The Moscow Museum of Modern Art, MMoMA, under the direction of Vasili Tsereteli, is one of the most important thriving institutions for the contemporary visual arts in Russia, with a long record of staging exhibitions and ambitions for further development in the next few years. The unifying characteristic among these institutions is that they are supported mainly by private funds, in addition to which many have legal status as foundations. Set up by wealthy art patrons their growth shows clearly that there is a strong appetite for contemporary art in Moscow. While they continue to consolidate their position in Russia they are now increasingly evident on the international art stage, participating in art fairs such as the Frieze Art Fair and gaining a strong presence in events such as the Venice Biennale. Despite having reached this strong position there may well be many who have not yet fully realised that Russian artists and art institutions have become a major force in the international art world. The long years of isolation during the Soviet period did not help in spreading awareness of what was happening within the vast territories of Russia. Now that is changing rapidly, and much of what is being revealed to collectors and art lovers is causing surprise and interest. This is due to the dynamic ambitions of the predominantly young and wealthy art lovers who share a determination of open out the art of their country to a wider international gaze by active promotion of the work of living artists and their immediate predecessors in their museums and galleries.
Vasili Tsereteli was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1978. He studied in the United States, graduating from the United Nations International School in 1996 before going on to study the Visual Arts at The Parsons School for Design, graduating in 2000 with a Batchelor of Arts degree. He also received an EMBA from the Skolkovo Moscow School of Management in 2012. His grandfather, the Georgian-born painter and sculptor Zurab Tsereteli became of the Russia’s most commercially successful artists, although his works are now not universally admired. However, 2000 works from his own personal collection formed the core of MMoMA after he donated them to the Russian state in 1999, leading to the formation of the gallery. This donation included works by Russian masters such as Malevich, Gocharova, Tatlin and Rodchenko, as well as works by such as Picasso, Dali and Miro. His grandson Vasili became Executive Director in 2002, since which time a further 10,000 pieces, featuring works by more recent Russian artists, including Ilya Kabakov, Irina Nakhova and Andrey Bartenev, have been added. The organisation is now responsible for the collection, spread over seven major buildings in Moscow.
Vasili Tsereteli is a major force in Russian contemporary art, with a CV that includes a long list of responsibilities and international honours, including the Cross of the Order of the King of Spain, and his appointment as a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in France.
Russia, and the world in general, have changed considerably in both social and political terms since you became Executive Director of MMoMA in 2002, and the international art world and market have to some extent reflected such developments. How do you view those changes, particularly those of the past few years, and do you believe that they have been of benefit or otherwise to artists and art lovers?
MMoMA this year celebrated its 18th anniversary; in its 18 years it has seen different financial landscapes. One thing that has been constant is that love and appreciation for contemporary art has been growing. We have surpassed 500k visitors a year! We have seen new partners who support our museum and help it to grow foundations: VAC Foundation, AVC Foundation, RuARTS Foundation, Aksionov Family Foundation, Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, and the Gazprom Bank are amongst the many that we thank for our steady development. We have also seen an incredible effort by the Moscow Mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, in supporting culture and institutions. MAMM Multi Media Art Museum, run by Olga Sviblova, is one of fascinating museums, with great curatorial program and a city museum as us. Private museums like GARAGE who have a young team run by Anton Belov, founded by Dasha Zukova and Roman Abramovich, has been instrumental in developing the contemporary art scene and publishing.
There is also State NCCA – ROSIZO, with Sergei Perov as a young progressive director, managing it with many affiliates and the INOVATION art prize. Together, we organise biennale of young art.
The Art fair Cosmoscow has become a driving force for growing new collectors and art lovers, new galleries and private and public art centres that have been open through out the country. They all help the art education and the art scene to grow together.
In an article in The Calvert Journal in January 2013 you made reference to the graduates from Russian art academies, saying that while they were technically adept they lacked flair. Considering that it is such graduates who build the future of Russian art, do you think that the situation has changed in the past five years, and will such improvements continue? How might MMoMA help in this improvement?
