Iconic MO Modern Art Museum by celebrity architect Daniel Libeskind raises Vilnius’ international profile

  • 2018-11-28
  • Michael Mustillo

The vision of creating an international art museum in Vilnius has been driven by Lithuanian philanthropists Viktoras and Danguole Butkus, co-founders and financiers behind the newly opened 3,500 square-meter, 15 million euro MO Modern Art Museum. The iconic building has firmly placed Vilnius on the architectural and world art map. At first glance, the building appears simple and contained – a clarity of form that is yet another reference to Vilnius’ classical landmarks. It is a museum that is expressive, innovative and most importantly connects the past with the future of Vilnius. Designed by the internationally renowned architect, Daniel Libeskind, MO’s complex geometric structure and its angled surfaces produce unexpected visual perspectives, encouraging visitors to explore all the museum’s spaces. MO will house an art collection which for the Butkus’ is a cultural legacy belonging to the Lithuanian nation. The MO collection of nearly 5,000 works of modern and contemporary art explores art created from 1960 to the present by Lithuanian artists. It was a day of great pride for Viktoras and Danguole Butkus and the Lithuanian nation as MO opened its doors on 18 October 2018. The museum’s architect Daniel Libeskind had also travelled to attend the opening. Libeskind added that he has designed many large-scale museums around the world, so it was thrilling for him to design an intimate and iconic museum for a great collection of contemporary art. “As someone who has a true appreciation for the history and beauty of Vilnius, I believe the building and its architecture will become a wonderful place to enjoy art and the spirit of the city,” Libeskind said.

The Baltic Times interviewed MO director, Milda Ivanauskiene, and Stefan Blach, a partner at Studio Libeskind who managed the MO project for Daniel Libeskind. Blach is currently completing a number of important projects around the world, including the 2,000-seat Grand Canal Theatre project in Dublin, and the Zhang Zhidong Museum in Wuhan, China.

Dear Milda, MO is the first privately funded art museum in the Baltics. What were the challenges in building MO?

The biggest challenge was the task of building a team and managing a project of this scale. Furthermore, we had the enormous task of deciding about MO’s future activities during the period of MO’s construction. All future projects and possible initiatives had to be valued keeping in mind MO’s spaces in order to reflect its needs and functions. At the official opening, we witnessed nice moments of enjoying the flexibility of all MO spaces and the possibility of staging different event formats.

How will MO’s operational costs be funded?

MO’s operating costs may reach around one million euros. This would be funded by various activities, which include ticket sales, rental income, corporate sponsorship, and private donations. We’ll also be applying for various grants and seek state and municipal support.

What was MO’s final building cost? Was it entirely funded by Viktoras and Danguole Butkus?

It was funded entirely by the Butkus family. The construction alone reached 6.8 million euros, and the entire project budget reached 15 million euros.

MO opened its doors to visitors on 18 October 2018. How did you as the museum’s director and the Butkus’ feel seeing the first people coming into the museum?

It was a very special, long and exciting much awaited moment both for me personally, and for Danguole and Viktoras as well -- the moment you not only see that the museum is finally opened but also seeing it filled with people. It was even more touching to receive so much positive feedback.

How was the Lithuanian public’s reception of MO?

The reception was very positive and full of enthusiasm. During the four days of the museum’s opening, we sold around 12,000 tickets. We calculated that almost 20,000 people visited the museum in October. The events offered received much attention, and we were delighted to see such a high attendance.

MO was designed by the internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. Has the museum been well-received in the world press?

Yes, we received much international coverage. Noted publications and portals such as Dezeen, Metropolis, Architectural Digest, the Art Newspaper, Wallpaper, Designboom, Archinect, ArchDaily, Archilovers covered MO’s opening.

Was it the Butkus’ goal that their museum engages the public?

We planned a wide programme of different events and activities, ranging from cinema screenings, lectures, family weekends, different educational programmes and integrated lessons for school children. MO offers guided tours by professional guides as well as guided tours by MO guides -- these guides are volunteers who have their own and personal perceptions of the exhibitions and of MO itself. We’ve also prepared a multi-media guide that enables visitors to deepen their knowledge about the exhibitions, the different artworks and artists. The multi-media guide is available both in English and Lithuanian, and visitors can choose either a 20 or 52-minute program guide.

What are MO’s plans of becoming an integral part of the lives of the citizens of Vilnius and Lithuania and of Vilnius’ spirit?

We endeavour to become an integral part of our community by offering a wide and different range of activities and services. This includes the MO Bistro, the MO design shop and a wide-ranging extensive selection of events and programs which MO will run.

