By Paige K Johnston

War and times of crisis devastate lands, dissolve governments, and disenfranchise citizens. Aggressors employ tactics intended to crush national symbols and destroy aspects of cultural life that might serve as historical reminders or unifying forces. In 1992, the newly formed Serbian army, under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic, laid siege to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, killing thousands and making rubble of cherished cultural artifacts and architecture across the city. As a place where ethnically diverse groups had peacefully coexisted for centuries, the four-year siege leveled the city both physically and spiritually. However, these acts, aimed at oppressing Sarajevans and eradicating their cultural history, generated a revolutionary cultural spirit and gave rise to new cultural organizations, notably the Ars Aevi Project. As this paper will demonstrate, through the development of a situation-specific operational model, Ars Aevi is a keen example of innovative arts administration at work. I will begin with a short history of Bosnia and an overview of the 1990s conflict, and then will discuss the creation of Ars Aevi from a museological perspective, including its development, organizational model, projects, and potential future. I will conclude by addressing some of the problems Ars Aevi has faced, discuss the reproducibility of its model, and speculate about the organization’s underlying motivations and concerns.

Sarajevo: A Brief Social and Political History

Throughout Sarajevo’s history, the city has been known for its culturally diverse population. Founded in the 1400s by a Muslim Slav governor of the Ottoman Empire, during the 400 years that followed, Catholics, Muslims, and Eastern Orthodox Christians settled in the region (1). After Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain expelled the Jews from their country in 1492, this group took up residence in the city as well. Sarajevo became a place where architectural styles, diverse languages, and a multiplicity of faiths coexisted in the streets and marketplaces of daily life. In the late 1800s, the Austro-Hungarian Empire took control of Bosnia, bringing new European tastes and traditions to the city (2).

Shortly thereafter, the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the likely heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife by a Serb nationalist in Sarajevo led to the beginning of World War I. Bosnia then separated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and joined with what would become Yugoslavia after 1929. Censuses show that during this period, Bosnia-Herzegovina was the most ethnically mixed of all the Yugoslavian republics (3). Political power was roughly equal between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), and all citizens had uniform rights (4). Though regime change and violence between factious groups are formative aspects of Bosnia’s larger history, the city of Sarajevo maintained a delicately balanced system of cultural and religious integration, with diverse groups living, working, and worshipping side-by-side (5) as the nation transitioned to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1943, remaining Communist until the dissolution of the Republic in 1992.

Although the Soviet-allied nation remained relatively neutral during the Cold War, with the death of the Communist leader Tito in 1980, tensions between the six republics (which included Bosnia-Herzegovina) began to escalate, nationalism within the republics grew, and political leaders who operated along ethnic and religious lines began to mobilize. The Bosnian War officially broke out as Slobodan Milosevic (who came to power with the Republic of Serbia in 1989, concurrent with the fall of the Soviet Union) began using military force against other groups, including Croats, ethnic Albanians, Slovenes, and most dramatically, Bosniaks, (6) to enforce his vision of Serbian control. The war in Bosnia, which lasted from 1992 until 1995, devastated the region and hugely altered the ethnic structure of the former republic(s), shifting from a historically multicultural population to discrete regions (and eventually new countries) characterized by ethnic homogeneity (7).

When Serbian tanks and soldiers took control of the hills surrounding Sarajevo, their goal was focused and strategic: to take control of the city through the elimination of non-Serb (non-Orthodox) residents, and to level historical/cultural representations of these groups. Andras Riedlmayer, a leading academic of Bosnian history, relates this anecdote regarding the cultural specificity, and focused intent of the Serb attacks:

In September 1992, BBC reporter Kate Adie interviewed Serbian gunners on the hillsides overlooking Sarajevo and asked them why they had been shelling the Holiday Inn, the hotel where all of the foreign correspondents were known to stay. The Serbian officer commanding the guns apologized profusely to Ms. Adie, explaining they had not meant to hit the hotel but had been aiming at the roof of the National Museum behind it (8).

The first buildings to be shelled were the Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque, built in the 16th century, an important piece of Ottoman architecture; the Church of St. Joseph (9); the Sarajevo National Library (Vijecnica), a Moorish-revival building from the 1890s that was home to the country’s national archives and hundreds of thousands of books, periodicals, and newspapers; and the Oriental Institute, southeastern Europe’s preeminent archive of Islamic, Jewish, and Ottoman documents (10).

