I’ve been covering the artworld long enough to remember the celebrated “détente” exhibitions, jointly organized by cultural institutions in Russia and the US during a period from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, when tensions between the two countries eased under American Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev.
The most prominent artworld manifestation in the US of the mutually beneficial cultural exchanges that emerged from détente was the breathtaking Scythian Gold show that had riveted me at the Metropolitan Museum. That glittering display of ornate artistry was overseen by Boris Piotrovsky, then director of the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (father of current director, Mikhail Piotrovsky), and Met director Tom Hoving, aided by his faithful sidekick—the Met’s then new vice director for curatorial and educational affairs, Philippe de Montebello (who eventually succeeded Hoving as director).
With contentious relations between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine countries triggering traumatic flashbacks to the Cold War, “cultural exchange” with Russia now seems like a romantic notion of the past. But Russia actually stopped making art loans to the US long before the war in Ukraine further stifled cultural relations: In 2011 (as I explained here), an attempt by an international organization of Orthodox Jews to reclaim books, manuscripts and archival materials held by two Russian public libraries led to the refusal of Russian museums to lend artworks to US exhibitions. That cessation of loans still stands.
As reported by Alex Marshall in today’s (Monday’s) NY Times, the National Gallery, London, and the Pushkin State Museum, Moscow, have severed into two pieces the “After Impressionism” show on which the museums had been collaborating. As originally conceived, the show was to have tellingly juxtaposed masterpieces from each of the institutions’ distinguished holdings.
As Marshall wrote in the NY Times:
That exhibition was to open in London and then travel to Moscow. Now the shows are divorced; the National Gallery’s version of Cézanne’s “Bathers” will be seen only in London, while Henri Matisse’s “The Pink Studio,” a major painting of bright color and vivid decoration from 1911, will stay put in Moscow.
When I conducted a long, cordial interview with Mikhail Piotrovsky in his office at the Hermitage Museum (for a 5-page article in the February 1998 issue of Art in America), he had asserted that government officials should leave the planning of international art exchanges to museum professionals, who were adept at working cooperatively and overcoming political differences.
That was then…
…but this is now (or more precisely, a year ago, as described in another NY Times report—As Big Shows of Russian Art End in Europe, Some Wonder What’s Next).
Some of that “wondering” about “what’s next” occurred at a Round Table earlier this month on The Museum and Problems of Cultural Tourism 2023—an event that “has been held in the Hermitage annually for over 20 years now and brings together leading representatives of museums, higher education, the tourist industry, state structures, and associations of guide-translators and tour guides. Specialists from various parts of Russia and other countries—Italy, Senegal, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan[!?!] took part in the work of the round table,” according to the online description, which alluded to today’s turbulent political climate:
The changing foreign policy situation, which has affected the tourist branch and altered the tourism market, has presented museums with new challenges, to some of which the participants in the round table have sought to respond. The theme “A new world—a new reality” became central for the gathering this year.
Did they find any reason for hope in the emergence of a promising “new reality”? Time (and future exhibition schedules) may tell. But whatever his political views, the prudent Piotrovsky has never seen fit to express opinions that run counter to those of Russia’s leaders. For some three decades as the Hermitage’s director, he has managed to weather the political storms.
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