At the back of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts atrium, behind Italian statuary and Gothic arches, there is a tall wooden door marked “Office of the Director.” Inside, oil paintings hang above a long table covered in a green brocade cloth. For over half a century, this was the office of Irina Antonova, the white-haired powerhouse who took over the Moscow museum the same year Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.
At 91, Antonova was the world’s oldest director of a major museum. But this summer, after she engaged in a very public spat with another prominent museum director, Mikhail Piotrovsky of Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum (“Haunted by History,” Summer 2013), the announcement came that she was stepping down as the Pushkin’s head.
Today, the office has another occupant: Marina Loshak, 57, a contemporary-art curator and a former gallery owner.
The two women’s differences are vast. Antonova grew up under the reign of Stalin’s Socialist Realism; Loshak came of age during perestroika, when rock bands were making a wild mockery of the decaying Soviet state. Antonova rose to power in the glacial state-controlled system; Loshak made her way in a constantly shifting commercial landscape.
But Loshak is also an insider who has proven shrewd at navigating the competing interests, and bitter fallouts, of Russia’s post-Soviet art world. In a time when state museums are facing brutal budget cuts, Loshak’s commercial background was a factor in her appointment as successor to Russian art’s great matriarch. At stake in the transfer of power is a $700 million reconstruction plan—and some of art’s greatest treasures.
“My entire path has been a sort of path to freedom out of captivity. But now I’m back in captivity,” Loshak said in an interview in her new office. Asked what she meant, she replied, “The less weighed down you are by obligations to people, by responsibilities of various types, the freer you are.” It was an unexpected statement coming from someone who has just taken over a cultural institution with 700 employees.
Loshak has large brown eyes and speaks softly but rapidly, in a mix of bureaucratic evasions and impassioned “artspeak.” While her predecessor favored Monet, Loshak throws out references to artists such as sculptor Ron Mueck, who creates hyperreal naked bodies with discomfiting proportions. Loshak owns a vintage clothing store and collects hats, but she dresses modestly, with her dark hair always pulled back.
She belongs to a respected intelligentsia clan. Her husband, Viktor Loshak, is an eminent journalist. Her daughter and nephew, Marina Mongayt and Andrei Loshak, are opposition-minded hosts on an independent TV channel. She began her museum career in her native city of Odessa at age 19, working at the local literature museum while studying philology. In 1986, she ended up in Moscow, where she found a job at the Mayakovsky Museum.
Russia’s capitalist rebirth in the 1990s (the “wild ’90s,” as the decade is called in Russia) was a time of incredible gains—and devastating losses. Loshak quickly established herself on the side of the victors, becoming the head of one of the country’s first corporate art collections, owned by Stolichny Bank. In 1998, she became the bank’s press secretary and “cultural attaché.” That same year, the bank (by then known as SBS-Agro) collapsed in Russia’s infamous credit default, leaving millions of investors empty-handed. Loshak went on to serve as the head of the bank’s Moscow Arts Center until the mid-2000s.
Loshak flatly defends her corporate experience. “It was a very serious curatorial endeavor—it was purely curatorial, and that’s it,” she said.
In 2007, she cofounded Proun Gallery at Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art, a former wine factory in Moscow that became the first in a new wave of contemporary-art spaces. Her place in the cultural firmament was cemented by a friendship with Sergei Kapkov, the former deputy to billionaire Roman Abramovich, who now heads Moscow’s culture department.
Last year, Kapkov appointed Loshak to lead the rebranding of several galleries under a single name, Manezh, located in the exhibition hall of that name near Red Square. Under her leadership, Manezh emerged as one of the city’s leading contemporary-art platforms. Earlier this year, an installation by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota turned the space into a kind of gothic cobweb, with ghostly suspended dresses and a mass of tangled black threads.
The announcement that Loshak was to replace Antonova at the Pushkin sent shock waves through the Russian art world. Antonova had, after all, outlasted seven Russian leaders. She took over the museum in 1961, a year before Khrushchev famously called modern artwork “dog shit” at an exhibition in the Manezh.
Antonova is credited with elevating the Pushkin Museum into an international presence, organizing landmark exhibitions that brought such artists as Picasso and Modigliani to the Soviet Union. She established the museum’s private collections wing, which contains over 7,000 objects of Russian and Western European art. She is also known for her extensive contacts abroad, which she used to bring in blockbuster shows of artists including Dalí, Caravaggio, and, most recently, the Pre-Raphaelites.
Her tenacity got her into trouble earlier this year, when she used the occasion of President Putin’s annual television call-in show to petition for the reestablishment of the Museum of New Western Art. Established in 1923 with treasures from the nationalized collections of Moscow merchants Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, the museum was dissolved in 1948 by Stalin and its works were divided between the Pushkin Museum and the Hermitage.
