OLGA ȘTEFAN THE PAINTBRUSH FACTORY IN ITS OWN WORDS, INTERVIEW WITH SORIN NEAMȚU
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 third interview is with Sorin Neamțu, Romanian artist and co-founder of Baril Gallery, involved with the Factory starting with 2012.
“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 third interview from a series of five is with Sorin Neamțu, Romanian artist who lives and works in Arad and Cluj-Napoca. Read the first interview with Corina Bucea, cultural manager and co-founder of The Paintbrush Factory (here) and 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).
How did you become involved in the Paintbrush Factory? How was it structured and funded at that time? What were some of the challenges that you were walking into? How did you perceive the Factory when you joined?
It happened at the beginning of 2012. In 2009, together with Bogdan Vlăduță, I started Recycle Nest, an artist-run space in Bucharest on Icoanei Street at no. 17. At that time, we gave ourselves a term of two years, in which to see what it means to manage an exhibition space, a gallery. Both being artists and not embarking on similar initiatives until then, we were curious about the experiment. After two years, according to the plan, we both felt the need to end the journey.
My friends Daria Dumitrescu (Sabot Gallery) and Radu Comșa, both among the founders of the Paintbrush Factory, suggested Cluj as an alternative, because a gallery space had just been vacated. At that time, I understood that I was not the only one who wanted it. Therefore, we had an interview with the Board of Directors members, after which they were to make a decision. This was the first time I interacted with Paintbrush Factory in its organizational form.
I am originally from Arad, just like my friend Tibi Adelmann, with whom I have founded Baril Gallery. Arad is a smaller city, somewhere in western Romania, with a more modest art scene. Thus, I saw the presence in Cluj as part of the Paintbrush Factory as an excellent opportunity to be connected to an important place, the hotspot of Romanian contemporary art. So it meant a lot to me, I had the feeling that this was a place where it was worth investing energy and time.
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, please enumerate) navigated and balanced?
The place dynamics seemed quite interesting to me. Back in 2012, I looked at the atmosphere with admiration. All the people were very passionate about what they were doing, and hence the feeling of seriousness. You could walk through studios, through spaces in general, and you could find an intense working atmosphere that I found beautiful. Beyond anything that can separate people in a community, there was something more substantial that bound them. A pragmatic attitude. The idea that together they are more relevant than separately. This relevance was significant in terms of the general and the professional public, mostly international, in particular.
The stakeholders dynamics were also sociologically interesting, but more complex and harder to understand. It has been always a balance between formal and informal, manifested mainly in the way big decisions concerning everyone were made. For example, there was a legal entity, a federation, which for various reasons included only 3-4 organizations (which were not necessarily the most important in decision making). There was also the informal and amorphous notion of community, which included everyone. It was funny how at meetings with the entire “community”, there was an effort on the part of the members to define it. What are we together? It was an eternal question. And the answers were consistently different from one to another.
“Community” was an ambitious term, however. The diversity of interests was too high to use the term as an all-encompassing cover for what was happening there. On the one hand, there were the artists, who by their nature are lonely and focused on their workshop. Their communitarian ambitions, at the level of the whole Factory, were reduced, I think. Many of them felt good alone or in a tiny and natural circle of friends. Then there were the galleries, quite close to the artists as a logic of conviviality. Then there were NGOs that dealt with performing arts, on the one hand, and social-communitarian activities, on the other. I think it was difficult, if not impossible, to give a covert answer to the question of who we were together, as a whole, because we were very different actually.
So, the decisions were made rather mysteriously. I felt that we were an organization whose only clear rule was to have nothing clear and transparent vis-à-vis the entire community.
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?
Things changed as the Factory began to gain importance locally, at the level of the authorities and when public money or international grants started to come in.
We set up the Baril Gallery with an a priori budget, without expecting external financing. Therefore, in principle, the fact that from time to time, through fund raising (from the City Hall’s office or Norwegian funds), we covered a small part of the expenses, it was a plus. We were not very interested at that time in the underground decisions, and the way they were made, although we were in the middle of endless quarrels.
