Milan Knížák: “I’ve always been a leader.”
Written by: Monika Mudranincová
Photo: Vojtěch Vlk
He has both inveterate critics and devoted admirers, and when he makes a decision nothing can stop him. Professor Milan Knížák (63), the general director of the National Gallery, has a special formula for leading his 500 employees.
Your development has been remarkable – from an eccentric artist, an organizer of street happenings, through the rector of the Academy of Fine Arts, to your current position as director of the National Gallery. Was it hard to reorient yourself from your status as an unconventional artist to a state administration official?
It wasn’t hard at all. I’ve always been a leader of some group or other, and I’ve been at the front of some movements. So I’ve always been a leader, but in the past I didn’t have the state’s blessings – quite the contrary.
Does running the National Gallery, which is even more gratifying since you get paid for it, fulfill your ambitions?
I wouldn’t even mention the money, since what state cultural employees are paid is humiliating. I do it out of pure altruism, and because it involves working in a field in which I have great interest. But I can easily imagine being in command of a submarine, or running a comb factory. I don’t see any great difference between the three.
In your opinion, what is the most important thing for overseeing a team of people?
First you have to find a capable team and lead them by setting your own example. You have to work in a way that makes sense. Problems should be solved decisively and openly. But the main thing is that the boss must always be on his team’s side, whatever the situation, it must be evident that he’s taking care of his people. If he has a team that understands and follows him, then all together they create a well functioning unit.
Both in 1990, when you were named rector of the Academy of Fine Arts (AVU), and in 1999, when you became the general director of the National Gallery, there was palpable opposition. What is it like to start out in a job where you have many open enemies? How does one gain respect?
At AVU, the new cadre of that time, the Civic Forum’s coordination center, took a firm stance in opposition to me. It was a very unpleasant situation, but when you know what you want you have to be persistent. I chose the simple way here at the gallery. I demonstrated that I’m an ordinary person who works and wants others to work as well, and I started resolving problems that hadn’t been settled for years. The employees who were willing to do what needed to be done at the gallery stayed on, and those who didn’t understand what was needed left. When I arrived the National Gallery had 25 accounts and 25 authorized representatives. No one knew where the money was going! I closed the accounts and set up just two – foreign currency and crowns – and authorized only the management to manipulate them. I took many steps towards transparency and simplification, and I established strict centralization. This management method is more lucid, and it’s certainly less expensive.
Are you ever reproached for usurping power and being an authoritarian tyrant?
Of course. I’m everything from a tyrant to a racist (laughs). But it seems like the people here aren’t giving me a hard time any more. I truly believe that one person must make the principal decisions. I can’t stand decision making by teams, as it never leads to anything good. The team should and prepare the basis for one person to say yes and assume responsibility. Then the result is guaranteed by his position. That’s how I do it.
What sort of a boss are you?
When I’m convinced of something I’m uncompromising. I’m ultimately accomodating to people who work well, but I keep a tight rein on those who don’t. In the beginning I would go to the Collections before eight in the morning and walk the halls, making my presence known. At the academy I made surprise inspections at night and dismissed people who were sleeping there without authorization. I had to demonstrate that I was working twenty-four hours a day, and that I was everywhere. There isn’t any other way – you have to get down to work and put your energy into it. This is the best way to motivate the others to work hard as well. But I shouldn’t rate myself. I can be tendentious, and think I’m an outstanding boss, but my subordinates might see me as a demented tyrant.
There are certainly people who are a little afraid of you.
Unfortunately, I have to deal with this often, but those who know me well aren’t really afraid.
Do you ever go through stressful situations?
Of course. For example, we prepared an exhibition of 20th century art in Veletržní palác that is truly exceptional and represents a great shift within the museum. True, some names are missing, but it isn’t within our power to gather everything from that period together. We put lots of energy into it under terrible conditions and without financial recompense, and we faced enormous tension and stress in our efforts to open it to the public as soon as possible. And then some idiot comes and sweeps it aside with a single sentence. I can usually get through such crises, but when all these negatives pile up I have to grind my teeth.
What do you do to blow off steam?
Sometimes I yell, but mainly I get depressed. Swimming is a good way for me to relax, and I work out in the mornings. But the best way is to do something different or take an aimless walk.
What are your weaknesses, and what are your strengths as a manager?
My strengths are tenacity and responsibility, and my weakness is my emotionalism.
Have you ever been forced to fire an employee?
Yes. If someone isn’t working I lose interest in him and I let him know it by firing him.
How would you describe the job of the “greatest gallery chief”?
The National Gallery owns an enormous amount of movable property and real estate. Also there is real estate we rent. I’m in charge of it all, and it’s a heavy responsibility. Furthermore, I still have to keep an eye on new trends, supplement our collections, and keep the gallery running on a day-to-day basis.
What brings you the greatest satisfaction?
The fact that I work with things that I most admired as a youngster, things I used to tip-toe around. Now I can give greater meaning to them and help introduce them to the world. This fascinates me.