Pushkin Museum as a Trojan Horse for Contemporary Art

Viewer in the context of museum globalization

The seminar was held on 06.11.19


Discussion participants (in speaking order):


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

Olga Shishko — art historian, head of the Department of Film and Media Art at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, curator of the Pushkin Museum XXI

Ilya Doronchenkov — art historian, deputy director of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

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

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

Irina Sosnovskaya — curator of regional educational programs at Moscow Museum of Modern Art

Elena Milanovskaya — Ph.D. student, HSE


Seminar participants, together with Ilya Doronchenkov and Olga Shishko, discussed the current situation in the art world related to the extension of national museums. Today the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and the State Tretyakov Gallery outline the main development strategies in the context of museum globalization. At the moment, the Pushkin Museum is building the Museum Quarter in the center of Moscow, and is also planning to open regional branches (Tomsk, Samara).

The starting point of the discussion was the connection between the museum display of its permanent collection and the art history it creates. During the seminar, the participants discussed upcoming plans of museum extension, new ways of working with the audience including the Pushkin.Youth project focused on working with young visitors.




Natalia Smolianskaïa (N. S.): 

What is the Pushkin Museum’s cultural policy with regard to its extension? And where is the viewer’s place in this situation? What is your point of view on this? The Pushkin Museum is now almost the sole representative of all Western art in Russia, which is represented here rather fragmentarily. Meanwhile, other exhibition venues are not emerging, and the intensifying cultural planning is being implemented more and more centrally. This is because we do not have and did not have such institutions as the British Museum or the Louvre, which represented colonial history. We know that in England, France and other countries there are many museums that represent, relatively speaking, both Western art and the art of their countries. We do not have such institutions, since all applicants had already withdrawn their support in advance, except for the Pushkin Museum.

Olga Shishko (O. S.): Can you clarify your comment? Which applicants have withdrawn?

N. S.: Those who claimed to support a museum of contemporary art. For example, Shalva Breus had the idea to organize a museum of Western art, it was suggested that V–A–C would create a museum of contemporary art.

O. S.: But this is just a matter of terminology.

N. S.: No, not only. It is also a matter of the policy pursued by the institutions. For example, Garage is listed as a museum, but it does not have a permanent collection. We only see periodical exhibitions. In this case, the Pushkin Museum is the only one left.

Ilya Doronchenkov (I. D.): Before starting the discussion, I would like to agree on the terms. What do you mean by "intensifying cultural planning"?

N. S.: I mean the cultural policy of the state and each museum.

I. D.: What is our state cultural policy? Can you characterize it?

N. S.: The state policy is to create institutions strong enough to display Russia’s strongest side. This is the position of any state.

I. D.: So you don't see any particular features of ours in this regard?

N. S.: There is a particular feature, and it’s connected with our history.


I. D.: My second question is about colonial museums like the Louvre, the British Museum — are they colonial or imperial? What are we focusing on? For instance, Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky, speaking of the Hermitage, often uses the word “imperial”: the Hermitage is an imperial museum, representing the empire. But it became imperial under the Soviet Union. Under the tsarist regime, it was rather a universalist museum, building a certain genealogy.

It is a question of terminology because when we say “colonial”, a particular discourse comes to mind. To what extent is this discourse relevant to the Russian museum situation, as well as “globalization”? How does this all apply to our current domestic situation, to our museums? Are we part of the global world or the periphery?

N. S.: These questions have come up many times in our project, and we criticize the concepts of “center” and “periphery” because they are rather conditional and depend on a certain point of view.

I. D.: Using this terminology, we impose a certain situation on ours. I prefer to think that Russia is part of the larger “Western” world. But when you "stand on the ground", you understand that in reality everything turns out to be wrong. We are working here with a situation that is by no means global. China does not resemble Western countries, as well as, probably, Japan.

N. S.: I can’t agree with everything you said. Both China and other countries of the so-called non-Western world are part of the global system. China now occupies a significant place in the global art market, the biennials that take place there gather many specialists. Yes, China doesn't fit in because they have a different view on art and everything else. Nevertheless, China aims to take this global position and shows general trends in art. There are other points of view, of course. For example, in France they talk about “globalization” relating to museum policy, when museums like the Louvre rent out their works and earn money from them.

I. D.: This is not globalization.

N. S.: This is how it is written in French studies, each case has its accents. Our group is interested in the Russian situation of a centralization of power and its specific cultural policy. No matter how hard they tried to present it as a regional one, like taking the Innovation Prize to Nizhny Novgorod[1]. In this regard, I have a question for you as people who determine the cultural policy in the Pushkin Museum. How should the museum develop in this situation? How should it work with the audience?


