Interview with the newspaper Sankt-Peterburgskie
- Dr. Piotrovsky, how would you characterize the present state of affairs at the Hermitage?
- I think we are preparing for big changes. Like all other museums in Russia, the Hermitage emerged from the stormy seas of Perestroyka. It survived by making good use of the independence it was given back in the final years of the Soviet Union as well as many internal resources. The museum as an institution and its staff did all that was in their power to do. Now a new era is beginning. It may be characterized as one of rising bureaucratization. Now we are discussing the charters of museums, budget codices and laws. It is apparent that we are seeing the return of an atmosphere in which an irresponsible person can take decisions regarding all the minute matters of an institution which is subordinate to him. Everyone is leveled out. I feel myself how I am starting to behave like a bureaucrat more and more often... The problem does not stop here. In order to develop further, we now need a new organization for museums. Members of the International Consultative Board of the Hermitage (which is the starting point for everything) are saying: we need a pyramid-shaped organization, with many rather broad strata below, and not a sheer top-down structure... There are many questions. How do you build relationships with sponsors and donors, for example? These should be set up not as separate projects but as part of a general program...We have branches abroad, exhibitions...The Hermitage was never so visible on the world stage as it is today. This imposes a great responsibility on us. Essentially we operate today in the style and spirit of a large international corporation. And a very large part of my time is spent in airplanes...
- However, we are fortunate that no one yet calls you the "top manager" of the Hermitage...
- Yes. You have to remember that à pure manager should not run a museum or other institution of culture. The idea that there is some specialist, someone we formerly called the party worker, who can manage culture is profoundly erroneous and harmful. Business life has clear criteria which are taught in management schools. Money, revenue - that's a good criterion, something quite clear. You made money, or you didn't make money: an integer or a zero. It's quite easy and that explains why everyone is measuring things in terms of money... Culture is substantially more complex. There is a lot that cannot be explained even in words. For this reason culture should be managed by people who have come from this milieu themselves. From art, art appreciation, history, archeology...And the "new blood" should be compatible with the "old blood." In the European University we set up a department of art connoisseurship and art history. After some hesitation I agreed, as I now think rightly, to head the department of museum management and preservation of monuments at Petersburg University....We have to prepare people who see things as we do. At the present stage it is very important to keep the degree of autonomy and freedom to make decisions that we have now. They are under threat and we again are obliged to fight for our rights in general and also for the rights and particular features of the Hermitage.
- Does the institution require special laws?
- Yes. There are a great many museums but, whether fortunately or unfortunately, the Hermitage is special. This is the museum which represents Russia in the world. It is an encyclopedic museum of world art set in Russian history. It is not about Russian art, but about Russian history and Russian culture as it looks out on the world. Many people judge what is going on in Russia in terms of the Hermitage. Moreover, this is a quite unique architectural complex... In France there is a law on the Louvre. I think the Hermitage deserves a separate law as well..
- And it plays a very special role in our city.
- Yes, without a doubt. It is a building block in the city. Alexander Sokurov says very rightly that no one knows when or whether manufacturing industry will come back to our city in full strength. Perhaps it is better if it does not and if instead we more actively push it outside the city. Meanwhile the Hermitage gives Petersburg a chance to develop economically. In general I am firmly convinced that it was culture which pulled the city back from the precipice. Our small forward movement is due considerably to this. That is because all the cultural institutions managed not just to find a place for themselves in the new circumstances but also to create an atmosphere of activity in the city. We do not have the Protestant work ethic, but apparently there is in the broad population a certain optimism that can be expressed in the words "everything will be OK" The Hermitage, Tsarskoye Selo, Pavlovsk, Peterhof, Orienbaum as it emerges from the restoration work that is beginning (it is still a ruins, but everyone is talking about it), the Russian Museum, the Mariinsky Theatre, Dodin's theatre - all of this is remarkable and everyone sees it.
- To what extent does the state pay for the Hermitage? What part of your overall budget does the museum earn on its own? How do the relations between the museum and the state take shape?
