Art doing its job | Ryan Pillow

The Bieganski Art Festival, running until the end of the month, brings together over 1,000 pieces in an exhibition and a series of cultural events that span genres and ages. We caught up with the chairman of the foundation, Ryan Pillow, to find out how an arts festival comes together.

Ryan Pillow:
Ryan Pillow: "Next year we want to be more selective"

Taking care of someone else’s things is a big responsibility. Ryan Pillow knows about that. He is the chairman of the Bieganski Foundation, an entity that manages the vast and varied collection of artwork belonging to Zdzislaw Bieganski, a Polish engineering magnate and collector who has lived in Malta for over 40 years.

A fraction of that collection is currently on display at the Mediterranean Conference Centre as the first Bieganski Art Festival, which runs until the end of the month. Setting the exhibition up in the gargantuan Sacra Infermeria hall was truly a labour of love. 900 wooden pallets, 9,000 screws, a kilometre of electrical cable and three weeks of backbreaking work went into it.

Still, looking at the result, it seems like the hard work has borne fruit. Works from across the globe and across genres sit side by side. A massive sculpture greets visitors at the door. Delicate portraits rub shoulders with vivid, almost manic splashes of colour. Pieces from the Bieganski collection share the room with loaned works.

How would a piece of art make it into the festival? The answer, it seems, is elegantly simple.

“This piece here,” Pillow says, pointing to a canvas bearing bold arcs of colour. “It is unsigned. We don’t know who made it or what it is called. But it is doing its job as art and so we chose to display it.”

Its job? “People notice it, people want to look at it and they want to buy it,” he explains. “That is, it is doing its job.”

The focus on the aesthetic beauty of the pieces is evident. “The works in the collection are not purchased because they are made by famous artists,” Pillow explains. Indeed, some works like the aforementioned anonymous contribution, are of completely unknown provenance or were made by artists who are not as well known to the casual art lover.

Some works in fact belong to artists who are still finding their feet in the world. The exhibition shares the hall with a section of artworks being offered for sale. The works of students and hobbyists are displayed here and illustrate a range of technical skill, ideas and media. “We wanted to give more people a chance to exhibit,” Pillow says.

Making art itself more accessible is perhaps one of the Festival’s underlying aims. “We want to put Malta on the international map. It is already a hub of culture,” says Pillow, “we just have to promote it as such.” Promotion has been something of an obstacle for the Festival so far. With a limited budget and just two sponsors helping to offset the costs, Pillow says that more could have been done to get the word out there.

Opening night had a very good turnout but, he says, the weather and the fact that many go on holiday at this time of year worked against them. The reason the Festival began when it did, however, was worth the risk of a low attendance (though Pillow is quick to say that he was not unhappy with the turnout, just that there was room for improvement).

The Festival is really composed of three areas. The exhibition upstairs shares the hall with the section of artworks for sale while the lower hall contains a section dedicated to World War I. “It was important to us that the Festival opened on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the war,” Pillow explains. “Ours is the only event commemorating it.”

The slightly darker lower hall is the perfect venue to exhibit art and artifacts related to one of the darkest periods in human history. The war claimed the lives of ten million combatants and seven million civilians. It was, by all accounts, a brutal, drawn out war that remains to this day one of the deadliest conflicts in history. To associate things of beauty with it seems almost paradoxical.

A contradiction it may be, but the WWI exhibition manages to bring past and present together while weaving in a narrative on a very personal level. Works by students of MCAST are flanked on either side by art from the period, including some exquisite pieces by the French trench artist Gaston Pierre Galey.

“I wanted to show how 100 years plays out in art,” says Pillow. Complementing these works are cases containing all manner of ephemera related to the Great War, collected over a number of months through auctions, flea markets and private dealers.

The result is a surprisingly intimate look into the progression of the war, as seen through the eyes of the young men who fought in it. Letters to loved ones sit beside photographs and newspapers from the era. A small collection of medals has a case to itself. A series of watches is in another, showing how practicality and durability turned the distinguished pocket watch sideways and affixed it to a strap, creating the first wristwatch. Even in the darkest hour there is room for human ingenuity and creativity.

Pillow and his colleagues have tried their best to ensure that every expression of that creativity has a chance to be celebrated. The Festival is playing host to an ongoing series of lectures and demonstrations, and has hosted a fashion show, an evening of poetry and three concerts already. For a new event, it has certainly set the bar high for what an arts festival should strive to achieve.

There is a learning curve, of course. “Next year, we want to be more selective,” Pillow says, referring both to the artists exhibiting and selling and to the size of the collection on show. Given the time and effort it took to put up this festival, it is not an unreasonable choice.

That’s not to say that the Foundation will be resting on its laurels until next year – there are plans for several exhibitions, including an ambitious installation based on Dante’s Divina Commedia. Given the quality of this year’s offering and the benefit of experience, art lovers can expect a feast for the senses from the Bieganski Foundation’s future events.

More in Art