Are museums still interested in their audience?

Viewer in the context of museum globalization


Discussion participants (in speaking order):


Polina Lukina — Ph.D. student, HSE; Place of Art project 

Tatiana Mironova — Ph.D. student, HSE; Place of Art project 

Natalia Smolianskaïa — Ph.D., Associate Researcher Paris-8, head of the Place of Art seminar

Victoria Belonenko — art historian, independent researcher; Place of Art project

Anna Borisova — manager of cultural projects at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art


The series "Viewer in the context of museum globalization" ended with a visiting seminar at the Tretyakov Gallery (New Tretyakov Gallery), which can be described as a museum that nowadays embraces the process of globalization. The participants discussed the structure of the museum's permanent exhibit: what kind of historical narrative was formed there? Which mechanisms produce a viewing experience? What is the viewers’ place in a large cultural institution?

We express special gratitude to Daria Pyrkina for her help in organizing the seminar at the Tretyakov Gallery.


The seminar was held on 22.12.19. In 2020—21, the "20th century art" exposition at the Tretyakov Gallery was renewed.




Polina Lukina (P. L.): We decided to hold a visiting seminar at the Tretyakov Gallery for several reasons. First of all, we started a discussion about museum globalization with the Tretyakov Gallery, so it is reasonable to sum up the results here. Secondly, one of the topics we are focused on is the merging of four Moscow museums into the Museum Four[1] organization, that includes Garage, Tretyakov Gallery, Pushkin Museum, and V–A–C foundation. 

The goal of this association is to create a common museum space in Moscow. It means that large museums are united with a joint mission. Therefore, we tried to comprehend both new urban space and our viewers’ experience within this space. We offer this conversation in a form of reflection on the Tretyakov Gallery exhibit and begin with the 1920s — 1950s timeline in hall 23.


Hall 23. Timeline

P. L.: It’s interesting that the timeline contains events related to art, as well as dates of deaths (Stalin, Lenin), executions, and the beginning of the War. Usually, a timeline contains events which do not directly relate to the art sphere, yet affect the whole society.


Tatiana Mironova (T. M.): On the other hand, these events are mainly institutional (foundation of a society, dates of the exhibitions, book publications, etc.).


P. L.: We have already raised this issue at seminars. For example, in the conversation with members of the Pushkin Museum, we were talking about a collection and a history that the museum shows. There are common approaches in art history (for Pushkin Museum it is the Western art) which they cannot refuse.


Natalia Smolianskaïa (N. S.): Because there is a strong institutional binding that restrains both the Pushkin Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery. Do you remember how the members of the Tretyakov Gallery reacted to our question about dividing their museum into two institutions (modern art and old collection)? With one voice, they said “no!”. That is, there is an institutional setting with which the museum workers have to live, and there will be no future revolutions.


Halls 23—26 (Vera Mukhina, Mikhail Nesterov, Pavel Korin, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Tatiana Yablonskaya, Semyon Chuikov, Aleksander Laktionov, Geliy Korzhev, and others)


T. M.: I feel lost because not all the names presented here mean something to me. I do not understand why some artists follow others: they are not connected by anything except a time period which they share. I am completely crushed by the number of paintings and as I walk through the exposition, it starts to look like I do not understand anything, perhaps I am an improper visitor.


P. L.: So, there is no other connection but chronological? How could the permanent collection be displayed? It can be done chronologically, or you can give it a critical understanding. Has the Tretyakov Gallery done such experiments with its permanent exhibit? 

Also, the exposition is often built only on visual similarity: next to the picture with Pushkin there should be a sculpture of Pushkin, if the painting shows a horseman, then we put a sculpture of a horseman next to it.

Halls 27—32 (Natalia Nesterova, Tatiana Nazarenko, Tair Salakhov, Yuri Zlotnikov, Mikhail Roginsky, Boris Turetsky, Francisco Infante-Arana, Viacheslav Koleichuk, and others)


P. L.: How abruptly a transition to the so-called unofficial art is made seems important.


N. S.: We are in hall 31 where what is conventionally called nonconformist art is presented. But we should remember that, for instance, Zlotnikov was also a figurative artist and worked, like many others, in the state system of the Union of Artists (MOSH). Meanwhile, on the opposite wall there are works by Turetsky and Roginsky. These artworks are classified as Russian pop art, for example, at the exhibitions made by Andrey Erofeev[2]. Further, there is a division into two halls: on the left we see the “left” MOSH and on the right — there is nonconformism. What do you think about this division?


Halls 33—37 (Viktor Pivovarov, Erik Bulatov, Boris Orlov, Leonid Sokov, Grisha Bruskin, Alexander Kosolapov, the Nest group, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, Kamil Mullashev, Yuri Korolev, Maxim Kantor and others) 


P. L.: It seems to me that we are being put in opposition between this and that, while there was no such strict division.


N. S.: At the same time, if you look at the dates, artworks of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s are presented together, but these are different eras! We also see here the whole space of Leonid Talochkin’s collection[3]. I don’t mind how the hanging of this collection is organized: it looks like a single piece, it is clear that he collected what was endearing to him. But the point here is how it is included into the exposition: why is Talochkin placed after Kosolapov, Bruskin and Mamyshev-Monroe?