Are all the artworks in the collection exhibited at MO?

There are more than 300 artworks exhibited in our current exhibition “All Art Is About Us”. However, we have around 5,000 artworks in the entire MO collection. We don’t have a permanent display, but we plan two major shows and exhibition changes per year. Though the collection is purely Lithuanian, we seek through our exhibitions that the local Lithuanian art scene will develop a dialogue with the international art world.

Has MO placed Vilnius on the international art map?

We would love to believe so.

How important will MO’s educational programs be?

We’ve developed three directions for our educational programs with a view of building competencies and capacities needed in the 21st century: these include creativity, problem-solving, teamwork and critical thinking. We have three educational programs that cover integrated lessons, visual thinking and emotional intelligence. They are new and innovative programs which we hope will provide valuable input to informal learning.

Are there any joint Baltic exhibitions planned?

For the time being none are planned, though we will have some very interesting up-and-coming Estonian and Latvian artists participating in MO’s second exhibition.

What are some of MO’s future exhibition highlights?

In 2019 there will be two major exhibitions. Animal-Human-Robot opens in April and explores the ever-changing relationship between humans and other beings: from animal species to organic and mechanical entities created by humans, such as genetically modified organisms or artificial intelligence. The exhibited artworks are never-before-seen pieces from the MO collection, as well as works by artists from Germany and the Baltic states. Starting from October 2019, the exhibition The Decade That Shaped Us interprets the momentous and breakthrough decade - the nineties – which is presented in a new and interactive way. Music, fashion, the market economy, and a newly born mafia and pop culture will find itself reflected in the artworks of the MO collection. These shows will be complemented by a series of smaller-scale exhibitions and installations. To mention just a few of them: the Villa Lithuania project by Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas will explore social activism in art; there will be a workshop-based Shared Habitats show, where artists analyse scientific experiments in a wider cultural context; then we will have the project which reconstructs the interiors and experiences of the nineties, where visitors will be allowed to shape the exhibition displays by including their own experiences and objects.

MO’s first exhibition All Art Is About Us is curated by Raminta Jurenaite. How does it challenge viewers?

MO’s inaugural exhibition “All Art Is About Us” is the first thorough public presentation of the MO’s collection, which contains artworks from the 1950s to the present day. The exhibition has been constructed around the key themes that have concerned different generations of Lithuanian artists over the last 60 years. At the same time it reveals general connections between art and life, allowing each viewer to discover themselves and their own experiences through the works. The title “All Art Is About Us” challenges viewers to look at the works both from their own personal perspective and through the broader prism of Lithuanian national identity. The exhibition interweaves multiple strands of Lithuanian historical experience – the post-war period, the Soviet thaw, the stagnation of the Brezhnev years, the relief that came with perestroika, the independence movement Sąjudis, the restoration of the Lithuanian state, and the rapid change and new challenges that ensued. The MO Museum invites each exhibition visitor to discover their own relationship to the works: some works will allow them to recognise their own experiences, reminding them of the past or what is happening today. Others pieces will not inspire much of a reaction, and on the other hand, others will introduce viewers to completely new stories and experiences.

One of MO Museum’s goals is to build an active community – MOdernists – who support the idea of MO and help create a museum together?

Our aim while building this community of MOderninst is to strengthen the active participation of MO’s visitors, to accentuate active citizenship and also build their sense of ownership of the museum. We want the community to be valued and active members. That’s why we will seek their feedback and will deliver reports on how and where their monetary contributions have been spent.

What are MO’s unique architectural features?

MO’s total area is nearly 3,500 square meters. The building is very compact and fits contextually within the surrounding urban framework, matching the height of existing structures and aligning its facade with the street. At first glance, the building appears simple and contained – a clarity of form that is yet another reference to Vilnius’ classical landmarks. The building’s complex geometric structure and its angled surfaces produce unexpected visual perspectives, encouraging visitors to explore all the museum’s spaces. The possibility to explore the open Museum spaces 24/7 is a new perspective in the centre of Vilnius that is included in the UNESCO world heritage.

Our spiral staircase located just behind the museum’s shop and the ticket counter is the focal point of the lobby. Though MO is a compact building, it contains all the necessary elements to run a world-class institution, including educational areas, a multi-functional hall, administrative offices, a cafe and a museum shop. In addition, almost a quarter of the site is dedicated to green space, adding to the civic importance of the project and embodying one of the museum’s key functions: to provide a welcoming environment for people to meet and interact. A sculpture garden on the northern side of the site, conceived as a quiet zone for relaxation, offers space for recreation and outdoor