O. S.: I'll speak for myself. I am new in the museum, I have been working in the Pushkin Museum for only 5 years.

I. D.: And I’ve been working for six months.

O. S.: It all started when my husband and I created the MediaArtLab[2]. Before that, we had never worked with state institutions. I became interested in joining the museum because of my knowledge and my desire to make our collection of video and media art accessible and public. It seems important to me today to collect contemporary art and art that showcases new media. We should create new dialogues because contemporary art and the art of the 20th century are based on the same foundation. I do not see this as globalization, but as other possibilities.


Today we need to attract new visitors at the Pushkin Museum because young people do not visit exhibitions that often. An exception being for example, an exhibition of The Foundation Louis Vuitton[3]. But it should be a constant immersing process, connecting old and new art, giving it a new reading through new media. Director Marina Loshak in the very beginning lent me the Golitsyn family manor for 10 months. There we created projects about how media and technologies deliberated during the 20—21 centuries and why art today is a continuation of what was created at the turn of the 19—20 centuries. We got new visitors, and yes, sometimes they came from the main museum building and did not understand what we were showing them. But a group of mediators explained to them what to look for in contemporary art, how to connect it with the past. I don't see it as globalization. On the one hand, this is the feat of someone who came to the Pushkin Museum and allowed herself to start a dialogue in terms of a transhistorical museum. On the other hand, I am tired of playing in self-organization. The time has come when I can bring my accumulated experience to a larger institution.


I. D.: I am an art historian who has never worked in a museum before. One of the reasons why I decided to work at the Pushkin Museum is its dynamic policy towards contemporary art. This is a museum that, on the one hand, preserves art created before the era of globalization and post-colonialism, its canonical history with "dead white men". On the other hand, this museum combines tradition and contemporary projects that are radical for our country, but not in a global context.

Meanwhile, my professional interest as a researcher is the reception of foreign contemporary art in our country in the late 19th — early 20th centuries, relatively speaking from Diaghilev to the 1930s. I see that a very similar model of introducing the Russian audience to the world artistic process is working now. Both then and now the museum plays an essential role. 

In Russia at that time there was no museum that would display anything contemporary, this role was played by the Shchukin collection. Now the museum and specifically the Pushkin Museum turns out to be a Trojan horse through which one can bring contemporary art to our country for the public. As in the performance by Joseph Beuys, our task is to “explain pictures to a dead hare”. 

That's why the word “globalization” caught up me. No offense to our country and our people (they are curious), but we speak absolutely different languages. The museum in our country has the necessary authority for this purpose. For example, Hans Belting in The Invisible Masterpiece[4] begins the history of contemporary art from the founding of the Louvre. That is, the museum as an institution produces contemporary art by itself. Over the 19th century, the museum turned into a unique space, a temple that generates meanings and produces a large narrative that claims to be continuous.

I. D.: In our country, the museum continues to play this role. You can recall the scandal with Jan Fabre in the Hermitage[5]. If Erarta[6] had held its exhibition, no scandal would have happened. The main conflict lay precisely in the fact that this exhibition was held in a large national museum, and was therefore perceived as a desecration of the shrine. There is a distinctive mechanism of reception of contemporary art: a new visual language comes to the country as something alien and potentially threatening national values. Therefore, museums are an important channel for this mediation, and in this regard it seems to me that the Pushkin Museum has a special mission.

O. S.: Perhaps the reason is also that there are no tourist exhibitions in the Pushkin Museum. Personal shows by Cai Guo-Qiang, Irina Nakhova, Dmitry Gutov were intrusions into the halls of the Pushkin Museum, a natural dialogue. For Dima Gutov it was a dialogue with Rembrandt, for Cai Guo-Qiang — with all of Eisenstein's “montage of attractions”. Artworks made from gunpowder became performances at VDNKh where volunteers and audience were invited. That being said, these were not tourist products. The Pushkin Museum is trying to make an artworks’ commission, to gather with the artists our collection and contemporary art that can become a part of the museum quarter: a main building, a museum of private collections, a new space, etc. The viewer is given the opportunity to rethink the museum by including contemporary art. This is more interesting than working with a prepared exhibition that exists in a certain format.

I. D.: Talking about the NCCA, the museum received a network[7] that translates the aforementioned strategy. We received regional embassies aimed at promoting contemporary art in each city in its own way. The most important task in this situation is not to "bring pictures" but to change the intellectual environment in the cities. Through this network, this process will get a social significance. This is an intellectual modernization of the country's consciousness.

