Interview with the Chairman of the PROBA-IPRA GWA Organizing Committee, Director of the State Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovsky
On 6 December the winners of the 7th PROBA-IPRA GWA Competition received their awards in the Hermitage Theatre. Following tradition, the awards ceremony was opened personally by Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage and Chairman of the competition's Organizing Committee. This interview with the host of the ceremony explains what culture and PR have in common.
- Mikhail Borisovich, the State Hermitage has cooperated with the PROBA project for several years now. What is the significance of having one of the world's largest museums support a professional event in the field of PR?
- This is a very appealing activity that brings together people at a very high professional level who are well-disposed to culture and to society. These are people who really try to turn what we call ‘Public Relations' into an important instrument for helping society to learn to understand itself better. It has long been clear that PR is not just some kind of propaganda. Society is nowadays rather complex and is divided into segments. At the same time no one seems to understand what others want. I think that Public Relations is an attempt to explain to the various segments of society what other segments of society are doing and what they want. There are a great number of examples I can cite. Quite recently at a meeting with journalists we spoke about the fact that society does not understand what museums are, what their task may be, what culture is, what culture's tasks may be...Some don't understand for one reason, others therefore don't understand and consequently there constantly arises a certain opposition. You have to somehow tie this all together one and find common language so that everyone will understand, at the very least, what is being talked about. This is a very difficult task and it seems to me that the team who make PROBA and the people who are present at these events can help find a solution to it. They are a Petersburg team in their very spirit even if they are international and we like the atmosphere very much. We also are part of Public Relations: we are trying to bring the world's culture to people.
- You have been watching the development of the PROBA project over the past few years. In your view, have there been any qualitative changes during this period?
- Very clear growth has been evident. Very good projects always participate in the competition, and each year they all make an impression that is more and more serious. Perhaps this is not always to the good - there should be some young and provocative entry, but even the youngest participants produce an impression of solidity, since these are not merely projects created for the sake of a competition - they are things which serve some purpose and will be continued. All of these things have an impact on our society and that is the main thing.
- What do you think, can we speak of a culture of Russian PR?
- Culture can be understood in two ways. Firstly, by culture we mean something special, when things are done differently than others do. I think we can speak in these terms, but without PR professionals around I wouldn't be prepared to analyze this. Of course, Russian PR is different in many respects from other PRs. Here we are talking about culture in another sense - culture as a norm of behavior - a certain absence of culture, of the normal culture of relations between people - but elsewhere it also is missing, shall we say, in English PR as well. I think you can speak about what distinguishes Russian PR from others considering the peculiarities of Russian society, its history and traditions. What this may be exactly, well I wouldn't begin to define it on the fly, though obviously there is something different - just as Russia itself is different from other countries. Perhaps now the differences come from the existence of various approaches to professional activities and from the fact that the approaches themselves have not taken clear shape. They exist but for the moment they are theoretical. However, I think that people have begun to look less to the West to learn - now you can do something new that is your own. Having done our studies, it is time to move on further. Of course, PR is a Western invention and we should study the original set of professional skills. But I think that we have accomplished this some time ago.
- What role is given to the PR component in the Hermitage's activities?
- Speaking in general, our activities amount to educational work. We attempt to bring to society what world culture has to say. We attempt to explain to various segments of society that there is nothing more important than culture since it is what distinguishes us from animals, and everything else is secondary. This should come together in a well defined set of concrete things in which, once again, you have to remember the segmentation of society. I repeat this insistently, because it is really the factor of today's situation. Our society is very divided. We see this in the scuffles and murders, in disputes and exacerbated relations.... And that is why our approach also should be segmented, directed at various categories of people. There is no general love of art. But there are the concrete interests of various people.
- Does this mean that by using distinct approaches to each audience, Public Relations can act as a certain unifying, cementing force of society?
- I think that PR can help find a certain field in which everyone is interested, where everyone though remaining different can come together and speak to one another in an understandable language. Culture is one of the fields where you can avoid fighting and tearing one another to shreds. In some other field they will devour one another, but not here. This is understood, once again, through various approaches: it is very important to consider that people are different and you have to seek a common field, but you cannot bring everyone to the same common denominator. It is thus, for example, with religions: they should be engaged in dialogue, but no one will renounce his dogma. So it is here: through diversity which may even be underlined we find a field where this diversity is interesting for everyone. For example, it may not be interesting for a white man to see a black man and vice versa, but there are situations when a white finds it interesting to see a black man and a black man finds it interesting to see precisely a white man next to him - you have to try to find situations like this. I think that together we gradually will find this.
- How is this given approach implemented in the State Hermitage?
