Lithuanian philanthropists: the interest in the Baltic art scene has increased significantly

  • 2017-12-28
  • Michael Mustillo

In an exclusive interview, the Lithuanian philanthropists Viktoras Butkus and Danguole Butkiene, the co-founders and financiers behind the construction of the new 3,100 square-meter, 15 million euro, MO Modern Art Museum in Vilnius, talk about their work and various interests. Located steps away from the city’s historic medieval city, the museum will stand as an expression of Vilnius’s past and present. Designed by the international renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, the MO Museum will be dedicated to the exploration of works created from 1960 to the present by exclusively Lithuanian artists. It will house the more than 4,000 works of art belonging to the couple, including original paintings by Vincas Kisarauskas, Arvydas Saltenis and Kostas Dereskevicius as well as photographs by Antanas Sutkus and video art by Deimantas Narkevicius. 

“We wanted to create a museum for the people of Lithuania, and also give this collection a home and an international audience. The collection is about the cultural legacy of the country,” said Butkus. “Libeskind’s work is expressive, innovative, and, most importantly, has the power to tell the story of the past whilst connecting to the future of the city,” he added. 

Victor Butkus trained as a chemist and founded the biotech company Fermantas. For over 35 years, Fermentas led the industry world-wide in the discovery, manufacturing and marketing of quality molecular biology products for life science research and diagnostics. Part of a vibrant group of post-Soviet entrepreneurs, Butkus earned his fortune in 2010 by selling his stake in Fermentas, which sold for 260 million dollars. With headquarters in Burlington, Ontario, and principal operations in Vilnius, Fermentas has approximately 500 employees. In Sept. 2012 a new Molecular Biology Center of Excellence opened in Vilnius, which has provided molecular, protein and cellular biology products to better serve the growing demand from life sciences customers globally. The 14,000 square-metre Molecular Biology Center of Excellence is currently home to more than 400 research, laboratory and manufacturing personnel, with room for expansion. Professor Butkus has published over 40 publications in the international scientific press, and is the author of 16 inventions. Viktoras Butkus and Danguole Butkiene’s love for art is echoed in their belief that  “The more art and art fans we have, the better off we’ll be.” The completion and opening of the MO Museum in Vilnius is expected in 2019.

The MO Museum has been described as a museum not just for art lovers but for ordinary people,  for families and children, where people can enjoy the public space which will give the motivation to enter the museum and get interested in the art. How important was this idea for you when working with the architect in building the vision of the museum you wanted?

Viktoras Butkus: The MO Museum is first and foremost intended as a place for visitors to spend their free time in a meaningful way as a place for inspiration. It should become a welcoming and open cultural venue that encourages human interaction and creativity. 

The architect followed this vision, and the building incorporates these values into the physical experience. The openness of the building’s structure and the way the public space pierces the architecture invites people to linger, interact with each other and experience art. In addition to almost 1,500 square metres of exhibition space, there’s a reading room with a rich collection of publications and a storage area with a glazed wall that allows visitors a view the entire collection. 

Danguole Butkiene: We’d like people to have a relaxing and fun experience at the museum. A great deal of attention has been paid to the convenience and comfort of the visitors. So, after enjoying exhibitions and events, visitors are welcome to grab a bite at the museum café or browse in our shop. Also, almost a quarter of the museum’s site is dedicated to green space including a sculpture garden and a children’s play area. 

Is involvement and interest high with Lithuanians for Lithuanian contemporary art?  

Danguole Butkiene: The professional art scene is definitely very active. Many great artists, curators, art critics, gallery owners and museum professionals live and work in the country. Lithuanian contemporary art receives a lot of attention from professionals in other countries too. However, it remains a relatively closed field reserved for a small group of people. Getting the wider public interested and engaged in contemporary art is something that still remains to be achieved.

As philanthropists what do you consider your prime responsibility to Lithuanian society in spending 15 million euros on the museum and making your unique collection available to all Lithuanians, as well as to people from all over the world? 

