The Hermitage 20/21 Project, launched in 2007, is set for completion next year in time to commemorate the State Hermitage Museum’s 250-year anniversary. The aim of the project is to make contemporary art accessible to all. In other words: to attract a new generation of St Petersburgers and guests of the city into the museum. Since its foundation, the Department of Contemporary Art has organised a number of innovative exhibitions and has begun to build up its collection of important works of modern and contemporary art. Located in the General Staff Building – a vast former military HQ built in 1829 across Palace Square from the Hermitage, with around 800 rooms and 5 internal courtyards – the new space is currently being refitted to house the museum’s burgeoning contemporary collection and exhibitions. Next year the fully opened contemporary wing will also be the main stage for Manifesta 10, which will be celebrating its 20th anniversary. Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, is the world’s only roving biennial. Our editor Theodora Clarke caught up with Dmitry Ozerkov, head of the 20/21 Project, to discuss the Hermitage’s exciting new amble into contemporary art.
Theodora Clarke: You began your career at the State Hermitage Museum as a curator of Old Master engravings and now you are the Director of Contemporary Art! Why did you decide to spearhead this major project for a new wing at the museum dedicated to contemporary art in St Petersburg?
Dmitry Ozerkov: A big museum like the Hermitage needs to continually develop. In Soviet times there were several artists, officially sanctioned, who donated works to the Hermitage, or whose works were bought by the Communist Party and donated to the museum. Then in post-Soviet times there were several artists like Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock who would produce art that everyone wanted to see. Everyone has heard of these famous artist, but no one in Russia could then see examples by them. Now since the beginning of the 21st century the situation has changed. People from Russia have really started to travel abroad. It was a logical step for the Hermitage to come up with this clever project, to do something specific for the museum – our aim is not just to show big names, but to create a strategy. So this is what I proposed to the museum and that’s how it started.
TC: Who is your primary audience target? Western or Russian visitors?
DO: We focus on both. This is a museum of universal art. It is the biggest museum in Russia, so we don’t focus on showing just Russian artists here. Our goal is not to be a department of Russian contemporary art. Naturally, if it is Russian art that is interesting worldwide, internationally vital and accepted, then we show it. Our main aim is to show Western art projects that have been created especially for the Hermitage, so we avoid travelling exhibitions. We have about 3.5 million visitors a year, about half of them tourists and the other half locals. So one important aim is education of locals about what goes on in the West; another thing is to highlight this new development of the Hermitage to people coming from abroad.
TC: You have a number of works by the Russian avant-garde, such as Kandinsky and Malevich. Can you tell me how you are going to build up the collection of modern and contemporary art? Has the Hermitage got a budget to acquire new works?
DO: We have a general budget for acquisitions. Initially this budget functions in an old-fashioned way: the museum initially goes about buying things that are missing from the collection. For example, we might have Picasso and Matisse but not Braques, so we’d have to buy another artist in order to create a representative collection. The next step is contemporary art. We realised that two things are important. Firstly, it is impossible for us to start buying the big names of the late 20th century. Not just because of the prices, but also because the major pieces are already taken by museums. We lost that game in Soviet times. We can’t buy a great Jackson Pollock now because it doesn’t exist; if it does come onto the market it is normally a second-rate work, and if it is first-rate we can’t afford it. So instead we focus on long-term loans and we look to the new generation of artists whose works are available now. Secondly, as soon as the museum openly enters the market the prices get very high, so we risk seriously influencing the market. We are bad players in the art market because we don’t know it well. We study it, we receive catalogues, we read press, but we really don’t know all the mechanisms of the Western art market. We don’t really want to play the role before properly understanding it. Because as soon as a big name like the Hermitage shows its interest the situation changes completely.
TC: We have the same problem here in UK and the West. When you are a major museum like Tate or MoMA which chooses to buy a particular contemporary artist it can give them more prominence as they are entering a national collection. You need to be careful as a museum not to influence the art market.
DO: Yes, exactly. We are very careful about this. We are, however, currently working on a proposal for what we will buy and how. We have a number of consultations going on, so it should be ready in about a year.
