A museum’s international policy

From its very foundation in 2000, the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki received a special donation. It was given the Costakis collection, almost 1,300 works of Russian avant-garde or early 20th century works, newly purchased by the Greek State at the time. The international fame of the collection meant that, if rightly managed, the Greek museum could have the rare advantage of pursuing exchanges with renowned, international museums. Fully aware of this opportunity, museum director Miltiades Papanikolaou has since then worked toward this aim. He has organized exhibitions that explore the Russian avant-garde, collaborated with esteemed researchers worldwide for their knowledge in the field, produced excellent catalogs about each exhibition and also promoted a varied exhibition schedule that extends beyond the Russian avant-garde and includes large productions in collaboration with international museums. «The Conquest of the Air,» held last spring in collaboration with the Toulouse Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art – featuring, among others, works by Matisse, Picasso, Leger, Delaunay, Fontana and Yves Klein – and the upcoming exhibition «When Chagall Learned to Fly: From Icon to Avant-Garde» a joint venture with the Ikonen Museum of Frankfurt are examples of such collaborations. Loans and exchanges have been effected with museums such as London’s Tate Modern, the Guggenheim in New York, the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Madrid’s Reina Sofia, the Museo di Art Moderna and Contemporanea in Treton, the Thyssen Bornemisza and the Pompidou. Projects with the Musée d’Orsay, the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington and the MACBA in Barcelona are scheduled for next year. This international expansion has helped enhance the museum’s prestige both within and outside Greece. The Chagall exhibition (curated by Snejanka Bauer) which will open in June at the State Museum of Contemporary Art and, after the Olympic Games, will travel to the Benaki Museum at its request, was recently announced by the museum along with other forthcoming plans. The retrospective on Solomon Nikritin, held in collaboration with Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery (the first-ever held on the artist’s work), provided an opportunity for good news. The Ministry of Culture announced that transactions between the National Bank and the ministry, concerning acquisition of the former premises of IFANET and its being handed over to the State Museum of Contemporary Art (a project discussed for years), have entered the final stage. A disused factory and one of Thessaloniki’s listed buildings of late 19th century industrial architecture, the premises cover an area of approximately 18,000 square meters. The total cost, including renovation, amounts to 29 million euros and has been subsidized by the Third Community Support Framework. A technical counsel has been appointed to renovate the building complex and the museum is expected to move to its expanded premises sometime in 2006. It will also keep its current location at the Lazariston Monastery as well as exhibition spaces at the port’s warehouses. State subsidy accorded to the museum on an annual basis amounts to 1 million euros. Papanikolaou manages these rather lean funds without compromising his objectives. Sensing the importance of administrating such an important collection, he tries to make the best of it. «From the first catalog we published, we became aware of the huge interest that international museums have in this collection. This created a sense of responsibility, we realized that we owned a treasure and that we could therefore use it to negotiate loans from other museums and thus help bring important works to Greece,» Papanikolaou told Kathimerini English Edition. Although works from the Costakis collection are dispersed at several museums around the world, such as the Guggenheim and the Tretyakov, the largest part is owned by the State Museum of Contemporary Art. This is the most comprehensive collection of Russian avant-garde art; Papanikolaou says it is the best in respect to works by Popova (an exhibition on the artist’s work is planned for next year), that it includes a good sample of Malevich and Rodchenko and is also strong in works from the first phase of Tatlin’s career. The first exhibition organized by the museum back in 2000 showed a selection of the collection’s best works. Then followed an exhibition on Tatlin and constructivism, the exhibition «Art and Utopia» last year and presently the exhibition on Nikritin. It is noteworthy that all exhibitions are supplemented by fully researched catalogs, essentially books that help advance research on the Russian avant-garde. The catalogs, for which Papanikolaou has received praise from international museums, include original texts by specialists in the field, among them John Bowlt, Lutz Becker, Nicoletta Misler, Natalia Adaskina, Magda Carneci and Boris Groys, some of them constant collaborators with the museum. «At some point, an exhibition draws to a close but a catalog is always there to stay,» says Papanikolaou. «Catalogs are museums’ answer to academic writing. They have the benefit of including texts by different specialists, therefore offering a diversity of opinions on the subject. This is why museum catalogs are sought after.» Seeking the right specialists for each subject covered by the museum’s catalog, Papanikolaou can justly pride himself on the museum’s publications and on the fact that they have extended the prestige of the museum. Aiming at the advancement of research, the museum has also organized two conferences on the Russian avant-garde and its relationship to Byzantine religious painting. «Part of the reason I chose this topic was because I wanted to bring the works of the collection closer to the cultural past of Thessaloniki and the broader region,» says Papanikolaou. The forthcoming exhibition on Chagall is something like a continuation of the preceding conferences: It examines the ties Chagall and the Russian avant-garde have with religious art and folk religious icons. Asked about involvement by Greek art historians in the museum’s catalogs, Papanikolaou said that the top researchers in the field are mostly to be found outside Greece. He also stressed the importance of finding and working with the right specialists, but also said that he is interested in involving graduate and postgraduate students from Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University. Papanikolaou, who is an art history professor there, has guided students interested in the Russian avant-garde. All five co-curators of the museum are doctorate art historians who have graduated from the Aristotle University. «I think that the links between the museum and the university must be continued at all cost. New knowledge is necessary and it can only be obtained through the involvement of research teams from the university.» Already a team of postgraduate students is helping the curators of the museum in the digital documentation of the Costakis collection. It is an ambitious project for which the museum was recently subsidized 1.15 million euros (after petitioning and competing in a special program). Besides the Costakis collection, the museum is also interested in pursuing other directions. Featuring the work of Greek expatriate artists has been a constant objective: Exhibitions on Chris Yiannakos, Alkis Pierrakos, Philip Tzaras and Constantine Xenakis express this goal. The museum has also turned its attention to contemporary art: An exhibition on the art of the Balkan region, held in 2000, is now succeeded by «Cosmopolis 1: Microcosmos X Macrocosmos,» an exhibition on the contemporary art of southeastern Europe, scheduled for the fall. Papanikolaou says that «Cosmopolis» will become one of the museum’s annual series on contemporary art (with the theme changing each year) and will be shown at diverse venues in Thessaloniki. Like the rest of the museum’s activities, it is intended to make art more accessible to the public, to promote research and to engage Greece in the international network of museums and researchers.

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