Antonova demanded that the Hermitage hand over its share of the treasures, which provoked an angry response from Piotrovsky, who said his museum “must not be touched.”
The Pushkin denied that Antonova’s removal had anything to do with the conflict, stating that she wanted to spend more time with her family. Loshak and Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky both say that Antonova picked Loshak as her successor. Antonova told Izvestia newspaper, however, that she was forced to pick from a list of candidates selected by the Ministry of Culture.
The Pushkin Museum was founded in the 19th century as an affiliate of Moscow State University. The 1912 opening ceremony was attended by Czar Nicholas II. Today, the museum has approximately 600,000 objects, from ancient Egyptian reliefs to the modern works from the Shchukin and Morozov collections. On any given day, there is likely to be a line of people waiting to get in.
“It’s an absolutely traditional museum, in the best, classical meaning of the word,” Loshak said. “And like all museums that are no longer young, it needs to be updated.”
The museum’s building has an impressive columned portico and an innovative glass-roofed atrium, but its facilities are aging; the only place to get something to eat is the Soviet-style basement canteen. Loshak rattled off a list of several “obvious” changes she thinks are needed, from new technical equipment and lighting and an overhaul of the website to more outreach to young people. A new, higher-tech tone was set over the summer, when Loshak asked followers on her Facebook page to offer their suggestions for the museum.
Loshak rebuffs comparisons to her predecessor. “I’m staying true to myself and my own ideas about how to work,” she said. “Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and I think everyone should focus on his or her own strengths.”
For the time being, emerging from Antonova’s shadow is difficult. The former director has stayed on as president, and continues to come to the office almost every day. Antonova “is welcome to participate in everything, including strategic planning,” Loshak said diplomatically.
The most pressing issue Loshak has inherited is the museum’s massive rebuilding project, which remains in limbo since British architect Norman Foster’s resignation last summer. Under Foster’s ambitious plan, commissioned in 2006, the museum’s size would more than double, to include cafes and a concert hall.
The project stalled after President Putin’s reelection in 2012. Antonova defended it staunchly from criticism by both architectural preservationists, who feared that historic buildings would be destroyed, and Moscow’s mayor, who recommended moving storage facilities to the city’s outskirts.
Loshak told ARTnews that “nothing has been canceled; all the finances are in place.” She added that Foster’s project was being “tweaked” to address the concerns of preservationists.
Days later, however, when chief city architect Sergei Kuznetsov issued an ultimatum to Foster either to see the project through or to leave it, Foster + Partners revealed that the firm had already pulled out in June.
Kuznetsov has raised the possibility of a new design competition, but Loshak has said that the museum hopes to convince Foster to return to the project.
In 1945, as a young staff member, Antonova helped the Pushkin Museum unpack war trophies seized from Germany during World War II. In 1991, ARTnews revealed that the museum’s secret depositories held the Trojan Gold, a hoard of gold artifacts found in the ruins of Troy by German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1873, along with many other treasures taken from defeated Germany. Antonova steadfastly opposed their return.
Loshak also supports keeping items taken during the war so long as they are displayed as such. “The most important thing,” she said, is not to hide their origins, but to show them openly.
She understands Antonova’s fight for the Museum of New Western Art. “It’s the dream of a person who visited this museum as a young woman,” Loshak said. “I understand these feelings and share them. The thought of seeing the museum reborn and all these artworks together again gives me goose bumps.” But she urges restraint, saying that “neither side can force anything. It’s a decision that should be made in the upper levels of government.”
The Pushkin Museum has ventured little into contemporary art or new media. There is no video or performance art; there are no installations. “Everyone’s worried that I’ll be too aggressive in introducing modern art into a traditional museum,” Loshak said. “In no way do I support being aggressive. I just think that a smart, talented update is good for any museum.”
She pointed to the Hermitage as an example of successful modernization. Over the past several years, the Hermitage has staged a variety of contemporary exhibitions such as The End of Fun, an installation by Jake and Dinos Chapman that had plastic figurines slaughtering one another in the shape of a swastika.
Loshak said she dreams of showing films by Peter Greenaway in the Pushkin Museum’s Dutch Golden Age gallery or placing work by Mueck in the atrium. “He’d fit in wonderfully next to our David,” she said, referring to the museum’s cast of the Michelangelo sculpture.
Asked if she’d had time to walk around the museum’s vast warehouses, her eyes lit up. “Of course, there are so many interesting things, she said. “I’d like to spend more time down there in storage, but they don’t let me.”
She smiled, before getting up and being led away to her next appointment. She is, after all, in captivity now.
Joy Neumeyer is a reporter for the Moscow News and other publications.