“Custodian of the Russian Ark”
Academician Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky has managed the State Hermitage
Museum for about 20 years. The custodian of the residence of the Russian
emperor and one of the world’s most significant collections of art, told
“Dom&Interier” about his views on contemporary architecture and Baroque
motifs in the work of interior designers.
M.P.: I have no doubt that what you’re describing is the negative effect of gold-laden palaces of Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo, or the Kremlin, on mentality of contemporary architects and their clients . (Laughs.) The Winter Palace simply isn’t like that. After all, Rastrelli could have made the facades of the imperial residence golden, rather than the colour of aubergine puree, but for some reason he didn’t, and I hardly imagine it’s because of budget concerns.
D&I: Like the classic Russian joke: “I’ve been to the Hermitage. A little modest but at least it was clean.”
M.P.: I like Vladimir Putin’s phrase better. When he’d only just arrived at the Kremlin, a journalist asked him what impression the place had made on him. All Putin said was “I’ve seen the Hermitage”.
D&I: In the history of art, new decorative styles have come into being at the behest of new elites: Empire style satisfied the tastes and demands of the military and financial elite of Napoleonic France , the birth of the Napoleon III and Biedermeier styles is connected with the rise of the bourgeoisie. In the world of contemporary architecture there are plenty of clients and plenty of money, but we have yet to see the emergence of a new decorative style that captures the spirit of our era.
M.P.: For a new decorative style to emerge, you need more than private clients with money and taste. You need them to form a clearly defined social group, with its own specific interests and its own internal subculture. It seems to me that today’s prosperous people, who can afford to order a high class interior design, have not formed such a group: they’re simply too different in terms of origins and personality. All they really have in common is striving for tremendous profit. But the lack of taste on the part of the clients isn’t the main thing. Frank Lloyd Wright created unique, innovative architecture for people who had no taste at all, and many Russian architects and decorators continue to copy elements from the interiors of the Russian palaces of the XVIII-XIX centuries. It’s possible that all of this is really caused by conservatism and narrowness of vision on the part of the architects, rather than their clients.
D&I: Copying the interiors of historical palaces certainly doesn’t add anything to the development of art. It turns out that contemporary interior artists primarily work from the XVIII-XIX centuries. Do you imagine that any artifacts of our moment in history will be judged as worthwhile?
M.P.: We’ll have to wait and see. But in general, creating interiors in the spirit of the Hermitage or Peterhof can be considered a part of the cultural style of “Historicism”; if the decorator adds some irony as surplus value, then we’re justified in treating that work as postmodernist and considering it an interesting piece of contemporary art; but contemporary interiors built on the classical models usually either have no irony, or have irony that is somehow too deeply hidden.
D&I: Is the architecture of the 20th century close to your heart?
M.P.: Frank Lloyd Wright is very close to me and I find him very understandable— I’ve spent a lot of time in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, after all. Wright’s architecture is actually very traditional and historical, although not everyone notices that. For example, his design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York is just a reversed minaret from Iraqi Samarra. The first time I found myself in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which was built by the famous Frank Gehry, I arrived before they had arranged the exhibition: I’ve got to tell you, those unbelievable halls and caverns are a lot more interesting with no paintings in them. The architect’s conception was clearly visible, and later one, when they’d hung up the paintings, the architecture just didn’t have the same room to play. I love contemporary architecture very much, you can see that just by visiting the General Staff Building. One part of the building has already been restored and reopened. This project was developed by Studio 44. I was aided by the advice of a distinguished figure in the theory and practice of architecture, Rem Koolhaas. The interior there is truly contemporary: concrete, glass, metal. But at the same time, it resonates with the building’s traditional architecture: the double doors are high and made of wood. It seems to me that this dialogue between old and new elements is essential in museum architecture.
D&I: So what is your opinion on the dialogue between, let’s say, the Louvre and I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid, which contains the main entrance to the museum?
M.P.: There have been a lot of arguments surrounding that pyramid. I also tell it’s most unforgiving critics that any kind of architectural experimentation should be acceptable in the city where the Eiffel Tower was built. Furthermore, the architecture of the Louvre pyramid is very well thought out, if you consider the meaning it conveys. It’s both a reference to Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, and a key Masonic symbol. In the final analysis, the pyramid turned out to be very convenient for the Museum’s visitors; thanks to that pyramid, there are no crowds at the Museum entrance. None the less, it’s better to enter a museum along a grand staircase than through a basement. It seems to me that the pyramid did the Louvre no harm; even more so when you consider that the Louvre hasn’t been a palace for a long time: after a large number of reconstructions inside the Museum, there are huge museum halls, reminiscent of the Muse'e d’Orsay, located in a former railway station. Contemporary architecture doesn’t contradict anything there.
D&I: Would contemporary buildings be possible at the Hermitage complex? Have any ideas like that been discussed?
