Moscow’s Art World gathers to discuss plans for a Russian National Museum of Contemporary Art

Last week, the ADAA announced its new relief fund, which would provide financial support to the Chelsea galleries and nonprofits hardest hit by Sandy. Recipients include Wallspace, Bortolami and Printed Matter, whose inventory was particularly devastated. As Gallerist reports, David Zwirner – arguably the gallery which suffered the most, by many an accountcontributed $50,000 to the fund, an admirable gesture indeed. As some optimistically pointed out, Sandy has given New York a chance to rebuild.

Diana Machulina, The Bringing of the New Museum to the People, 2012

This very public formulation of the question “what should the art world look like now?” made us think about Moscow. The Garage’s recent unveiling of its temporary pavilion, designed by Shigeru Ban returned our attention to a very important conversation which happened nearly a month ago, in response to the NCCA’s plans to build a new National Museum of Contemporary Art for Russia.

The first week of October, the Ministry of Culture hosted an opening meeting to discuss alternative solutions to the NCCA’s proposal to build a 16-floor tower on Baumanskaya.

The public discussion brought together many of Moscow’s major players – from NCCA Director Mikhail Mindlin to Strelka Institute’s Alexander Mamut to the Garage’s Anton Belov to Multimedia Art Museum Director Olga Sviblova to Regina Gallery founder and director Vladimir Ovcharenko. Each of these participants presented their own take on what a national museum should look like and how it should function.

On October 4, the day before the public discussion, Anna Tolstova did an excellent job of laying out the stakes for Kommersant. We were also drawn to Diana Machulina’s incisive and insightful article for, which recapped some of Tolstova’s argument before delivering a meticulous play-on-play on the meeting.

As the meeting gave institutions like Strelka and the Garage a chance to vocalize their ambitions for the future development of Russian culture, we thought it would be helpful to provide an English translation of Machulina’s article, for reference. AGAIN, THIS TRANSLATION IS OUR OWN, FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS BLOG ONLY. FIND THE TEXT IN ITS ORIGINAL RUSSIAN HERE. [EMPHASIS IS OUR OWN.]

Conflicting Prayers for the Museum
Diana Machulina
Published October 7, 2012, on Polit.Ru

On Friday, October 5, the Ministry of Culture held a public hearing on the construction of the new National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA) on Baumanskaya. The differences of opinion of the “public” – or rather, two interested parties, who both have their own ideas for cultural development – was brilliantly laid out by Anna Tolstova for Kommersant: “The opposition to the NCCA project, Sergey Kapkov [Ed: Moscow Minister of Culture], Alexander Mamut [Ed: Head of Strelka Institute], and Anton Belov [Ed: Director of the Garage] have laid out their own alternative plan, which they began to develop this summer with the Ministry of Culture, after a suggestion from Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov: the conversation focused on how to apply the experience of leading Moscow institutions like Strelka and the Garage to the provinces. The first three centers would open in the Central Federal District, in the Urals, and on Russky Island.” Russky Island appears here as if it was already a well-established location; after all, there was already a summit here and a bridge, there’s a university, the only things lacking are a museum and potable water. The Urals were selected as a spot proven fertile for culture after long years of work put in by the NCCA, and therefore having the most chances of being successful. Tolstova warns that while trends battle time-tested experience, the majority of the influence may fall to a third party, one “with a biennale of contemporary icon painting and cultural centers advocating voluntary-compulsary prayers against the ills of feminism, athiesm and homosexuality,” but these words have yet to reconcile the first two sides.
The discussion at the Ministry of Culture called to mind a parable, that exists in many variations, though I remember it best from Boleslaw Prus’ “Pharoah”: “He had heard of a patient who was praying to get well, and also of a healer, who prayed that his patient would remain sick as long as possible; of a land-owner who pleaded with Amon to protect his barn, and of a bread-thief whose arms were stretched to the sky, so that the gods would not prevent him from stealing off with someone else’s cow or filling his sacks with someone else’s grain. These prayers were divided against each other, and as such, did reach the ears of the divine Amon.”
The moderator of the discussion, art critic Valentin Diaconov, continuously attempted to steer the presentations from laundry lists of the proposal’s flaws into more productive offering of solutions, but the participants persisted in bickering, to the point where no Amon Ra could help them.