- The question should be put in a broader context. Society should pay for culture insofar as it belongs to society. The state is only a small part of society, a hired part, one of its structures. That should never be lost sight of. There are other parts of society - various organizations, foundations, private persons. In America, for example, the upkeep of culture is given over more to private persons, both the wealthy and the not so wealthy, to cities and municipalities, while the participation of state funding is quite small. This has both pluses and minuses. It is shocking how much time American museum directors spend looking for money and paying their respect to possible sponsors. Serious people would not find this sort of work interesting and, as far as I know, there are around 20 museums, some of them very good, where the post of director is vacant. In our own country a tragedy has occurred about which we have to speak. Culture has been dropped as a priority, though education has at the same time made it into priority ranks. Local authorities generally strike cultural institutions out of all the budgets. Until now contributions from the state to the Hermitage were always rising slightly, but now you have to take drastic measures like appealing directly to the prime minister just to keep the state spending at its former level. At present about 60% of our budget comes from the state and the remaining 40% is divided up as follows: one third we earn ourselves through sales of tickets, licensing contracts, posters, tours and various programs; a further third comes from payments for our participation in exhibitions; and the final third is charitable contributions. The museum might like to do everything for free, but that is not feasible economically. And perhaps it would not be sensible from the moral standpoint: we would not be respected. As a matter of principle, the Hermitage sets an unachievable task like that for itself. Approximately one half of our visitors enter the museum free of charge or pay only nominal amounts. These are children and students irrespective of nationality and also Russian pensioners.
Our interrelationship with the state is a complex question. You have to understand that a certain product is made in the museum: it is not just a building where paintings are hung on the walls. It is not just a matter of making use of society's property. We hear all the time: you are a source of revenue for the state. It's not far from the day when we will be paying the bill for other state expenses. We must fight against this constantly. In fact we should be busy with something quite different. I have materials from the Venice Biennale and Rem Koolhaas's exhibit dedicated to the Hermitage and its development. This project shows how the Hermitage, though somewhat behind other world renowned museums in terms of its financial development and building program, can catch up with them all by using the achievements of an entirely new age. (By the way, that is the way things always worked in Russia: at a decisive moment we caught up with everyone; though then we would stop and stand still...) There is the notion of developing the Hermitage as the center of Petersburg. That explains why the ongoing dispute over Palace Square is not a matter of what we like or don't like. We also have our own internal problems. We debate a lot, for example, how the Winter Garden should be restored, what kinds of plants should be there.....These are issues which should engage us. And all of this should be secured by a proper partnership with the state, other parts of society and the cultural sphere, which is the main element of society that distinguishes us from animals, and which distinguishes one nation from another.
- You are member of various state, public and financial bodies. Are you able to exert an influence on their policies? Which of them is more open to your influence? Is it the Presidential Council on Culture? Or, on the contrary, are financial experts and businessmen more responsive? Though if you look at Channel One, judging by what we see on the screen, there does not seem to be much interest in culture....
- I am very pleased that I no longer chair the Board of Directors of Channel One but am only a member of the Board. Now I can very calmly avoid watching Channel One (he laughs). Because it is thin gruel. Television has dropped out of the sphere of culture. And the Board of Directors was busy with purely financial reports. It decided whether to change a name or not, whether to sell Night Watch abroad...Channel One had big debts, and now it is a profitable enterprise. It's the proper time to think over what purpose it serves. The Presidential Council on Culture has become more interesting; it now has working groups and through them something can be done. I can say that we were busy with the so-called theatre reform. In fact there was no such reform, rather there has been a reorganization in the sphere of state funding and both theatres and museums suffer from this. .But we have been able to defend some things, though it seems that again something from our proposals has been lost on the way to the Government. We have to return.... Who is a better listener? It depends. You have to know what people are interested in. Our Dutch friends, for example, were interested in building a "New Roof for Rembrandt," and that story is well known. Meanwhile economists understand better the concept of preserving the national legacy - and we succeeded in convincing Gref and Kudrin about the need to build an open storage facility, which is our pride and joy. This is an exemplary building, I tell you honestly. The main thing is that now a part of the Hermitage is located in a residential area. No sponsor will provide money for something like this, but when the question becomes one of organizing in this facility a class for blind children, then Americans and Japanese quite willingly put up the money. Some are for the moment interested in taking Hermitage exhibitions around: the project for Siberia, for the South of Russia. Others are inclined towards modern art. Our main partner, Interros, finds it interesting to keep the Hermitage great, as it is, to provide advice and to help us with the major project of developing the General Staff building. They also support Hermitage staff by providing grants. Sometimes we succeed in influencing the policies of others - not by begging or being overly clever, but by building normal partnership relations. We build relations with our visitors also: we have three baskets here as well - pluses, minuses and suggestions, and we study everything. The same goes for business. Our wealthy people have, it is true, created difficulties for us abroad. They buy up such lavish homes that people are always telling us: why are you looking for money? ask your fellow Russians! And I have to explain to foreigners that this or another "New Russian" helps the Hermitage, while others do not....Speaking about America, it is rather difficult at present - people have become so greedy; apparently in this country you have to think up something entirely new. Unfortunately, you cannot devise one scheme and follow it. You have to find something different each time...
