OLGA ȘTEFAN THE PAINTBRUSH FACTORY IN ITS OWN WORDS, INTERVIEW WITH CORINA BUCEA
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 first interview is with Corina Bucea, cultural manager living and working in Cluj, Romania and co-founder of The Paintbrush Factory.
“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 first interview is with Corina Bucea, cultural manager living and working in Cluj, Romania. She is a co-founder of The Paintbrush Factory.
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 then? What were some of the challenges that you were walking into? What did you understand the Factory to be when you joined?
I joined the Paintbrush Factory when it was a mere informal gathering of people working in the arts and culture in Cluj. I was among the many organisations, artists, galleries, and artist-run spaces looking for a space to work in, at the beginning of 2009, when we were meeting mostly at events, rarely to collaborate. The first materialization of this gathering was to rent a space—soon it became an ambition to have a joint position in opening a multidisciplinary art venue, and eventually our project transformed into a community of organizations and individuals willing to share not only a space, but a programme and a common identity. One of the biggest challenges in this incipient phase was to find the proper structure, without having clear recipes in mind, that would reflect our aspirations of horizontality, but that would nevertheless function efficiently.
Shortly before the official opening of the venue, I was appointed the manager of the Factory by the board of directors, a role that for several years was the only full-time position but which was not formalized under a work contract until many years later.
The organizational structure started from an informal group, migrating towards a more formal entity similar to an NGO, with voting for a board of directors and a president, and appointing members of the managerial team. I have to say, the structure—and its paradoxical oscillation between discourse and reality—was the constant challenge in the Paintbrush Factory. How to find the right one in the within the limitations of Romanian law? How to make sure it reflects our ideal forms of organization? How to make it functional? How to make it flexible and allow for negotiation within the borders of otherwise strict forms? These and many others were questions that those of us with a bit of managerial know-how were preoccupied by. For many others, they were translated into much simpler questions—such as how can I influence the general decisions?
The Paintbrush Factory started with personal pocket money—everyone in the collective was responsible for bringing in their own money for the initial investments, and for most it meant relying on our savings. After the opening of the Factory, AltArt Foundation (one of the co-founders) managed to raise the first public funding for the project, which allowed for many activities to take place and cover the first months’ costs for part of the rent for events spaces, communication, and fees for artists and collaborators.
What I did understand of the Factory when it all started was this blind enthusiasm that only seemed to make space for some kind of trust that we are doing something great, together, and that this greatness comes from the diversity of people brought together under the same roof, somehow randomly. I honestly felt humbled to be in such a good company and was ready to make whatever personal sacrifice to make this project work.
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?
The Factory was a space of negotiation and discussion. My strongest memories when thinking of the first years at the Factory are the often 3- or 4-hour long meetings, sometimes more, with over 20 people at the table, trying to each make themselves heard and sometimes struggling to come to a consensus. That was our ambition, to take all decisions based on consensus, and when that wasn’t possible, to clearly come up with a majority.
As in any small community (and here I mean both the city and the Factory) the dynamics between people are sometimes visible, but they are mostly invisible. It is only retroactively that I can identify some hidden power structures that were invisible to the eye at the time, but which surely made a great impact on the whole community. Also, there are always vulnerabilities and precarious positions that at the time were only visible and relevant for some of the people in the community. What I had to deal with mostly was the vulnerability of the people who were perceived to work for, not within the community, since this is something I felt on my own skin. Working not under a leader, but under the complex dynamics of a community which was always experimenting with its own structures, decision-making and common activities, has never been an easy job. Negotiating beyond individual interests and trying to keep up the flag of common interest and a space of meeting between individuality and community has also been a constant struggle on my part.
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?
What mainly changed in time was a tendency to formalize. This came as a result of both internal and external pressures—some of the members in the community urged to find more stable structures to work in, while expectations from the outside also grew and people started seeing the Paintbrush Factory as an institution, a necessary voice, a model. I think this put a lot of pressure on us, and some of us ended up, more often than others, taking on the responsibility of trying to meet these expectations. I believe those who were the most protected in this process were the ones who stubbornly kept to their own interests.
For example, I remember some of the galleries insisted on communicating their programme only in English, although most of their direct audience were of course local, Romanian visitors. These were the type of situations we had to negotiate constantly, and these were the kind of situations where individual choice eventually won over our common ideals (such as making sure our communication is inclusive and accessible to everyone, in this specific example).
What also changed is that the initial community grew bigger, new members joined in, and initial members withdrew from the project, which shifted the dynamics between people constantly. Those who joined on the way landed in a structure which already had its rituals and common understanding, not always visible and easy to comprehend. Some came with expectations which had to be negotiated, and in time our understanding of our common project became very disjunctive, to the point where for some it seemed irreconcilable. Maybe it’s actually always been like that, but it definitely became more visible as new positions and expectations had to be accommodated in the community.
Please tell us what led to the disintegration of the collective and the factory (the background, maybe even situation of the city), what took place exactly, and how were things handled.
The narratives explaining the disintegration of the collective may be just as various as the ones explaining the birth of the community. Depending on one’s position and understanding of the big story of the Factory, one can come up with just as many explanations. Do they need to make sense? I believe this is actually the answer—every element in a system is developing, in time, a different and very individual narrative even of the collective story we are experiencing and writing. This eventually leads to disintegration—when these stories do not match anymore, when people lose trust and start putting their individual interest first, when differences (of opinion, of your work medium, of ideologies) become conflicts, things fall apart. You can blame it on many visible details, but the invisible ones draw the lines. The background of all this was in fact the imagined and real power relations, a narrative which has always been the background noise in the community and which we ignored under the illusion of a utopian horizontal organization.
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?
Lessons learned can be assimilated only having in mind a clear end. My question has been, in the last years, to what end do we need to learn certain lessons? To our own role in the arts and cultural sector, to our collective work, to the protection and emancipation of our position in the world, to the changes in the arts sector, to a stronger position of such initiatives in the greater system they function in? To each end, you can come up with a different conclusion. For me personally, I believe such initiatives cannot leave a legacy behind independently of the system they function in. Such initiatives prove to be illusory and magical appearances, surprisingly resistant against the rather hostile context of political and economic conditions. We tend to take this responsibility of learning from our failures and successes and integrating this mode of learning independently of the power structures we are obliged to function in, when this is an unreasonable pressure that we need to take some distance from. For me, this is the most important lesson learned—that by yourself, even as a community, without the support coming from policies, authorities, funding, the community at large, singular utopian projects have a limited life span—and the life of the Factory was, if you come to think of it in context, a surprisingly long one, compared to others’.
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 was, beyond its visible experimental character in terms of organizational structure, programme, interdisciplinarity, a social experiment.
Maybe reviving a lost innocence, where physical results would not be the objective, but creating a community of meaning, experimenting with forms of organizations, testing our trust, and the limits of our individuality, would be the thing which I would work on indefinitely. I believe the essence of the factory, beyond its physical iterations of space, time, and events, is the community of people and the dynamics between them—this is something which assures its life in the long run and which I hope will be kept alive in the future. I think professionalization, adaptation, and negotiation are aspects that ensure the background of its existence, while the collective work of people who commit to the ideals that we first started this journey with is the most important thing.
Corina Bucea is a cultural manager, living and working in Cluj, Romania. She is a co-founder of The Paintbrush Factory, a space for contemporary arts where she worked in the executive team between 2009 and 2015. Corina collaborated with several projects representing Romania at the Venice Biennale, the art and architecture editions in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Corina Bucea currently works as a project manager at the Cluj Cultural Centre.
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.