OLGA ȘTEFAN THE PAINTBRUSH FACTORY IN ITS OWN WORDS, INTERVIEW WITH MIHAI POP
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 fifth interview is with Mihai Pop, Romanian artist, gallerist and coordinator of Galeria Plan B.
“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 last interview from this series of five is with Mihai Pop, artist and coordinator of Galeria Plan B. Read the first interview with Corina Bucea, cultural manager and co-founder of The Paintbrush Factory (here), the second interview with Miki Braniște, cultural manager and curator for performing arts and interdisciplinary projects, president of Colectiv A Association and Fabrica de Pensule (here), the third interview with Sorin Neamțu, Romanian artist, from Baril Gallery (here), and the fourth interview with Ciprian Mureșan, Romanian artist living and working in Cluj and editor of IDEA art + society magazine since 2005 (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?
I didn’t join the Paintbrush Factory, I co-created it alongside a very small, but enthusiastic and diverse group of colleagues. The diversity of positions of the initial core of the Factory offers a perspective of what it became afterwards: the visual artists group, the one involved in performance art, in new media, but also a strong faction interested in cultural management and policies. All of us had already proven, before the Paintbrush Factory moment, that we were persistent types and had a relatively high capacity for self-determination. We created things and were quite active despite the many setbacks and conditions of the 2000s in Eastern Europe. From the point of view of today, I see the precarious situation we were in as an advantage, mostly. We had not only time and energy, but also an important stake in the game: freed of any responsibility towards the context, we were telling ourselves that we are building it from the inside and that we were first to do it.
The starting point of the Paintbrush Factory project is somewhat trivial: an inspired discussion (over a beer) with Rarița Zbranca (director and cofounder of AltArt Foundation), during which we realised that her foundation, as well as my gallery, and also some alternative cultural organisations, are looking for spaces, which were hard to find in 2008 in Cluj. The artist Ciprian Mureșan, along with a fellow artist, Radu Comșa, and his partner, had recently rented a space in the former paintbrush factory, which was semi-derelict. Rarița had this idea, that she expressed immediately: “Let’s all go there and create a cultural hub together.” We pondered the idea and everybody seemed enthusiastic; the enthusiasm grew in the next few weeks, as we thought more about the project and the space we could structure.
This is how The Paintbrush Factory was born—through our collective capacity of recognising the best situation in which we could grow. Through our ability to identify and share resources. The work that a handful of people did in the beginning could be compared to the labour in a kibbutz, when you “make a garden out of a desert.” In the months that followed, we dismantled and removed industrial machinery and pipelines, we drained the halls, we transformed them into art spaces, but we never forgot the nature of that production space. Wanting to offer a symbolic tribute to the place, AltArt Foundation published an audio guide of the area when we launched the Factory in October 2009, as a way of preserving the memory of a location we had radically transformed.
Besides the somehow anecdotal story of the Paintbrush Factory project origins, its source resides in the reformulation of the Romanian art scene in January, 1990 (of course, my analysis is mainly focused on the visual arts scene dynamics). In 1990, the Plastic Artists Union in Cluj had split into two groups which, 18 years later (when we launched The Paintbrush Factory), were still in tensed relations. When we were students, in the 1990s and 2000s, the city of Cluj was scarred by this chronic rupture, so our generation desperately needed to associate. This association was supposed to be interdisciplinary and to rebuild something that we vaguely knew was lost, or, maybe, to invent something that didn’t even exist before, but was a necessary thing to have and that needed solidarity. Anyway, we were hungry for a new dynamic that would mark the detachment from the social and professional isolation of the 1990s. Unfortunately, in the case of the Plastic Artists Union (UAP) of the 1990s, as well as other instances from the first years after the 1989 Romanian Revolution, “democracy” was used in abusive ways, solely for the purpose of consolidating power.
