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Gallery Crawling in Prague? Get Out the G.P.S.

RUNNING down a list of Prague’s attractions seems to cover almost everything you could ever want in a European vacation. Fairy-tale castles and ornate palaces? Check. Great night life and music? Got it. Romantic cobblestone lanes, lazy patio cafes and inexpensive food and drink? Definitely.

Great art? Um …

“Much of the Altstadt possesses all the charming picturesqueness of former days,” wrote the Scottish traveler John Forbes, using the German name for Stare Mesto, or Old Town, in an 1855 book on his journeys. He praised the beauty of Prague’s “narrow and irregular streets, lofty houses of an excellent and extremely varied style of architecture, many highly ornamented” and noted its “ancient monasteries, convents, and churches.” But of Prague’s artistic side, he particularly regretted having completely overlooked at least one of the city’s public collections.

Other writers of the era were more dismissive. “There are scarcely any good pictures in the churches of Prague,” warns a guidebook from 1844, though acknowledging that the buildings there are “vast and splendid.”

A century and a half later, many visitors to Prague might still agree with that assessment. But away from the heavily touristed Old Town, an intriguing contemporary art scene has developed in the last few years, one that includes the big Dox gallery, which opened without much fanfare last October, as well as dozens of more intimate spaces and a huge art biennial that is about to end its 10-week run.

But finding those places can often be a challenge for visitors.

“I think a lot of tourists come to Prague and they’re disappointed,” said Camille Hunt, a long-term resident and a co-owner of Hunt Kastner Artworks, a two-year-old gallery in the Holesovice district on the city’s north side. “We’re in a neighborhood where most tourists wouldn’t normally venture. It’s a little bit hidden.”

It might be relatively undiscovered by outsiders, but Hunt Kastner’s residential neighborhood — between two of Prague’s best-loved green spaces — is considered quite attractive by residents. On summer evenings, big crowds gather under the chestnut trees in the large beer garden at Letna Park, drinking inexpensive Gambrinus beer from plastic cups and drinking in the panoramic sunset over Old Town’s copper and amber rooftops. On weekends, the sprawling Stromovka to the north is filled with joggers, in-line skaters, picnicking families and young lovers.

Small as it may be, Hunt Kastner is becoming an attraction as well, offering works by up-and-coming Czech artists like Josef Bolf and Daniel Pitin and promoting their works abroad at the major art fairs in Basel, London and Miami.

“Fifteen years ago, everyone thought that Prague was going to be what Berlin ended up being now,” said Katherine Kastner, the gallery’s co-owner. “And then something happened, and we went into a kind of Dark Ages. And I think that we’re on the way back up again. I see a lot of things happening and a lot of enthusiasm.”

Czech art hasn’t received as much interest since the days of the First Republic of Czechoslovakia, the prosperous interwar era that has a halcyon glow for Czech society today. Then, the Cubist painter Josef Capek was making antifascist illustrations for Lidove noviny, a leading newspaper, and Czech artists like Toyen, Otakar Kubin and Frantisek Kupka were gaining international renown in Paris. Much of that era’s artistic spirit ended with the German occupation of 1939 — Capek was arrested by the Gestapo in September of that year and died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 — before being all but destroyed by the Communist takeover in 1948.

Today, not yet 20 years after the Velvet Revolution, the country is trying to recapture an artistic vibrancy it possessed 70 years ago.

“This is a country that was once at the center of a critical discussion between eastern Futurists and French dreamers,” said William Hollister, an editor at Umelec, a Prague-based contemporary art magazine that publishes in four languages, including English. “It’s not a way station anymore, or a link between East and West, but it is a city that is producing a fair share of visual artists who are recognized internationally.”

One of the first to bring international attention to local artists was the Jiri Svestka Gallery, which opened about 15 years ago. Situated in a functionalist apartment building at the end of a dead-end cobblestone lane just outside Old Town, it would be hard for most visitors to encounter by chance.

“In London and New York, there are traditions of ‘gallery streets’ — one street with many galleries,” said Lucie Drdova, one of the gallery’s curators. “But here in Prague, it’s spread out.”

Indeed, though major attractions like Museum Kampa (U Sovovych mlynu 2; 420-257-286-147; and Galerie Rudolfinum (Alsovo nabrezi 12; 420-227-059-205; are easy to find in the historic center, you’ll need a map to track down the far-flung art spaces. The new Art Map is free at many galleries. The most recent edition lists 66 exhibitions, studios, galleries and arts spaces, many that didn’t exist just a year ago.

Published: July 19, 2009

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