Art In Conversation
MIKHAIL PIOTROVSKY with David Carrier & Joachim Pissarro
Like many other European museums, the Hermitage was founded under the old regime. In the late 18th century, Catherine the Great purchased about 400 great paintings, the foundation of the collection, which then was enlarged by other Russian rulers. Then, after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the museum fell hostage to Russian politics. Saint Petersburg became Leningrad. Around 1930 Stalin sold parts of the collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and other Western collections. In the Great Purge, 45 curators died in the gulags; and during the siege of Leningrad in World War II, when most of the collection was evacuated, about a hundred members of the staff died in that city. More recently, with the end of the U.S.S.R., the city has again been given its original name, Saint Petersburg.
When one of us, Joachim Pissarro, was chief curator at the Kimbell Museum in the 1990s, he worked with Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage. And so when it happened that the other one of us, David Carrier, was visiting Saint Petersburg in July, 2014, we wanted to interview Piotrovsky. We were interested in gaining his perspective both on the concerns we have recently discussed with other museum directors, and also on his specifically Russian perspective. That a major international survey exhibition, Manifesta 10, curated by Kasper König, a project that was given enthusiastic support by Piotrovsky, had opened just the previous month meant that it was natural also to discuss the role of contemporary art in the Hermitage.
Mikhail Piotrovsky was born in 1944. After studying Arab linguistics at Leningrad State University he worked at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and he took part in archaeological excavations in Yemen and in the Caucasus, Central Asia. In 1990, he was appointed director of the Hermitage, a post his father, Boris Borisovich Piotrovsky, an eminent archaeologist, had held from 1964 until his death in 1990. In the exhibition catalog for Manifesta, Piotrovsky, after observing that conceiving “of new art in the broadest context possible is an old tradition of the Hermitage,” notes how the battles of the 20th century “remind us of the background of today’s seemingly urgent and yet ultimately ephemeral conflicts. In their shadow a beautiful new art is born.” In another recent publication, the Hermitage Magazine (No. 20) he writes: “We belong to the East; on the other hand, to the West. But we are not Eastern—we are in the middle […] Each individual should develop guidelines for their own life from various sources. Yet they must do this for themselves and not simply try to learn from others. Then things will work out fine.” Piotrovsky’s ultimate optimism about the museum he has directed is evident, we believe, in our interview.
David Carrier (Rail): I should say that I bring along all of the good wishes of my collaborator Joachim Pissarro, who regrets that he cannot be here. I emphasize that because this is very much a joint interview. He has offered a lot of thoughts and we have talked extensively about these questions.
Mikhail Piotrovsky: He telephoned. We traditionally have good relations.
Rail: Pissarro and I did recent interviews for the Brooklyn Rail with Jeffrey Deitch, Massimiliano Gioni, Philippe de Montebello, and Sir Norman Rosenthal.
Piotrovsky: How is Jeffrey—and where is he?
Rail: As you know, he left MOCA and has to find a new post—I think that he will become a private dealer again. That’s a sad story.
Piotrovsky: A sad story because it’s so interesting—how the art market and the museum relate, how they don’t work together.
Rail: I think of him as a great idealist. These interviews are all in line with the Brooklyn Rail, the current issue has our interview with Sir Norman Rosenthal.
We thought, Joachim and I, that in including an interview with you, we could present very different people from very different institutions with very different starting points, but with a certain convergence in your concerns. It seems in a way paradoxical that the museums coming out of these very different cultures and histories end up with something of the same issues. Is that surprising to you?
Piotrovsky: I don’t think so because . . . all museums are museums, the museum is a very special world. It lives inside the world, inside the market economy, inside the art market, inside the art world, but basically there’s something very special to all museums—scholarship as the base of presenting art and culture. And so when you begin to discuss things, you see that there are the same problems at different levels, they come at different times, but they all come to the same problems.
Rail: We were particularly interested in the way that all of these directors we’ve spoken with have had to handle crises when institutions were changing dramatically, and we are interested specifically in how you handled the changes with the Hermitage. Very few museum directors in the world could carry out the unfathomable task of leading a Soviet-style institution into one of the foremost Western-style museums with support from Americans, British (and who else?) to make your museum one of the great international art pilgrimage destinations.
