Signs of Troubling Times: Recent Developments at the State Tretyakov Gallery

New Tretyakov Gallery.jpg
New Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

13 March 2023

The Russian museum system is most known for behemoth museums such as the Hermitage in St Petersburg, or the State Tretyakov Gallery (Tretyakov Gallery) in Moscow. The Tretyakov Gallery, founded in the mid of the 19th century, houses a collection of over 130.000 works, including icons by 15th-century painter Andrei Rublev and the Black Square of Kazimir Malevich. In 1985, it took over the contemporary art gallery of the Central House of the Artists.

The war of Russia against Ukraine had an obvious impact on these state institutions too. Unlike the private institution Garage, which immediately made a clear statement at the onset of the full invasion of Ukraine, these state institutions appeared to continue with business as usual. In October 2022, ] an incident occurred when Dmitry Oserkov, the Hermitage’s curator for contemporary art, resigned and left the country. His reason for leaving the country was made clear in his statement, ‘I don’t intend to have anything in common with today’s Russia.’ Recently, there has been increasing turmoil when the widely acclaimed Zelfira Tregulova, director of the Tretyakov Gallery, was replaced. The staff of the Tretyakov Gallery took the unprecedented step of writing an open letter thanking her [], forming part of a wave of support for her. One of the key curators, Sergey Fofanov, also resigned, publishing an intelligent analysis reflecting on the museum’s leadership [].

Tregulova is an art historian, curator, and critic who for many years and in different functions was striving to make Russian art better known internationally. She has been involved in countless exhibitions abroad, often featuring the avant-garde tradition. These international endeavors could be criticized from a decolonial angle as being implicated in Russia’s neo-imperialism effected through cultural imaging. As a director of Russian state institutions, Tregulova invariably had to be politically conformist to some extent. Her drive, however, has been a passionate belief in relevant artistic positions being undervalued internationally. This perspective was open also for contemporary art in a qualifying way.

This position has been unconvincing to the regime. In January this year, the Department of Museums and Foreign Relations of the Ministry of Culture sent a letter to Tregulova asking her to respond to a letter by a visitor about ‘the issue of bringing the content of permanent displays and exhibitions in the State Tretyakov Gallery in line with spiritual and moral values.’ These values have been defined and fixed recently by a presidential decree from Vladimir Putin on November 2022. It lays out a “state policy to preserve and strengthen traditional spiritual and moral values”. These values are considered at the same time to have a universal base and to be applied across the Russian Federation, including life, human rights, patriotism, high moral ideals, and humanism. The state policy in relation to this field may be subject to regular adjustment, but media has become a powerful tool for preserving and strengthening them, and also works of art themselves are expected to preserve and promote these ‘traditional values’.

There had been other signs earlier on. In November, the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art at the Tretyakov Gallery had been cancelled for unclear reasons. The January letter was seen by the Russian media as a further indicator of tensions between state policy and the Tretyakov Gallery. This may form a meaningful background to a decision that is surprising but in itself a prerogative of a founding authority; namely not to continue a mandate.

Tregulova was replaced by Yelena Pronicheva. She has a completely different profile, a politologist by training who started the Budget and Taxes Committee in the State Duma of the Russian Federation, and in the Department of Foreign Economic Activity of Gazprombank. She subsequently became the executive director of Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, and recently headed the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow. She is the daughter of General Vladimir Yegorovich Pronichev, formerly head of the Border Guard Service of the Russian Federation and Deputy Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), where he was responsible for handling the Beslan school siege and the Moscow theatre hostage crisis, two of the most mediatized Chechen terrorist cases, both of them ending up with many casualties amongst the hostages.

While spirituality is one of the key lines of modern and contemporary art, art will always resonate with the society in which it acts and with its values. Art can never be an instrument for politicians and regimes to steer societies. This is a simple result of the nature of art. If art is instrumentalized to advance political agendas, it is relegated to other domains of culture, namely publicity, and propaganda. The quality of the art is always in its specificity.

This story could easily be read from the specific perspective of the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. It may also be seen as part of a much broader phenomenon, that of authorities wanting to establish control over museums. A key instrument of this is the nomination of cultural managers or even state managers instead of field experts in key leadership positions, something which is not only happening in the Russian Federation. It goes beyond saying that it is pertinent that museum directors of modern and contemporary art museums should not only be excellent organizers, but also experts dedicated to the field of the museum. It is this last quality that gives them cultural authority and the autonomy needed to mediate between the specifics of art and the moral ground of society at large.

In representation of the CIMAM Museum Watch Committee integrated by:

  • Bart de Baere, Director, M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, Belgium.
  • Malgorzata Ludwisiak, Chief Curator, Department of Modern Art, National Museum in Gdansk, Poland
  • Victoria Noorthoorn, Director, Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Zeina Arida, Director, Mathaf, Doha
  • Agustin Perez Rubio, Independent Curator, Madrid, Spain
  • Yu Jin Seng, Deputy Director (Curatorial & Research), National Gallery Singapore, Singapore

CIMAM – International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, is an Affiliated Organization of ICOM.