Palace Square is the heart of imperial Russia,” says Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. The heart of its immense collection is housed in the Winter Palace, the official residence of the Russian czars.
“Imperial Russia no longer exists. There is no longer a palace or an emperor. We are in the place of the emperor—our museum—and the military,” Piotrovsky says, referring to the czarist-era General Staff Building with which the museum shares Palace Square and to the square itself.
Piotrovsky’s richly decorated office, overlooking the Neva River, is fit for an emperor, with its 17th-century tapestries, a table once used by Czar Alexander III, and a clock that belonged to Tchaikovsky. Framed photographs of Piotrovsky show him with European royals, Pope John Paul II, Kofi Annan, and former Russian president Vladimir Putin, a Saint Petersburg native who, Piotrovsky says, is very knowledgeable about the Hermitage.
The museum holds everything from Egyptian antiquities to Matisses commissioned by Sergei Shchukin, the prerevolutionary arts patron whose collection was confiscated by the Bolsheviks, to Cézannes and Renoirs brought from Germany as trophies after World War II and first displayed to the public, amid much controversy, in 1995.
Piotrovsky succeeded his father, who led the Hermitage for almost three decades, in 1992. His keen sense of the institution’s historical uniqueness is matched by his grasp of modern necessities. The Hermitage is the only museum in Russia that has a line item in the federal budget, he says, noting that when he became director he had an operating budget of only $1 million. He laughs when asked about the impact of the global economic crisis, which has led to a 16 percent cut in the Hermitage’s federal funds. “We always live in conditions of crisis, so now one of our functions is to show others how to live in conditions of crisis. Our big activities and conceptions were born in conditions of crisis,” he says of the museum’s global ventures and the Greater Hermitage Project.
The current annual budget is close to $30 million and approaches $40 million when taking into account the Greater Hermitage Project. Partially funded by the World Bank, this expansion is transforming the East Wing of the General Staff Building into a showcase for contemporary art. Piotrovsky’s goal is to encourage a dialogue between classical and contemporary art, an exhibition strategy, dubbed Hermitage 20/21, that was launched in 2007 with “USA Today,” a show of contemporary American art from London’s Saatchi Gallery.
Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is overseeing the reinstallation of the museum’s Islamic and Chinese galleries and working with the museum to conceptualize ways of incorporating the history that took place within the palace walls into exhibitions and to shape the museum for the 21st century. Everything is scheduled for completion in 2014, the museum’s 250th anniversary. The construction of the Staraya Derevnya Restoration and Storage Center, a state-of-the-art repository on the edge of town, will also be completed by then.
“The Hermitage is a powerful international corporation,” Piotrovsky says. “It has many of the same rules as a corporation, but many different ones too. The main thing is that profit is not the criterion of success.” The museum has licensed its logo and images of its buildings for use on cell phones and Coca-Cola cans, using the proceeds for such projects as a new main entrance on Palace Square. The economic crisis has even opened a window of opportunity, leaving empty advertising pillars around the country, which have been filled with images from the Hermitage’s collection. “Let people see more ads for Rembrandt’s Holy Family rather than ads for diapers or beer,” Piotrovsky says.
The museum has long-standing relationships with such sponsors as IBM and Interros, the holding company of Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin, an arts patron and member of the Guggenheim Foundation’s board, but it has also been encouraging smaller-scale supporters and casting a wide net in the search for new patrons. Piotrovsky has arranged for Zenit, the popular local soccer club, to attend next month’s opening of the exhibition “Newspeak: British Art Now,” cosponsored by the Saatchi Gallery. Soccer fans and young people will presumably pay attention.
The Hermitage Amsterdam, which opened in June in the Dutch capital, is the latest example of the museum’s expansion. Hermitage outposts have also included the Hermitage–Guggenheim collaboration in the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas and an exhibition space in London’s Somerset House, both now closed. A research complex in Ferrara, Italy, that Piotrovsky describes as “almost like a university campus” is still in operation.
Piotrovsky’s creative alliance with Thomas Krens, who resigned last year as director of the Guggenheim Foundation, yielded the Las Vegas venture and gave birth to plans for a new modern-art museum in Vilnius, the capital of the tiny former Soviet republic of Lithuania. Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect, has been commissioned to design it.
“In principle we have an agreement,” Piotrovsky says. “Krens and I have traveled to Singapore and various places. We’re ready to participate everywhere. We wouldn’t like to do exactly the same thing as Las Vegas anywhere.” He pauses and adds, “Although maybe somewhere that is possible. In Vilnius we’ll be doing something like Las Vegas.” If the Guggenheim Museum’s planned Abu Dhabi branch, scheduled for launch in 2013, comes off, Piotrovsky says, “we will participate, of course, in some joint projects. Our alliance with the Guggenheim remains. Of course without Tom it’s a bit different. But the alliance remains, and the purpose of the alliance is joint projects in various places.”