It may be that this relatively small artistic scene has it in its DNA, as does Cluj, an academic city with consistent resources, caught between opposite worlds, but with a mostly self-sufficient cultural world—to allow from time to time the existence of complex structures, created through great struggles, but to “stab it in the back with the knife of provincialism”, while considering this as totally normal and acceptable.The Paintbrush Factory was based on a deep link with the functional cultural space from “abroad”, in fact the only link capable of bringing international prestige to the local context.
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?
Being organic (not strategic) was the key word behind The Paintbrush Factory saga. And this meant a lot of risk. Although each of us brought along a certain managerial baggage (without necessarily also having the capacity of making it useful for the new construction—the Federation), the enthusiasm of “the beginnings” quickly and somewhat superficially distilled in an inclusion policy—“everybody’s welcome.” Exactly the lack of understanding of such a mini-society as we were, without gaining self-consciousness, even a larger political consciousness, meant it wouldn’t survive, stagnating in a continuous adolescence—and it marked the volatility of the project from its very beginning.
In our minds, any structure / artificial imposition would have averted the project from a “total openness towards everybody.” People had to be encouraged first to participate and to be accommodated in the new project. Our effort to constitute ourselves through an agreed set of rules—not that it didn’t exist, on the contrary, it has been much debated, but it was never unanimously agreed—that would position us functionally, was, inevitably postponed sine die by the physical work to renovate and upgrade the location, to create common spaces for dialogue, but also by the unexpected success that came immediately. We had the privilege of discovering in our own backyard (as the saying goes) a public that was really eager to participate and come to events. When we launched The Factory, there were already over 1000 people there, and things only got bigger in the years that followed! During the times of maximum visibility of the project, even though our attempts of nuancing and fine-tuning the modes of cohabitation, financing, and communication were not negligible (one could write an entire sociology paper just on them), the leadership, nevertheless, was based mainly on the value of individuals in relation to the functional world, more specifically on the added value that the artists and the managers succeeded in bringing from abroad. It was, maybe, a necessary act of self-colonisation to be able to navigate through the context and to justify the success of the project, itself self-defined as international, right?!
The idea that we were finally functioning in real time and that we reduced the historical gap that marked entire generations of Romanian culture, was performed, in our case, through the condition of ubiquity: we were simultaneously here and in the West. The gradual refocusing of the project on these values (again: legitimated by the international scene) was an organic process, but one that was hard to explain to such a large array of artists that were already populating The Paintbrush Factory and that came there almost as if it was Mecca. It’s quite possible that, during the most successful moment of The Paintbrush Factory, the common values and ideals—based on the production of art, development of programs, and collaboration—of the initial community were no longer there.
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 diversity of the artist community from The Paintbrush Factory—a model that the West once had and then lost, and which, in and ideal setting, is capable of shaping the cultural policies of the city from within—had changed, in a very short time, the view of the international art world on the Romanian art scene and also the perception of the local authorities on the role and impact of the arts on the city. At one point, when you entered the city you could even see traffic signs directing you to The Paintbrush Factory! From a blank spot on the mental map of the West—with a few notable exceptions like Dan Perjovschi or Mircea Cantor, and later Ion Grigorescu and Geta Brătescu, the West didn’t know much about what was happening in Romania. Until Cluj was listed as “one of the 6 cities of global artistic value” by SF MoMA, besides the local setbacks (see the exhibition “Six Lines of Flight—Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art”, 2012) or “Cluj, one of the 12 cities of the future” among global centres as Sao Paolo or Istanbul (see “Art Cities of the Future—21st Century Avant-Gardes”, Phaidon, 2013), things happened very fast, impossible to entirely digest. This kind of outside praise enhanced the perception of some “tenants” about others, building up a relational and mental context that I would call—with a harsh terminology—paranoid, totally improper for creation and in stark contradiction to the organic, communitarian energy of the beginnings. At the time all the spaces were full, the Factory had become, for some, the place of confirmation through context (in other words, of the lack of necessity to confirm through yourself, an ideal space for imposture; you have a studio at the Factory, you exist and you’re riding the wave, if not you’re still symbolically isolated in the tedious decade of the 2000s). Besides a production space that managed to attract consistent funds and build global visibility, the Factory had become a symbolic battlefield, and the apparatus of this illusion was made in the West. The end was sealed by the article in The New York Times that, by mentioning only the ones that had become relevant outside of the boundaries of Cluj (including some that weren’t connected to the Factory), worked as a mirror of the true situation we were facing. It’s interesting to see how, in the comments of the piece, the first signs of blind dissatisfaction started to unfold.