M.P.: There have been ideas, of course. A few years ago, UNESCO brought in some architects from the British firm BCM, which is now building the Okhta Centre, Gazprom’s skyscraper in Saint Petersburg. Shortly before that, they built an ultramodern museum in Libya. It was suggested that they would serve as consultants on reconstruction issues for us. They walked around the Hermitage for a few hours, and the next morning they came to us with an idea: “Let’s build a terraced glass building on the site of the garden near the Hermitage. You have buildings from every epoch here, why not have a contemporary one too?” No, of course it’s unthinkable to build anything like that at our museum; yet at the same time, the museum has to develop and expand. From that point of view, it seems to me that the work we’ve begun in the General Staff Building was the best decision. In particular, the architect suggested using part of the existing space of the interior yards. Defenders of the traditional Petersburg yards appeared the moment this idea came up, who were opposed to interfering with the interior of these historical structures. These yards have lived their own unique life, which no longer exists: those were areas for storing woodpiles and accommodating laundry facilities. Everything in the interior yards of the General Staff Building was exactly as it was in the yard where I grew up. That wing of the museum used to contain various departments, but now they no longer serve that purpose, and perhaps the time has come to turn them into what they are today. For example: in a traditional Muslim house the central space in the building is the most important.
D&I: From an outside observer’s perspective, the Hermitage looks like a state within a state. The museum is highly independent, both financially and administratively. To what extent do the authorities influence your decisions, or aspire to determine the museum’s development strategy? Do you feel that the government supports you?
M.P.: Of course, the government can interfere in our business, and the longer we exist, the more that becomes the case. But when it comes to determining the Museum’s strategy, it’s always a friendly tug-of-war between us and the authorities. It stays friendly because both participants in the process understand that a cultural institution can only successfully develop when it has a high level of autonomy. The material basis of this autonomy is the unbreakable rule that prevails in post-Soviet Russia: all money that a cultural institution independently earns is retained for its own development. Certainly, external regulators must carry out the functions entrusted to them: checking the administration of the budget, granting permission for removing works. But their powers should not expand any further. So we make all the most important financial decisions, including setting ticket prices.
D&I: What issues have led to disagreements?
M.P.: The issue of ticket prices comes up periodically. It’s pure populism: we don’t have a political goal, we have a social program, which includes free access for children and students, a monthly event when open access is offered to everyone, discounts for Russian citizens, etc.— we pay for that out of our own pocket. We’ve had arguments with the city authorities with a long time about the use of Palace Square for mass events. We were finally able to reach an agreement so that nothing would go on in Palace Square without our consent. In general, we are almost always able to maintain our position in dialogue with various governmental institutions; after all, no one knows more about running a museum than we do, and the Hermitage’s prestige as a cultural institution is very high.
D&I: There’s a famous anecdote about how Grigory Romanov, the first secretary of the Leningrad Communist Party Regional Committee demanded that your father, who was head of the Hermitage at the time, give him an Imperial porcelain service for use at his daughter’s wedding. Would this sort of petty tyranny be possible in our time?
M.P.: I’ve already explained several times that nothing of the sort happened. That story about the porcelain service is nothing but disinformation spread by Romanov’s political opponents. Nothing of the sort happened on Boris Borisovich Piotrovsky’s watch, or on mine. During the term of his predecessor, Mikhail Illarionovich Artamonov, the idea of using the halls of the Hermitage for festive events was supposedly discussed, but even then it was clear to everyone that that was unacceptable. There’s a saying, “What is permitted to Jupiter is not permitted to an ox”. But, on the other hand, Jupiter also isn’t allowed to do a lot of things that an ox is. I see nothing wrong with the fact that many museums make money by renting out their halls, but we can’t do that. The Hermitage has a special status: this is an imperial residence. Once a year, we hold a gala reception, as well as events connected with new exhibitions, but we determine their format ourselves, and we know very clearly what is acceptable and what isn’t.
D&I: Does the Hermitage receive support from private sponsors and philanthropists?
M.P.: Certainly. That work began in the 1990s with foreign companies. Our first sponsor was the American Company Sara Lee. Then we worked with Coca-Cola. During fundraising evenings at that time, we often had to answer an uncomfortable question from our foreign guests: where are your Russian sponsors? Now I can answer that question comfortably. We have a Board of Trustees led by the head of the Interros Holding, Vladimir Potanin. This Board includes the Minister of Culture, the Minster of Finance, as well as the managers of several major Russian companies. It’s partly thanks to the work of that structure that we can afford such large-scale projects as the reconstruction of the General Staff Building. There is another level of philanthropy— the Friends of the Hermitage Society, whose members can afford small contributions, which add up to entire projects. Despite the fact that the Russian legal system does not grant tax deductions to entrepreneurs for charitable contributions, many of them have become sponsors. Furthermore, we are developing forms of integrated commercial partnership with manufacturing companies. For example, the Imperial Porcelain Factory, under a license from us, produces copies of our collection, and we cooperate in the creation of exhibits: we opened a branch of the museum at their facility. That’s not exactly philanthropy: it would be more accurate to call it an integrated partnership program.