Prior to the siege, Sarajevo had a thriving community of museums, including the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Historical Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Museum of the City of Sarajevo, the Museum of the XIV Winter Olympics (used as a space for contemporary art), the Art Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Collegium Artisticum Gallery, among others (11). All of these institutions suffered severe shelling, which led to architectural and collections damage from fire, water, weather conditions, inadequate storage facilities, and looting. Additionally, income, funding, outside aid, and basic resources for the museums were unavailable or limited during the war, and resulted in severe cuts in institutional staffing and operations as cultural institutions took a backseat to pressing issues of survival (12).

Cultural Resilience and the Ars Aevi Project

Almost immediately after the Serbian forces surrounded Sarajevo, troops cut off much of what was necessary for everyday survival, from water and food to fuel, medicine, and electricity (13). The constant threat of sniper fire and shelling, coupled with the harsh Bosnian winters, severely crippled those Sarajevans who chose or were forced to remain in the city. Many inhabitants, however, found a cause to motivate them during this difficult period: cultural revival. According to Enver Hadziomerspahic, founder and director of the Ars Aevi Project, (14) “The cultural activity of Sarajevo, rather than being interrupted during the siege, was in fact, more intense than ever.”(15) Hadziomerspahic is referring to the creation of a number of new and lasting cultural entities inside Sarajevo during or in the aftermath of the war. These include the PEN Center (1992), part of a worldwide organization whose stated mission is “to engage with, and empower, societies and communities across cultures and languages, through reading and writing;”(16) the Sarajevo Film Festival (1995), created by the Obala Art Gallery, an existing center for contemporary art in Sarajevo (17); the Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art (1996), originally the Soros Center for Contemporary Art, founded by the Open Society Fund Bosnia-Herzegovina (a division of the Open Society Institute & Soros Foundation Network) (18) and the Sarajevo Jazz Festival (1996) (19).

Founded during the early months of the war, the Ars Aevi Project was a leader in this cultural uprising. Initially conceived of by a group of intellectuals (arts administrators, artists, and academics) who came together shortly after the onset of the siege, the project, then called Sarajevo 2000, was formed with the goal of becoming a “unique museum, one which will, even in its initial steps, announce the superiority of spirit and art over the forces of evil and destruction.” (20) The group aimed to reach out to international contemporary artists who they hoped would connect with the project based on the “conviction that the artists of this age feel and understand the injustice done to our city.”(21)

With little money or resources, Hadziomerspahic and his team began to formulate a structure for the project that was unlike other contemporary art initiatives of the time. They began with two agendas: to build networks with other European contemporary art institutions, and to receive donations of groups of artwork that would come together to form their collection (22). With support from representatives of the City of Sarajevo, the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Public Fund for Culture, and the (acting) Government of Bosnia-Herzegovina, word spread rapidly throughout the arts communities of Europe and partnerships began to take shape (23).

Ars Aevi: Model and Implementation

The organizational structure from 1993 – 1999 (which I will refer to as Stage One (24)) could be visualized as having the Ars Aevi Collection (the managing body) acting as a central nucleus, around which participating European contemporary art centers became satellite particles. During Stage One, six European cities (Milan, Prato, Ljubljana, Sarajevo itself, Venice, and Vienna) took on this satellite role. This meant that a curator or institution would organize an exhibition of a group of artists, and following its close, those artists would donate their work to the central Ars Aevi Collection. While the response was overwhelming, and well known artists such as Anish Kapoor, Franz West, Juan Muñoz, Daniel Buren, Bill Viola, and others enthusiastically donated to the cause, the limited mobility of people and goods during the siege prevented the works from being exhibited together in Sarajevo until 1999 (25). To counteract this obstacle, Ars Aevi utilized the satellite sites, touring the Collection to centers across Europe, awaiting the end of the Bosnian War (26) for the day that the organizers would be able to present it at home.

1999 was the year that marked Stage Two of the organization’s development, and ushered in new possibilities for the future of the project. Ars Aevi had begun to initiate smaller exhibitions and installations at venues in Sarajevo; however, due to lingering transportation restrictions in the region, and lack of adequate exhibition space, 1999 was the first time that it had the opportunity to present their own growing collection to Bosnians. At the opening events for the exhibition, held inside a massive space in the downtown Skenderija Center, world-renowned architect Renzo Piano announced his decision to design, for free, a series of structures that would become the Ars Aevi Complex— an inspiring gift that would allow Ars Aevi to concretely establish the museum that had been part of its initial goal (27). Moving boldly into this next phase of their development, Ars Aevi began to expand its exhibition programming and delve into pedagogy, forming the Arts Aevi Forum as a locus for participant organizations to discuss future projects; finding residence/exhibition space for its incipient collection inside the Historical Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo and subsequently mounting solo exhibitions of up-and-coming Bosnian artists, as well as artists from the Collection; and creating the Ars Aevi Open International University, featuring a series of “multicultural seminars,” as well as evening artist talks, and courses in museology (28).

