What happened to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade?

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade (MOCAB) will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in October 2015. However, it still remains a question whether this anniversary will be a reminder that MOCAB has been closed to visitors since 2007 for the purpose of undertaking a much-needed reconstruction which today is still far from completion.

When it opened to the public in 1965, MOCAB became one of the first museums of its kind in Europe, itself a testimony to advanced cultural policy of socialist Yugoslavia. It had at the same time become one of the distinctive architectural landmarks in New Belgrade As an institution that since its beginnings aligned its identity with the idea of international modernism and the belief in progress for a better society, the Museum expanded its activities throughout the years and houses a major collection of Yugoslav Modern Art of the twentieth century.

Following the disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia, MOCAB suffered a decline during the presidency of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia of the 1990s: it was mismanaged, improperly maintained, and finally severely damaged by a missile that hit the neighboring office block during the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. This damage and a poor repair of the glass façade compounded the existing problems of maintaining the basic exhibition conditions. It was no longer possible to control neither the temperature nor the humidity in the galleries. MOCAB was in desperate need of repair and renovation.

Along with end of Milošević era, and the political changes in 2000, MOCAB was revitalized, and in the following years became a platform for emerging contemporary art practices both locally and internationally, and recognized for its exhibition and public programs. However, the condition of the building, worsened by occasional flooding in the storage area. The museum’s director Branislava Andjelković made it a priority to upgrade the building. The reconstruction and renovation plan was made. The museum urged politicians to take into serious consideration the importance of this project for Belgrade, Serbia as well as for the entire region of ex-Yugoslavia.

After the 2007 exhibition “Breaking Step” of British contemporary art (including Nathan Coley’s piece that ironically predicted There Will Be No Miracles Here)the building was closed when the Serbian government managed to provide the first financial installment for the project. By 2009 nearly a third of the planned works were completed. The roof was fixed, the basement facilities were renovated, and the transformer was separated from the building. However, the global economic crisis has had far-reaching effects in Serbia and the renovation came to a full stop. The interiors, the Museum’s façade, and the new facilities remain incomplete.

As the paralysis of MOCAB’s reopening persists in the already impoverished and precarious cultural life of Serbia, a significant number of young artists, art professionals, researchers and students continuously keep the topic alive within the two satellite venues improvised by the government. In summer 2012, Museum curators and a group of young artists organized a project entitled “What Happened to the Museum of Contemporary Art.” They raised local awareness and alerted the public to the negligence of the politicians regarding the finalizing of the renovation.

Ms. Andjelković’s mandate ended in 2013. An interim director was appointed by the new government that pledged to continue the reconstruction, but failed to make any progress. The new interim director, Jovan Despotović, an experienced museum curator and critic took over in June 2014. The appointment of Despotović has revived expectations that the government may be seriously considering to take on the unfinished business.

There are however many threats that could potentially jeopardize the project, such as political lack of competence and bureaucratic hurdles, including an urban plan for the riverbank of Sava, in a close vicinity of MOCAB, that has not seen due public process. Worse, Serbia has seen rising unemployment and disillusionment in economic reforms and taken a further hit by the flood disaster in May 2014. The present situation fuels populist political rhetoric against cultural values associated with contemporary visual culture, making the preservation of MOCAB for future generations even harder.

The conservation of the MOCAB building should in itself be a priority of Serbian and Yugoslav artistic legacy. Perhaps the goal of its long expected re-opening requires a more active participation of contemporary artists, curators, writers and museum specialists within the international community.

Branislav Dimitrijević

Professor of Art History and Cultural Theory, School for Art and Design, Belgrade