- Recently there is an evident tendency for major state cultural institutions to become even bigger. Why?
- You have to grow in size to defend yourself. But a danger arises. Recently all the world's major museums have built for themselves huge new buildings - and have found themselves in financial crises. You can find money for construction of the building, especially if a great architect is involved. But how do you maintain the building afterwards? This is where everything starts to serve money. All the museums of the world are at the divide: what do you do for money and what can't you do to get money. Moreover, as you get extended, you lose the internal bonds and the very spirit of the institution. This is why Rem Koolhaas's ideas are centered on great compactness. There is a splendid model: the Metropolitan Museum of New York has been prohibited from expanding even one millimeter further into Central Park, where it is situated. For this reason they have been very inventive in using space - the wonderful new exhibition on Byzantium is located under the staircase. People in the 21st century are capable of understanding art just like that. We also are aiming for greater compactness. This is all the more relevant given that there is a limit to how many kilometers a person can walk in a museum at one time. I want to remind you that we got the General Staff building and the Menshikov Palace back in the Soviet period. Afterwards we only received the porcelain collection at the Lomonosov Factory and rooms in the Konstantinovsky Palace. We go where we are needed, and we ourselves do not ask for anything. The Eastern Wing of the General Staff complex is a compact extension of the Hermitage and embraces the Palace Square. That is why it is important for us and touches our heart. This is all the more true now that the entrance to the museum is from that side. It is natural to close this embrace - the Guards' wing of the General Staff should house the Museum of the Guards...However, the expansion of a cultural institution in Petersburg is very important for the city itself. We need to have institutions of culture all over the center. The territory of the Russian Museum reaches approximately to ours, then comes our space. In its area the Mariinsky Theatre predominates... It is essential that the city feel the influence of its museums, theatres, Philharmonic. The rhythm of the city center should match the rhythm of museum life.
- There are many people who would dispute that point of view.
- They have not given thought to the fact that today the museum is one of the most dynamic and most democratic institutions in the world. In every museum, whether large or small, everybody can find something for himself. A child, a farmer, a worker, an intellectual. Someone who has just dropped by, and someone who has seen everything on earth. The expansion of the sphere of culture in urban space exerts an influence on people. It influences the space itself. By way of example, we have managed to remove one billboard near the Menshikov Palace. Another advertising space will, as agreed, be used only to provide information about our exhibitions. This museum-like city should be just that, in the contemporary sense of the word, of course. It should dynamically develop this function and not try to think up something out of character for itself. That is so because these walls themselves make people somewhat better than they otherwise are.
- There is the view that in all ages and in all countries just five to seven percent of the population is involved in art. If that is so, then one and the same circle of people constitute the visitors to museums and theatres. How can you attract a new audience?
- You have touched on something really important. We broaden the thematic field of our exhibitions. For example, in the Museum of the Guards we have many very special spectators. But the main thing is not even to attract new visitors but to assure repeat visits. That is important for the city as well. We need to have tourists who come here as they do to Paris every two or three years, because they find the atmosphere here to be pleasant. One special issue is our future audience - children and students. I repeat: we bring them in free of charge. Our student club works very well, so that often all seats are taken...
- How do you attract, on the one hand, a manager who seems never to have free time, and on the other hand, a nurse who is low paid?
- As you may know, the number of foreign visitors, who provide the major part of our earnings, is constant - around 500,000 per year for all 13 years that I have been the director. The number of Russian visitors declined sharply for nine years. Then it stabilized and gradually began to rise. Now we receive a bit more than two million of our compatriots. Visitors have come back. This is not because life has become easier for them, but people have understood that there is something besides their problems and misfortunes and the overcoming of their problems and misfortunes. In the club of Friends of the Hermitage, where you have to pay certain dues, we already see many people from younger generations. They come here because they find it interesting. People on low salaries always came to us. They are the most dependable audience. We sometimes try to arrange special discounts for them and we keep prices at sensible levels.
- What is the museum's function? Is it a research institution, a place of conservation, or is it educational, which these days might be most topical?