Funding was very limited in Stage One of the project, and was based primarily on donations from the satellite institutions, as well as from Italian governmental bodies. As Stage Two got underway, however, the previously mentioned architectural and programmatic ambitions were made possible thanks to the efforts of the Ars Aevi World Campaign, overseen by the Ars Aevi Foundation (29). This worldwide fundraising effort was established in 2001 with the goal of raising money for construction of the Ars Aevi Complex, of which the first component, a Piano-designed bridge connecting the old and new parts of the city, was completed in 2002 (30).

In addition to European artists, curators, and institutions, major international organizations also became patrons, namely UNESCO, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the European Commission, as well as the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Earmarked funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Italy and from UNESCO specifically made the Ars Aevi Open International University possible (31), and additionally, for the 2003 Venice Biennale, UNESCO helped finance and house the first-ever Bosnian pavilion, organized and curated by Hadziomerspahic and Asja Mandic (also of Ars Aevi) (32). During the fundraising and construction phases of the Ars Aevi museum, UNESCO Venice is providing temporary, climate-controlled storage space for the collection in Italy. To date, the Ars Aevi Collection has over 160 objects, and is continually spreading its network to include new partners, among them, Istanbul, Zagreb, Athens, Frankfurt, and other cities.

Issues and Assessments

The operational model of Ars Aevi, based on the long-term goal of forming a museum for contemporary art, executed incrementally through the cooperative exhibition-donation process and worldwide fundraising initiative, and bolstered by interim curatorial and pedagogical projects, is an example of responsive, situation-specific arts administration. The successes are quantifiable, and can be seen in the international recognition the organization has received, its high-profile partnerships, the continued accumulation of donated works for its collection, and the construction currently underway on Ars Aevi’s to-be-permanent location. Its activities, however, have not been immune to developmental problems. Further, for arts administrators interested in new approaches to funding and management, it is useful to consider the specificities of Ars Aevi’s context and how those might impact the reproducibility of the model elsewhere.

Daily survival during the siege presented perhaps the single greatest challenge for those involved with the project, but some of the logistical complications of building an institution both during and after the war are worth noting. In 1993, well into the war, an exhibition entitled “Witnesses of Existence,” organized by the Obala Art Center (with participation from Hadziomerspahic), was intended to go to the Venice Biennale to represent Bosnia-Herzegovina. During this period, however, the United Nations was tightly controlling the movement of goods in and out of the country, and would not allow the works to cross the border into Italy. A safety measure on the part of the UN, the restrictions were no doubt a disappointment for Ars Aevi, as participation in the Biennale would have been a major opportunity to showcase the project to an international audience of potential partners and funders. The exhibition eventually gained the support of a handful of UN staffers who helped secure passage for the works and the curators to install the show in New York City (33), but it would be ten years before Bosnia would have another chance at the Biennale.

Another logistical problem arose after the Historical Museum granted Ars Aevi permission to house the art collection and Ars Aevi’s offices inside the Historical Museum’s building. The Historical Museum (previously the Museum of the Revolution) suffered crippling structural damage during the war, lost 75% of its staff, and needed a great deal of repairs and financing to return to operational (34). Support for the museum came primarily from the poorly financed Culture Ministry, and in 2002, in an attempt to save money, the Ministry reduced overall funding for the Historical Museum and served Ars Aevi with an eviction notice, claiming the institution had not been paying its rent. Confusion arose from the fact that the Culture Ministry had for several years been a supporting member and sponsor of the Ars Aevi Project (35). While any underlying issues are undocumented in the literature, such a decision is potentially indicative of larger infrastructural and communication issues at work in the period following the war.

Funding obstacles have historically been a challenge for many arts institutions. The recent worldwide economic recession, which dealt a significant blow to arts and culture institutions in the United States and abroad, can open up important questions about the current operational models in place in the West. What other models exist? Could they be applicable and effective here? As was previously described, the specific wartime circumstances of the founding of Ars Aevi led to the creation of a new model — one that was designed uniquely to overcome those conditions. However, the uniqueness of those circumstances make it useful to consider whether or not the replication of this example is problematic when placed outside of this particular context.