Piotrovsky: The Hermitage has a tradition of dealing with crises; the one I dealt with was important, but certainly not the most important. In World War II, in the siege of Leningrad there was direct danger of things being destroyed. We had problems: no money, no state, full freedom with nothing in our hands, the big danger of someone putting their hands on the collection, with privatization. We answered in the way of globalization. We are global, we are not just a Russian museum, but a world museum, so there’s nothing wrong in asking for help. Let’s learn from our colleagues and friends. It seems that we have the same problems that others have. This year we are celebrating the anniversary of the International Advisory Council for the Hermitage which was founded with the help of UNESCO 20 years ago. All of the great directors have been at one time or another members of our advisory council.
Rail: Joachim had asked specifically about the open practices of the museum. As early as 1995 you had already signed an agreement of cooperation with the Kimbell, when he was chief curator, so the present process has been going on for at least 20 years.
Piotrovsky: Frankly speaking, it was always going on. In the Soviet Union the Hermitage was a very open museum. Even at the end of Soviet times there were a lot of exhibitions going abroad from the Hermitage. We have always been ready and open to sign all of these agreements. In the Soviet era, we had the right to sign all the agreements we wanted and we still have it, without asking for permission from the ministry of culture. The only thing is, after everything is signed, we get their permission to take things across the border.
It was a great agreement we had with the Kimbell. One of the issues we had though was with the labels—how and in what language to write them. It was a difficult issue because it shows the limits of Western understanding of Russia. Our labels from Soviet times give the name of the artist in two languages and the title of the piece only in Russian, because it was not very important. In American museums you have the title written first and then the name of the artist. There was a discussion of how to have two languages on the label and it was Ted Pillsbury (director of the Kimbell 1980 – 98) who came up with a diplomatic solution which was very simple, but only possible in the computer age: you write in Russian, then in English, the name and everything, but the size of the letters in English is a little bit smaller than in Russian.
Piotrovsky: It’s good for international relations and working with friends. Beginning in 1995 this was a UNESCO project because Pillsbury was head of the UNESCO project here, and we had exchanges and also a lot of agreements.
Regarding your words about the Hermitage’s relations with other museums we are in friendly competition. Our main partners that typologically look like us are the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But there is a big issue. All museums in the world are now making extensions. It’s not a problem to build a new wing, you can find money, especially if you have a good architect, but the moment you have done it, two things happen. First of all you have to spend a lot of money on the electricity, which is especially a problem for museums with a lot of technology. The second thing is that most museums—when they have these new galleries—suddenly see that they don’t have so many masterpieces that are on the same level as the works already exhibited, even in the Hermitage, and certainly for many other museums. Our answer for this is the open storage: we have built two big buildings which are open storage—where you can see all of our collections en masse.
Rail: I remember that at one point the National Gallery in London had the reserves in the basement, and we could see all of the reserves densely hung, so this would be something like that.
Piotrovsky: Yes. You don’t need a special appointment, you buy a ticket and you can see all of the carriages which are in the Hermitage, and all of the furniture, and you can also have access to some of the laboratories to see how people are working. With this, you can show 80 percent of the collection. In the galleries you can never show everything you have.
Rail: How can you corporatize the Hermitage? From an American point of view, there are two ways to go to maximize the foot traffic, to increase corporate funding. We are wondering how you feel about the specifically Russian balance.
Piotrovsky: There must be a balance. Now everybody demands more and more visitors, and you have to fight it because there must be a limit. Now we have 3 million visitors a year, and you can’t have more—look at the galleries in summer, you just can’t go through. Most of our visitors come during this time, more than this is impossible, you can’t change anything because the museum is full.
What is needed is to have an understanding of how much you do want. We have now opened the General Staff building (the enormous building directly across from the Winter Palace and New Hermitage, the site of a large portion of Manifesta 10) it would be possible to have 2 million more. I spoke with my colleagues in the Louvre and they said that when they built the Grand Louvre, they built it to have 5 million visitors. They have been working to get this 5 million and now they have much more. I think it’s a problem. There is another thing, a social problem. We have 3 million visitors, and 1 million come for free with free tickets, which the Hermitage gives to all the senior citizens of Russia, to all children (Russian or not Russian), to all students, Russian or not Russian. We have one day a month when everyone comes free. So this is very important, we want the people who bring money, but we also want children, we want students, we love senior citizens who have come here all their lives. So in a way it’s a social problem, we must think about other sources.
