collection, Maria Enzersdorf

Is it going to be sustainable in the long run, though? The Pudils have three children between them and now, together with the Kunsthalle, they have “another child to support”, says Petr. But, he adds, “We had that in mind from the start, and we hope we can find patrons and supporters in the future.”

I ask if they are still adding to their own collection. “Yes!” they respond in unison, and Pavlína says, “Nowadays we focus more on buying what’s missing from the collection – of course, it’s a never-ending process.”

Kunsthalle Praha opens on February 22 with ‘Kinetismus’, which lasts until August, kunsthallepraha.org

Berta D. Wells