- Now in the Hermitage we are finishing up the Year of Rembrandt. In 2006 we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the painter's birth. On the one hand, we just had a scientific conference dedicated to Rembrandt. It was very interesting. We discussed there very different aspects of the artist's creative opus and in the end we got a very good book...This is the scientific side of the event, a contribution to research about Rembrandt - the contribution of the great research institution that is the Hermitage. On the other hand, we did some rather popular things - for example, the badge declaring "I love the Hermitage. Rembrandt." This, of course, is a simplified version, but everyone liked it and everyone wore these badges. This is also a certain level of appreciating Rembrandt. We arranged lectures for a wide audience, in order not merely to underscore the greatness of Rembrandt but also to shed light on various aspects of his history, in particular, on what can be topical for us. I have been emphasizing all the time that in Holland they began to really appreciate Rembrandt when the whole world appreciated him and when Holland was in need of a national idea. In fact, 19th century Holland was no longer the powerful state it had once been. What remained of it? It turns out that there's an artist whom people revere in all the countries around. Thus Rembrandt became the national idea of Holland. I think that you have to look for a national idea in culture. Strictly speaking, our culture is our national idea. It is a separate matter to consider how a museum can make a Year of Rembrandt. We already exhibit his paintings. You can talk about them and in my series My Hermitage I did four broadcasts on Rembrandt. On the other hand, we have Rembrandt engravings and they are never exhibited. Therefore we made an exhibition of his engravings, which we prepared for an audience that is very well informed but for whom it was a discovery to see 25 different stages of prints. The Rembrandt Year also prompted us to show more Dutch painting in general, since it was precisely Dutch painting that the Hermitage began with as a museum: Peter the Great bought Dutch paintings and the most recent acquisition of the Hermitage was the Dutch paintings in the Semenov-Tian-Shansky collection. Taken together this constitutes the milieu in which Rembrandt lived, which also should be remembered. Therefore we did an exhibition on the Semenov-Tian-Shansky collection in which we showed many works of Dutch painting which usually are not displayed. The next aspect is modern art. We have a large audience who couldn't care less about Rembrandt but who find modern art very interesting. And so we brought in an exhibition of Willem de Kooning, a Dutch artist who lived in America, an Abstractionist who has no direct relation to Rembrandt but, on the other hand, during the Year of Rembrandt it is interesting to think about whether there is anything Dutch about de Kooning or not. A great many art historians find this: that there is something in de Kooning, Dutch blood. Just to talk about this may be really forcing things, but in the Year of Rembrandt you can think about it. There are other specific features of this exhibition. We showed in it a retrospective of all of de Kooning and not just his late paintings. The late de Kooning is something special: he had a serious illness; in overcoming this illness he suddenly created a special style - an entire phenomenon in art. It is interesting to show precisely that, on the one hand, to a broad audience which is interested in modern art; and on the other hand, for a more experienced audience which understands exactly why the late works of de Kooning are interesting, whereas half the paintings which were shown in the Hermitage were never before exhibited. This exhibition which was created in the Hermitage later went on to many other places. Thus it was addressed to a worldwide audience. The third category of events, apart from the exhibition of engravings and the exhibition of the Semenov-Tian-Shansky collection, was the exhibition on great collectors. You have to remember the example of people who, though they were major political and economic figures, at the same time engaged in collecting with a clear orientation towards society and not just for themselves. In this sense Semenov-Tian-Shansky was especially remarkable: he was a great statesman, one of the creators of the reform which ended serfdom, a great geographer, and at the same time a very refined and interesting collector. Through art it is interesting for us to talk about this man as well. The Semenov-Tian-Shansky family to this day lives in the family home. It is a family which now has created and restored charitable foundations, since Semenov-Tian-Shansky was also a benefactor. This family has a remarkable history which can be traced in many noble families around Russia: the Revolution came and the family consciously divided - those who engaged in politics and military activity had to leave the country, but the scholars - those in the humanities, literature and geography - decided they could live in Russia. Thus the family fell apart: some left for the West and others remained here, worked and experienced a thousand difficulties while preserving the family and becoming major scholars... Russia managed in the context of this separation to achieve the following: what could not be saved here was saved in the West, but Russia itself remained and its very Semenov-Tian-Shanskys carried it further...In trying to show art collections in such a multifaceted way - that is our PR with respect to society. And through this we are trying to tell something about ourselves, about how we approach things in a complex manner, to show that museum business is not just about whether to hang or not hand on the walls good or bad paintings.
- The question is what starts here and then goes out into the world. What, in your view, can help Russian specialists in the area of PR to go out into the international arena?
