Exhibition view of ATTILA DURAK’s “EBRU: Reflections on Cultural Diversity in Turkey,” at ACCEA, 2011. Photo by Suren Arakelyan.

Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art

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“The difference between Diaspora Armenians and Armenians from this country is that the Diaspora have a thirst for the homeland. When you live in a house built near a spring, you may know what thirst means, but you will not really feel it,” explained Edward Balassanian, when ArtAsiaPacific met him and his wife, Sonia, on a warm July afternoon in Yerevan. Born in Iran, the pair came to Armenia after having spent time in New York in the early 1990s (where Sonia is still based), and are the founders of one of Armenia’s most established art centers: the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art (ACCEA). The couple told AAP about the challenges and triumphs of running the center.

What was your and Sonia’s objective when you founded ACCEA in 1994?

ACCEA was formally incorporated in 1994, but the work started in 1992, when Sonia organized her first annual exhibition of contemporary art by local Armenian artists. It was about channeling great local talent and potential. Sonia attempted a similar program in Iran many years earlier in cooperation with Robert Hobbs, the former director of the then newly founded Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art; Sonia and Hobbs were both alumni of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program (ISP). Thus began the long “journey” aiming at developing and promoting Armenian contemporary art.

As Diaspora Armenians, have you and Sonia faced any problems with the local reception of ACCEA?

Bigots and envious people exist in every society—Armenia is no exception. We have been accused of being “agents of American cosmopolitanism dispatched to ruin Armenian culture.” It has also been insinuated that we have questionable resources for what we do, not only by those who are against contemporary art but even by the very people who belong to the contemporary art community—or at least claim to do so.  

Many of Armenia’s most recognized artists and curators, both nationally and internationally, have started their careers at ACCEA, giving the organization a reputation as a “launching pad.” How do you feel about this?

We have always said that the proudest moments of our work and the most rewarding ones are when an artist or a curator who has been discovered by us and has been given an opportunity to grow and gain exposure, leaves us, which means that he or she is already so strong and independent that they can stand on his or her own feet. 

You present a wide and varied program, doing everything from showcasing experimental new media and hosting festivals to showing art created by autistic artists. How do you decide on your programming?

Bit by bit. As a structure was created for the Center, an “arts council” was created, which under our guidance got more and more involved, to the extent that today the arts council (which is solely composed of local artists and art professionals) does the programming, with us acting as advisers and occasionally curating exhibitions.

What are the greatest challenges you have faced since starting ACCEA?

The greatest challenge is securing continuous funding for the programs, because you do not know if support will be sustained from year to year. This uncertainty is the most difficult problem to overcome. The most reliable source of funding (although rather small) comes from us; over the past two decades we have contributed a total of about a quarter of a million US dollars. Another challenge is fighting the “well-wishers.” It is a sad commentary when those who claim to be “specialists” and supporters of contemporary art attack you because of self-interest and/or an inferiority complex. This is a small, organized group. They even have the arrogance of distorting historical facts to place themselves in a position in the history of contemporary art where they do not belong. There is plenty of hard evidence (books, articles, interviews, etc.) to illustrate this social malaise. On the one hand, one does not want to sink to their level, and on the other hand, leaving these falsehoods uncorrected would do a disservice to the community. This is a dilemma.

What does the future look like for ACCEA, and do you have any new programs in development?

Passing on the mantle to competent and dedicated local and Diaspora Armenians tops the list. We already have a handful of people to take up the challenge of creating departments of architecture, music and literature. Promoting the globalization of our efforts and expansion of international relations is another goal we have. We also have the dream of creating an independent study program based on the Whitney Museum’s ISP model.