O. S.: Yes, this is very important because it is a modernization of both art and the viewer. I once worked in the Soros Center for Contemporary Arts[8] and understand the role of the network. The Center created a network for Central and Eastern Europe, and the whole situation has changed! All artists were given a studio with a video camera, it was new freedom. The new medium allowed contemporary art to be presented differently with new language and ideology. All of this completely changed the artistic landscape. The Berlin Wall fell largely due to the freedom of technology. All Central and Eastern Europe were tied into this network, and all artists were invited to work with new media. Now we have a similar situation: the regions, which numbers I presume should be even bigger because many cities today are ready for contemporary art, receive a new tool that allows the artist and the viewer to start communicating anew with each other.


N. S.: Any viewer in any country is not much different from ours. It’s strange to say that one viewer is more prepared than another. At the same time, there is the problem of control over the viewers, who find themselves in a situation where they cannot choose because there are only two large and clumsy institutions: the Pushkin Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery. The questions of where the viewer is and what kind of viewer comes to a museum is still at stake.

Polina Lukina (P. L.): As far as I understand, when the reconstruction of the Pushkin Museum is finished, will all new art be transferred to a separate building? There will be two separate museums: for contemporary art and for classical art. Perhaps this will aggravate the problem of building the dialogue?

O. S.: There will be a lot of space in the new museum quarter. And the inner connection should be made by contemporary art. Transhistorical exhibition contexts based on a dialogue with the collection will be made at each venue. This connection is what distinguishes the Pushkin Museum. Therefore, I disagree that V–A–C is not a museum of contemporary art. It is one for me. They plan very subtle, modern, and solid strategies. Their projects from the GES-2 Opera[9], the design of which was created by Irina Korina, to the performance of Ragnar Kjartansson[10], are a clear, thought-out line of mastering a new audience.

You started talking about the collection: yes, we had to create a new regulation for the collection of video and media art because these terms do not exist in Russia. It is important for us today to introduce new meanings to the Ministry of Culture: that video art is not just a “disk” but an art object.

In the Pushkin Museum, no matter how much space we use, everything will still be built on a dialogue. For example, in the project Walking with a Troubadour[11] we created the artwork MONO together with Sasha Pirogova. We enjoy creating projects with artists. In Venice, this year (2019) we also made a unique project[12] that showed the relevance of Tintoretto. It was important for us to create this project together with Dmitry Krymov, Irina Nakhova and Gary Hill, i.e. there is constant activity and creativity. 

P. L.: My personal viewer experience of Walking with a Troubadour was very positive largely due to the exhibition space. We do not have many exhibition spaces that provide such communicative experience with art outside the white cube. It seems to me that the white cube bothers new viewers, who, as you say, emerged in this project. Therefore, I fear that when this space is rebuilt, we will get the same space though adapted for displaying art but buried in naphthalene.

O. S.: Any squat is not friendly for media art. In any case, we have to fight for the viewer and come up with new ways of working with them. 


Tatiana Mironova (T. M.): You said that the Pushkin Museum shows the canonical history of art, that the museum is a space that projects a grand narrative. At the same time, we are talking about how the museum creates its audience, changes it. I think there is a discrepancy: how does the Pushkin Museum plan to change itself and show the canonical history of art at the same time? How will it change the work with the viewer in this situation?

O. S.: When I was a student, I went to the Pushkin Museum and saw the same narrative exposition. And in the last 5 years that I have been working in the Pushkin Museum, I see different exhibitions all the time. Any exhibition mixes the collection and the works on display and reinterprets it. I feel like coming each time to a different museum.

I. D.: The problem is still a lack of space. The question of what is the great narrative in the history of art is certainly correct. The future of the museum is the future of other narratives. On the other hand, I don’t think that the tradition of breaking everything is good. There is a building that is a museum itself. Perhaps, when the Pushkin Museum rises and fills the entire space, it will become the most mummified part of the museum. We'll have to do something with these replicas and reflect them in some way. This is more of a problem of Russian art history than of Russian museology because our art history is a very conservative discipline. There is a methodological vacuum. Our art history needs methodological ideas. 

Irina Sosnovskaya: I think that in the future museums will get measured precisely by research projects.

I. D.: This is possible, again, through changes in the discipline, through educating art historians and the globalization of Russian art history. "Only alas — live in that beautiful era...".[13]

N. S.: My graduate student in France published a note about the colloquium held at the Centre Pompidou, which you attended, about the exhibition Paris — Moscow (1979). There she argues that Russian art is still described in the same certain way. The article asks why the same narrative is constantly brought up.