The Bosnian War, arguably the bloodiest in Europe since World War II, thrust the country into the international spotlight, bringing media attention not seen since the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. Hadziomerspahic and his team grasped this opportunity to draw attention to the daily destruction of Sarajevo’s culture, formulating a timely mission statement for Ars Aevi that revolved around Sarajevo’s history of diversity and the purported unifying ability of diverse cultural practices (36). Ars Aevi’s recognition of its participation in a specific political moment that then translated into the museum’s concept demonstrates an awareness of what the media could do for their cause. As stories and images of the destruction in the city played across the world, Ars Aevi built a sense of urgency around the project: if centuries of art and culture were being wiped out, the international art community could demonstrate its commitment to culture vis-à-vis donations of art in the name of peace. In response, the partnerships began and the artworks started accumulating. Thus one can suggest that the model’s success has partially to do with the heated moment in which it arose, along with the sense of urgency that that moment engendered, which was then transmitted to the world by the media. Perhaps for other regions in the midst of widely recognized political or social upheaval a similar opportunity could be found for activating the Ars Aevi model. It seems unlikely, though, that an organization from a politically stable area would be able to garner the media attention or emotional connection that Ars Aevi did, and thus the sense of urgency that drives contributors to take on the task of helping build the collection would be absent, and the model might fail.

Another particularity, and one that the research has yet to fully explain, was the early, significant participation in the Ars Aevi Project by the regional and national governments of Italy. Four of the first seven satellite partners were located in Italy, with four more joining since 2001. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided funding for a number of Ars Aevi’s projects, and numerous corporations from Italy have gotten involved. An Italian branch (called Ars Aevi Italy) was formed, the President and Director of which sit on the Ars Aevi Board of Trustees. While further research needs to be done to explore this relationship, without its existence, the project might not have materialized as rapidly and strongly as it did. Finding bodies and governments outside of the home city/country to fill this crucial participant-role would be a second challenge to replicating this model. And it begs the question: What, in the absence of tragedy, might motivate the financing of transnational cultural exchange?

The third and most complex factor to be considered relates to governments and economic systems that are in flux, and the social structures that they give rise to. As discussed in The Expediency of Culture, market-based democracies develop in stages, one of which involves the transformation of culture into a political commodity (37). As a new democracy formed on the heels of recent communist and socialist programs, and negotiating the nationalist divisions of land brought about by the peace accords (38), Ars Aevi’s founders constructed their platform around the idea of multiculturalism (39). Stating in their mission that the museum would “be a permanent and visible symbol of the hope that instead of separating, differences can stimulate us to find beauty and value in diversity,”(40) they hinted at a potential weaving of the cultural and political dimensions of their existence. Whereas in contemporary western democracies the term “multicultural” has become a tool to classify individuals as part of a consumer group, and thus lost much of its impact (41), Ars Aevi could invoke this term without appearing opportunistic, coupling the post-war situation with concrete examples from the city’s past. For those feeling disenfranchised by the strife between ethnic groups, Ars Aevi pushed engagement in an “intercultural dialogue”(42) as a way to participate in rebuilding Sarajevan society and to connect with the larger European community. Once again, the Ars Aevi Project made pointed use of its specific political situation and history, which allowed its operational model to germinate, further underscoring the potential difficulty of replicating this model elsewhere.

Much scholarship exists regarding the development of museums in postwar or postcolonial societies, but a review of the literature reveals a lack of material devoted to contemporary art institutions. While issues of history- making, memory, and identity politics inform the present discourse around museums and museum development, contemporary art institutions such as Ars Aevi should be examined through a different lens. It cannot be denied that history and memory played a role in the creation of Ars Aevi, but it is neither an historical nor strictly Bosnian institution. The museum’s impetus was not, for example, the erasing of communist cultural policy, or the rejection of colonial oppressors; it was not about Bosnians speaking only for Bosnians, or rewriting history with idealized memories. It was a focused effort to build an international network of partners and a collection of art at a moment when art might not have seemed a primary concern. One can speculate about the underlying motives of such a project, be they the essentialized notions of art in Ars Aevi’s mission, the need for apolitical mobilization, or the co-opting of a moment for outside gain; but for now it must remain speculation.


The Bosnian War was a devastating blow to the ethnic and cultural makeup of the Balkan region. It caused irreparable damage to the physical architecture of Sarajevo’s cultural bodies, became a force for
the people to rally against, and as is discussed in this paper, gave rise to a new generation of arts organizations. Of these, the Ars Aevi Project has been a leader, starting as a small group of Sarajevan intellectuals and building into an international network of partners, including artists, curators, institutions, and governments. While the model itself seems an unlikely candidate for application elsewhere, its simple existence indicates that institutional models need not be static. In times of political crisis or fiscal insecurity, but also in times of average growth and continuity, one final lesson that can be learned from Ars Aevi is for institutions to be attentive to their own individual specificity, finding inspiration and ideas in other models, and never denying the possibilities of innovation.