What happened next? One of the last individuals to join the Factory teamed up with a disgruntled member of the Federation and soon formed an alliance with opportunists, which culminated in an attack on the entire community. Overnight they stole the identity forged by sixty people over many years, claiming copyright over the name of The Paintbrush Factory and its visual identity. From that moment on, nothing could be fixed anymore.
The result? Maybe it’s not arbitrary that those who are now recognised as important artists are the same ones who were already someone even before the start of this project, and didn’t rely on the formidable success of The Paintbrush Factory. It’s true, though, that not all of those who came from Cluj that mean something internationally have passed through The Paintbrush Factory—there are notable exceptions like Victor Man, who remained a solitary figure all this time.
It’s eerily similar to what happened in the 1990s at UAP. We’re talking about a handful of historically relevant artists from the Cluj of those times, and they were the disputed / controversial ones back then.
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.
We can talk about the Paintbrush Factory in terms of a social experiment (an involuntary one, but not less dramatic). How else could you briefly explain the mix of enthusiasm, effort, ignorance, and naivety with the politics and the pettiness in concentrated doses? And still, this story cleaned us up, put everybody in their place, artists in studios and rehearsal rooms, cultural managers to work (so important these days) with the mechanics of the art market. Generally speaking, the world of the Paintbrush Factory reshaped itself into small cells, artist-run spaces, experimental theatre and dance halls, or cultural policy initiatives to sustain this vital ecosystem of the local scene. The Factory was, after all, the fertile compost without which things could not go further.
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?
Any way of coming together with the other needs a true common set of values. The illusion that it exists in relation to the social becoming is false. It is undeniable that the Factory has locally premiered a lot of things, its very existence has determined enactment of substantial support of the independent scene in Cluj by the municipal government, an unprecedented and hard to match endeavour in Romania, until then. But once the social status was gained, once it became normal, the differences between different ideals started to show. If for the artist Adrian Ghenie, to give an example, bringing in financial resources (he being one of the main funders of the Factory, for the benefit of all) was something that he thought was freeing fellow habitants of the prosaic constraints of reality—like the freezing studios—for others the Factory was the honey jar from which they could suck. As there was truly no other project based on these premises, maybe there was no lesson to be learned. That is because, in places in transition, people will keep making the same mistakes, primarily born out of endemic poverty. The founding of the Paintbrush Factory, as well as its decline, are both related to the conditionings of the real context of the world in transition.
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?
After 10 years, the community had distilled itself into different shapes, now everybody is solo, but they are symbolic parts of the difficult reconfiguration process of the scene we belong to.
Graduate of the University of Art and Design in Cluj, Mihai Pop (1974) is an artist and the coordinator of Galeria Plan B, a production and exhibition space for contemporary art located in Cluj, Romania. Initiated by Pop and artist Adrian Ghenie in 2005, Plan B opened in September 2008 a second exhibition space in Berlin while in 2007 Mihai Pop was the commissioner for the Romanian Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale. In 2009 Mihai Pop / Plan B was one of the initiators of the project Fabrica de Pensule / The Paintbrush Factory in Cluj, a collective independent cultural center, converted from the old paintbrush factory and hosting several art galleries and artist studios. In 2015 Mihai Pop curated the exhibition “Darwin’s Room” by Adrian Ghenie in Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Pop lives and works in Cluj and Berlin.
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: Miklós Onucsán, Unfinished Measurements II and III, Post-Fire Wood, installation view, Plan B at art berlin contemporary 2014