Please tell us what led to the disintegration of the collective and the factory federation (the background and outcome), what took place exactly, and how were things handled.
As I said earlier, the money distribution triggered the quarrels. The fund raising was made based on the coagulated community image, against a nearly total lack of trust between the parties. The result was almost permanently contested by those who felt their image was used unfairly. They were not kept up to date with the process and not rewarded accordingly as well.
My position then was quite serene, not living in Cluj and having the home and my family away.
I did not have the energy for endless discussions and quarrels.
But the issue concerning money only activated the conflict. As I already mentioned, there were always rivalries between the Factory members, some of them very old, probably from student days, others were newer. It was, in fact, at least from one point, a power game: L’État, c'est moi! It was the attitude that, in turn, some of the actors (some important, others vocal) of the Factory insinuated.
The rupture occurred in 2016. We, Baril, were put in the situation to choose between the two sides. That of the old Factory, which contained the performing arts NGOs, two galleries, and a few artists. And the other, the so-called “rebels”: three galleries at the beginning, to which were later added other artists and artist-run spaces.
It should also be mentioned that the real estate market put pressure on the community’s future. The owner had already started the building renovation, with the thought—already fulfilled today—that he would eventually rent it out for much more money, at the market price.
We were dissatisfied with how the Factory had functioned until then, thus we chose to go with the new structure, which seemed at the time to be more transparent in intentions. Therefore, the gallery program would have been more predictable. When moving from the Factory in 2017, in the new Centrul de interes (Centre of Interest), the new group rented a space of 2800 m2 which had become a larger structure than the entire Paintbrush Factory. Five galleries on the top floor of a former industrial building, and about 30 studios and project spaces on two other levels.
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?
Looking back, I think it’s tough to manage a community like this. First of all, I believe that ambitions must be strictly administrative. If it happens that there are natural affinities among community members, that’s fine. But it’s hard to find something quasi-ideological that connects a community of artists. And at the Paintbrush Factory, some had this ambition.
It isn’t easy to precisely identify what went wrong. In general, a set of accurately written rules can be helpful of course. But how do you outline them? Between friends, where good faith is presumed? Or, assuming that every member can become a “dangerous element” at some point? And can judge the “danger” traits? It is indeed complicated.
I would say that the secret can be found at personal level. There is something associated with the manner that you mange to balance between yourself as an independent actor and a member of the community. It is about ego.
I say this even more so as I have been through the other experience, Centrul de Interes, which initially only proposed an administrative structure. But there is a desire for power in people in general. Some are more interested in it, others less so. And if this is what leads you in your project, even in a more precise and more unequivocal organizational structure, the situation can devolve badly. I say it with regret, once again, but: L’État, c'est moi! Encore une fois! I once again left, because I redefined my priorities for the next years, as a conclusion of the last ten years of the gallery, but I did it with great relief.
In a way, the situation is sad. On the other hand, I think let’s call it that: these creative situations, groups or communities of artists, cannot live indefinitely. It is better to avoid ageing badly.
What is your current vision or understanding of the Factory experiment, of what it was, should have been, achieved or never managed?
I think this kind of experiment is suitable for everyone: for its members, for the city, for the public. When the situation between the members is good, the satisfactions are extraordinary. But the chances of failure are always high, especially if we have a grassroots situation. I would encourage this type of experience, in particular for entities that are just starting, galleries, or artists groups that are forming, defining themselves. But in this situation, it is essential to clearly define your project, independent of colleagues or neighbours. In this way, you can ensure your continuity. Everything good that would eventually come from the community is a plus.
Sorin Neamțu is a Romanian artist who lives and works in Arad and Cluj-Napoca. Between 2012 and 2019, Sorin Neamțu organized and curated various solo or group shows for Baril Gallery, in partnership with various institutions (Art Museum of Cluj, Arad Art Museum, Art Encounters Biennale Timişoara) and art fairs (Artissima Torino, Contemporary Vienna, Brussels Art, Art-o-Rama Marseilles, MiArt Milano, etc).
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.