TC: I know that you already have a few galleries already open in the new contemporary art wing in the General Staff building opposite the Winter Palace. When will the 20/21 Project be completely finished and open to the public?
DO: We’ve started to use a few of the galleries now. At the moment we have two exhibitions on: one on German expressionism via long-term loans, and another dedicated to the architecture of Bauhaus in Tel Aviv, Israel. German Expressionism was never part of the collection here, because Russia and Germany had been at war. The idea behind the exhibition is to show German expressionism to the public, to educate them on an art that has never been seen here before due to the barriers that existed between two former enemy states. It comes from a private collection in Greece. We also show the relationship between Expressionism and Neo-Expressionism, by adding some Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer.
As for our Bauhaus exhibition, the idea is also to directly address society here. Bauhaus in Tel Aviv is a very good example of how Unesco has protected the architecture of the 1920s and 30s, and how people and organisations have defended old buildings against the prospect of demolition in Israel. We have a similar situation with Constructivist building in Russia, like Melnikov House, that are not considered old monuments. Sometimes there are cases where they are destroyed simply to build a new shopping mall. We understand that as a part of Russian heritage – we all know of 1920s Constructivism– demolishing these works now would be a national catastrophe. So the idea behind this exhibition and the international conferences we organised was to pay attention to, and exchange experience on, the subject of saving buildings in Russia that hail from a similar period to those in Israel. For example, we have a fantastic construction by Eric Mendelssohn – a unique building called the Red Flag Factory. It was constructed here in St Petersburg and is in a very poor state. Nobody really takes care of it. So the focus of the show was also to create an impact on Russian society and professional elites in order to show what can be done.
TC: There is also an important exhibition of Lissitzky and Kabakov…
DO: Yes, that’s the third exhibition I wanted to talk about – an exhibition of another one of our émigré artists. It was initiated in Holland by the Stedelijk Museum, which has a large Lissitzky collection. So we wanted to bring this art back to Russia. The upper floors where it was shown were renovated in Soviet times, so it has all sorts of Soviet lamps and things. This will all soon be redecorated again, so we were happy to use the space before we renovated in order to show the Kabakovian crazy museum idea.
TC: With major international art fairs like the Armory Show and various Biennales, Western audiences are very used to seeing contemporary art, while it can be quite provocative and controversial here. What have you found the response to contemporary art to be like within Russia?
DO: It’s a big question, and it’s not easy to answer because I could talk about it for half an hour! One important point is that many Russian collectors buy works on the Western art market. As you know many important sales in the past were bought by Russians. We’re happy about this, but they go to private collections. Sometimes something will come to the museum, but that’s the next step of the development of the collection. As in any country, Russians follow the way of America in the 1950s: when you first become rich you buy something. You keep it privately, and then you show it to friends and they say “this is good” or “this is a fake.” Then you show it to the public, and finally you decide that you have a good collection, that it is accepted and you can build up your own museum. This has started to happen now with, for example, Erarta, the new Museum of Contemporary Art in St Petersburg, or Igor Markin’s museum in Moscow. But then often collectors realise that a museum is a very expensive thing. You have to spend a lot on marketing, rent and so on. So in some cases they go to big museums and donate works or offer long-term loans with their names on gold plaques alongside. So that’s the next stage that we’ll probably be reaching.
As for the general public that doesn’t know contemporary art, our main concern is to educate them about it. When we put on an exhibition we always have several levels of understanding. Professionals can come and study contemporary masterpieces, while those who don’t know much about it can look through a free booklet that doesn’t use terms like “Deconstructivism” or “Postmodernism.” We avoid this, we articulate everything very simply. If people want to learn, they have the possibility.
TC: What are your plans for next year? I know that St Petersburg will be hosting Manifesta.
