Few days ago I was reading an article in Artguide, an extract from a book about 25 deadly sins of contemporary museums by Tomislav Šola (which trace I failed to find on Amazon or any online/offline retailer). This article summed up my own concerns and thoughts about how many museum fail to make the exhibitions interesting and even visitor-friendly. For Croatian Šola and his colleagues visitor-friendliness includes interaction and ability to learn, comfortable chairs, readable and legible signage, no queues in the toilets, ability to get a cup of coffee, etc. - all those indispensable characteristics of a good modern museum.
What about the atmosphere itself? It’s de-facto that a visitor is welcomed to a museum as he/she agrees to spend both the time and the money there. Museums compete for sponsors' money, visitors' attention and positive feedback in social media, all interlinked and important. But this basic and incontestable free market economy's rule of making your client/customer happy is non-existent in most of ex-Soviet countries' state museums, even those that are considered the titans and elite in museum world, relatively progressive and open-minded, time to time show hostile attitude to a visitor. A centuries-long "Who is to Blame?" question posed by a Russian writer Hertzen can be also asked in this matter, but it is a type of question that cannot be answered in one sentence, yet the attempt to answer it will drive me away from the main purpose of the post.
When I step in a state-owned museum, be it in Russia, Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan, I feel very unwelcome as if I disturbed someone at 2AM with my call or unexpected visit. There are, of course some exceptions, those who truly enjoy their work and for whom low salaries or other challenges/problems do not leave a mark on their face and overall mood, but usually museum employees seem to be always irritated and speak through set teeth or stare at you with suspicion while you move from one item to another controlling that no photos are taken or a cellphone is picked to answer a call. To me it was twofold surprising to experience this kind of strict control over phones and cameras usage in The History of Soviet Pavilions, Part I exhibition curated by Marina Loshak who in her interview to Russian TV along with discussing her vision of being a newly appointed director of State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow highlighted the fact that she is against controlling visitors or prohibiting them to take pictures as this is a way of interaction and learning.
Unfortunately, Manez has no English language website -
a shame to one of the best Moscow's contemporary exhibition spaces
Prohibiting taking no-flash pictures, in my opinion, is inappropriate and badly managed anyway. This tendency did not come by private art centers. In artist-owned Gapchinska gallery in Kiev I was explained that this is artist’s will and a way to fight copycats. In private Pinchuk Art Center before I made a disappointed face the guide had told me that I could find high quality pictures of all pieces from ChinaChina exhibition online, so I was happy at the end. Still, I believe that whoever wants and needs to take a picture will definitely leave the place with a bunch of photos or find them online elsewhere. On this occasion, I have an unforgettable story of a challenge when in a group of three we spent around 10-15 minutes to distract attention of Turin's Castello di Rivara's attendants so that our friend takes a photo of Maurizio Cattelan’s Novecento piece (a taxidermied horse hanging from the ceiling) that I actually now found on artist's website! Probably, the level of excitement, fun and childish mischief we all shared can be only knocked off by Godard's scene of running through Louvre.
Maurizio Cattelan, Novecento, 1997. Photo by Paolo Pellion di Persano. Courtesy of the artist
Even with no photo policy, Pinchuk's center holds the garland of victory in my list of contemporary art experiences in five ex-Soviet countries I have been so far, maybe since it is private, organized by a passionate art collector who invests a lot to develop new activities managed by a foreigner. Going to state museums unless it's Hermitage or anything as significant and target international visitors, is usually depressing. The Night of Museum in Almaty made me regret of leaving my hotel room as all expositions were closed, the biggest attraction was taking a photo with parrots and sleepy owls at the entrance, inside there was a fair of badly made crafts displayed in self-made booths and creepy things like a book titled "Life Through The Prism of Death" that I even was afraid to open... Maybe it is wrong to generalize the entire country's museums based on the visit to the Central State Museum, the biggest in whole Central Asia, but the photo of the hall below speaks for itself.
On the photo: people dancing under weird music mixed with Yuri Gagarin's historical April 12, 1961 speech.
In all CIS countries I've been so far, private art centers are more innovative and dynamic, yet relationship management and communication ethics is uneven: I left Moscow's Winzavod with mixed feelings as I really enjoyed the site, but not that much restaurant service or my conversations with some of the galleries employees finding them extremely rude or arrogant (or both) once they have cleared that I am not intending to buy anything on the spot. Owned by Dasha Zhukova, Garage Center for Contemporary Culture (GCCC) in Moscow had expensive tickets, but well-curated events. Plus, it was the first time an employee, a young female, smiled and wished me a nice day when issuing the ticket! However, I did not get why in such a small perimeter there were so many employees, ca. fifty vs. at most twenty five-thirty visitors. In addition to young attendants dispersed few meters away from one another and thus outnumbering the visitors in the exhibition space, there were few London-club bouncer-like males dressed in Men in Black style suits walking in the park. These professional bodyguards' mission remained unclear to me as neither Dasha nor her rich husband were anywhere close, the artists on display were famous, but not contemporary art superstars like Gerhard Richter or Jeff Koons, so I felt very sorry about these emotion-free guys looking so odd around children's playground and hipster-favorite outdoor resting zone. Ah, and of course, cameras in each corner complemented the feeling of Big Brother silently watching every step one takes.
I didn't have guts to take a picture of Men in Black bouncers, so instead enjoy the
picture of Garage's ad - a friendly invitation to be in the center of contemporary culture
Despite all of above pitfalls, it will be wrong not to mention that both state-owned Manez and Winzavod/Garage CCC exhibitions were exceptionally interesting and enriching and sooner or later I finally finish editing my posts from this summer. Also, Šola would be probably happy to discover that Garage's restaurant offered a very nice menu, had a summer terrace and restaurant's employees were friendly enough to let me leave my laptop charging while I walk around the exhibitions with a phrase "sure, we will keep an eye on it, but no one will steal it anyway" (a double-meaning phrase that either sheds some light why they would need those bouncers-like security in the garden or just an acknowledgment that my ugly Lenovo work laptop was not sexy enough to be stolen in Moscow's center for contemporary culture).