I spent an interesting hour last week walking around the old Riga stock exchange building, which is currently being renovated for use as a new Latvian Foreign Art Museum. The wraps quite literally came off the exterior of the building a couple of weeks ago, revealing a beautiful facade in an unusual but very attractive terracotta – apparently the original colour.
The tour was part of an EU open day of historic buildings and I was heartened to see several groups donning hard hats and reflective vests to take tours of the ongoing renovation work in various languages.
There is still plenty of work to do inside, but even so this is clearly going to be a superb addition to Latvia’s cultural stock, and its location right on Doma Laukums is ideal to attract visitors. Credit should go to the companies undertaking the project (Re&Re and RBS Skals) for the care and attention to detail they are taking as they work.
It was fascinating to see the ten layers of paint uncovered on some of the walls and the meticulous nature of the restoration work which involves highly skilled and patient craftspeople and the use of many authentic materials from Germany (the original building like much of Riga was built by Germans).
One large room complete with a musicians’ gallery and large sculptures of the muses in bright yellow did give me some misgivings as it reminded me of Moscow’s Kiev underg
round station – but the friendly guide pointed out that the yellow was simply a base for gilding which has yet to be carried out.
It’s important that Riga is using some of its unmatchable stock of interior space for such a worthwhile purpose and is doing the job properly. It’s also important that the museum will have a character of its own. The KUMU museum in Estonia is the local benchmark for art galleries and while it is indeed excellent I am relieved that Riga is not trying to ape Kumu’s millennial minimalism but is instead going for what might be described as ‘modern Arts & Crafts’.
A few months ago I was briefly inside Vilnius’ new National Modern Art Gallery which unsuccessfully attempts to “do a Kumu.” It is conspicuously postmodern in a way that is already dated and is confusing, claustrophobic and unconvincing in equal measures, feeling like the over-lit basement of some deary records office. I fear that the hulking new Latvian National Library will have a similar feel – as I’ve said before, it is perhaps the only white elephant construction project that actually looks like a white elephant.
But I’m looking forward to the completion of the Foreign Art Museum (hopefully next year) which will allow Latvia to properly display its surprisingly
decent collection and play host to the sort of major travelling exhibitions that simply cannot be catered for at the moment. Best of all it proves that when Latvians really knuckle down to some of the things they are really good at and care about – crafts and culture – they rank alongside anyone else in the world.