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#44 - JRL 2006-120 - JRL Home
Context (Moscow Times)
May 19-25, 2006
Turning Over a New Leaf
Even as the Tretyakov Gallery celebrates its 150th birthday, it has plans to transform itself into a fully modern, high-tech museum.

By Brian Droitcour

Between its look-but-don't-touch atmosphere and its brigades of grumpy custodians, the Tretyakov Gallery can seem like a stern, aloof institution. But it really just wants to be liked.

The gallery, which this week celebrates the 150th anniversary of its founding, has recently adopted a number of measures to become more user-friendly. It has extended its hours. It has installed electronic kiosks to provide more information about its holdings, which comprise the world's largest collection of Russian art. And it is reorganizing the permanent exposition in its new building on Krymsky Val to make it easier for the layman to understand the complex history of 20th-century Russian art.

In an interview last week, Marina Elzesser, one of the Tretyakov's deputy directors, said these initiatives were part of the "Friendly Museum" program.

"In January, we introduced the 'museum taxi' to take visitors between our buildings on Lavrushinsky Pereulok and Krymsky Val," Elzesser said. "Starting with 'Russian Pop Art' and Andy Warhol last fall, we now keep the museums open until 10 p.m. on Thursdays when we have popular exhibitions, to make it more convenient for working people to visit."

According to Elzesser's job title, she is in charge of educational work. She said people in her role had traditionally overseen the content of tours and lectures. But her work has come to involve public relations and community outreach as the purpose of the Tretyakov changes.

"In our modern world, a museum has to be more than a place for appreciating aesthetics," Elzesser said. "It needs to be a place where people enjoy spending their free time."

For the Tretyakov, being a pleasant, welcoming place is virtually a matter of survival. The Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency is relatively generous to this national treasure -- for instance, it finances the publication of the Tretyakov's catalogue raisonne -- but state money is far from enough to cover all the museum's needs. Employees that were interviewed declined to name exact figures, but they said salaries for museum workers were laughably low, and that to pay decent wages the Tretyakov relied on profits from the sales of tickets, books and souvenirs. That means the museum needs visitors to come back again and again.

One way to make that happen is a dynamic and varied exhibition program. First deputy director Lidia Iovleva, who has worked at the Tretyakov for 50 years, said in an interview Monday that in the late Soviet period, the museum had two or three temporary exhibitions per year. In 2005, there were nearly 50.

Another strategy is to transform the museum from a depository for cultural memory into a place for exploring new trends. Elzesser said that she and Andrei Yerofeyev, the head of the Tretyakov's contemporary art department, were awarded a grant from the Vladimir Potanin Charity Fund's "Changing Museum in a Changing World" program to create a contemporary art club in the building on Krymsky Val. The club's activities include lectures, roundtable discussions and youth programs that allow students to make video and digital art in workshops with professionals.

In other areas, such as tours, practices in place for decades had to be updated for contemporary realities. Elzesser said one of the most significant changes over the last 30 years was that the contingent of museum-goers had become much younger. "In Soviet times, there was a system of labor unions that would organize tours for their members -- teachers, workers at clinics and research institutes, and so on," she said. "Children weren't allowed into the Tretyakov until they finished fifth grade. Now, adults don't come as much, but they want their children to be educated."

Soviet guides recited identical, officially approved texts, but monologues aren't able to hold the interest of the groups of small children who come to the museum on field trips, Elzesser said. "Now, guides are free to write their own tours," she said. "To keep schoolchildren's interest, they often use a question-and-answer format."

The Tretyakov has also installed electronic guides -- kiosks with information about artworks and how to navigate the museum. These are managed by the Tretyakov's department of multimedia projects, which was created two years ago in an attempt to keep up with St. Petersburg's State Russian Museum, which has had an analogous department since 1999.

Natalya Tolstaya, the department's head, said the kiosks were initially a shock for some. "When the kiosks first appeared, the custodians would tell people 'Don't touch that!'" Tolstaya said. "It was especially a problem with the touch-screen interface."