1. Matjaz Klemencic and Mitja Zagar, The Former Yugoslavia’s Diverse Peoples(Oxford: ABC Clio, 2004).
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid 314.
4. Ibid 312.
5. Andras Riedlmayer notes “In the commercial center of Sarajevo we see the principal mosque, the Sephardic synagogue, the old Orthodox church, and the somewhat newer Roman Catholic cathedral, all located practically adjacent to each other within an area of less than half a square kilometer”; Andras Riedlmayer, “Bosnia’s Multicultural Heritage and its Destruction,” transcript of slide presentation given at the Symposium on Destruction and Rebuilding of Architectural Treasures in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C., May 2, 1994). Web edition, (21 December 2009) 4.
6. Klemencic and Zagar 313.
7. Klemencic and Zagar 319.
8. Riedlmayer 6.
9. Dzevad Karahasan, Sarajevo, Exodus of a City (New York: Kodansha International, 1994), 26.
10. Riedlmayer 5.
11. Helen Walasek and Dr Marian Wenzel, “War damage to the cultural heritage in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, ” Ninth Information Report for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE document (19 January 1996), web edition, 1.
12. Walasek and Wenzel, PACE Doc. 7464, 1.
13. Karahasan 48.
14. The name “Ars Aevi” means “Art of the Epoch” in Latin and is also an anagram for Sarajevo.
15. Enver Hadziomerspahic, “The International Cultural Project ARS AEVI- Museum of Contemporary Art – Sarajevo,” Sarajevo2000: Schenkungen von Kunstlern fur ein neues Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung and Ars Aevi (International Cultural Project of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sarajevo), (Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, 1999), 27-40, 28.
16. “International PEN About Us.” 2008. (6 January 2010).
17. The Obala Art Gallery, created in 1984, started out as a small space for contemporary and avant-garde art. After gaining much positive attention in the 1980s, they renovated a large space, hoping to expand their programming. The new building, completed in April of 1992, was burned to the ground by Serb forces less than one month after it opened; Jamey Gambrell, “Sarajevo: art in extremis – art from Bosnia-Herzegovina – Kunsthalle, New York, New York – Cover Story”. Art in America. 1994. (27 Nov. 2008).
18. “About Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art.” 2008. (21 December 2009).
19. “Jazzfest Sarajevo – International Music Festival.” 2009. (21 December 2009).
20. Enver Hadziomerspahic, “Generalna koncepcija” (“General Concept”), in Arts Aevi Catalogue of the Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art (1994-1997) (Sarajevo: Ars Aevi, 1999, 4th ed.), 10-11.
21. Ibid, 10.
22. Edin Hajdarpasic, “The Remaking of Postwar Sarajevo,” (Re)Visualizing National History, ed. Robin Ostow (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 121.
23. Enver Hadziomerspahic, Ars Aevi Collection 1992 – 2003 (Sarajevo: Ars Aevi, 2003), 20.
24. For these purposes, I consider “Stage One” to be the period of initial action of the project, with nearly all activities taking place outside of Sarajevo. “Stage Two” begins with the first presentation in Bosnia of what was then the whole collection. It also marks the initial launch into the Ars Aevi World Campaign with the announcement that Renzo Piano would design the museum for free. See the chronology on
25. Hajdarpasic 121.
26. Which came in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Agreement.
27. Hadziomerspahic, Ars Aevi Collection 1992 – 2003, 14-15.
28. Ibid 18
29. Enver Hadziomerspahic, “Chronology 2001” Ars Aevi International Project – Official Site, 2004 (21 December 2009).
30. Ibid “Chronology 2002”
31. Ibid “Network/Patrons”
32. Hajdarpasic, 123.
33. Gambrell 1.
34. Helen Walasek and Dr Marian Wenzel, “War damage to the cultural heritage in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, ” Ninth Information Report for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE document (19 January 1996), web edition 1.
35. Hajdarpasic 122.
36. From the “Ars Aevi Manifest;” Hadziomerspahic, Ars Aevi Collection 1992 – 2003 345.
37. George Yudice, The Expediency of Culture (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003), 165.
38. It was divided as such: Bosnia Herzegovina for Bosniaks, the Republic of Serbia for Orthodox Christian Serbs, Croatia for Catholic Croats.
39. Yudice, 165.
40. Ars Aevi web, “Project” (21 December 2009)
41. Yudice, 167
42. From the “Ars Aevi Manifest;” Hadziomerspahic, Ars Aevi Collection 1992 – 2003, 345.