DO: The Hermitage will be receiving Manifesta in 2014 and the contemporary department will be working on it as our main project. When we started the 20/21 Project in 2007 we began with several monographic exhibitions of artists such as Chuck Close, Timur Novikov, photographers Boris Smelov and Annie Leibovitz, and then we moved on to bigger group exhibitions, such as Newspeak: British Art Now which was in partnership with the Saatchi Gallery and later shown there. We did an exhibition of French art from the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Now we’re in a situation where the big galleries can put on really good exhibitions by bringing old and new together. It became a trend about ten years ago for museums to show contemporary art and galleries began to do really interesting shows. So we thought “yes that’s good, but what should we do?” Because museums are quite lost in this game – an important gallery can pay much more money to invest in a show, while we are in a more limited position. Again about ten years ago, auctions began to focus on selling cutting-edge art. It really was a kind of shift, when the contemporary art auction became very famous because people started to buy. Sometimes artists would paint not for a show or a gallery as before, but for the auction. This is a change of focus: artists are interested in auctions, galleries are interested in museums. So what should the museum do? We decided we should go to an international art fair and participate with our own project. We applied for the Venice Biennale 2011 with a single project by Russian artist Dmitry Prigov. We were successful and rented a space, playing as a country would. The exhibition was very much visited and became famous, and now it will go to Rome. We began to think about what the next step should be and joked that a biennale should come to us. We discovered that there was a travelling biennale, Manifesta, and decided to apply to it.
TC: How important do you think it is for Russia that you are hosting this major biennale of contemporary art?
DO: I think it is significant. From my point of view, Russia is currently in crisis in terms of understanding what contemporary art is. For one, people aren’t really educated about it – they can’t judge whether a piece by somebody is good or bad, because for 70 or 80 years they lost connection with art. People in France or the UK have always known what contemporary art is because you can go to an exhibition, you have it in your home and in museums. In this country there was a lack of contact with artists. In the Russian mentality an artist is that man who lives upstairs, he’s very poor, creates some trivial things, he goes to rubbish bins to collect something for his installations and so on. He’s a drinker, someone outside of society. And this is how people understand the art that we show, thinking that it is just rubbish. So we really have to educate them. It’s a bit of a hysterical situation because of the political lows. Everything is crazy, people are afraid and hysterical – they understand contemporary art as an enemy that can destroy stability. I think this is the deepest point of crisis, and we believe that Manifesta can really let people know that art, especially contemporary art, can also be a positive weapon. It can bring culture, and this is the way for people to really learn what the world is. That’s how you understand who you are, why you live here.
TC: There’s been a lot of talk in the West about artist groups like Voina and Pussy Riot. Voina painted a provocative image on a St Petersburg bridge in 2010 and were arrested, but were later awarded the innovation prize in visual arts by the Ministry of Culture. Do you find that there is a challenge, or some tension, between a state museum and these types of ‘dissident’ artists?
DO: I would say that in this hysterical situation that I described, some artists produce really provocative work. So the phallus on the bridge painted by Voina was fantastic as a gesture, but it is a political gesture. It has a relation with art, but it is not directly a work of art. In practical terms it was a big problem for the innovation prize to display it, because what you show is a video filmed by someone on their mobile phone. There are no photographs, only poor-quality items on the internet. If you were to print it on a large scale it would be pixelated. The art doesn’t exist, it’s a gesture – a performance.
There’s also this Museum of Power that was shut down in August here in St Petersburg when Konstantin Altyunin painted Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in ladies’ underwear. We hadn’t heard of this artist, because there are a thousand other artists like him. As soon as the exhibition was shut down he left for France – it’s a very political thing. We are a state artistic museum. We don’t deal with politics directly. We don’t want to offend politicians, nor do we want to defend them. We have Raphaels and Leonardos – they have nothing to do with the current political situation. It doesn’t matter whether it’s political or not political – we’re looking at it from the point of view of art. For example, Voina couldn’t be acceptable in this museum because from the point of view of art it’s not particularly interesting. It’s a political gesture, it is the art of our times and it will definitely be written down in the Russian art history of the 21st century, but to the Hermitage it is not interesting. I know Voina, I understand what they do, I like some of what they do. But for the Hermitage it’s not interesting.
TC: When is Manifesta scheduled to be in Russia next year?
DO: The opening is scheduled for June 28th 2014 and will last until the end of October.
Hermitage 20/21: www.hermitagemuseum.org/html_En/13/hm13_2_020_0.html