Interview to the newspaper Kommersant
The State Hermitage has made the largest for the last half a century purchase – the museum has bought a unique collection of watercolor portraits and Russian porcelain of the 18th century from the Paris Gallery “Popov”. It seems that this purchase is the last one for which the museum will have to pay the value added tax, as the long-lasting process of cancelation of import tax for Russian museums has been completed. Thus, the Hermitage and subsequently, other Russian museums are becoming influential members at the art market. Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage told Tatyana Markina about the past, present and future of generation of the Hermitage collection.
– How does the last accession of the Hermitage collection – graphics and porcelain differ from the Gallery "Popov" from the others, which have been many?
– The main point is a great artistic and historic value of the Popov’s collection, its absolute uniqueness, as well as the fact that we showed our readiness for pioneer and quick action at the art market.
– From which means does the Hermitage execute its purchases?
– Over the recent years we regularly allocate money from the earned money. When an interesting exhibit item appears the Ministry of Cultural Affairs helps us. But there are some exceptional cases. In pre-election 1996 year Boris Yeltsin promised money for purchase of exhibit items, and then Vladimir Putin, being Head of the Government Accountability Office of President of the Russian Federation provided its receipt – at that time we paved this way, having bought Soutine, Rouault, Dufy, Utrillo. Then the whole range of museums also received money for accession of the collections – the Russian Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery. At that time it was a kind of revolution. When Vladimir Potanin bought Black Square for the Hermitage we acquired the whole pool of friends – art patrons. The last gift is the drawings of Felten – the project for the building of the Small Hermitage.
– Can money available for the Hermitage be compared with the opportunities of the American museums, for example?
– There are no museums which can be compared with private collectors- multi-millionaires whom there are many now. And by the way, as soon as we appear at an auction – prices fly up at once. Once we and Rostropovich competed over the snuff-box with the portrait of Count Orlov and we failed to buy it as he gave more. By the way, this snuff-box once belonged to Alexander Popov – on the cover of his first book there is exactly this Orlov’s snuff-box. But the snuff-box returned at last, now it is in the Konstantinovsky Palace (it went there with the whole collection of Rostrapovich-Vishnevskaya, bought and donated by Alisher Usmanov. – Kommersant).
– Does it mean that the Hermitage has always observed the art market and you are already able to work at it?
– Even without an opportunity to buy at auctions we have always watched them very carefully. When we learned about the auction of the Popov collection and the catalogue appeared there was a kind of pilgrimage of our keepers to me: let’s buy this and that, just two or three items... We collected the money. We watched the progress of the auction in the Internet. But had been bought, it had been bought for very high money. However a large number of first-class items remained – they were items from a private collection of Alexander Popov, the establisher of the gallery, this is the collection of a real professional. And we managed to get in touch with the gallery immediately and to propose our variant. We were quite ready for an active action at the art market. It is very important that we managed to buy it at acceptable “our” price without any commission charges and agents. Of course, we paid less that it could have cost at an auction. But for us it was high money. We collected everything – money of collective sponsors (there is such category, money are accumulates by small sums), and all our savings, and the money allocated by the Ministry of Culture. Such occasion happens once in a blue moon; we had to do everything but to buy. These items completely fit in the scientific program of the Hermitage, they are our basic themes and this fact is extremely important.
– Watercolors and porcelain are absolutely "Hermitage" material. Does the museum work in any other, less obvious directions?
– At the end of the last year on the money of the Ministry of Culture the museum bought a collection of photographs by the British man Roger Fenton, one of the most well-known photographers of the 19th century. They were taken in Russia during the Crimean War. At the moment we are working (jointly with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) under the project of a new storage room for photographs, special reconstruction room. It is our first attempt to find our ways in collecting of photographs.
We also think how to collect – not for money – new art, for example, Western art of the second part of the 20th century.
– How to do it without money?
– It may be donated by the authors. Two installations by Iliya Kabakov were donated after the exhibition. There are some large western collectors who in theory can donate the whole collection of modern art. Of course, all these are dreams, it is necessary to keep a vigorous activity and to show how well and beautifully we can work with this art.
– Can Russian collectors donate anything?
– It is early for them to donate; they need to collect it first. But we speak about long-term exhibition of works from Russian private collections. At the moment the museum is planning a large exposition in the room of the General Staff Building and we expect to ask for Russian painting from Russian private collectors and West European one from the Western collectors.
– At the end of the last year the value added tax for the museums was cancelled. Is it connected with the purchase of Popov’s collection by the Hermitage?
– When we were buying it, it was not cancelled. But in relation to this purchase I sent some more tearful letters, including the letter to President. I think it played its role. However, we with the whole museum community have strived for it for a long time. Now this wall has been broken down (on 25 November, 2009 an amendment to FZ-281 was approved: cancellation of the VAT at importation of cultural values, purchased at the cost of federal or municipal budget for museums and other cultural institutions, as well as the ones purchased as a donation to relevant institutions. – Kommersant), and Russian museums can step out to the art market actively and to replenish their collections abroad if, of course, essential subordinate acts are approved.
The Hermitage collection started as a personal collection of Catherine II in 1764 with acquisition of the collection of Johan Gotzkowsky. During the next two centuries the collection was replenished by means of acquisition of the best collections and individual masterpieces. In the Soviet period the museum suffered terrible shocks: in the 1920-1930s a great many works of art came here from museums and nationalized collections, in 1932-1934 the stream went backwards – by decision of the Soviet government a part of masterpieces was sold abroad and a part was transferred to other museums of the Soviet Union. First in the 1930s, and then in the 1940s ãîäû more than three hundred pictures from the Moscow Museum of New West European Art, closed just before the war came to the Hermitage. The largest accession of the Hermitage of the second part of the 20th century was works by Henri Matisse, which were given to the museum by Lidia Delektorskaya since 1967. At those years the Hermitage as all other Soviet museums received very little money for independent purchases. Since 1996 by the order of Boris Yeltsin the State Hermitage has been under the patronage of President of the Russian Federation; at the moment of the order issuing one-time money for acquisition of exhibit items were allocated. Among the largest acquisitions of the last 15 years – Self-portrait by Chaim Soutine, 1916 , Head of Christ by Georges Rouault, 1939 ãîäà, Rue Custine a Monmartre, 1909-1910 by Maurice Utrillo, ancient Chinese bronze and Byzantine silver. In 2002 Black Square by Kazimir Malevich was purchased for the Hermitage for $1 million, contributed by the art patron Vladimir Potanin . At the end of 2009 the museum purchased Russian watercolor portraits and porcelain from the collection of the Paris Gallery "Popov".