I. D.: The museum structure and economy will change when the attitude towards the canons within the discipline changes. There were attempts to shake it 15 years ago, when three books about Russian art[14] were published: Allenov and Degot tried to create an alternative approach to the history of Russian art. When the discipline itself will destruct the mythology of Russian art and its mythology as a discipline, then this will be possible. There was some progress in recent years, but in general, this is still a matter of the future.

I agree that the image of art history that is building is largely frozen and canonical. I'm not one of those who break the canons. Besides, when it’s broken, you have no idea what you will be left with. But it is our museums which can modify the canon because our country is multi-component, we can loosen the canon by strengthening the Eastern, Siberian, and Asian areas. The discipline, not the museum must reflect and realize itself. A museum can be a good tool, a lever, but it is up to the professional community to set up goals. Because either we are producing great myths about Russian art (the Itinerants, Malevich, etc.), or we are trying to understand how it was created then and what these artists had in mind. This is an unpleasant analytical effort that can cause a negative reaction: do not touch "our everything".

Elena Milanovskaya: You say that canonical art history is based on myths, but where do they come from? 

I. D.: These are ideas about a certain phenomenon that is set and accepted in society. You can’t get rid of myths. These myths organize today's concept of Russian art.

N. S.: These myths reflect our understanding of modernity. 


P. L.: It seems to me that at a time when the Pushkin Museum is extending it has a unique opportunity to write or rethink the history of contemporary art by creating its permanent exhibition. Do you have such plans?

O. S.: The museum does not have a specific collection of contemporary art, especially Western art. We have a gap of several decades, the collection ends somewhere in the 1970s. Therefore, we are not trying now to fill the holes of these missed decades but to collect what seems relevant and, possibly, what we will even reconsider in 10 years. We do not have the space for exhibiting such a collection, and there never will be.

N. S.: Why not plan such a space if a new museum is being built now?

O. S.: Probably because there are so many collections, and we would like to open storerooms. So far, even this canonical history of art does not have enough space.

N. S.: Therefore, we are raising the question of museum globalization, that a museum is being concentrated. It still produces the same situation with preserved art. But it will not change because you say in advance that it is not planned initially.

O. S.: There will be exhibitions that connect the collection, the present and the past. I am saying that we cannot make a space for a permanent collection because there is no collection.

N. S.: But you are buying new artworks?

O. S.: Only video and media art.

I. D.: Even with Getty’s money[15] you will not build the Hermitage. This time is over. 

N. S.: Why build the Hermitage?

I. D.: That is why the asymmetric solution is to concentrate on something else, that, perhaps, did not develop yet, that other museums do not have. This is the only thing that could work in the current museum “market” of contemporary art. Building a collection is an expensive task. Our society and state are not ready yet to bring that kind of money, even businesspeople and entrepreneurs. Even though this kind of collection would not let us travel to the Centre Pompidou or MoMA. This is a matter of slowly educating the audience, patrons, officials. Therefore, I think that Olga's department doesn’t have to create a permanent exhibition with new big narratives of the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, the Foundation Louis Vuitton has a collection of 20th century modern and contemporary art, but in a frozen format.

O. S.: The Foundation Louis Vuitton has large storage facilities for the contemporary art collection that is one of the richest. But they do not exhibit it all the time, they play with it, engage in puzzles.

N. S.: But I got bored at the Foundation because they have the set of artworks that are necessary to be displayed. The context in which the artworks are shown is outdated, they do not experiment.

T. M.: The question is not so much about buying Giacometti or Boltanski but how to build the exposition differently?

O. S.: No one says that we will not show it. We will not show 5 years ahead because everything is getting old.

T. M.: I want to clarify once again: will the media art collection be exhibited as part of exhibitions?

O. S.: Maybe sometimes as a separate collection, but not as the permanent one.

N. S.: To show a collection of video art, you don’t have to integrate it into, for example, Rembrandt's halls.


O. S.: There will be new spaces for exhibitions, as in the Golitsyn family manor. A new viewer has appeared, and it would be a pity to lose this manor and its audience. Many projects amazed the viewer because they were created collaboratively as, for instance, the project of Petr Aidu which was a laboratory, an experiment. That is what fascinates in contemporary art.

I. D.: Could you tell if building a museum is necessary for this?

O. S.: No, but it is desirable to have a place to come to. For example, the Pushkin.Youth, a space where children from age 14 to 21 can come, where they are always welcome. There you can drink tea, sit down with a book, and not have your mother annoying you by asking: “Have you done your homework?”.

