View from the Hermitage: Creditors do not like
Sleights of Hand
Recently the Ministry of Culture confirmed a project for the reconstruction of the eastern wing of the General Staff Building. Everything was ready for work to begin.
Today everybody knows that the General Staff Building will become a 19th and 20th century art museum.
Now, when everything is ready for construction to begin it would be useful to think about how it all started. The process is no less interesting than the result. It was not coincidental that the Commission for Russian-German Culture, St. Petersburg Dialogue, decided to carry out the discussion for the two largest museum projects in Europe simultaneously, the Great Hermitage and Museum Island in Berlin. This week at the Hermitage Theatre the first international conference will take place. In the course of the next two years there will be several of such conferences. We will share our experiences on attracting investment, construction methods and the use of materials...
The Great Hermitage project will not only create a new museum but a new architectural feature in the city. The State Hermitage Museum from two sides surrounds Palace Square. The square itself will become part of the complex, which will combine the Museum of Russian Sovereignty and the monument to Russian military glory. Nearby is the Admiralty, the Command Headquarters for the Military District, and the Headquarter for the Guard... Such a complex is a new phenomenon in town planning. Furthermore there will be greater responsibility for what happens on the square.
As soon as the eastern wing of the General Staff Building was ceded to the State Hermitage Museum, we began to examine ideas for what to display there. The museum has a huge collection, and this should be on display. The first idea was to create a museum of applied art. A project was drawn up - everything was very attractive. But the global experience demonstrated that such museums are poorly visited. Thinking about it, we began to change the conception, consult with colleagues, especially with members of the State Hermitage Museum's International Council. I believe that the late Carter Brown, the former director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, suggested that we establish an impressionist art collection in the General Staff Building. This was the beginning of the idea for an art museum for the 19th and 20th centuries.
Thinking about art history, it was impossible not to take into account the events of the 1990s. First of all there was a complete absence of money. The building was in an extremely poor condition, from which organizations slowly extricated themselves. It was unclear what we could do with it or where we could find them money for repairs. We immediately decided not to leave the building empty, slowly bringing it back to order and showing items from our collection.
Thanks to the financial help of Interros, a centre was formed to manage the process. We restored some of the rooms and located paintings by Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis. Later, in the halls where the original decor was preserved, an exposition Under the Eagle's Spread was developed. For Gorchakov's anniversary a memorial plaque was unveiled in memory of the Chancellor of the Russian Empire and an exhibition was opened, dedicated to the history of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Later after some repairs, we began to display contemporary art exhibitions. It seemed that these weren't badly received. Then we found the Guard Museum.
The General Staff Building was coming back to life, but as before, three main problems hamstringed us - what would fill the historical building, how could we repair it, and where would we get the money for those repairs. We started talking to the Russian Government and the World Bank practically simultaneously. This fortunately coincided with a wave of interest in St. Petersburg.
The President of the World Bank was at that time James Wolfensohn, a financier and at the same time a great art lover, musician, collector of Australian aboriginal paintings, a man with a high level of culture. We were acquainted with him thanks to the State Hermitage Museum's international contacts. Such contacts give us the possibility of meeting with people from international financial circles and tell them about our problems. Wolfensohn knew about our problems. In one of his trips to Russia he was conducting negotiations with our President, Vladimir Putin. As an acquaintance of Wolfensohn, I received an invitation to lunch with the president. At that stage a very important conversation took place. The president of the World Bank told the President of Russia how important culture was and how well Russian cultural institutions work. He was familiar with the activities of the State Hermitage Museum and the Mariinsky Theatre. Putin unobtrusively explained to him the importance of having the World Bank consider supporting Russian culture. Until this point, the World Bank has had a very rigid policy about investing only in projects which are economically viable. Projects which give fishing rods, not fish. Such an approach doesn't work for culture.
Thanks to Wolfensohn's position, the World Bank for the first time broke its traditions and provided a grant for cultural institutions in St. Petersburg. We competed among ourselves to show who could use the money best. The State Hermitage Museum, receiving the grant put out a guide book which now pays for itself. Using the same money, the IT centre of the National Library was built, and projects for the State Russian Museum and other museums have been carried out. Later credit was given for the development of St. Petersburg and support of the city's cultural establishments.
