“Thessaloniki. The Costakis Collection. Restart” which is now on in the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki is an exciting reboot of the museum’s legendary collection of Russian avant-garde. Assembled in the post-war Soviet Union it embraces Russian avant-garde art of the 1900s-1940s, including all its diverse styles, genres and techniques. The founder of the collection George Costakis hunted down the neglected works from that period often saving them from oblivion and destruction. In 1977 he left Moscow donating a considerable part of his collection to the Tretyakov State Gallery and bringing the rest with him to Greece, where it became the core of the Museum. RA+C met with the Museum’s director Maria Tsantsanoglou to find out how and why they decided to re-launch their display.

Thessaloniki. The Costakis Collection. Restart. Exhibition View.

Katya Belyaeva: What inspired the Museum to put the whole collection on display? What principles influenced the techniques of the presentation?

Maria Tsantsanoglou: First of all, let me clarify that it is not the whole collection. The museum holds 1277 artworks and more than 3000 archival items and now we have 400 items on display.

However, the approach towards the display has been totally renewed. The construction of the show was guided by several principles. Firstly, it is the creation of a historical overview which presents a variety of avant-garde movements. Secondly, it is the representation of Costakis’s own views with the emphasis on smaller collections within the total holdings. And lastly it is a totally new museological and architectural concept that helps a visitor to better navigate and explore the exhibition halls. The new concept was realized by two brilliant architects Kirill Asse and Nadya Korbut who worked in collaboration with two Russian co-curators, Natalia Avtonomova and Alla Lukanova. The presentation was made possible thanks to the invaluable help and sensitivity of the Museum’s Head of the Board of Trustees, Kristina Krasnyanskaya, and the support of the AVC Charity Foundation and the Heritage Foundation. All those people involved strongly believed in the benefit of the renewed strategy for the promotion of Russian avant-garde around the world.

KB: How does the Museum connect Russian avant-garde and the local community?

MT: We strongly believe that Russian avant-garde can offer much more than just its appealing aesthetics. It was developed during one of the most interesting periods in the world history known for its dramatic changes and turbulent atmosphere. It reflects the innovative ideas developed in society, politics, economy, technology, and philosophy, and, thus, remains urgent now. More than 100 years later Russian avant-garde still can answer many questions we raise today. Local graphic designers, architects and artists are greatly influenced by it. Moreover, the local community truly understands the uniqueness of this collection, which is now becoming one of Thessaloniki trademarks.

Thessaloniki. The Costakis Collection. Restart. Exhibition View.

KB: Does the Museum maintain connections with Russian art institutions?

MT: The Museum has excellent relationships with many Russian institutions. We are in an on-going communication with our colleagues from the State Tretyakov Gallery where the second part of the Costakis Collection is held. We collaborate regularly with many other museums and galleries, such as, the Schusev State Museum of Architecture, the Museum of Photography, the Manege, the Mayakovsky Museum, and ROSIZO to name a few, in order to raise the awareness of the unique heritage of Russian avant-garde. Moreover, we are follow all the recent developments in the contemporary Russian art and aim to create shows exploring its connections with avant-garde and continuity of the artistic tradition.

KB: Why do you think there are very few joint exhibitions between Costakis Collection in Thessaloniki and the Tretyakov gallery? Are there any ways of improvement?

MT: Both us and our colleagues from the Tretyakov gallery invested a lot of efforts to organize a joint exhibition in Moscow uniting two parts of the collection. I myself was very keen to have this show celebrating 100 years since Costakis’s birthday. Unfortunately, it was not possible then due to a number of bureaucratic reasons we were not able to control. However, I am confident that the situation has improved. We recently collaborated with the Tretyakov Gallery on El Lissitzky exhibition and I am very much looking forward to our future joint projects.

Maria Tsantsanoglou, Director of the State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki (left) and Lydia Koniordou, Minister of Culture, Greece (right)

KB: Does the Museum take any advantage of the fact that both Greece and Russia are Orthodox coutires? Do you see any potential here?

MT: Avant-garde and contemporary art are beyond national, racial, religious or any other social restrictions. Art language unites people all over the world and stands for freedom, peace, justice and brotherhood. If Orthodox faith is put in the context of a humanistic dialogue, then we are absolutely happy to explore it further, but we don’t make religion the focus of our projects.

KB: How can you define the Museum’s curatorial strategy? 

MT: The Museum offers its curators full freedom in development of their proposals and in our exhibitions we explored a variety of curatorial approaches. Our exhibition programme has to be approved by the Board of Directors, but it is a very open and democratic procedure. We always try to organize exhibitions that would comment on the sensitive issues of society and at the same time suggest innovative curatorial approaches. It is important to emphasize that we do not implement any kind of censorship.

KB: Will the collection travel around the world?

MT: Yes, it has a lot of potential for touring to other countries. Very soon we will be collaborating with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Jewish Museum in New York. We are also planning a big exhibition in the Sabanci Museum in Istanbul.

KB: Does the Museum develop educational programme to support its exhibition activities? Do you collaborate with art schools and universities?

MT: Educational programme is the major element of the museum functioning. By organizing lectures, seminars, and conference, as well as through our publications we engage with diverse groups of public. We intend to further extend our educational and research activities by launching our own centre for study of the Russian avant-garde. We also work with a number of universities both in Greece and abroad and this year we have launched a very productive collaboration with the Moscow State University.

Thessaloniki. The Costakis Collection. Restart. Exhibition View.

KB: What do you think should be done to further promote the Museum and its collection to wider public? 

MT: This is of course a very important question for us. The collection is often presented abroad, but now it is also the right time to attract more works from from other museums to our exhibitions. This is our ambition for 2019.

Moreover, the programme of parallel events is very important for attracting new people to the museum. By this I mean not only the educational events, but also a variety of other activities, such as concerts, performances, and film screenings. Needless to say that the synthesis of the arts was one of the basic principles of the avant-garde and is equally important to us.

KB: How can you comment on the large number of fake avant-garde works which unfortunately often appear on the market?

MT: This is a very disturbing issue. We follow the art auctions and we are seriously concerned about fake provenance of some of the works attributing them to Costakis collections. Such cases can be very serious and we need to be prepared to take legal actions if needed.

The fact that there are often more fakes than genuine works of Russian avant-garde available on the market is not only a legal offence but also an assault on the unique heritage of Russian avant-garde. We need to join forces with other institutions in order to protect the art and the memory of all the outstanding artists many of whom were recognized and taken out of oblivion thanks to intuition, persistence and devotion of George Costakis.