OLGA ȘTEFAN THE PAINTBRUSH FACTORY IN ITS OWN WORDS, INTERVIEW WITH MIKI BRANIȘTE
The Paintbrush Factory was launched in 2009 and closed down ten years later. Curator and researcher Olga Ștefan seeks to provide a deeper understanding of what The Paintbrush Factory entailed: its horizontality and organisational structure, its importance to the local community, and its existence as a model for similarly minded arts organisations. The second interview is with Miki Braniște, cultural manager and curator for performing arts and interdisciplinary projects, currently president of Colectiv A Association.
“The project started at the beginning of 2009, as an independent initiative to bring together ideas, events and projects of cultural organizations, galleries, producers, and independent artists in Cluj and as a reaction to the local lack of production and exhibition spaces in the city. Fabrica de Pensule (The Paintbrush Factory) is the first collective project of such dimensions on the Romanian cultural scene and also one of the most relevant examples of converting an industrial building into a cultural space. The artists, galleries, and organizations—active in the fields of theater, contemporary dance, visual arts, arts in public space, music—are jointly engaged into delivering relevant cultural content, both for the artistic community and the wide audience. Besides artist studios and production spaces, Fabrica de Pensule (The Paintbrush Factory) also hosts events of local and international partners. It acts as a major player in cultural and urban policies in the Romanian context.”
In 2016, a rupture between two factions of the Paintbrush Factory tenants tore the collective apart, with one group leaving. The Paintbrush Factory as an art center closed in December 2019 after the real estate management decided to rent to the IT industry.
This series of interviews was conducted with some of the co-founders of the Paintbrush Factory—the manager, the association president, a gallery owner, and an artist—to delve deeper into the mechanics of such a collective undertaking, and offer reflections and analysis for any future endeavour that might wish to create a similar community. The second interview from a series of five is with Miki Braniște, cultural manager and curator for performing arts and interdisciplinary projects, president of Colectiv A Association and Fabrica de Pensule, center for contemporary art. Read the first interview with Corina Bucea, cultural manager and co-founder of The Paintbrush Factory, here.
How did you become involved, and in what role, in the Paintbrush Factory? What was the situation in the Factory at that time? How was it structured and funded when you joined? What were some of the challenges that you were walking into when you joined the group? What did you understand the Factory to be when you joined?
The Paintbrush Factory Federation appeared on the backdrop of the economic crisis in 2009, when space for smaller art galleries and artists became scarce and unaffordable. This in turn pushed small collectives even further to the margins. The very few spaces that existed back then, such as Casa Tranzit, could not possibly cater to everyone. The art scene was fragmented and lacked the means to gather the independent artistic and civic initiatives in a common space. This is when Radu Comșa and Daria Dumitrescu came across an ad in the newspaper as they were scouring around for a space to move their studio and gallery. At that time the firm Perom S.A. was subletting a whopping 2500 square metres of post-industrial space, almost an entire factory, but it was unaffordable for a single entity, so. Visual artists, cultural managers, curators, dance and theatre producers were invited to join in creating a community.
As a founding-member of the Paintbrush Factory Federation, its lifeline has a deep personal meaning for me. I had a few roles from its inception, such as board member (2009-2016), president (2014), artistic board member (2018) and president (2019). When we rented the space in 2009 and signed the five-year contract with the owner we decided to vest the Federation with a legal framework that would eventually make it possible for us to apply for public funding. All the initial renovation was made out-of-pocket, so every space received a unique makeover. People made do with whatever they had, they reused and recycled materials until they got what they wanted, so the spaces at the Paintbrush Factory were not standardised. However people felt that they belonged and adhered to the idea of this space of “crafting” associated with a “paintbrush” that sparked an initial euphoria and a sense of togetherness. The philosophy of the Federation for the most of us was based on the idea of the common good: that artists, administrative staff, curators, and management are all equally significant and that we needed a strong common ground so that everyone can be better off together than alone. Initially calling the project a “space” rather than an art centre revealed the underlying desire to keep ends open, to foster collective trust within the community and a common vision in how we defined ourselves to the outside world.
What was the dynamic among the group’s stakeholders and who were the stakeholders? How were decisions made? How were different interests (and what were they) navigated and balanced?