- It is all of these taken together. Exhibitions are just the tip of the iceberg. Storage and conservation is the main part of the museum. We have safe-keeping, restoration and investigation of things: these instill in museum personnel an understanding of authenticity. Research is the basis for the educational role. Genuine things and genuine provenance is the foundation of everything. Only in this context can historians draw conclusions based on something more serious than their own ideas or instructions from on high. Without science and research this would not be possible. Part of the science is our archeological expeditions, which we have managed to keep. Nowadays they hardly ever bring in materials, since under current laws everything remains in the area where the excavations were made; but they bring in new knowledge. Museum activity builds upon this. I repeat: a museum is a product and not simply the place where society hangs its paintings and where money is collected from spectators for what is needed.
- Can serious art avoid being boring? Or does the slightest step in the direction of a mass audience inevitably lower the quality?
- Classical academic art has always been interesting. Researchers and connoisseurs have just one problem: how to convey their interest and fascination to other people. Lectures on semiotics, for example, drew enormous crowds although it was not only the brilliant Lotman who delivered the lectures. A great number of people came to conferences on Indian studies because the topics were engaging. You have to relate the information in an attractive way and people will be drawn in. There is nothing unattainable here. However, in striving to make exhibitions more lively and interesting we should not cross a certain line and plunge into mass culture. This line can never be described. Of course, you can put a column next to a genuine article for the sake of theatrical effect. But this should be done very carefully, otherwise the distinction between genuine and fake things is lost. We should always watch ourselves, and that is the most difficult thing.
- At the same time, those who have made a business out of mass culture would like to appropriate to themselves the classical legacy, knowing that it is priceless and, consequently, is sold expensively. That seems to be the case with the proposed use of Palace Square for various commercial events. It is well known that you are categorically opposed to any such "privatization." Please tell us about your position in some detail.
- There are two ways of developing culture. One is for it to develop according to its own criteria. This is naturally the correct way: it makes it possible to keep the city and its center truly attractive, so that people come here time and again and feel that they are in Petersburg. For this to be so, when they are on the Square of the Arts people should feel the presence of the Russian Museum and the Philharmonic more than they feel, shall we say, the Grand Hotel Europe. On Palace Square they should feel the solemnity of the place and understand that it is no accident only a museum and military are here. This square is a monument to Russian military history. I have heard people say that the square was never a sacred place. But it is sacred for Russian military history! A multitude of events took place here. It is one grand memorial to our victories. Palace Square is a monument which is amazing in terms of its structure. The facades designed by Rastrelli and Rossi give off beauty that energizes people. They begin to think that everything will work out fine. They even begin to work with enthusiasm. This, I repeat, is the Russian version of the Protestant work ethic. The alternative approach is just a way of using culture to do business. In fact it is all about a brand, about a trade mark. Of course, Palace Square is celebrated. That is why so many people want to do things here, not somewhere else. People have been coming to me with ideas regarding use of the Square about once every three months during all the years of my directorship. They say: let's build something, let's fence things off, and we can take in money...Prior to the 300th anniversary there were those who wanted to set up little houses here...I think the idea had to do with Russian tea....But you cannot deal with the Square in this way! This is not an empty place. It is part of the spirit of Petersburg! Otherwise we will lose it. I am absolutely certain: any event held in the city should serve the city, not the opposite. If an event forces people to rejoice in its architecture and to feel the style which Petersburg suggests - that is fine. Anything else is mockery and failure to understand what our city is made of. There is nothing whatever to discuss if someone does not understand that tents which block off the square have no place there. But there is also an entirely different side to the issue. The big public gatherings are, put it mildly, not safe. Alas, the situation today teaches us the following: big gatherings in historically important places are a temptation for terrorist acts. I am speaking about this now for the first time, because I did not want to put ideas in the heads of bad people. But it is essential all the others understand this! This invites a blow to be struck. We are always undertaking colossal efforts in the Hermitage trying to avert terrorist acts. We have a whole program in operation for this purpose. Why create a new danger?
