Russia Takes On Louvre, Guggenheim as Putin Fights Pariah Status

The Russian Museum Branch In Malaga
The Russian Museum branch in Malaga, located in a former tobacco factory. Source: The Russian Museum

Since it opened in March, the Russian Museum in Malaga, the southern Spanish coastal resort, has been thronged by visitors who line up to see centuries-old icons and works by 20th century avant-garde artists Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Marc Chagall.

The St. Petersburg landmark’s only foreign branch is part of an effort along with the former imperial capital’s State Hermitage Museum to stake their places on the map alongside international peers like the Guggenheim and Louvre. The drive, which has endured even amid the worst tensions between Moscow and Europe since the Cold War, was initially out of step with the Kremlin’s isolationist course. Now it could help President Vladimir Putin as he cautiously seeks to rebuild ties.

“At a time of extremely difficult ties with Europe, it’s great to break through the isolation,” Vladimir Gusev, the director of the Russian Museum, said in an interview in St. Petersburg. “Sometimes culture and art can achieve things that politicians can’t.”

The Hermitage, which was founded by Empress Catherine II in 1764 and boasts one of the world’s largest collections of Western art, is to open a branch in Barcelona in 2017, its second satellite outside of Russia after Amsterdam.

Global Ambitions

The Russian Museum, whose collection from the 11th to 21st centuries represent the world’s biggest store of Russian art, says it is considering branches in Abu Dhabi and Brazil.

The museums say international audiences are eager. A Kandinsky exhibit staged mainly with works from the Russian Museum has attracted almost 2 million visitors since January in four Brazilian cities, said Gusev.

Still, touting Russia’s role in European culture hasn’t been easy with the Kremlin’s official line going the opposite way. The Russian government has provided no funding for the museums’ expansion plans, officials said.

“Now it’s not very fashionable to say it, but we are not just a Russian museum, we are a museum for the world,” Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky said in an interview in his office in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. On his desk, he keeps a framed photograph of Queen Elizabeth II, who visited the museum on a royal tour of Russia in 1994.

Piotrovsky started the international push a decade and a half ago by opening temporary branches in London and Las Vegas that have since closed. He said the expansion is entirely funded by foreign hosts and private fundraising.

Politics Intrudes

“Everything we are doing is to show that culture is above politics and cultural relations go on even if the political situation is bad because culture is forever and political situations change when politicians want them to,” said Piotrovsky.

But politics often intrudes.

Piotrovsky says any plans to loan art internationally must now get special legal exemptions from host countries to ensure no artworks are at risk of seizure by courts seeking to enforce rulings against Russia. The latest threat: a $50 billion international-arbitration verdict in favor of some of the former shareholders of bankrupt Russian oil giant Yukos Oil Co. Moscow denounces the judgment as politicized and illegitimate.

A separate legal tangle between the U.S. and Russia over the ownership of an archive of Jewish books effectively blocks the Russian collections from going to the U.S.

The Hermitage in 2007 had to close its subsidiary in London’s Somerset House after local sponsorship dried up because of the murder of dissident Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko in the British capital.

’Profitable Investment’

Still, the Hermitage and Russian Museum have successfully pushed to keep alive ties with the outside world.

At the Amsterdam Hermitage, inaugurated in 2009 by then President Dmitry Medvedev, Piotrovsky in September attended the opening of the exhibition “Dining with the Tsars,” only a few weeks after a Malaysian passenger aircraft was shot down over eastern Ukraine. The crash, blamed by the U.S. and its allies on a Russian missile fired by pro-Moscow rebels, killed 193 Dutch citizens among the 298 people on board who lost their lives.

Malaga’s top museum official, Jose Maria Luna Aguilar, says business drove the decision to bring in the Russian Museum, which opened its doors in a former tobacco factory just days before Paris’s Centre Pompidou inaugurated its first foreign outpost in the Spanish city.

“I’m not going to enter into politics, but I can tell you this is a very profitable investment for Malaga,” he said in a phone interview.

Havana Branch

In Barcelona, the Hermitage has taken care to secure support from the central authorities in Madrid as well as the Catalan regional government.

The Hermitage’s planned branch has every chance to be a success because it’s in a city that is “really oriented to tourism and has a really deep interest in high culture,” says the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s director, Richard Armstrong. The Guggenheim’s branch in the Spanish city of Bilbao has attracted a million visitors a year since it was founded in 1997, he said by phone from New York.

For its next international move, the Russian Museum is relying on decades-old Soviet ties to open a branch in Havana -- where the tourist industry is set to benefit from a thawing of U.S.-Cuban ties.

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