I will remind you that the credit given by the World Bank comes under the same conditions, that any government would give for such a sum of money. Essentially, it is financed at home, but with additional money provided from overseas. It is often said that you mustn't take anything from overseas. You must take in such a way that it will be advantageous. The State Hermitage Museum wanted to restore the General Staff Building. The World Bank would pay for the planning and the utility facilities. We could start work.
I must say that before the involvement of the World Bank, we did not sit about doing nothing. An International Advisory Board was established to examine the problem of the General Staff Building. The Board attracted architects and developers - people who invest money. They discussed possibilities for attracting investment. It became clear that it was possible to set aside part of the building for commercial purposes, for example, a set of shops, a hotel, and receive money to enable us to finish the rest of the restoration. In brief, we sought to find ways of uniting the commercial aims of the Museum with the desire to restore the General Staff Building. We talked to serious investors from Britain and with hotel owners. They were ready to invest. But this readiness to attract led to the necessity to part. Everyone wanted to invest money solely into the restoration of the part of the building which was to be used for commercial purposes. This idea had to be given up.
We slowly gained experience, but the key which would allow us to solve our financial problems eluded us. The involvement of the World Bank changed this situation. Thanks to credit it was possible to hold a tender for the restoration. At that time it seemed that the procedure was too bureaucratic. Now having an idea of the national tenders we could see how circumspect the World Bank's rules are. Here, the winners will be those who ask for the least money, and for them, who can do the best work.
National and international companies participated in the tender for the Great Hermitage project. From our side Studio-44 made its tender. It has experience in adopting historical buildings in the city centre for modern needs. The team from one of the best western architects, Rem Koolhaas, designed the Hermitage Rooms in Las Vegas. Studio-44 won the tender. From the point of view of the World Bank, our architects have a large amount of experience and good specialists.
With the aid of Interros we attracted Koolhaas as a consultant. We needed radical ideas from him, a contemporary, impartial view. This view should influence our architects. And they, along with others offered a range of ideas about how to turn the General Staff Building into a contemporary museum.
There is a key difference between the projects. Studio-44 wants to give the building an appearance which matches that of the State Hermitage. To do this, the internal court yards will be turned into continuous enfilades, in the enfilade, or room suits, hanging gardens will grow in the display area... Koolhaas suggested the use of a single internal courtyard, so that people could go off in different directions. The architects from Studio-44 were more conservative but better understood the museum spirit.
We discussed the project wherever we could, in Moscow, St. Petersburg and abroad. The discussion was heated as it always is when we start talking about the State Hermitage Museum. We mainly talked about how best to preserve the ensemble as designed by Rossi.
The ideas of Koolhaas influenced the architects at Studio-44. Unusual elements, couplings, and lighting have been adopted... We often argued and discussed the details. Complex technical decisions arose. How were exhibitions to be loaded and unloaded from the Moika River Embankment? There were other unexpected problems. A house belonging to Logovaz adjoins the General Staff Building, we tried to purchase it without success and it was transferred to a private owner. As soon as construction work started a crack appeared in the wall of the General Staff Building. A mansard had been constructed in the building without permission and we had intended to have a boiler up there. It turned out that steam from our boiling room was released close to residential apartment which should not have been there. The breach of the architectural regulations meant that we had to change something.
The plans have been in the process of being developed for several years. The project is ready. The finance provided by the World Bank and the Ministry of Finance, is sufficient for the first stage of work. The State Hermitage Museum has started its own international fundraising campaign. It is clear that this will not raise a gigantic sum of money, but according to the agreement with the Ministry of Finance, if we raise half the money, then we will get another grant.
It happens that the Mariinsky Theatre cannot begin to restore its old building since the second stage is yet to be constructed. The money was left hanging. The World Bank and the theatre agreed to transfer the funds to the State Hermitage Museum. The Ministry of Finance guaranteed that the Mariinsky Theatre would be reimbursed. The solidarity of our cultural institutions has meant that the resources we have for the Great Hermitage have suddenly increased.
I would like to repeat that the designs have been inspected by the Government inspectors. The decision to start construction was taken. It remained only to choose a company which would undertake the work. A preliminary evaluation places two companies on the list of possible contractors. And then suddenly a third company also appears which provided its documents after the deadline. It applied to the Arbitrational Court with a demand to be allowed into the tender process.
The World Bank does not like such sleights of hand. We lose time and we may lose money. I hope that this does not happen.