Let me return to architecture. What has the Square of the Arts been turned into? What has happened to Haymarket Square? Let us leave Palace Square in peace. Petersburg was built like Rome. Let us make the Square into a forum where people can move about freely, and not fence it in with alien constructions which completely contradict the Regulations governing the Square. By the way, these Regulations do exist. They were adopted in 2001 after a crowd came out on the Square on New Year's eve and for some peculiar reason set on fire the sculpture on the Arch of the General Staff building. Then the Regulations were violated for the sake of a Paul McCartney concert. Our lawyers and the lawyers of the Committee on Culture then began to prepare a new draft document clarifying many points. There we encountered one stumbling block: some one instance should be empowered to decide what events other than national and municipal events can be permitted on Palace Square. We believe this should be the Committee on Culture acting in agreement with the Hermitage. But here there is a misunderstanding. So no new Regulations have yet been adopted. Yet even under the old Regulations it is forbidden to construct anything - or even to set up umbrellas in front of the Hermitage restaurant! And that is proper.
- Did you suggest to Mark Rudinshtein alternative locations for his tents...
- Yes. It does not make much difference where a room for screening films is put up. It is still a cinema hall. We suggested the territory of Bolshaya Morskaya from the Arch up to Nevsky Prospekt - which is even a pedestrian area. The courtyard of the Capella could also be very suitable for this festival. Finally, the courtyard of the General Staff complex; this space will be empty for another three years. In this way the guests of the festival, if the city needs them so much, could walk along Palace Square and enjoy it. Let them even go through the main entrance of the Hermitage, reach the embankment, get into boats and sail, let's say, over to the Peter and Paul Fortress. You can think up a lot of things. But the ideas should come from Petersburgers: that's what is important. From people with taste, namely Petersburg taste, not Moscow taste, and still less Sochi taste. Moreover, people from the cinema industry, people who know what shooting films is all about - they are the ones Rudinshtein should ask for advice on what he is doing, on images that can be sold, shown on television. Everyone wants to set up shop on the Square and use it in order to get a better price. But this view of Palace Square is being sold cynically, if you don't mind my saying so. And festivals are not the point.
- It is known that you, together with director Alexander Sokurov, are insisting on the elaboration of some general principles for a cultivated and civilized way of dealing with our historical center.
- Work along these lines is gradually moving forward. The strategy of the Committee on Preservation of Monuments, even this zoning plan that has generated so many disputes - they are all a good beginning. In actual fact we have no real protection for the city center in the former document. Many ugly buildings have gone up because there was no way to prohibit them. Now attempts are being made to consolidate real protected zones. For all of this there is a philosophical basis about which I am talking all the time. This is the rights of culture. We need to have a declaration of the rights of culture like the one Dmitry Likhachev proposed. It will be better than the outdated Hague Convention governing war on land. There is an acute need for it. Culture is suffering everywhere in the world: in Iraq, Afghanistan, in the plunder of historical monuments here in Russia...Respect for the rights of culture will help to limit the abuse of "human rights" whereby this motto serves as the basis for attacking another country where human rights are not respected. The rights of society are today clearly pushed to the background for the sake of "human rights." We have to bring things into a certain balance.
Palace Square has every right to object to having Rossi's facade blocked by something; to ensure that nothing is built on it; that it is restored. These are the Square's legal rights, and they should be felt by society.
- The organizers of the festival assure us that they will bring tourists to our city...
- I know with certainty that tourists will be offended. They come in order to photograph one another on Palace Square and not to see tents there. In the Hermitage people coming from far away take offense when just one well-known painting is not in its place. Tourists come for the sake of our squares and architectural ensembles. We should attract new guests, but we don't have the right to drive away our former ones. It is difficult to get here, and people are frightened. The number of tourists has gone down. They are robbed in the city even in the historical center. These are matters that should be dealt with.
- What is your prediction regarding the further development of the dispute over the Square?
- I don't know. Our rights are limited. We cannot prohibit the festival from being held on the Square or construction on it. The protected zone of the Hermitage is just three meters from the facade. But I have heard something from Mr Rudinshtein to the effect that he understands the situation and will follow our suggestion on locating the structures in courtyards.
- How would you like to sum up our discussion?
- By saying that the Hermitage as it is at present and as it is developing is our remarkable national heritage. History created a real gift for us in the form of the Hermitage. Petersburg was especially lucky in this sense, since the Hermitage is its heart. We must protect it by our common efforts. We should make use of what we have. The whole world of the Hermitage, everyone who populates it - museum staff, Friends of the Hermitage, journalists who work with us, our partners - everyone contributes huge efforts to ensure that the rhythm of life that the Hermitage projects at the center of Petersburg is the healthiest rhythm in the world. I believe that it is just that.. And this proper rhythm will allow the heart to live for a long, long time to come.