Approximately 60 percent of the budget must come from the government, from society through the government. The other 40 percent is split between three sources: one third must be tickets and special programs (for which people sometimes pay more, because they come in the evenings and so on), another third of this must be corporate sponsorship, and the final third is compensation for exhibitions. It changes from time to time. This is what we discovered when the state support was finished, we discovered how to work with corporations, it began with Sarah Lee and Coca-Cola, then we brought in Russian sponsors, and now we have a lot of Russian sponsors. They have to be educated through example, because money comes to money, and then the state can give more and more. I’m proud that when I became director, the budget was $1 million, now it’s $160 million.
Rail: This morning on my visit, I observed two things: I bought a ticket online, which was a very efficient system, no waiting; and compared to the Metropolitan, an unusual percentage of your visitors come in groups. Is that because of the tourist marketing?
Piotrovsky: It’s not only marketing, but somehow a lot of our visitors are tourists. I personally hate groups because they block the way, but a lot of visitors want a guided tour and a lot of foreign tourists want to be organized. These groups have an agreement about a certain time, so they come without standing in line. You can buy the full ticket from the machine, if you want.
Rail: It seems to me that some of these issues are universal. I’ve published two books on Nicolas Poussin, so naturally I went to your Poussin gallery. And here, as in Paris, there’s no one there, whereas in the Impressionism and Renaissance art galleries, it’s mobbed.
Piotrovsky: It’s terrible—it’s a very good space, but the lighting is not very good because the walls are white. But these things change, 30 years ago Caravaggio was not so famous. I love Poussin immensely so I hope that it will change. I think people are a little tired of Impressionism and we’re moving all of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists to the General Staff Building, the Eastern Wing, so people coming to the main building will have more time to explore, not only Rembrandt and Da Vinci.
Rail: One question comes out of our interview with Massimiliano Gioni. With the Venice Biennial he was interested in finding new ways of presenting art, not “in a linear fashion,” but by “revealing a web of associations through contrasts and affinities, anachronisms, and collisions”; he hoped that these unexpected, unpredictable hangings might “strike new sparks.” Do you see these changing hangings as issues for you?
Piotrovsky: It is important. You can change the hanging of the permanent collection from time to time. A lot of pictures do travel, so we bring some other pictures here. It is always changing, everybody coming to the Hermitage can see something new. We play with contemporary art and the permanent collection as in Manifesta, which is not just contrasting different kinds of art, but contrasting contemporary art and classical art, contemporary art and classical modern art, these kinds of things are very interesting, but this is for exhibitions. People remember how the permanent collection was. Manifesta is a wonderful opportunity for people who come frequently to the Hermitage. Contemporary artists like Marlene Dumas are in the Matisse rooms. [Matisse’s masterpieces were moved temporarily to the General Staff Building.] It’s kind of a competition between Dumas and Matisse.
Rail: So you feel that in the end the permanent collection has to be placed in a proper historical arrangement.
Piotrovsky: Not proper historical, but somehow organized, by countries. In the Hermitage there is not a proper historical display, here is Matisse, here is Rembrandt, you come through different doors, you come to different things. A little bit of mess is good for the museum.
Rail: But that mess in a temporary setting?
Piotrovsky: Yes. In the Hermitage, you can try to go through the chronological line, but there are many other lines.
Rail: This seems to parallel what Massimiliano was saying. He talked about loving walking through the Metropolitan Museum, thinking of different ways of categorizing art: and about how a lot of the museum has an expanded notion of art, it includes high art—to use a quick category—but also arts and crafts, decoration, design, cult objects, utilitarian objects, documents, and artifacts that were not necessarily looked at as art when they were made.
Piotrovsky: Yes, this is also a tradition of the Hermitage—it was lost a little bit and we’re reviving it. It’s a tradition of having art together with arts and crafts, with applied arts and sculpture, which by the way comes from a tradition of German museums. Bringing sculptures and applied arts together, as in the Bode Museum, Berlin. This is very good, it’s very important. The Hermitage is not just an art museum, it’s a museum of culture.
