In Lithuania, the most fervent public discussions in the field of cultural politics in recent years have been on memory politics and art in public spaces. In cases where these two issues merge, e.g. the establishment of new or demolishing of old public monuments, debates have been ongoing for decades and even reach the courts.
The first wide public debates on art in public spaces were provoked during the programme Vilnius European Capital of Culture 2009. Within the framework of the public places humanisation programme aimed at a contemporary interpretation of the city’s open space, the sculpture by Vladas Urbanavičius “Embankment Arch” was completed on the river Neris embankment. The sculpture imitates a surfaced architectural-communicative construction. Soon it got the name “Vilnius pipe” and split the residents of Vilnius into two groups, one demanding the elimination of the sculpture as soon as possible, as it is a blot on the landscape, while others petitioned for its preservation and claimed that it is an excellent, ironic, and provocative work of art. Despite the criticism, the capital’s authorities decided not to eliminate the “pipe”, even though its exposition time had expired. In 2010, by the order of the director of Vilnius Municipality Administration, the Embankment Arch became a permanent art installation.
Debates on memory policy are constantly provoked by the decisions of the authorities of the cities to eliminate or not to eliminate sculptures and monuments of Soviet times. The most prominent story of this kind relates to the Soviet sculpture composition over the river Neris bridge “Žalias tiltas” (“Green Bridge”). The composition of four sculptural monuments, including a group of soldiers, was listed on the heritage register as a representative example of the Soviet propaganda art of the 1950s. Some of the Vilnius residents saw the sculptures as authentic signs of a time that needs to have a place in the city’s landscape. However, another part of the residents treated the sculptures as a symbol of communist ideology and a monument for Soviet times and argued for the removal of the sculptures. Discussions among the administration of the municipality of Vilnius, artists, heritage specialists, and the local community about the removal of sculptures lasted for several years. Finally, the sculptures were removed because of the need for restoration, by the order of the Department of Cultural Heritage.
The longest story related to the establishment of new public monument is about the monument of Lukiškės Square. The square is the largest square (about 4 ha) in Vilnius, located in the centre of the city. In the Soviet times, the square was renamed Lenin Square and a statue of Lenin was built in its centre in 1953. The statue was removed in 1991, after the restoration of independence of Lithuania. The discussions about the renovation of the square started immediately after the removal of the statue. In 1999, the Parliament of Lithuania adopted a resolution that “the Lukiškės Square in Vilnius has to be formed as the main representative square of Lithuania with memorial recognition of the fights for freedom”.
Until 2019, three competitions were organised for the monument in the square. The first one was organised by the municipality of Vilnius in 2007–2009. After the first phase of the competition, the commission selected 7 works and presented them to the public. The public joined the discussion actively and voiced very different opinions. The Lithuanian Union of Political Prisoners and Deportees, some historians, and senior citizens wanted a traditional monument, while the younger people wanted an urban space adapted for recreation with a historically neutral art object. In 2009, the commission, feeling the pressure of the public and failing to reconcile the interests of the two sides, postponed the decision of the second phase of the competition and none of the presented projects won.
The second competition was organised by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture in 2012–2013. The artists submitted 28 projects to the Ministry of Culture, which were evaluated by 7 experts. The experts selected five projects and recommended to implement one of them – the sculpture “The Spirit of the Nation”. The competition provoked active public discussions again. 33 NGOs submitted a petition to the Minister of Culture, where they expressed a negative opinion on the winning project and on the commission that elected it. Arguing against the decision of the commission, the NGOs claimed that “the genre of abstract composition in the case of the Lukiškės Square is inappropriate in principle”. They also criticized the panel of the commission because “there were only two sculptors competent in the field of monument sculpture. Other commission members represented the so-called ‘trends of contemporary interpretive art’, unrelated to the traditional classical concept of sculpture”.
After the second competition, the patriotic NGOs started an active promotion of the idea that the “classical” monument of Vytis should be erected in Lukiškės Square (Vytis is an old Lithuanian symbol and figure on the Coat of arms of Lithuania that depicts an armour-clad knight on horseback holding a sword and shield). The NGO’s created a Vytis Support Fund, which announced a competition for the Vytis sculptural model. The competition took place in 2016. The sculpture that won this competition was actively proposed for the Lithuanian Parliament and Vilnius municipality. However, the members of the Lithuanian Art Critics Association, historians of arts and scholars of the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute were against the sculpture because of its insufficient artistic quality. They also published a petition that criticized the aesthetic value of the sculpture selected by NGOs.
In 2017, the Ministry of Culture together with the Contemporary Arts Centre announced the third competition for the monument in Lukiškės Square. The artists submitted 32 monument projects. The commission selected 5 of them and proposed a public vote. Among these 5 selected projects was the statue of Vytis, which won the competition of the Vytis Support Fund previously. More than 11.000 people participated in the electronic voting. The statue of Vytis received 37.66 per cent of votes and 37.55 per cent voted for the project of a young artist representing a hillock with a partisan shelter. The latter project got the most votes of the commission – 7 out of 8. The votes of the public and commission amounted to 50% of the final result, so the second project was announced as the winner.
The NGOs expressed their discontent with the competition and the result of it in several public petitions and a meeting. The meeting gathered about 500 people who proclaimed a statement with a requirement that the statue of Vytis should be erected in Lukiškės Square. The Lithuanian Parliament members joined the fight for Vytis and registered a law project, which sets that a monument of Vytis, representing the historical symbol of Lithuanian fights for freedom, has to be erected in Lukiškės Square. 41 members of Parliament supported this law project. This gave rise to the negative reaction of the cultural and academic community that spoke against the initiative of the Parliament members. 166 artists and academics signed a public appeal to Lithuanian leaders, expressing their disagreement with the intention to regulate the square monument by a law and claimed that the opinion of experts should not be ignored when dealing with issues related to art in public spaces.
The draft law had not been considered in the Parliament that year, but it was remembered again and passed in 2020. The 3rd article of this law states: The monument Vytis depicting the symbol of the state together with the memorial to the victims of the freedom of Lithuania is the main focus of the representative square of the Lithuanian state.