- I think that we should not separate things into international and non-international levels. You just have to work normally and understand that we are part of the world and we ourselves are on the international level. You shouldn't set any handicaps for what you do for yourselves versus what you do for others. We have a saying that for us it is all the same whether we are talking about London or Kazan. When we do an exhibition in Russia or outside Russia, we have the same requirements - for ourselves, for the quality of the exhibition, for the quality of the premises, for the audience. Everywhere things should be identical. And we manage to get in Kazan what we would get in London, and in London what we would get in Kazan. Perhaps this sounds somewhat cheeky, but we divide the world between Petersburg and everything else. In Petersburg, there is a special infrastructure and logistics. And all other exhibitions are outside Petersburg. In Moscow, in London, in Kazan, in Saratov everything should be identical, on the same level. We are obliged to do a lot in Russia but only in places where we are really accepted and appreciated, not where our presence is just a formality to be ticked off. The same goes for abroad. When abroad we should feel ourselves at home, and that is why we make our own exhibition centers abroad. We are trying not to make distinctions and just to actively interact with everyone, and then it will be just as with the PROBA project: a competition became international, received recognition, because it is good and its local specific features are not provincial peculiarities but simply are the specific features of Russian PR.
- However, when organizing an exhibition in another country, surely you take into consideration the peculiarities of the foreign audience....
- Of course we consider this but in this calculation you should not stretch things. Everywhere we find people who suggest to us how to do everything in a way that the audience will accept. You don't have to make compromises, but everywhere it should be clear that the exhibition has come from the Hermitage. And everything accompanying the exhibition, from the Hermitage orchestra to lectures and so forth should have a Hermitage character: this should be an elegant and strict exhibition. A classic example is the Hermitage-Guggenheim in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is something like Moscow: everything is lit up, in motion, twirling... And there in the huge hotel Venetian a most elegant area was created (the room was prepared by the famous Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas) for exhibiting masterpieces from the Hermitage and the Guggenheim Museum. This exhibition is housed in a place where there are lots of people but it was done without any allowances for the audience - exactly as we do such exhibitions in Paris, in London, everywhere - and the style of the museum is present everywhere. In all these Hermitage exhibitions its style should be traced. It is rather widely addressed to the audience: we do not cut ourselves off from the public; we take its specific features into account, but even so there is something we never do, pander to the visitor. This is a very complex balance which cannot be reckoned on a slide rule - you have to feel it all the time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't work...In our centers and in the Hermitage itself, we always try to make several categories of exhibitions: some are for the general public, while others are for the sake of research and still others are for a special audience, for gourmets. Sometimes these coincide: for example, the Madonna Alba which was shown in the Hermitage was an exhibition for gourmets, since it is a great masterpiece of Raphael, and at the same time it was for the general public. In general, the distinctions are very important: you have to maintain the distinctions, but do this properly.
- When you arrange an event abroad, is there some preparation of the ground in advance? Something that belongs more to the realm of Public Relations?
- Here we have a great deal to learn, since abroad people have great expectations of reading in the papers about what we are doing. The press and the public are oriented in that way. In Russia that is not especially expected, because news materials here come out for the opening of an exhibition and later on, as a rule, the public is not particularly interested in it. Perhaps we should learn something from our foreign colleagues. Over there really there is an entire strategy on how and what to do. To be sure, I don't think everything should be done exactly as in the West, where for a press conference the press office writes in advance exactly which questions can be asked and how to answer them. I know on my own how to answer questions (smiles)...But nonetheless, there is an exhaustive preparation and, as a rule, several times more material comes out abroad regarding our exhibitions than does in Russia. Of course, there is a certain ‘overkill' there: sometimes there is too much material. But, still, this is one of the important elements of working outside Petersburg. Thus by joint work with foreign agencies we are acquiring various methods and we decide for ourselves which are better and which are worse, which suit us and which are appropriate only over there. This also establishes some kind of permanent bonds: if we have to carry out some PR event from Russia - for example, in relation to a theft or for some other reason - then we do have permanent partners abroad whom we can approach.
- Do you regularly enjoy support from communications agencies and PR consultants?
- Not we ourselves, but we do constantly work together with them. We don't hire consultants. They work with us at our exhibitions and the organizers pay for them. But we always have some to ask for advice. There are special situations when it is essential to ask someone's help in reporting material. In such cases we have partners both in Russia and abroad.
- Mikhail Borisovich, to conclude this discussion, what are your wishes for participants of the PROBA competition and for PR professionals?
- I wish that everyone who received the PROBA prize this year continues to enjoy success in the future and that we can meet with them later on in their regions, in the most varied situations linked with museums and the culture of Russia. I would like for us to see one another not only here, in the Hermitage Theatre, but later on, in the most varied paths.
This interview was published on the site http://www.pr-proba.ru/news?id=464