Other duties of the multimedia department include developing a new web site and a 3-D virtual tour of the Lavrushinsky Pereulok building. It has also produced electronic catalogs for several exhibitions. "It's a lot cheaper to produce a CD-ROM than it is to print a book," Tolstaya said. "There are many things you can do on a CD that you can't do in a book."

For instance, the catalog for the exhibition "Two Capitals of Fyodor Alexeyev" lets users compare Alexeyev's drawings of Moscow and St. Petersburg scenes with recent photographs to see how the two cities have changed since the late 18th century. It also makes it possible to zoom in on elements that the artist altered or added to make his works more harmonious, which provides a lesson on classical principles of composition.

Tolstaya said the number of requests from her more senior colleagues for CD-ROM catalogs and other multimedia services far exceeded her initial expectations. "There's a stereotype that people who work in museums are very conservative," Tolstaya said. "But they are actually quite lively. It could be the contrast to the eternal values they are responsible for preserving."

Meanwhile, the biggest change at the Tretyakov's building on Krymsky Val is the update of its permanent exposition. On Wednesday, the Tretyakov will unveil the first part of the new display, which covers avant-garde art from the 1910s to the '30s.

In an interview at her office on Monday, Irina Lebedeva, deputy director for 20th-century art, described her department's innovations. "There will be an exhibit of reconstructions of Constructivist models," she said. "The originals perished in the 1920s, so we chose to make reconstructions to give a full, dynamic representation of this significant movement."

Lebedeva also said Neoprimitivist and Fauvist painting would be hung on brightly colored walls, while the geometric abstractions of Kasimir Malevich and his followers would be on white walls, "to create a strong impression of the difference between these movements."

The rest of the Krymsky Val exposition is due to be revamped by the end of the year. Originally, the Tretyakov had hoped to have all 42 halls ready by this week, but Lebedeva said this task proved "physically impossible."

Switching expositions is nothing new for the Krymsky Val building, which has changed its presentation of 20th-century art several times since the building opened in 1986 with "Steps on the Great Path," a display of Socialist Realist painting that Iovleva, the first deputy director, said "served a political task of showing the history of the Communist Party."

Although some turn-of-the-century art that strayed from the tenets of realism was shown in the 1960s and '70s, after the Stalinist critique of "formalism" in art had subsided, Malevich and other giants of the avant-garde were not shown at the Tretyakov until the early 1990s.

As a result, the history of 20th-century art is still unfamiliar to many and a subject of controversy. Lebedeva and Iovleva both said that attempts made in the 1990s to organize 20th-century art using the same monographic, chronological principle used at the Tretyakov's building on Lavrushinsky Pereulok since 1913 were futile. "That academic approach is impossible for us at Krymsky Val, because time hasn't put everything in its place yet," Lebedeva said. "Maybe in 50 years we will be able to build our exposition that way."

The staff also thinks it is wrong to apply the same principles in both its facilities, since the Tretyakov plays a dual role. "Russia doesn't have a museum of modern art," Lebedeva said. "The Tretyakov is a traditional museum that takes on some of the functions of a museum of modern art. That's very hard."

Lebedeva said the solution was to show simultaneously occurring styles of painting in isolation. When the reorganization is complete, three directions -- academic Socialist Realism, the more liberal, but still officially approved, "severe style" and nonconformist painting -- will each have their own halls.

On Wednesday, along with the new permanent exposition of avant-garde art, the Tretyakov will present a space for the "second avant-garde" -- the Conceptual art that arose in Moscow starting in the late '50s and early '60s, the traditions of which are continued by Russian artists today. This art is as distant from nonconformist painting as it is from Socialist Realism, since it explores forms such as installations, texts, objects and photography.

Lebedeva called it an "independent, experimental space" and said it would occupy four recently refurbished halls on the second floor. Curated by Yerofeyev, it will mainly show the collection that he brought to the Tretyakov when he created its contemporary art department in 2001. Other works on display are gifts from artists or loans from the Novy Foundation and the XL, Stella, Regina and Guelman galleries.

This choice to set apart a gallery-like space for contemporary art in the Tretyakov -- which was founded as, and essentially remains, a museum of realist painting -- is radical. But it is also an attempt to be user-friendly.

"We want all the museum's visitors to be able to find something they like," Lebedeva said.