Traditionally Russia has had a great academic art school. Ekaterina the Great opened the first Academy in St Petersburg. Now, the Russian Academy of Arts has two art institutes: one is the Repin institute in St. Petersburg and the other the Surikov in Moscow. The most important movement in Soviet times was Social Realism; it depicted Soviet lifestyle at that time.
The academic education is still one of the best. Students from around the world come to study. At the same time, contemporary practice and the conceptual approach is not taught in those institutes. MMoMA Education has a school that helps artists and curators to bring their practices to real life. One of our programmes involves young artists creating their first shows in the special gallery space with curators. We have especially opened an educational center at Ermalayevsky 17, which focuses on professional and on popular education. Driven to educate the population, we have specific programmes for kids and focus on people with special disabilities.
In recent years, we have seen many new schools who are doing a great job in teaching new generations of artists. Winzavod just had a group show of all the major contemporary art schools as a special project of Young Art Biennale. It was a very interesting exhibition that showed the Rodchenko School, Baza, and other schools… the different practices and strengths of each were very visible.
I was impressed during my visit to Louvre Abu Dhabi last November by the positive and successful efforts made by that institution to build a strong awareness and knowledge of the work of the museum and of the contemporary arts at all levels of the country’s education system. In connection with the previous question you expressed a hope in the same article that the Moscow Department of Education would include contemporary art component in their curriculum. To what extent have you been successful in this regard, and what further developments might yet be made?
MMoMA has been working with the Moscow department of education and together we have developed special study guides. The Moscow Department of Culture has been doing specially devised projects to bring school kids to museums. All the efforts are done to broaden the audience and bring as many new visitors to all different kind
While the work of some Russian artists is exhibited with success outside Russia – the powerful work by Grisha Brushkin shown in the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2016 being a case in point – there is room for further development in showing the work of Russian artists further afield in the world, and not just in the established major art centres.
How much influence can MMoMA have in promoting such development and what might be expected?
One very important institution that recently opened its own building in Venice is VAC Foundation. It is a 21st century foundation that focuses on a multidisciplinary approach to culture. They soon will have a home base in Moscow designed by Renzo Piano in an old power plant on the Moscow River. VAC Foundation with it’s Founder, Leonid Michelson, has done great shows with an international dialogue in which Russian artists always participants.
MMoMA is engaged in projects with a focus on the regions of Russia as well as outside collaborating with different museums and foundations. Recently, at Kiazma, there was the exhibition of Mamishev Monro that was jointly organised by the gallery and MMoMA. We are also planning other shows in Venice.
MMoMA is renowned for having an extensive and impressive record of creating exhibitions in the several buildings under its aegis. You have expressed the hope that a single museum might be created. What progress is being made towards this objective, and how might this benefit the increase in the general interest and knowledge of Russian contemporary art?
Even though MMoMA has seven buildings, it is one museum. Each of the sites has its own unique aura. Having it all in one building/location would make it better from the programming, accessibility and management point of view. We could have the display of our permanent collection together with exhibitions and other programs. We have been focusing on our internal restructuring, and thanks to our partners and patrons, we just opened our new educational center, which allowed us to expand certain of our practices such as making our library accessible to the public. All these benefit the making of contemporary art more accessible to public.
One of the great strengths of the contemporary art world lies in bilateral exchanges. How influential can MMoMA be in promoting such exchanges, and are there any current projects that you would like to mention?
MMoMA is constantly is working on projects involving collaboration and contribution of different institutions. The General Rehearsal exhibition which is now on display at MMOMA is the perfect example of such collaboration. Collections of MMoMA, VAC Foundations and KADIST Foundation became the sources for the exhibition and together created a dialogue. We are working on a Komar and Melamid exhibition, and soon we will open a Lipchitz show. We also collaborate with Heidar Aliev Foundation, Macba and other institutions to create new shows and projects.