D&I: The Hermitage is one of the few Russian cultural institutions which regularly expands its collection, including the acquisition of new works of art at international auctions. Are those purchase financed by your sponsors?
M.P.: It’s not that simple. The work of an institution like the Hermitage is impossible without serious government financing, but support from sponsors and our own income give us a lot of room to manoeuvre. Therefore, these purchases are financed from diverse sources. For example, Boris Yeltsin set aside five million dollars in the budget for us, which we used to buy a lot of good things. Sometimes members of the Board of Trustees, and other philanthropists, present us with works of art. If we learn that relatively inexpensive things are available for purchase, we might ask for help. For example, we bought a unique collection of Popoff porcelain with our own money: at that time the government allowed us to direct the money no spent on construction towards other ends. As a result of the financial crisis, the money for construction arrived too late; it was already impossible to perform a tender procedure, and at several Western auctions (also due to the crisis,) a beautiful collection of porcelain and watercolours had not been bought.
D&I: How do you choose what items to add to your collection? Is there a general strategy for new acquisitions?
M.P.: First of all, we try to fill gaps in the Hermitage collection. For example, we used to have no Chinese bronze, and now we do. We have no Johannes Vermeer, but nobody is planning on selling him, and even if they were, it is unlikely we would be able to afford such a purchase. Secondly, one of our priorities is the acquisition of works of art connected with Russian history, the history of the Winter Palace and the imperial house. If a “Fire in the Winter Palace in December 1837” watercolour goes on sales, we clearly have to buy it.
D&I: The management of leading national museums have very different attitudes towards public foundations, access for guests to storerooms and access to digital copies on the internet. The Hermitage is arguably the most open museum in Russia. Why was that decision made?
M.P.: That was a key decision that I made at the beginning: 5-10% of our collection is on display at exhibitions, but everything else should also be accessible. In the 1990’s, when the construction of the Hermitage depository was frozen, we decided to create public foundations there, which are accessible to visitors. Of course, those aren’t the halls of the Hermitage, and, in order to display our collection in the same style, we would need hundred of kilometres of space. These are depositories, but they are open to our visitors. Furthermore, we decided to fully digitize the collection and publish it on our website. That decision was based on our understanding of the museum’s educational mission and on our striving to make our collection as accessible as possible, for everyone. Aside from the fact that our collection has been published on our site, and it is possible to take a virtual tour of the Hermitage there, we also participated in the GoogleArtProject. We are now bringing that participation to an end. Firstly, we’re more interested in developing our site than in generating traffic for Gîîglå’s commercial purposes. Secondly, our partners could not provide sufficient protection for our intellectual property. Someone has already downloaded high resolution digital copies of our paintings from GoogleArtProject and is selling them as a paid iÐàd application.
D&I: Please tell me about trends in the development of museum operations around the world and the Hermitage’s development plans. Which of your Western colleagues’ experiences are you learning from?
M.P.: We are learning from our close neighbours, the Metropolitan, the British Museum and the Louvre; we are currently also interested in the experience of Berlin, where new museum construction is actively underway. There, on an island with old buildings, they have created a new gallery and filled it with contemporary art, and the city’s residents have unanimously come out in favour of the project. All museums are developing differently, of course, but all of their priorities are basically the same: now, for example, all leading museums are expanding their expositions and creating exhibitions dedicated to Muslim art. The growth of interest in this theme is tremendous: Europeans are curious about what Islam is. On the other hand, Muslims living in Western countries are showing great interest in their native culture. We are also expanding actively in that direction, especially since the history of that part of the world is my original speciality. For us, 2014 is a major date for us: the Hermitage will be celebrating its 250-year jubilee. Until then, the Hermitage and the Palace Square must firmly and fully establish themselves as the cultural centre of Saint Petersburg and the main monument to the Russian national identity.
D&I: After so many years of working in the Hermitage, has your experience of the beauty that surrounds you become less intense?
M.P.: Since I’ve spent my entire life in the Hermitage, and grew up here, I feel that this is my own home. But that home is special, because it is impossible to feel like you are the master of the house. My perception of that beauty is as intense as before; in fact, it increases every day.
D&I: Do you see every hall in the museum the same way, or do you have favourite places and favourite things.
M.P.: I don’t tell anyone about my favourite places in the Hermitage; otherwise, I’d be afraid that they’re be mobbed. There are a lot of them, and my preferences change over time. Some repairs are made, and all of a sudden its possible to see certain halls in a new light. Now of course, the main staircase, which was recently reopened after repair work was completed, is every Hermitage employee’s favourite place.
Interview: Pavel Zhavoronkov