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National pride: putting Russian contemporary art on the map

National pride: putting Russian contemporary art on the map

Vasili Tsereteli has spent a decade transforming the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. And he's just getting started

19 January 2013
Image Petr Antonov/Grinberg Agency

When it first opened more than a decade ago, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art had little critical standing. Its collection, donated by Georgian-born painter and sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, was derided for its lack of quality. As a result, Muscovites lamented the absence of a contemporary art museum in their city. That was 1999. Fast forward to today and the museum has risen in prominence, earning the respect of serious art critics along the way.

In any single month, the museum curates at least four exhibitions, spread between four buildings in central Moscow. In line with its raison d’etre – to introduce visitors to the art of 20th- and 21st-century Russia – the shows chiefly focus on Russian artists although it also exhibits the work of international artists several times a year.

Among the work currently on display is an exhibition of early 20th-century Russian avant-garde art from MMOMA’s permanent collection; another of Aidan Salakhova, whose exploration of gender and Islam prompted the Azerbaijani government to censor her work at the 2011 Venice Biennale; and a retrospective of Olga Tobreluts, best known for her recasting of classical figures, including the Greek gods, as postmodern fashion icons.

The rise of MMOMA as a significant art destination on Russia’s cultural landscape is down to the efforts of one man: Vasili Tsereteli, Zurab’s grandson. Aged 35, Tsereteli is round-faced with a neatly trimmed beard and cropped hair. His otherwise simple dress — he wears a crisp navy suit and white shirt — is complemented by two sartorial flourishes: a pair of red wire-framed glasses and, more surprisingly, a pair of novelty Frank Sinatra cufflinks. He speaks English with a slight American lilt, a legacy of time spent in the US as a student, first at the New York School of Visual Art and then Parsons School of Design.

“When I arrived in Moscow, I knew nothing about contemporary Russian art”

Since his graduation, Tsereteli’s ascent in the art world has been rapid, a result of hard work and family fortune. In addition to MMOMA, he has worked as commissioner of the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale since 2007. Tsereteli returned to Moscow from New York in 2001, upon his appointment as executive director of MMOMA, a year after his grandfather opened the museum. He was just 23 years old and fresh out of university. But he had already demonstrated his prowess within the art world. Within the fledgling museum unable to afford major artworks, he had acquired etchings and lithographs of prominent artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali.

“When I arrived in Moscow, I knew nothing about contemporary Russian art,” Tsereteli concedes. After two years at the helm, he made a bold decision that he hoped would earn MMOMA international prestige: the museum would focus on housing the finest collection of Russian modern and contemporary art in the world. Over the past decade, its collection has grown from 2,000 works of art to around 10,000 today.

Moving in this direction had another advantage. It allowed Tsereteli to distance the museum from earlier criticism, which centred on the quality and selection of the collection of artworks donated by his grandfather. Zurab Tsereteli has long divided critics. His sculptures — which include a statue of Putin in a judo kit; a 98-metre Peter the Great Statue on the Moscow River (voted one of the ugliest statues in the world by Foreign Policy magazine in 2010); and a four-tonne, 12-metre teardrop-shaped memorial to the victims of 9/11 — have been lambasted as Stalinesque in their magnitude and pomp. Tsereteli dismisses all excoriations as part of a smear campaign aimed in reality at controversial former Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, a close friend of his grandfather.

Notwithstanding those debates, winning support for Russian contemporary art has not been easy. At the upper end of the art market, well-heeled Russian art collectors regularly make headlines for snapping up contemporary artworks at exorbitant prices. But although those living abroad are willing to splurge on a Damien Hirst or Francis Bacon, they tend to be less enthusiastic about investing in Russian contemporary art. Meanwhile public attitudes to contemporary art tend to veer towards the uncomplimentary, a hangover from the days of the Soviet Union when art that didn’t follow the dictates of socialist realism was suppressed. Even today, preference is given to realism in art. Another upshot, says Tsereteli, is that graduates from Russian art academies while technically adept, lack flair. “Artists are still trying to find their voice,” says Tsereteli. “We are trying to help with this transition.”

“We need to help people understand that contemporary art is important both for the development of our people but also our national culture”

A recent exhibition at MMOMA, showcasing the work of young Chinese artists, gave Tsereteli much to chew over. While artists in both countries are well trained, he believes the Chinese have succeeded in finding “their own style” because they are “more integrated into the global context”. For Tsereteli, instigating change is crucial. “We need to help people understand that contemporary art is important both for the development of our people but also our national culture,” he explains. “Human beings are more important that oil — they are our most important asset.”

Tsereteli hopes to encourage a greater appreciation of contemporary art through the museum, which is free to the public on every third Sunday of the month. He believes however that lasting change can only occur through education and is currently working with the Moscow Department of Education to encourage schools to include a contemporary art component in their curriculum.

Over the past decade, the museum has grown from one building to four. Taking his lead from the iconic buildings of London’s Tate Modern and New York’s Guggenheim, next on his checklist is the creation of a single museum to house all of MMOMA’s exhibitions. Although the museum clocked 300,000 visitors in 2011, Tsereteli believes that a single destination will help bolster numbers. He already has his eye on a number of former factories and has secured the backing of Sergei Kapkov, who as head of Moscow government’s department of culture was responsible for the transformation of Gorky Park into a voguish hangout. An international tender for its construction is planned for this year.

A slow but favourable shift in international attitudes towards Russian art is also helping Tsereteli’s cause, a result of high-profile events such as the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, awards like the Kandinsky Prize and galleries such as the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture, founded by the high-profile collector Dasha Zhukova. A double exhibition on modern and contemporary Russian art that opened in collector Charles Saatchi’s London gallery in November 2012 is another boost. “It’s changing,” says Tsereteli. “In the 1980s, during perestroika, Russian art was introduced to the international art market but collectors weren’t ready. Now they are, but we need to make sure that we show them what new artists are doing.”

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