ArtDialogue began as an idea between two women, one Czech, one American. Zdenka Gabalova (1950-2000) and Barbara Benish. Gabalova and Benish met in the summer of 1986. Benish was tracing her Czech ancestry in Prague and searching for ways to expand the traditional exhibition practices as an artist. Gabalova and her husband, sociologist Ivan Gabal, introduced her to the underground art scene in, what was then called Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia’s underground art scene was thriving; presenting a cultural phenomenon in the otherwise repressive totalitarian regime that had kept the borders closed to the West for nearly 50 years. As an installation artist, Benish was interested in what kept this culture alive without the 'booming' economic market that supported the arts in the west.
Disillusioned with how that market was beginning to effect and control art-making practices, she proposed an exchange exhibit between the two countries to look at these differences of not only content, but especially context. "Dialogue: Prague/Los Angeles" became the first exchange between the two countries since the Cold War.
The Totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia and other communist countries in Europe froze all cultural and political ties between the East and West. After 3 years of planning, smuggled letters and coded messages, fundraising, maxed out credit cards, tapped phone lines and diplomatic negotiations - some public, most underground, the show opened in Prague on July 1989.
The exhibition coincided with the historic fall of the Berlin wall. During this tumultuous time, secret service surrounded Lidovy Dum in Praha, as well as the curator’s house. To document this monumental cultural event, nine cameras filmed all artists and the 5000 people that streamed into Prague from villages across the country. This gathering of the Czech people (and the twelve US artists) joined together to support and defy the regime. Art was illegal and punishable with imprisonment or worse, as Vaclav Havel, the leading dissident and playwright who later became president after the "Velvet Revolution" knew only too well. With his support as well as many others, including Jane Fonda, Jan Urban, Bill and Wendy Luers, Madeline Albright, Max Protech, Otis/Parsons, the New School in New York City and several galleries in Los Angeles, we were able to bring all 12 Czechoslovak artists to Los Angeles in 1990 to show and fulfil the dream of a true 'exchange.” Up until that time it was impossible due to confiscated passports and closed borders.
The phenomenal success of the exchange not only solidified life-long friendships since the artists all stayed in one another's homes, ate and drank together, made art and music and danced, but set a standard for what cultural exchange means in the new millennium. While the art itself was a visual catalyst to exchange goods i.e. Culture, it was the respective political and social environment that was truly changed.
The arrival of 12 Californians to the grey and intimidating Communist Czechoslovakia at that time was a milestone, despite the somewhat loosening of the regime's hold by the end of the 1980's. The information and attitudes the Americans brought back with them - how to install land art in a hops field, DIY openings in barns before the police closed it down, hand-printed invitations that circulated in a tightly run 'parallel structure' subversive to the dominant authorities- all this informed how those artists would approach their own cultural production in the future 'back home'. In 1992 Benish was awarded a Fulbright Professorship and moved to Prague, teaching at the Academy of Applied Arts in the sculpture studio of Kurt Gebaur.
She received a grant from Central European University and wrote a book (unpublished) on the "Transition Period in Czechoslovak Art, 1985-1992", the conceptual basis of what ArtDialogue is today. The lessons learned from the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" or "Artist's Revolution", led by a playwright and supported by artists and musicians, informed our organization's belief in art as a catalyst for social change.
The current NGO form was officially established in Prague in 2004, a year that marked the 15-year anniversary of the original project. The retrospective on the 1989 exhibit, "Certain Traces, Dialogue Los Angeles/Prague" was spearheaded by two major exhibits in Prague at Museum Kampa and the old industrial warehouse "Sipkarna" in the Karlin district, as well as 5 satellite exhibits in Los Angeles.
ArtMill opened its doors to the public in 2005 with the first summer camp for youth ages 7-14. Since that time we have had hundreds of artists and students from around the world live and work with us at the beautiful site in southwestern Bohemia, and show at Galerie Califia in the local town of Horazdovice. In 2012, ArtDialogue set up an office in California, launching the organization's new focus on ocean issues via the SS Palo Alto Project, and working closely with the UNEP’s Safe Planet campaign.
In 2014, to mark our ten-year anniversary, we are planning exciting cultural events in both Prague and California with the Czech Consulate and ADC & Building Bridges. A book documenting ArtDialogue's history, methods, and philosophy written by our Founding Director, Barbara Benish, is to be published also to commemorate our decade long activism in the arts.