Viktoras Butkus: To tell the truth we don’t consider ourselves as philanthropists, but mostly as project managers who are spending our private money on a task that’s close to our hearts. By the way, the total value of the museum building including the collection will hopefully not exceed 15 million euros. Of course, we both love art and we’re very proud to have an opportunity to share our collection with Lithuanians, as well as with visitors from other countries.

Since Lithuania regained independence in 1991 neither museums nor collectors have bought works from the period spanning the Soviet and post-Soviet era. What does the art from this period mean for you as Lithuanians and as art collectors?

Viktoras Butkus: Once we had the financial opportunities we decided to assemble a representative collection of Lithuanian modern and contemporary art paying special attention to authors and works that were ignored during Soviet times for ideological reasons, as well as those who, during the whole period of Lithuanian independence, weren’t acquired by local museums due to a lack of funds.

Danguole Butkiene: Moreover, we decided that this collection must contain Lithuanian art from our own contemporary period. As a kind of mirror of our society and our times, it’s also shaped our identity. The starting period of the collection corresponds to the time of the Soviet thaw [of 1956], and its reborn modernism (also called the “silent’’ modernism). The collection is being consistently expanded to the present day, reflecting the changes in consciousness that took place after the restoration of Lithuanian independence and the integration of our artists into an international context.

Could you tell us something about your collection that the museum will house? 

Viktoras Butkus: The MO collection is already one of the largest private art collections in Lithuania, consisting of over 4,500 works of art curated with the help of Professor Raminta Jurenaite. The collection currently includes works by nearly 250 artists, each represented by a carefully selected group of works. The collection has been created with an art history approach and the preservation of cultural heritage in mind. It represents Lithuanian art history from the 1950s to today and is a solid basis to build the museum programme on. 

From your international travels, what’s the level of interest in Lithuanian art around the world, and what is one of the main goals you wish the museum to achieve through exhibiting your vast and unique collection? 

Danguole Butkiene: The interest in the Baltic art scene and the art scene of Eastern Europe in general has increased significantly in recent years. Many university programmes have been established and exhibitions have been organised in order to research the visual arts of our region. Interestingly enough, Eastern European art is often paired with Latin American, a parallel that’s definitely less present within the research carried out in the Baltic States.

As founders of a new museum, we’re in a constant learning process and, through our activities, we try to create opportunities for the broader public, which may not have an artistic education, to make inroads into the world of art appreciation. We hope that culture can once again begin to rebuild our crumbling, deconstructed consciousness and repair our fractured and splintered Lithuanian identity that continues to fail to find stability.

Viktoras Butkus: Also, one of our main goals is to present Lithuanian contemporary culture as well as artworks created behind the Iron Curtain to tourists visiting Vilnius and Lithuania in general. We hope that the encounter with the Eastern European art scene may be “a true revelation” as the German art historian Eckart Gillen put it.

You’ve collected around 4,500 works of art including paintings by the surrealist Mikalojus Povilas Vilutis, by Augustinas Savickas, as well as sculptures by Ruta Jusionyte. Which works do you personally value, that move you, enrich you, and stimulate you on an intellectual level? 

Viktoras and Danguole: To mention just several of our favourites: Jankauskas Kampas, Linas Katinas, Audrone Petrasiunaite, Kostas Dereskevicius and many others.

You’ve taken art history courses. What was this learning and intellectual experience like for you, and what can you share with us about it?

Viktoras Butkus: It wasn’t me but my wife Danguole who took the classes. She’s the kind of person who’s always hungry for new experiences and knowledge. When we started to work on this project we were both scientists specialising in the field of chemistry and biology and having very little understanding on how the art scene functions. Then Danguole took an art history course and, as a result, her opinions gained expert quality substantiation.

The German art historian Eckart Gillen called your collection “a true revelation”.  How is this so in your opinion?

Danguole Butkiene: Political reality inevitably influences the art world. While assembling the collection, we discovered that the bravest, the most controversial art works were excluded from museum collections due to the ideologically influenced selection process. Even after the re-establishment of independence, the [Lithuanian] State lacked sufficient funds to collect the works rejected during the Soviet period or contemporary art pieces created after 1990. Thus, a gap of 30 years has formed in the collections of the nation’s art museums. Therefore, by systematically collecting the art of this period we’ve contributed to the preservation of cultural heritage. The process of building our collection attracted public attention, encouraged the establishment of new collectors and collections, contributed to the formation of a Lithuanian art market and the revival of the cultural field in our country. 

