Employees of the Latvian State Museum of Art

A very small team of employees were in charge of the activities at the newly established Latvian State Museum of Art. Behind the publicly visible facade of the expositions and exhibitions at the museum, these people undertook the everyday work at Riga Castle with an inadequate budget and in complex and limiting conditions.

Painter Konrāds Ubāns (1893–1981), a member of the Riga Group of Artists, was employed at the State Museum of Art from the very beginning as an assistant to Director Burkards Dzenis and worked there from the 15th of March 1920. The congenial sculptor had been brought together with the modernist generation in common events in the life of Latvian art already during the First World War, and later in the work of the Commission for the Protection of Artworks. Having been entrusted with both administrative and practical tasks, Ubāns was given an opportunity to participate in the role of expert in the new cultural institution as well. Away from the museum, Dzenis’ colleague set aside time to paint views of Pārdaugava and outlying streets at a plenary. He also focused on the portrayal of his contemporaries and with the support of the Culture Fund, headed to Paris in 1922 as one of the first stipend recipients, receiving the Culture Fund Prize a few years later. The Director’s assistant worked at the museum until the 1st April 1925, when this staff position was abolished due to a reduction in the budget, following a decree from the Cabinet of Ministers. Dzenis’ request for the restoration of the position did not receive support and he was forced to dismiss his colleague. In the summer of the same year, Ubāns was appointed to head the painting class at the Latvian Academy of Art. The rector, Vilhelms Purvītis, had previously invited him there in 1923.


In December 1920, writer and translator Dāvids Vecaukums (1890–1969), who is more widely known under the literary pseudonym Valts Dāvids, was appointed as secretary to the museum. In parallel with his record keeping duties, Vecaukums compiled all of the collection catalogues which were issued during the first period of Latvia’s independence, including Vadonis pa Latvijas Valsts mākslas muzeju [The Leader at the Latvian State Museum of Art] (1926), the first (1929) and second supplements (1936) which followed, and also issued detailed reviews to the press on the institution’s operations.1 In 1937, the long-term contribution of the museum employee was recognized with an Order of the Three Stars. From the 14th of October 1944 to the 15th of March 1945, Vecaukums undertook the director’s duties after Dzenis fled to Germany as a refugee. During the interwar period, the writer, who was connected with the Social Democrats, published articles in the daily press and the Domas, Ritums, Virziens and other literary journals. He rendered in verse and translated from the German, Russian and French languages, and wrote reviews on Latvian and foreign literature. Valts Dāvids’ only anthology of poems Dvēseles iela [Street of Soul] (1970) was published after the author’s death.


In 1926, Dzenis laconically reported on the personnel of the time to the Ministry of Education: “The leadership of the museum has been entrusted to the management, being the Director and secretary. The profession of the Director of the museum is that of sculptor, as well as docent at the Latvian Academy of Art’s Applied Sculpture master classes. He graduated from Stieglitz's School of Technical Drawing, in Petrograd (in Russia) with an artist’s degree. The profession of the secretary at the museum is that of a self-taught writer. Three supervisors watch over the museum.”2 Those same trusty supervisors of the museum – Krišjānis Zirnis, Jēkabs Pētersons and Anlīze Grabovska – also continued to work in the next decade. Grabovska lived in a small official apartment at Riga Castle – “a room with a stove” – and also kept an eye on the museum when it was closed. Fuel for the museum stoves was prepared by a contracted wood man Indriķis Valters. With the expansion of the museum space and expositions over the course of time, Jūlijs Repe, Kārlis Vēvers, Vilis Dzelzkalns and Jānis Zibens joined the team in attendant positions, as did office employee Mirdza Zibene. In the early 1930s, intelligent unemployed artists from the younger generation Oskars Norītis, Arturs Jūrasteters (Jēgers at that time) and Nikolajs Kūlainis, were taken on and entrusted with participation in the creation of the card index and the photography of items of art. In 1938, long-term museum attendant Zirnis was awarded the Order of the Three Stars’ Medal of Honour, Second Class, for his superb work.


Craftsmen were also brought in for the renovation of the museum space and the preparation of expositions. These included cabinet maker and frame master Andrejs Šulcs, frame gilder Gustav Fedrowitz and others.  Restorer Kārlis Jurjāns from the Riga City Museum of Art participated in the restoration of works of art, while photographer Friedrich Nitzsche and the services of other professionals were used in reproductions. In 1935, Dzenis asked the Minister for Education to allocate the required restorer staff position, as “a large number of items of art have accumulated in the museum over its 15 years of operation, which should be gradually spruced up – restored, paintings should be stretched onto new canvases and lacquered – in brief, protected against the ravages of time”3.


In the circumstances of the Soviet occupation, Dzenis was forced to hand over the treasures under his supervision on the 4th of March 1941, to left-leaning graphic artist Kārlis Bušs, the newly appointed director. On the 5th of March, the former director’s colleagues presented him with an album of expositions from the State Museum of Art, documented in photographs, and also words of gratitude for what he had achieved in his 22 years of work. The signatures of eight employees confirmed their respect, and the ability of the small team to cope with the ever-growing amount of work at the museum.


With the commencement of the reorganisation of the Riga museums of art, in line with the order of the Department of Art Affairs which was subordinate to the Latvian SSR’s Council of People’s Commissars, the State Museum of Art at the castle was to be transformed into the Latvian SSR Museum of Western European Art. When the reorganisation was cancelled during the occupation by Nazi Germany, Dzenis was reinstated to his position in the summer of that same year, and for a period the museum regained its earlier name.


1 Dāvids, Valts. Valsts mākslas muzejs piecos gados. [The State Museum of Art in Five Years] Domas, 1925, No. 4, pgs. 313–314; Vecaukums, Dāvids. Valsts mākslas muzeja 5 gadi. [5Year of the State Museum of Art] Ilustrēts Žurnāls, 1925, No. 3, pgs. 95–96; Vecaukums, Dāvids. Latvijas Valsts mākslas muzejs. [Latvian State Museum of Art] Izglītības Ministrijas Mēnešraksts, 1928, No. 11, pgs. 423–431.

2 LSA, 1659. f., 1. apr., 16. l., pg. 59.

3 LSA, 1659.f., 1. apr., 24. l., pg. 91.