Artists, producers, gallerists, curators, managerial staff, people with very different skills, life-stories and backgrounds were the community that shared the spaces of the Paintbrush Factory in these times: Sabot Gallery, Plan B Gallery, Laika Gallery, Quadro Gallery, Peleș Gallery, Intact Gallery, Bazis Gallery, Baril Gallery, Lateral Art Space, and AltArt Foundation, GoundFloor Group Association, Art Hoc Association, Colectiv A, Cercul Întreg Association, Balla & Vajna Association, Grupa Mică Association just to name some of the members. They were represented in the decision-making process by a board acting as consultants and proposed solutions to be voted on during the General Assembly. The board of members could not push their propositions through without a public vote of the majority. If rejected, new options had to be brought to the table. This meant that those on the board had an enormous task to find consent among the group. I wish to add here that the board was never paid for its work and it had to deal with extremely scarce resources while managing growing requests (eg: growing the community to 60 people while having just one employee for management, creative and administrative work and communication). There was no institutional model for us to mimic or borrow—the functioning models that we had studied would not work with the peculiar arrangement that characterised the Paintbrush Factory: a union between artists (visual, designer, actors, performers, musicians), gallery owners, and cultural managers. So our model was constantly redefined by the immediate needs of the community. To prevent the sense of a rigidity typical of institutions, we adopted a flat-hierarchical structure, and the board members would not impose internal decisions on to the members they represented. All decisions were made through direct negotiation and the attempt to find consensus.
There was this collective momentum that I remember when we decided as a community on how to define the Paintbrush Factory. At that time everyone agreed unanimously that we should use the label “contemporary independent art space.” We agreed that this was a non-institutional space with a flat interior hierarchy, and that we focus on constantly running projects in the visual and performing arts. Those with a stronger interest in the social realm were also concerned about exposing social inequities and the rights of the most vulnerable in their projects as a reaction to what was going on in society.
Some members were actively supportive of a much needed frame for a common future, while others retracted, and wanted to concentrate solely on their personal projects, keeping away from the debates and open talks that were so vital to our collective interests and that of the Paintbrush Factory to become a stable and sustainable space. From the euphoria that brought together many artistic and civic independents for a common goal in the beginning, the energy tilted slowly toward personal interests as the Paintbrush Factory gained notoriety and international recognition, which was considered valuable. When collective efforts needed individual input, only a few would regularly engage. Because interests were shifting away, it was increasingly difficult to garner common resources and to move towards building a robust and enduring new and fresh institution.
What changed as time went on? What new challenges were you faced with as conditions on the ground changed? How did you deal with them?
The generosity that you would often see when people shared their knowledge, equipment, time, and labour to support their fellow artists, as well as the social causes endorsed throughout this time, was the essential immaterial capital that reflected life at the Paintbrush Factory. There was also material support that meant a great deal for the community, like a significant donation made by Adrian Ghenie to have the building reconditioned with regular heating for everyone. What followed though was that the faith in the common immaterial capital of the community began to erode because with time people got accustomed with stability and the welfare that the federation provided (like supporting the rent for some months/year). We had to acknowledge that there were competing attitudes over common goals, and the steps that were being taken to establish some sort of internal organisation were quickly dismissed by those who feared the spectres of stiff institutionalisation. All internal regulations that were created and could structure the professional relations between 60 people were never applied, so eventually we counted on the common sense of everyone.
The public funding that was received was not nearly enough to contribute to the collective’s future financial security. But with the significant earnings from two Tajan auctions in 2012 and 2013 through the generosity of the artists who donated their works, we had the opportunity to consolidate the future of the Federation. These auctions took place to develop the community, improve the spaces for work, support the production of new projects, to secure rent for the coming months, etc. Those who sold their works partially donated the earnings and so the Paintbrush Factory had the means to think of a future. The board agreed in 2012 that the lobby area needs to be remodelled into a multifunctional space, a kitchen, a waiting hall for performances and a library that would cater to all of the 60 odd members and the audience. But calls for support to contribute with time and some labour toward this goal were met with a lack of interest, increasing the pressure on the few who were already involved (3-4 people). But on a day-to-day basis, there were constant challenges with the growing community and the understaffed management, occasionally there was only one person, the manager, that had to deal alone with all the matters.
There was more and more attention and a growing interest towards the production of symbolic capital of the Paintbrush Factory. From within through the Paintbrush Factory was not living up to this success, perpetual disagreements and difficulties in reaching basic consensus hindered the possibility to plan ahead, often delaying the necessary steps to formally establish some form of institutional background. The situation exposed all the vulnerabilities of a community that was not acting together but on individual whims and interests. At this point there was a striking difference between what the Paintbrush Factory should have become as a federation at the moment of its peeking influence and the state it was really in.