Rail: A visitor is always aware of the unfamiliar things initially, and so today when I descended from the French painting to the galleries containing central Asian artifacts, that was a surprise, that was great.
Piotrovsky: Our Central Asian collection is unique, it’s one of the pleasures of the Hermitage, you can always find something new there, something unexpected.
Rail: When we spoke with Philippe de Montebello, he said that one of the great things about being the director of the Met was he has all of those resources at his hands. You want anything done, you pick up the phone and there is somebody in charge of doing it. So managing the Met, he said, is a little bit like the captain who has been sent many times on a huge ship—it doesn’t make sharp turns. Can you compare your experience at the Hermitage?
Piotrovsky: This ship definitely doesn’t make sharp turns, it’s a big ship. We are a big ship, but we’ve changed our line after a certain amount of time. Our system is quite different. Nothing works with just one telephone call, first you have to know how it should be done. I came here from my academic studies, my father was director, and still I tried to learn all the trades in the museum. I say, “If you don’t do it today, if you don’t do it tomorrow, I’ll cry on you but I’ll do it myself.” The catalogue, the lighting, the negotiations—that’s how it works. It was a period of a lot of disarray, people needed to be brought together to work together—it’s not easy. In a way, when I ask for something that can’t be done, I’m ready to listen. Step by step you come to the normal system of the Met.
Rail: Another quote from Philippe—
Piotrovsky: It’s more like the Tsar than the captain.
Rail: A very Russian model!
Talking about the goal of the museum, Philippe said when he did surveys, the public always would say, “I want to come with my family and I want to learn.” They came to learn, which is not contradictory to what museums were founded on. They were founded as didactic institutions, this was the Bildung of people like Wilhelm von Humboldt—an Enlightenment figure—and the whole Prussian system at the end of the 18th century. The museums there were about education, both for artists and also for the public, it was education and a notion of the redemptory value of art, that art makes you a better person.
Piotrovsky: That is absolutely right. This is the problem of today’s museums, they move towards Disneyland. Some people forgot that it’s a temple, and that visitors should be educated, and not only entertained. Certainly a museum gives some knowledge through pleasure, it makes visitors better, it makes them more complicated. Our problem today in the 21st century is that two and two is not always four. Society needs complicated people. A lot of people are just simple and they think that things are simple. Some think that they know everything, and we have to make them understand. “You think you know? No you don’t.” And the relation between the museum and the visitor, you come, you see, you go back to your computer or to the library, you read, then you come back—several times. And then you understand that the next time you get much more pleasure. We have to defend and understand that education. There is also education of the nation, because we are the museum of art and culture, and also the museum of history of the Russian state. So in a way we tell the people’s story of how wonderful Russian history is. Not wonderful because it is much better than all other people’s, but wonderful because it is so interesting, so complicated, so we have to be educators but in a broad way, in cultural history, not just patriotic education. It makes things complicated.
Rail: Philippe talked about the way that the museum is a Western construct: “I use the term construct, and I mean that as such it is a fiction. It just doesn’t matter what you do: it’s a fiction anyway, everything is out of its context anyway.” He was playing with some of the ideas that are discussed in my book [Museum Skepticism]. Would you agree?
Piotrovsky: The objects are taken out of context. This is very important. Right now we have a lot of fights with the church, they want us to give the icons back. The icon in the church is an icon, here it is a painting, in the church it is not a painting. So we have to understand this difference because the museum takes everything from the context and puts it into a broader context, the context of discussions between the cultures, presenting a picture of the world which is very complicated, and different, to make people understand that what is black here is not black there. This is the mission of the museum. So we try to do this—certainly it is a European construct, a construct which has several sides, there is the side of the Mouseion in Ptolemaic Alexandria, which is a way of putting every small piece in place in order to understand how the world is constructed. Another is the Kunstkammer, which brings together everything that is so interesting, so strange, bringing them together to enjoy how strange it is, then you go into the study again, trying to understand, to explain the world. In a way, the museum explains the world, and it tries to explain the world for itself.
Rail: It gives you knowledge and pleasure.