T. M. (question for visitors): Is the exposition understandable to you as a viewer? Is it possible to catch it at first glance? 


Visitor 1: It is impossible to go round the exhibit at once. The thing is what knowledge base you come with.


N. S.: Do you understand the history of 20th-century art that is told here?


Visitor 1: I understand part of this story but do not accept it. There is a repetition of our history. The history of painting should move forward, but it goes in a circle. Maybe just too much is presented together. We usually go to thematic exhibitions, and only then to the exposition; if there is free time, then I go here, but it is impossible to go through the entire route.


Visitor 2: It is such a pity that the Central House of Artists (CHA) was destroyed: it was alive, there were people, fairs, the wardrobe was always full, but now it is empty. Was a popular place destroyed for this? I specially went there for the exhibitions, and now they are all on the outskirts: in Krasnogorsk, Dubna. It's just a crime because now I don't know where to go for the exhibitions of my fellow artists.


After the Tretyakov Gallery, the discussion continued at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

P. L.: How do these three themes we are talking about connect with each other: globalization, audience, alternative art places? It seems to me that they exist autonomously from each other, although we are trying to unite them by a common phenomenon of museum globalization.


T. M.: I see the connection between alternative places and the globalization of museums. The visitor today told us that she felt pity for the CHA: it was a living place for her, but now it is over. It turns out that the museum does not act as something vivid for her. Thus, the CHA was an alternative place, although we are analyzing such places from a different angle.


P. L.: But how does this relate to globalization?


N. S.: As always, we are looking to the West. Financial and art markets revolve around the Anglo-American axis between New York and London. There is a line of unification and globalization is connected with it. So, the emerging large museums can afford to work with the viewers in a certain way.

N. S.: This means that large museums crowd out other places, occupying all the space.


P. L.: Moreover, this practice of holding exhibitions in peripheral places has its own history. Therefore, can we associate this only with museum globalization?


T. M.: We cannot reduce these practices to one reason only. It seems to me that museum spaces are now impenetrable: you cannot just come and exhibit your works in the Garage or the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. You must first go to the Free Workshops and show your loyalty to the place.


P. L.: Of course, it is difficult to get into the museum, there are entrance barriers, but this is not a problem of globalization.


T. M.: Obviously there are barriers, but how do they arise? In addition, you need to consider other non-systemic factors: who knows and likes whom. Even small cultural institutions and spaces are still based on a narrow circle of people.


N. S.: It seems to me that globalization leads to the enlargement of museums, so a struggle for visitors begins. As a result, visitors have less options to choose from.


P. L.: It is also clear that globalization in a broad sense is connected with capitalism. Museums make projects that could sell well, such as blockbuster exhibitions. Therefore, alternative places go to the periphery, since they do not have a commercial function. The Korzhev Hall in the Tretyakov Gallery acts as part of the same commercial function since the collector actually bought a place in the museum. This is a sort of manipulation of the viewer.


Victoria Belonenko: Yes, this is a problem with large expanding museums all around the world because they constantly depend on their sponsors.

P. L.: The connection between alternative places and museum globalization is now more or less clear: globalization is pushing exhibition practices to the periphery, but the problem with the viewers remains. Are they becoming more passive?


N. S.: More controllable, as the role of the museum increases. The museum offers the viewer its art history. What history, for example, the Tretyakov Gallery shows?


T. M.: It is unclear. But in hall 25, which ends with the 1920s—1950s period, there was an article “Free art” in totalitarian state. This seemed strange to me since the interpretation of free art is not questioned.


N. S.: The thing is that our art history has not yet been written. Certainly, reasonable theoretical research and books do exist, but they don't give the entire picture.


P. L.: The problem of the museum in this case is gigantism: there is an ambitious task to show the art of the whole 20th century, and as a result, it is shown with huge strokes, vaguely, and even without actual context.


N. S.: A museum needs an expert community that understands how to evaluate the artistic quality of an artwork. There should be criteria for this procedure, but in many cases it is not established. The way these artworks are exhibited shows control over the viewer that is connected for me with the general situation in our country since something is being implanted in the visitor’s mind.


T. M.: So, while watching the exposition, we do not always understand why these artworks are placed together. As the viewer, I either have a feeling of rejection, or I agree that someone knows better. I find myself in a passive position anyway.


N. S.: It seems to me that the question is not whether the viewer is active or passive, but is there a viewer at all? What are these things that needed to be explained to them? What kind of exhibitions should be created? Will the museum expansion be able to answer these questions?


1. In October 2019, there was information about the aforementioned institutions merging into the informal organization Museum Four. In September 2021, this "single cultural space of four Moscow leading museum institutions" was officially announced. Source: https://fourmuseums.moscow/en/


2. For example, Russian Pop-Art (2005, State Tretyakov Gallery), Post pop: East meets West (2015, Saatchi Gallery).


3. Leonid Talochkin (1936—2002) was a collector of Russian “unofficial art”. In 2014, his collection was donated to the Tretyakov Gallery and has since been presented in one of the spaces at the permanent exhibit.