Adapting internally to these changes on the social and cultural landscape was yet another challenge as we gradually came to the realisation that the common good is no longer a priority for the majority. This became evident at the General Assembly (2014) where the majority of the members decided with their vote to re-purpose the income from the second Tajan auction (2013) towards personal projects instead. Some other artists wanted to donate partially for stabilising the institutional future of the Federation and also support some performative art projects made by members. Yet others donated to their own galleries or friends. In this process it is important to note that the lack of interest towards a common future was replaced by affinities based on friendships and common values and personal interest (for production, personal debts, etc.). Even though the future of the community could have been assured, the flat hierarchy allowed a full democratic vote that pushed the relative stability back into uncertainty. Members expressed their mistrust in those who advocated mid-term sustainability, or tried to make a case on the importance of acting as a group. This was the foundation for the division that followed in 2016.
Please tell us what led to the disintegration of the collective and the factory (the background, maybe even situation of the city, gentrification, maybe an analysis of the role of art itself in rising costs), what took place exactly, and how were things handled.
The different visions contributed to the growing distrust among the members of the federation. It needs to be added that the constant expansion of the community and its management, the pressure to carry out more and more activities (production, advocacy mediation, dissemination) by a handful of people had exhausted those who were active. As we were experiencing the disintegration that led to a divided community, and the collective trauma that came along with it, new actors had surfaced on the scene as budgets for cultural activities were raised. This was happening on the background of the local administration’s aspirations to transform Cluj into a creative city.*
The Paintbrush Factory was precisely the success story—with a grassroots background, and international standing—that Cluj-Napoca Town Hall needed to legitimise its new development project that sought to put the city on Europe’s map while focusing on the success of its cultural and IT industry. The authorities’ ambition is reflected in the application for the title of European Cultural Capital 2021, which reasserted the new profile of Cluj-Napoca as a creative and socially inclusive city. The Paintbrush Factory was one of the pillars of this project at the time of the application.
Looking back with the needed disengagement and accepting the painful fact that I was also part of the dynamic, I will assert that the Paintbrush Factory has embodied the transformation of the city and had its own contribution in its gentrification. It incarnates the expression of the way in which a new type of production replaces an older one.
The story of the Paintbrush Factory mirrors this precise metamorphosis of the city, which sees the industrial production being replaced by symbolic production. Currently factories are literally replaced by IT firms and adjacent services, while The Paintbrush Factory that had benefited from a long-term rental (10 years) of a factory space is being displaced in this massive gentrification trajectory of the city starting in December 2019.
Lessons learned: What do you feel you could have done differently, what should have been done and wasn’t, what was done well and left as a lesson to others wanting to build these types of collectives, what should never have happened?
The first lesson for me is that you have to be very careful who you side with, what mutual values you have, and observe their ability to give, if their internal drive is similar to yours. Then you need to analyse the possibility of a professional and co-working relationship on the mid-or long-term continuum. Another lesson well learnt is that each and every member imagines the space according to their needs and this will prevail in shaping the future of the relationship. Only a small minority is interested in the common good.
What could have been done differently? I would have insisted on implementing guidelines to regulate the relationship between colleagues. I would have excluded some of the people that appeared during the course of the project who didn’t have the slightest understanding of what it means to build something valuable out of nearly nothing. These were the persons that rapidly became toxic. I would have limited the growth of the community based on our capacity to manage it and not vacancy. I would have made the re-imagination of the project compulsory, as this was so essential. Things change organically in the course of the project, and you need to keep this in mind.
I would have dedicated more time to mediate the relationship between artists and the small management team. Managerial work is utterly different, and often the artists could not follow the complexity of thinking-through, implementing and reporting a project even with their best intentions. Understanding how others work is useful to create a respectful environment. I would have developed some activities that required mutual and specific assistance from each of us, including co-workers whom we didn’t know well. We performed the founding moment, renovating the lobby through mutual help (that in my vision tied us together for a time). It didn’t work out. Surely there are other explanations than the ones provided by me. I would have prioritised facilitating the meetings of the community by an external professional. In a group with so many strong personalities, it was difficult for those not loud enough to get their opinions across. Even though we attempted to create a non-hierarchical structure for the meetings, some participants were intimidating through the complexity of their speeches (even though they had interesting things to say), as these people had a deeper understanding of different professional relationships, or artistic, cultural, or political contexts. Sometimes it may have seemed that speaking in simpler words made the content insignificant, and this is how frustrations grew.