In addition, we’re trying to promote a more tolerant point of view, one that breaks down the barriers between modernists and post-modernists, between traditionalists and conceptualists.

Estonia has built, and Latvia will also build a new contemporary art gallery financed by a philanthropist. How do you envision future cooperation between the region’s museums that will strengthen the image of the region around the world as a culture power house of contemporary art? 

Viktoras Butkus: The establishment of these organisations should intensify the collaboration between the Baltic States within the field of fine arts. Even though artistic production is unique in each of the three countries, we have a lot of common characteristics that are still under-explored and could become the basis for artistic research and curatorial projects in the future. Such collaborations will definitely provide more opportunities for the young artists too. A fresh point of view is always important in rethinking our fractured identity and devising future visions of our place in the world. New art museums and galleries will also attract more cultural tourists and art professionals including artists, curators and collectors, thus boosting worldwide awareness of the artistic developments taking place in the Baltic States. 

What do you have planned for the opening?              

Danguole Butkiene: The opening will consist of several major events intended for various segments of the public. These events will be followed by an intensive cultural programme that will accompany the inaugural exhibition including film screenings, discussions, guided tours, educational activities and much more.

You’ve stated that Daniel Libeskind’s work for the design of the museum is expressive, innovative, and, most importantly, has the power to tell the story of the past while connecting to the future of the city. How will it do this exactly? 

Viktoras Butkus: The site of the project stands at the intersection of the medieval Vilnius Old Town and the city’s more recent westward expansion. Studio Libeskind’s design is inspired by the historical gates of the city and references local architecture both in form and materials. Nevertheless, the inner spatial and structural arrangements reveal the true complexity of the design. The extraction of the geometric volume at the core of the building opens the expanse within to create floor-to-ceiling glazing. The entire structure of the building is conceived according to the laws of dynamics. Two large cantilevers (rigid structural elements anchored at only one end) supporting the terrace and the roof of the street level piazza located in front of the museum’s entrance balance each other out. The outer walls of the building incorporate elements in tension and act as a huge truss connecting the cantilevers to the foundation, thus stabilising the whole structure. 

Originally there had been discussions that the MO Museum would be built near the National Art Gallery in Vilnius with the cooperation of Vilnius Municipality. 

A 6,000 square-metre plot had to be provided for the planned museum on the embankment of Neris River near the National Art Gallery. The building was projected to have a 2,000 square-metre hall for a permanent visual art exposition and a 1,000 square-metre hall for temporary exhibitions. Why did you give up the idea of building the museum on the right bank of the river? Wouldn’t this have been a better location?

Viktoras Butkus: The first project of the museum didn’t come to fruition due to reasons beyond our control. Nevertheless, it was a valuable experience and we’re very grateful to everyone who contributed to it. The current location of the MO Museum is in the heart of the city, just a five minutes’ walk from all the highlights of the Old Town. In addition, the new museum will be well connected to public transport and the city’s bicycle system. The museum will be easy to access for the both people living in Vilnius and guests staying in the city. So, the current location is just as good, if not better than the previous one.

In your opinion should other philanthropists in Lithuania take your lead and invest back into the improvement of Lithuanian society through enriching lives through culture? 

Viktoras Butkus: Hopefully they will. But you should ask them directly. What could be added is that we invite the private sector as well as philanthropists to join our effort. Although substantial investment has already been taken place, the possibilities of development and functioning of a new museum depends on external support as well.

What is your relationship with living Lithuanian artists? 

In our opinion, a very positive one. Especially with those from whom we have bought artworks.

Do you have a favorite museum in Lithuania, or in the Baltic States?

While travelling we’ve visited probably more than a hundred museums in different countries. There are many of them which I like, but they’re not in Lithuania or the Baltic States.