Piotrovsky: Knowledge and pleasure. Simply taking things out of the context, that’s the sense of the museum. Taken out of their context, they get some new values. In the Soviet time, the icons weren’t understood.
Rail: Having spent a little over a week in Russia, the example of icons is very vivid to me. Seeing the icons in a church is one thing, in a museum, another. You don’t pray in a museum.
Piotrovsky: You can look at the picture in the church, you can pray in the museum, no problem. But icons in the church are part of ritual and by admiring icons as a piece of art you are disturbing prayers.
Rail: There’s this curious Italian compromise, where you pay to see art, but not if you come to pray.
Looking at your 20 some years as director, do you have any regrets? What are you most proud of?
Piotrovsky: The only regret is that I was an academic scholar and going to expeditions to Yemen, and with this position I can’t go to expeditions, it takes too much time. But now the whole situation has changed, it’s difficult for anyone to go there.
As for being proud, I am in my father’s shoes, sitting in his office, in his chair. I try always to compare what he would say about what we are doing. And I know he would say about every detail, that it’s wrong, but in general that it’s right.
I am a little bit proud of getting a lot of enemies in my position as museum director. A museum like the Hermitage is a state symbol, everything you do, there are a lot of people who don’t like it. Being an academic scholar, I never thought about enemies. There are a lot of people who don’t like what I am doing. Some things make people angry—it means that you have done the right thing. Just recently there was a letter, about my commentary on the New Year tree in Palace Square. It was placed as a part of Manifesta and was appreciated by many people as a symbol of Maidan. I published my commentary explaining that a real New Year tree on Maidan was not decorated as disorders started. We have to be wide-awake as a civil war followed after Maidan freedom. I wrote: Look, this is exactly what can happen to this square, if you aren’t careful. Certainly it’s all against the idea of the artists, of some of the radicals. These are not enemies but a lot of people who hate what I’m doing because it’s rather complicated, and we try to keep the tradition of this city open to the world.
Rail: That sounds great! Maybe a related question: Philippe looking back said that he thought that he’d lived in a kind of golden age, an age of exhibitions. He spoke particularly of the great Byzantine exhibitions at the Met, where things could be loaned, and now this is a little bit more difficult in America, there are questions about loans from Russia. He mentioned that there’s a Jewish group in Brooklyn that’s blocking—
Piotrovsky: This is terrible. You can never be sure about the golden age, at the beginning of my career as museum director, it wasn’t a golden age, there were a lot of problems. But at that time all the right decisions were my decisions, all the wrong decisions were my decisions. It was a kind of freedom—we managed to get out of it. Nowadays it’s becoming a little more difficult. Certainly exhibitions are quite difficult now. We’ve been in this period of freedom when the world was open, open, open, now it’s closing, closing, closing. The decision in an American court that some items which have always been in Russia don’t belong to the Russian state, is an offense to the Russian state. When we bring objects to the United States, you must give us a guarantee that they’ll come back. And the American state says, no we’re not going to give you a guarantee, there’s a law, which protects everybody. Some people will try to get Russian property, so all the things are complicated, and no one is ready to say they’ll give full guarantees. People think about art as property, there are a lot of obstacles in this free exchange. Doing the exhibitions together is very difficult. We’re doing exhibitions together with our German colleagues, making exhibitions of things, which are partly here, partly there. We try to make a kind of a joint cultural product. This is part of our mission—a new solution, before exchange was so simple.
Rail: So there’s a bit of uncertainty now?
Piotrovsky: Yes. We’ll see what will happen, maybe we’ll find a good solution for this problem, maybe it will be another golden age. Now things are more complicated, exhibitions became more elegant, more academic, and we have the possibility, which the Metropolitan also has. We have so many visitors, when you make exhibitions you don’t think about how many people will come, you think about how you can present something, which is unique. Now we have this problem, with Ukraine and everything I don’t know how we will get out.
Rail: Philippe said, “I like everything, I like objects.” Would you say that about yourself?
Piotrovsky: I like paintings, I like objects because I have experience in archaeology, so I know what it is to touch things. Being an Orientalist, I like all of the Oriental art. In this museum, I like everything, but to enjoy art I go to other museums.