I would have liked to be aware that:
—self-exploitation is not the answer in making such a sizeable project;
—in each group there are people who initiate, others that do, and yet others that hamper. Of all these types it is hard to keep a balance;
—to have discovered earlier on the complaints of some of my colleagues, and to have them verbalised in a critically constructive frame. To not target the sensitivity of a person who has done too much for the community already;
—to have known concepts such as art-washing earlier on, and to have understood in time that the project that we were working on, using our resources had been politically rigged and used symbolically by the local administration to strategically implement policies paving the way to the creative city, a process that generates gentrification. Ironically, one of the first victims of the gentrification of Cluj was the Paintbrush Factory itself.
What is your current vision or understanding of the Factory experiment, of what it was, should have been, achieved or never managed? Does it have a life after death? And if so, how?
The Paintbrush Factory, as the audience knows it with its fully inhabited four floors, was not an institution that got off on a footing with a strategic development plan. It was a grassroots organisation that developed by putting together our precarious situations at the beginning and by sharing our resources: knowledge, handy skills, professional connections, etc. Meeting these people, I quickly understood that something good can come out of this as we converge into a critical mass and we become visible on the local and national scene. I don’t think we imagined the international success, at least not in the way it came later. I think this may be too early to give a full answer to the first question, but I will attempt to do so. If for some this space meant they could express their creativity and keep alive their connections, for others nurturing an emancipated audience with whom we can foster a long-term relationship and shared social values counted the most. For others, belonging here meant you have some kind of social status. How these three positions were enacted was down to individual choice. For me personally, the feeling that I can share sincerely with colleagues and audience what I stand for was important. The debates we organised that dealt with current issues have offered an indispensable agora where audiences could meet contemporary thinkers and artists, people who could be role models for the generations that we interacted with. I personally see the Paintbrush Factory as a space for learning. Each could learn what they wanted to take with them according to intellectual interests. For me, it was an initiation space where I learned how easy it is to gather people, but how hard it is to create a community, how much effort and emotional work needs to be invested to keep it alive. This was the space where I practiced and learned collective thinking, and I could witness the fragility of all if trust vanishes. For all those things that I have learnt I am grateful to my colleagues.
The life of the Paintbrush Factory has been hard to imagine in the absence of the space that gives its name. But, yes, there is life after the death of 2019. This life is dependent on new energies that exist and want to be in a connection with the people that founded the project so that a trans-generational tie can exist. I have personally taken a step back and invited two curators to be in charge of the performing arts section: Zenko Bogdan and Zoltan Galovits. For the visual arts section, the pair Mihai Iepure Gorski and Răzvan Anton have been setting a clear direction since 2019. Performing arts activities have teamed up with the art collective that forms the new space ZIZ-art & social area where much of our energy was invested to renovate and transform (again☺) a disused synagogue into a new artistic space. These are serious efforts that have been made to breathe new life as the project is redefining itself. A new strategy was in the making in order to create coherence between the needs of the audience and the goals of those who represent today the Factory that had less active members than previously. For the visual arts projects, there were collaborations established with museums and independent spaces within Romania. Yet the major challenge is about to unfold in full COVID-19 crisis and in the aftermath when we’ll be impacted collectively and personally. Most of us may realise the great times we’ve had together in the Paintbrush Factory and we’ll laugh about the frustrations that caused major distress back then, but now seem petty concerns in the face of what is about to come. And yes, belonging to a community will help us face this encounter with the unknown.
*Under the influence of Richard Florida’s urban regeneration theories.
Miki Braniște is a cultural manager and curator for performing arts and interdisciplinary projects, president of Colectiv A Association and Fabrica de Pensule, center for contemporary art. She was director of the Festival TEMPS D’IMAGES from Cluj starting with 2008 until 2017. Between 2009 and 2016, she was a member of the board of the Fabrica de Pensule (Paintbrush Factory) and actively participated in the strategy of this cultural center for contemporary arts in Cluj Napoca, Romania. Miki is interested in art as a development tool for community processes. Preoccupied by the economic, social-political and environmental transformations that occur within the global society, she is involved in projects together with artists inspired by the need to re-imagine our futures. In November 2015 she received the title of ‘Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres’ from the French Ministry of Culture for her activity to support the independent performing arts sector in Romania.In 2016 she received the prize for interdisciplinary projects from the Administration of the National Cultural Fund and the prize for the support for contemporary dance from The National Center for Contemporary dance.
Olga Stefan is a curator, arts writer, documentary filmmaker and independent researcher, born in Bucharest, raised in Chicago, and currently residing in Zurich. Her exhibitions and writing can be found at http://www.olgaistefan.wordpress.com and The Future of Memory, the transnational platform for Holocaust remembrance in Romania and Moldova through art and media that she founded in 2016, is online here: The future of memory.
Cover image: Sclavi / productie Colectiv A, photo by Roland Vaczi