Hermitage Woos Eli Broad, Loses Hirst Skull, Seeks Postwar Art

Mikhail Piotrovsky
Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. The Hermitage, which occupies a former royal palace in St. Petersburg, boasts 24 Rembrandts and 37 Matisses among its 2.7 million artworks. Source: State Hermitage Museum via Bloomberg

Nov. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of Russia’s State Hermitage Museum, came through New York recently looking for money and art.

Occupying a former royal palace in St. Petersburg, the Hermitage boasts 24 Rembrandts and 37 Matisses among its 2.9 million artworks. Yet postwar and contemporary art is conspicuously missing.

“We don’t have our own collection, so we are showing works from other museums and private collections,” said Piotrovsky. “We have very little money to buy contemporary art.”

So he met with art dealer Larry Gagosian and billionaire collector Eli Broad, checked up on art loans to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and greeted about 120 guests at a dinner at Christie’s auction house, aiming to raise $200,000 for his museum.

He was focused on bringing 20th- and 21st-century art into the Hermitage. As the museum gears up to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2014, it is completing the restoration of a wing that will house contemporary art.

“It doesn’t have anything American from World War II onwards,” said Chauncie Rodzianko, a board member of the Hermitage Museum Foundation. “I don’t mean that they only have 100 pieces, I mean, they have nothing.”

The Christie’s dinner was part of the effort to attract gifts and long-term loans from American collectors. Some women arrived in Uzbek and Asian robes. Guests sipped champagne and munched blinis and risotto puffs.

Cy Twombly

In recent years, the Hermitage has mounted exhibitions of works by Cy Twombly, late de Kooning and pieces from the Saatchi collection. While in New York, Piotrovsky met with artist Anselm Kiefer and people representing the estate of Sol LeWitt to discuss possible projects. The museum is planning to show some of Broad’s collection, Piotrovsky said.

One contemporary-art exhibition that fell through in recent years was to feature Damien Hirst’s $100 million diamond-encrusted skull.

“We had to provide so much security, as if we were showing the golden mask of Tutankhamun,” said Piotrovsky. “It turned out to be too expensive for us.”

While it ended 2009 with a $2.1 million surplus, the museum relies heavily on federal funds, which accounted for 82 percent of the $100 million that the museum refers to as revenue in a financial statement for 2009. Russian corporations and individuals, including billionaire Vladimir Potanin, donated between $2 million and $5 million, Piotrovsky said.

“It’s a lot for Russia, where philanthropy is disliked and even hated,” said Piotrovsky.

One way the Hermitage can’t raise money is by selling any of its art. The museum still rues the time in the early 1930s when the cash-strapped Soviet government sold many of its masterpieces to Western museums.

“The 21 best works in the National Gallery used to be the 21 best Hermitage pieces,” said Piotrovsky about the Washington, D.C. museum. “It’s a tragic story.”

To contact the reporter of this story: Katya Kazakina in New York at kkazakina@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.