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Sacking of Prague’s National Gallery director causes uproar

Prague, Czech Republic – The Czech cultural sector and Prague’s National Gallery are in turmoil.

Czech Culture Minister sacks two prominent heads of art galleries

Last week, the director of Prague’s National Gallery Jiří Fajt was dismissed by Czech Culture Minister Antonín Staněk (ČSSD).

Claiming his decision was based on the results of the audit of one of the most prestigious and well-known cultural institutions in the Czech Republic, the Culture Minister said he had lost faith in Jiří Fajt’s ability to efficiently manage the institution’s budget.

The ministry also announced he would press charges and file two criminal complaints against Jiří Fajt for dubious contracts and lease agreements signed under his leadership.

Antonín Staněk simultaneously announced the sacking of Michal Soukup, the head of the Museum of Art of Olomouc, in Moravia, also due to the conclusions of an audit. Late last month, employees of Olomouc’s Museum of Art openly called for the Culture Minister to resign, citing inappropriate meddling of the state in an architectural competition.

Support from directors of foreign cultural institutions for head of Prague’s National Gallery

This sudden ousting caused an uproar among the Czech cultural scene, and shook well beyond the country’s borders. A few days ago, the heads of more than two dozens leading cultural establishments, museums and art galleries from around the world signed a petition pledging their support to the former director of the Prague National Gallery.

Signatories of the document include the heads of London’s Tate Gallery and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as directors of cultural institutions from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Spain, France, the U.K., Italy, Belgium, Mexico, Denmark, the Netherlands, Israel and Singapore.

In their open letter sent to Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, the signatories expressed their “astonishment and dismay” after the ousting of M. Fajt, “met with great indignation by his colleagues worldwide”. They praised his work in improving the international standing and prestige of Prague’s National Gallery and in boosting its ties and cooperation with galleries and museums all around the world, calling him “an outstanding museum director and an excellent scholar”.

A number of Czech leading art historians and academics also criticized the decision of the Culture Minister, according to Radio Prague.

A political move?

According to local reports, former Culture Minister Daniel Herman claimed that the ousting of Jiří Fajt – whom he appointed in 2014 – came from above and was due to the personal animosity of Czech President Milos Zeman. Zeman has consistently refused to grant M. Fajt, a leading expert on Middle-Age art, the legal title of professor, prompting a lawsuit filed against the head of state by Charles University in Prague.

The choice of the interim successor to head the National Gallery also added fuel to the fire and grist to the mill of critics who saw the move as politically motivated: Ivan Morávek, a former deputy-head of the National Library was previously the managing director of the firm Penam Slovakia, itself part of the agricultural giant Agrofert… founded and formerly owned by Prime Minister Andrej Babis himself.

Many observers fear this recent development will jeopardize the cooperation agreement recently signed between Prague’s National Gallery and the French Pompidou Center for the opening of a local branch of the world-famous Paris modern art museum in the Czech capital.

Headed by Kafkadesk's chief-editor Jules Eisenchteter, our Prague office gathers over half a dozen reporters, editors and contributors, as well as our social media team. It covers everything Czech and Slovak-related, and oversees operations from our other Central European desks in Krakow and Budapest.