One of the opposition’s main contentions is that the project has been arbitrarily moved from one side to the city to the other without any moderation. Here it should be noted that the building looks completely different, that it remained a tower, even though the site itself is much bigger and would allow for more square meters to be spread across fewer floors. As it was explained, there is a reason for the tower – the residents of the area want some kind of green space, and so they thought up another variant, all one floor covering the entire site, with a park stretched across the top, and on top of that, the tower. Under all this would be two floors of parking for those who live in the area. This means you could drive to the museum in a car, but there is also an underground entrance straight from the metro. Architect Mikhail Khazanov and his co-author, NCCA Director Mikhail Mindlin, spoke at great length about the façade, how all those horizontal shutters would rotate in the wind, giving the impression that the building was always changing its shape. The construction was planned so that nothing was too clunky and everything moved smoothly and quietly. Staircases were relegated to the façade, so that they wouldn’t take up valuable exhibition space, while also giving visitors a chance to bask in an elevated view of the surroundings, Elokhovsky Cathedral and the Yauza River. There would still be elevator shafts and pipes, more than reminiscent of the Centre Pompidou, but these would be concealed with blinds. At night, the building would look entirely different thanks to the lights, which would be placed between the shudders and the inner wall of the center structure. The iron pens will disappear into darkness and instead illumination will reveal the backbone of pipes.

The second serious contention is that the NCCA should be both the client and the architect of the project, with no international call for other proposals. Obviously this is not an ideal situation, but then again, if we look back at recent history, these such contests that have yet to lead to any results. Dominique Perroult came up with a bold new design for the Marinsky Theatre, while the contest for the Perm Museum was won by Boris Bernasconi, who caused quite the sensation by beating out Zaha Hadid. Great, but where are the buildings? Erick van Egeraat’s proposal for the “Russian Avant-Garde” residential complex provided an excuse to clear the site, though what ended up being built was something not at all connected – though this was all under a different mayor, and these days the main architect should hope that such events don’t repeat. The reconstruction of the Politechnical Museum was awarded to Jun’ya Ishigami, but now the developers are tearing out their hair trying to figure out how to actually build it. I have heard it said that Western architects treat projects in countries like Russia somewhat irresponsibly, as a realm of experimentation. I designed it, and left, and now you can go and build what you please how you like. Mindlin and Khazanov have one distinct advantage – they are here, and will remain here, if there are ever any questions. And they have already begun to ask. And as one of those present at the discussion brought up, it would be nice if a Russian museum were actually built by a Russian architect.

Sergey Kuznetsov, the city’s chief architect, heavily criticized the project. He said that what is crucial for Moscow in general is something he always says: you have to fight Gigantomania. This is true. Business-oriented commercial complexes stretch for blocks, so that you can’t even walk around them on foot but must use a car, but you can’t use a car, because this creates traffic, and it’s too far to walk… This is the root of all evil when it comes to urban planning. It is clear that Kuznetsov is afraid to look inconsistent in his policies, but that is also the one place in his argument where common sense just does not apply.

The first state museum for contemporary art should be a whole other type of building; it should serve as a symbol, it shouldn’t fit into a townhouse. Earlier, on a broadcast for the Dozhd channel, Kuznetsov brought up the example of a museum in Germany, whose exhibition spaces is only 600 square meters, but he did not mention what kind of museum this is – maybe for exquisite beer steins? For contemporary art, this won’t do. In the same city, the Neue National Galerie’s upper hall is around 3,300 square meters, with the same footage below, only divided into parts, which mainly accommodate solo shows. It also should be said that this is far from the only space for contemporary art in Berlin.

The project should be at the scale of the historical buildings Kuznetsov mentioned, Strelka and Winzavod (both in areas not too far from Baumanskaya.) In this neighborhood, at the scale the museum is proposing, there is already the horrifying apartment complex, “Cascade,” whose buildings range from 8 floors to 23 floors, but more to the point, there are also plans to build another museum – the 16 floor building of the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor’s Office – on the very same street. Maybe then the demand that the museum not be too tall is significant in that maybe art should not be above prosecution?

Another problem is that a site was selected on Baumanskaya, but that the NCCA itself did not choose it. While Zoologicheskaya [Ed: Where the NCCA is currently headquartered]] is more or less “central”, is also not exactly convenient, requiring a long walk from the metro, which obviously affects attendance. For counter-example of the Garage on Octyabrskaya is not an example. The principle differences between the former location and Novoslobodksaya or Mendeleevskaya was that there you could also take a tram or minibus. The Baumanskaya district is frequently described as a neighborhood for students, which means it has potential for an existing audience there, but if we are building a state museum, it should be addressed to the country and the rest of the world, and not just one neighborhood.