Rail: A related question that relates to what Sir Norman talked about with us: What’s your earliest memory of art?
Piotrovsky: I have been educated in the Hermitage, so I don’t remember what I saw when I first came here. I came into the armory and saw some weapons, I was playing my trumpet. In my childhood I came to the Hermitage, it was nothing special. In the Italian Renaissance we all come first to the “Annunciation” by Cima da Conegliano, which was recently restored—it’s one of the best introductions to the Italian Renaissance. Certainly in the Hermitage everyone remembers the floors, which you can see when you are small.
Rail: A comparative question of traditions: Comparing China and Russia, it was interesting to me and Joachim that Chinese contemporary art is much collected, and museums are taking an interest. But Russian art, apart from a few names, doesn’t have much visibility. When you walk through the Hermitage, most of the names of the Russian artists are unfamiliar. Is that going to change?
Piotrovsky: The Hermitage presents Russian culture by itself. Russian culture, not Russian art—because there is a Russian Museum (in Saint Petersburg) which has all the masterpieces of Russian art. Malevich, Kandinsky, and so on. It’s a big tragedy of Russian culture, closing it off before everybody knew about our heritage. There are no museums in the world which have departments of Russian art. A few of them do have Russian icons. Today there are so many restrictions on selling Russian art. There was a great Russian painter of the 19th century, Venetsianov. A wonderful picture by him of peasant scenes in Russia was on sale in Britain. The National Gallery in Britain wanted to buy it, but the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow also wanted to buy it, because they had a pair. The National Gallery kindly gave the Tretyakov Gallery the chance to buy it, but I think that Tretyakov Gallery made a mistake insisting on their priority. They lost an opportunity to show a great Russian artist to Brits.
There’s also Repin, a great realistic artist—his show was quite a big success in Holland. We have to work harder to show Russian things.
Rail: The Faberge Egg?
Piotrovsky: Have you been to the Faberge Museum? There are beautiful collections Faberge eggs which Viktor Vekselberg bought from the Forbes collection and sent back to Russia.
Rail: You mentioned Repin, that’s an interesting example because the most famous American critic Clement Greenberg, in his essay on kitsch, takes Repin as an example of everything that’s wrong: it’s realist, it’s kitsch. But later when questioned, it turned out that he’d never even seen a Repin painting—it was a name that he’d picked up.
Piotrovsky: A story of ignorance. Sometimes ideas come before—with too much knowledge you don’t have general ideas.
Rail: Speaking specifically to an American audience, to the Brooklyn Rail readers who of course know of the Hermitage, though many probably haven’t visited, but would be tempted, are there specific things you want to say to that audience, about how they might think of your museum?
Piotrovsky: We’re a museum, which presents Russia in its best way, a Russia which is open to the world. Russia has two faces. One of these faces is of Russia as part of European culture, as America is part of European culture. It has a tradition of being open to the world, and our museum shows this openness, that’s what Dostoevsky was talking about, it really exists. Maybe this will sound strange looking at the politics. The Hermitage takes all of this art from all over the world and makes it our art. This Rembrandt is our Rembrandt, this Rubens is our Rubens. In a way, it’s the same thing that happened in America with the Metropolitan. The Louvre is typologically closer to us as a palace, but the Metropolitan is closer in terms of universality. Just recently we decided to be quite active in contemporary art. You can have contemporary art separate, contemporary art in another museum. Our model is not the Louvre but the Metropolitan, which has a wing of modern art, playing certainly with some allusions to classical art. In a way this museum is very different, it shows you Russia, but it’s not difficult for people with an American education to understand.
Rail: That should be encouragement for our readers to come to Saint Petersburg.
Piotrovsky: For two years we had no piece of our collection in America. We need a guarantee of return or they’re not going to give it. We worked hard with our colleagues, and found some solutions, but then the politics developed.
Rail: I imagine that this can only be settled from the political top.
Piotrovsky: We can make a small scandal, send something with a proper guarantee, the Americans can send something. Our state does give guarantees. Now when all these things exploded with Ukraine, it’s another situation, we have to wait.
Rail: Have I missed anything?
Piotrovsky: No. I think it was wonderful.
[Great timing—the bells of the clock on Piotrovsky’s desk ring.]