T. M.: You are creating a good viewer.

O. S.: Not just a viewer but a colleague. We have established, for example, the Image Migration Research Laboratory.

I. D.: Its tasks are to educate, to help a person understand the images and how they affect them. We decided that the impetus for filling this space and working with children would be the model of Abi Warburg[16] who planted a bomb under the canonical history of art. People who are not trained art historians will work in groups, building up chains of images that migrate from century to century. This is part game, part laboratory, and part training. 

T. M.: The fact that there is a competitive recruitment for youth programs reflects how the museum deals with the audience. That is, there is a certain selection of the viewer.

I. D.: When we talk about a museum, we cannot get rid of the selection: selection of monuments, history, etc.

1. In 2019, the State contemporary art prize Innovation award ceremony was held for the first time outside Moscow, in Nizhny Novgorod. Since 2019 the Innovation Prize is held in Nizhny Novgorod in cooperation with the Government of the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast. Source: https://2020.artinnovation.ru/en/about-the-prize/ 


2. MediaArtLab was founded by Olga Shishko and Alexey Isaev in 1995 as a media art laboratory. In 2000, the MediaArtLab Center for Culture and Art was established. In 2015, the center became part of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.


3.  Exhibition Collection of Fondation Louis Vuitton: Selected Works was organized by the Pushkin Museum in cooperation with the Foundation Louis Vuitton and was held at the Pushkin Museum from 19.06.19 to 29.09.19. More about the exhibition: https://pushkinmuseum.art/events/archive/2019/exhibitions/louisvuitton/index.php?lang=en



4. Belting H. The Invisible Masterpiece: The Modern Myth of Art. Trans. Helen Atkins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.


5.Exhibition Jan Fabre: Knight of Despair / Warrior of Beauty was held at the State Hermitage Museum from 21.10.16 to 09.04.17 and caused a lot of negative feedback from visitors, mainly related to the stuffed animals placed in the museum's exposition. 


6. In 2019, the NCCA became part of the Pushkin Museum, which took over a network of 7 NCCA’s branches (except the Saratov branch). In 2020, the Central Volga branch in Samara was closed. 


7. Soros Center for Contemporary Arts in Moscow (1992—2000) was a part of the regional program of the Open Society Institute. The network was established in Eastern Europe during the early nineties by the American philanthropist George Soros. Center’s educational programs had a significant impact on the development of contemporary art in Russia. In addition to Moscow, the Open Society Foundations were opened in St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Novosibirsk.


8. GES-2 Opera was a theatrical project of the V–A–C Foundation, which took place in May 2019 in the laboratory building of the Moscow Power Engineering Institute. Authors of the play: director Vsevolod Lisovsky, composer Dmitry Vlasik, poet Andrei Rodionov and artist Irina Korina. More about the project: https://v-a-c.org/en/projects/expanding-space/ges-2-the-opera 


9. Sorrow Conquers Happiness is a performance by Ragnar Kjartansson organized in Moscow by V–A–C Foundation and held on 28.10.19 in Mayakovsky theatre. In his performance Kjartansson plays with the concept of repetition and duration by repeating the phrase “Sorrow Conquers Happiness” accompanied by the orchestra. More about the project: https://v-a-c.org/en/projects/sorrow-conquers-happiness   


10. Exhibition House of Impressions. Wandering with a Troubadour was held at the Golitsyn family manor as part of the Museum Quarter of the Pushkin Museum from 28.10.2016 to 31.03.2017. Curator: Olga Shishko. More about the exhibition: https://pushkinmuseum.art/events/archive/2016/exhibitions/troubadour/index.php?lang=en


11. As part of the 58th Venice Biennale of Contemporary Art (2019), the Pushkin Museum together with the Stella Art Foundation presented a project There is a Beginning in the End. The Secret Tintoretto Fraternity. More about the project: https://en.safmuseum.org/projects/secret-tintoretto/


12. “Only alas — live in that beautiful era / I shall no more, and neither shall you” is a quote from The Railway poem by Russian poet Nikolay Nekrasov (1821—1877).


13.  Lifshitz L., Allenov M., Degot E. Russian Art of the X—XX centuries. In three books. M.: Trilistnik, 2000.


14. Paul Getty was an American industrialist, founder of the J. Paul Getty Museum, one of the largest art museums in the United States.


15. Aby Warburg (1866—1929) was an art historian, cultural theorist, one of the founders of the iconology method in art history. According to this method, the interpretation and comparison of various visual forms are made through the allocation of common symbolic motives. Warburg's approach was best embodied in his unfinished project Mnemosyne Atlas, consisting of tables with illustrations, which compared visual images of the Mediterranean culture: reproductions of paintings and prints, photographs of antique statues, advertising posters, modern photographs, etc.