Alternative locations were proposed. Gallerist Vladimir Ovcharenko [[Ed: Regina]] and dealer and Winzavod administrator Nikolay Palazhchenko both agreed that there are better places for such a significant structure. Ovcharenko suggested that, as a compromise, nothing too grand should be built: “We should not be going back to the primeval 90s, when the opportunity to build something – anything – seemed like a blessing.” Palazhchenko also saw the proposal under debate as “the fruit of a succession of circumstances,” and suggested building something even more prestigious, at a space near the Kremlin, such as Zaryadya or at least GEC-1, which was constructed by Zholtovsky and sits directly across the river from the Kremlin. Ovcharenko advocated for Zaryadya. In his video presentation – which mixed in conversation about the site and the fact that the building could be called “Rossiya” after the former hotel that once stood there – he showed work from Pavel Pepperstein’s series “Russia City,” where utopian architecture of the civilization to come in the next millenium. Pepperstein, for his part, did not offer the most positive contribution. He argued that all these developers of these large, slick projects should leave Moscow and Petersburg alone and go indulge in their gigantomania somewhere else, somewhere in between the two capitals, like, for instance, the area around the Bologo train station [Ed. Think Topeka.]. All joking aside, this was actually the most thoughtful, concrete and bold idea, taking on a vacant lot in the city center. The park which the president wants to plop there could still exist, and would actually even make more sense, as there would be a new audience for a park with a museum. But this proposal would also be just grand enough to conflict with Moscow’s chief architects stance on meglomania.

Another site was suggested by Sergey Kapkov, Moscow’s Minister of Culture. His postion was “we already have so much”: the Manege, which includes both the main and the new wing; the Worker and the Kolkhoznitza; Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art. The private sector has besieged the mayor’s office with requests to build their own museums. There is Victor Vekselberg’s museum of private collections, then there’s Roman Abramovich’s attempt to restore his hexagon. There’s Shalva Breus, and the development of a creative cluster at Winzavod. So it begs the question, why build a new building when ‘we have an enormous number of available property – the ZIL industrial zone, for instance. And I will be the first to say, our Moscow museums are ready to become national, combining the federal museums with the municipal.

These words of Kapkov’s contain a hint that before any creation of a new museum, the existing institutions need to be supported so that they can join forces. However, differing opinions and ideas about the function of this museum provide reason to doubt the effectiveness of such a union. Kapkov himself announced: “Our mission is for contemporary art was everywhere, from Butovo to the Kremlin’s Manezhe.” NCCA has a proven record of effective and hard work with the regions, but this bar is getting lower as geography collapses. Also, there’s the capital city’s indfference to the rural parts of the Motherland, those beyond the Moscow Ring Road: “such a big center should be visited, first and foremost, by Moscovites, then foreign tourists, and then people coming in from the regions.” This even gives an ultimatum: if you want to look at contemporary art, come to the capital.

There are those who suggest that the goal of the new museum should be to feature its collection. As Vladimir Ovcharenko put it so acutely, the NCCA has “a paltry collection, which, compared to the many private collections one can go and see, just looks like a waste of the public coffer.” Here he was clearly overstating the situation; it may be possible for him to go and see these private collections, but not for the broader public. And he ignored the fact that the majority of the works in the collection have been donated. Mindlin later clarified that of the many gifts from established artists, those like major installations often have to be turned down, for the very reason that there is nowhere to store them. Once there is this space, the collection can fill out much more quickly and potently. Olga Sviblova, director of the Multimedia Art Museum, likewise lamented that the museum’s collection won’t have, for example, a Francis Bacon, who plays such a critical role in the history of contemporary art. But on this point, both Mindlin and Ovcharenko are willing to concede to circumstances; the West has already devoted dollars and decades to building up collections, at a time when we were still mired in Sots Realism. We won’t be able to catch up. The core of the collection, then, is Russia, with international art from the 90’s to the present.

