Design & Style

Say hello to Riga: Europe’s next arts hub.

1 August 2019

Design & Style

Say hello to Riga: Europe’s next arts hub.

1 August 2019

The Riga cityscape beside a river and a long bridge

Riga’s art nouveau architecture conceals many boutique galleries and museums. Image: iStock.

Cradle of the Old Masters, and host to some of the globe’s oldest and most revered museums, Western Europe has long been established as ground zero for fine art.

From Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and its giddying collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings, to Rome’s historic Capitoline Museums and Saint Petersburg’s vast Hermitage, the amount of continental real estate dedicated to the arts is staggering.

Yet Europe’s hubs of contemporary art are decidedly less defined, with some of the most promising avant-garde scenes hidden in little-explored pockets.

Old city, new wave

Enter Riga. Increasingly dubbed the ‘Berlin of the Baltics’, and home to countless art spaces, the beauty of the Latvian capital’s offering is in its diversity. Small, boutique galleries and impressive museums are strewn throughout the city, hidden away down the cobbled, medieval streets of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town; housed on boats moored in the Daugava River; and tucked behind the ornate walls of the city’s 800-plus art nouveau buildings (Riga boasts the highest concentration of art nouveau architecture anywhere in the world).

A panoply of materials are showcased here too, with entire galleries dedicated to objets d'art fashioned from glass, silver or peat, and museums devoted to Latvian ceramics and textiles.  

The Latvian National Museum of Art

The best place to get a taste for Riga’s art scene is the Latvian National Museum of Art, which is home to more than 52,000 works. Image: Victor Grow, iStock.

Meanwhile, new, landmark events, such as the inaugural Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art – which took place in June 2018 and comprised an entirely female curatorial cast – have helped generate big noise for this small capital (pop. 641,423).

Inese Baranovska, head of the Decorative Arts and Design Museum at the Latvian National Museum of Art, posits that the city’s colourful history laid the foundations for the current, thriving scene. “Since the 13th century, Riga has been at the crossroads of culture and trading between the East and the West,” she explains. “It was one of the most prosperous cities of the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century.”

Baranovska adds that Latvians’ close connection to nature, and the country’s history of craftsmanship in trades such as carpentry, have only further bolstered its creative industries.

Four places to discover Latvian artists

Exquisite pieces of jewellery or novel works of art? The lines are blurred at this immaculate gallery, which specialises in conceptual, handcrafted brooches, rings and necklaces. The creations on show are chiefly the work of European jewellers, with a focus on artisans that have graduated from the Baltic academies of art.

Edgars Ameriks
Accessible by appointment only, this workshop and gallery displays the works of the eponymous experimental artist. A local pioneer, Ameriks works only with peat – a material lighter than timber but resembling solid stone. During a private tour you can observe Ameriks at work, whittling ragged blocks of earth into refined sculptures, and admire the finished products in his gallery.

Galerija Daugava
Open since 1993, light-flooded Daugava is said to be the oldest gallery in the city, and specialises in the work of contemporary Latvian artists. Exhibitions typically feature works on canvas, though ceramics and other materials occasionally make an appearance.  

White gallery walls covered in paintings

It’s easy to spend an afternoon browsing the Latvian National Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Image: Supplied.

Latvian National Museum of Art
More than 52,000 works of art line the halls of this state museum. As the richest repository of Latvian art in the country, it affords visitors a comprehensive introduction to the local cultural canon.

By Chloe Cann