In his nearly two decades as director of the museum, Piotrovsky, 64, has defended it against businessmen who believe they could run it better and rock bands, like the Rolling Stones, who have performed on Palace Square and whose pounding beat, says Piotrovsky, could damage the masterpieces hanging in the museum. He made headlines earlier this year when he cautioned that a long-awaited concert by Madonna (which took place last month) should not be held on Palace Square if the singer engaged in blasphemy. This, he believes, is a sanctified spot. “We’ve already taught everyone—now everyone knows—that Palace Square is the most unique war monument to Russian victories in the world,” he says. For the Rolling Stones concert, in 2007, the museum worked in close cooperation with the band’s sound technicians to direct the beat away from the Winter Palace. “Specialists said it was the best sound the Rolling Stones ever had,” Piotrovsky says. Duran Duran performed on the square in June, during the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum.
A winter skating rink that was first set up on Palace Square in 2007 by Bosco di Ciliegi, a Moscow-based luxury retailer and arts patron, also raised his ire. The square is under the jurisdiction of city and federal authorities, but the Hermitage has won a small victory: it is being given control over the Alexander Column, a monument in the center topped by an angel holding a cross and named after Czar Alexander I, in honor of Russia’s victory over Napoleon. Now at least, Piotrovsky says, the museum will have some legal levers to regulate what goes on in immediate proximity to the column. “This way we have staked our claim to the territory, like the Russian flag on the North Pole.”
The Hermitage’s vast scale and complicated history make it an easy target for criticism of everything from its paint job—some are not pleased by what they say is a new shade of green on its facade (to which Piotrovsky responds that green is not its historical color anyway)—to its financial accountability. The museum has been audited by the Accounting Chamber, a federal financial-oversight body, and disputes have become an annual ritual. This year authorities say the Hermitage misreported about $4.8 million as expenses and failed to pay taxes on them. Piotrovsky, who is also the chair of Russia’s Union of Museums, says that other institutions, including the Russian Museum, have been confronted with similar charges as a result of convoluted Russian tax laws.
Many observers thought Piotrovsky’s days at the Hermitage were numbered in 2006, after he revealed that a curator, Larisa Zavadskaya, had been involved in the theft of artworks. Zavadskaya, who suffered from diabetes, died during the investigation. Her husband was convicted of pawning the items to antique stores in Saint Petersburg. The judge who issued the ruling, in 2007, warned that the Hermitage’s security was inadequate.
Piotrovsky called the security lapses uncovered by the theft “a very complicated situation.” He remains convinced that Zavadskaya and her husband had accomplices, but apprehending staff members who steal is a problem. “Do you check the bags of employees when they’re leaving or not?” he asks, summing up the discussion about security at a meeting of the museum’s international consultative council. “The director of a German museum said he would never dare check the bag of his curator. The Americans say it’s very simple. Everyone in the Metropolitan shows their bags.”
Many of the missing items, says Piotrovsky, were of little value. Some were returned to the Hermitage, he says, “by people who received them as gifts or bought them and then realized that according to their rank they shouldn’t have such things.”
Russian museums are still suffering, he says, from losses inflicted by Soviet rulers, who treated the collections as state property that could be disposed of at will. If the government needed hard currency, it sold museum objects. If it needed gifts for foreign guests, it took things from museums.
Today the Hermitage’s new pride is Staraya Derevnya, the repository and exhibition facility tucked between a shopping complex and a park in the far reaches of Saint Petersburg. Staraya Derevnya is meant to help solve both the storage and the security problems in the Hermitage’s central facilities, where only 5 percent of the collection can be displayed at any given time.
Stage two of the repository is under construction. Tens of thousands of works, ranging from 12th-century frescoes to 19th-century portraits, have already been transferred to the new facility.
Staraya Derevnya’s main attraction is a hall displaying dozens of elaborate imperial coaches. A restoration center for the coaches will soon open. The complex also has an archeology center for vision-impaired children, sponsored by Heineken and the American Hermitage Foundation.
After a recent evening for local supporters, Piotrovsky signed autographs in the Heraldry Hall of the Winter Palace. A couple approached with their small son. He reached out to Piotrovsky for an autograph.
“They told me that he’s been going to the Hermitage his whole life,” Piotrovsky said later. “Most children want to be cosmonauts, but they want their son to be a museum curator.
“Being the director of the Hermitage is not such a great pleasure. But to be a curator, to preserve things—this is indeed a pleasure. So I told him, ‘Don’t be a cosmonaut. Be a curator.’”
Sophia Kishkovsky has lived and worked in Moscow since 1991. She writes for the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times, and other publications.