Art director of the new museum-exhibition complex, Stolitsa (“Capital”), art historian  and curator Marina Loshak said that she supports the idea of creating a new NCCA museum, that she knows of astounding collections no one else knows about, and that these collectors – not just from Moscow, mind you – might be willing to donate these collections to the museum. Needless to say, that a powerful permanent display of the work is a “speculative dream, that’s all – an agreement with the entire country, that is, if it hasn’t already been realized.” One would like to believe her – for her own exhibitions at Proun, she was able to pull together the rarest and most exquisite things. She is ready to consolidate, but Ovcharenko isn’t; he maintains that “any work on the creation of a museum needs to start from scratch.” He is ready to undertake this task, as part of an Advisory Council, a public-private partnership, ensuring that when individuals purchase works for the collection, it will be good PR for them. “In Russia, there is not one museum which you can put down in an artist’s CV that would have a significant impact on the artist’s success or valuation,” not even the Tretyakov. Ovcharenko recently revealed that the art-handlers there were carrying works around with bare hands. He is prepared to help found a museum where the personnel will always be in white gloves, a museum whose collection is a mark of pride for an artist, immediately driving up that artist’s prices. And why not let this museum be near the Kremlin, and why not let a foreign architect build it, and why not bring in a collection put together by dealers and businessmen – none of this negates the need for the NCCA museum. As Nikolai Palazhchenko put it, Russian meglomania doesn’t only manifest itself in the format of the building, but can also lead to the creation of a superstructure, which, for efficiency’s sake, would be “competitive, and consist of a large number of institutions.”

In addition to what Ovcharenko suggests, he wants the NCCA (the entire NCCA and not just Mindlin) to have the about the same kind of difference as the Kandinsky Prize and Innovation. One is aimed at presenting a product, the other focues on a process. In Innovation, for there are awards for curatorial endeavour, publications, and regional projects, that are then brought to the attention of the most important participants of the art world; the Kandinsky Prize, as if it doesn’t see this, is built on more of a direct line to the commodity consumer. No wonder this year they eliminated the “Media Art” category – you can’t really explain it, let alone sell it.

Andrey Busykin, a member of the advisory board in the Ministry of Culture, also supported plans for the museum. “In the 200th anniversary of 1812, I would like to recall a phrase of Napoleon’s, that first you need to enter the fray, and then see. The previous speaker [Palazhchenko] said that he does not understand why we would build a big new building, where there are so many smaller private institutions. Maybe medieval craftsmen also could not imagine what it would mean to work in an automobile factory. The message we need to send the world is, no, this state is not stuck in the past, it is looking towards the future.  And it may be the only institution capable of doing this would be a state one – the NCCA.” Let this message to the world be sent by the Garage, Vladimir Ovcharenko or Winzavod, it would seem more effective, but it would also only be saying that the rich in our country have good taste, and nothing about that of the government or its stance on culture. And right now it is this state message which is needed, not only for the proposed “world” audience, but even more importantly, to send a sign to our own country and its inhabitants.

Film historian Daniel Dondurei, another member of the advisory council, noted one important problem: “Our audience has a horrible understanding of contemporary art. All the films awarded Golden Bears, Lions or Bows disappear from theaters within two weeks. The ghetto channel Kultura aside, the television stations never talk about contemporary art during prime time – it’s forbidden by the shareholders. There’s not even an audience in the millions of students; they prefer to go to restaurants and cafes to discuss how to live.” It’s not just that we need to reorganize the situation so that Russia’s youth didn’t debate how they live, or spent free time wondering where to emigrate or simply self-destructing through alcohol. More broadly speaking, antiquated cultural values are being promoted, and the NCCA needs this state museum as a type of ‘legitimization’ of their work in regions which lack other access to contemporary culture.

Member of the Public Committee Alexander Mamut performed the most eloquently as he critically dissected the plans laid out by Mindlin at the beginning of the session. Yes, we get it, Mindlin is intolerably old school, he read from a paper that had already been given out as a booklet to everyone in the room. Mamut observed: “Through the nature of  my work over the past decade, I’ve encountered presentations, but this wasn’t one. This should have short, 8-10 slides which would have clarified why exactly are we doing this, and why exactly in this place. The presented plans hardly convince us that these people are capable of fulfilling the task they have set for themselves.” Quite an original approach, that the discussions would shift from the project to the way it was presented; the tactic moved moderator Valentin Diaconov to inquire: “And if it had been a better  presentation…?” Mamut responded: “It would have been a different project.” And wouldn’t it be wonderful if some presentation professionals whipped up a positive presentation for our country. Real changes can only come through a fresh image – and building a large audience in a massive country happens to be NCCA’s speciality.

Original Source: 

We thank Diana for this fascinating and thorough walkthrough of these discussions, and will keep our readers posted on the outcomes.

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4 Responses to Moscow’s Art World gathers to discuss plans for a Russian National Museum of Contemporary Art

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