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Czech out the art

By Marie-Danielle Smith      

The new Czech ambassador, also a children's book author, plans to open an art gallery as part of an economic and cultural diplomacy agenda at his first posting outside Europe.

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Though the Czech Republic’s new ambassador to Canada is well-versed in trade, tourism promotion and European affairs, he’s at his most animated talking about cultural and artistic pursuits.

A published children’s author and culture aficionado, Pavel Hrncir, as friendly as he is tall, spoke to Embassy at the Czech mission on Cooper Street last week. 

Mr. Hrncir, who brought a few written notes to the interview, just in case, has been in Ottawa since February. “Probably the coldest month in the last 100 years,” he said, “I have to buy a new parka.”

It’s Mr. Hrncir’s first posting outside of less-snowy Europe, where he previously served as head of mission to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and as deputy head of mission at the United Nations in Geneva and in Paris, along with other positions at the foreign affairs ministry in Prague.

Though it’s only been a couple of months since he arrived, Mr. Hrncir is already part of a tennis club in Rockcliffe. He’s already rubbing shoulders with Ottawa’s diplomatic community, along with the Czech community in Canada, which numbers at least 60,000.

He plans to cycle to work sometimes during the summer, and is enthusiastic about the city.

As well as familiarizing himself with Ottawa and with Canadian markets where top Czech products—such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and high-quality glassware—can be promoted, Mr. Hrncir is also immersing himself in Canadian culture.

He said he’s a big Glenn Gould fan, and has been getting into Group of Seven artwork. His fiancée, who will join him in Canada in September, is a painter who loves landscapes. They plan to visit countrysides across Canada. “It’s my favourite plan,” he said, for travel. “It will be a very nice inspiration.”

His two daughters, who are studying in Prague—the elder, 23, studies photography, and the younger, 21, studies film production—will plan a visit, too.

Though Canada is culturally different from Europe, Canadians share a self-deprecating sense of humour with Czechs, Mr. Hrncir said he is discovering. “I was delighted by this, because famous Czech black humour, I thought originally I had to forget it in Prague.”

Mr. Hrncir plans to keep diplomatic relations “as informal as possible,” likely incorporating humour to do so, while making his own cultural contributions to the city.

“I think you can, in Ottawa, find real cultural life,” he said. “I networked with some people there, I saw some private galleries, cinema, universities. I think that you have to create something. If you are in Paris and Prague, you are quite passive. Here, it’s up to you, a little bit.”

As such, Mr. Hrncir is currently collaborating with staff and other partners to put together an art gallery at the front of the embassy that will be open to the public. Both Czech and Canadian artists’ work will be displayed.

They’re thinking of calling it, simply, the Cooper Street Gallery, after the embassy’s downtown address. Mr. Hrncir said he hopes it will open in October.

Meanwhile, if he has free time, he’ll be working on a few other projects: children’s book manuscripts and a novel for adults.

He brought three hard-cover books, in Czech, to the interview with Embassy. One, from 2007, is a colourful story about a friendship between an alarm clock and a chimney. Another is a collection of “very crazy stories,” said Mr. Hrncir, with a generic mother, father, son and daughter as protagonists.

The title of his most recent, published in 2012, translates to “The Tin Meena.” It’s a play on words, since “meena” sounds similar to “minette” or “minou,” the colloquial French term for a pet cat. In the book, a little girl’s “pet” is an anti-personnel mine given to her as a gift by a soldier.

The book, which was nominated for a prestigious prize in the Czech Republic, connects to broader issues about how children can become involved in military activities in other countries.

It’s also an opportunity to talk about anti-personnel mines. The year 2017 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, also known as the “Ottawa Treaty,” since the Canadian government played a major role in organizing diplomatic efforts.

Mr. Hrncir said he has given lectures to children in Prague about this, and hopes to do the same in Canada.

“I would like to use my travelling plans, my program as ambassador, to find some opportunity to speak in schools with children,” he said. “To do some reading and to discuss this topic…it’s not for tomorrow, but in a couple of weeks I would like to prepare some conferences.”

As the potential Cooper Street Gallery launches in October, so will the Canadian federal election. After things have settled politically, Mr. Hrncir said he hopes to organize high-level visits for the Czech Republic’s foreign minister and other officials.

He also hopes to collaborate with Canadian officials on international issues such as human rights, development assistance in Ukraine, and the implementation of the Canada-Europe Free Trade Agreement. But his biggest passion is for cultural diplomacy.

Mr. Hrncir recalled researching Canada for a paper on cultural diplomacy that he prepared while studying at École nationale de l’administration in Paris in the mid-90s.

“Now I would like to develop, concretely, this report,” he said, as an ambassador to Canada. “It’s an occasion to realize it.”


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