An institute’s efforts go international

It usually takes some years before a relatively new museum acquires a defining character of its own and a recognizable cultural policy. To reach that point is one of the greatest challenges facing cultural institutions. This includes the National Museum of Contemporary Art, with the small difference that, since its beginning, the museum has been associated with the Costakis collection of the Russian avant-garde, a valuable and internationally coveted assemblage of works which both Greece and the museum have been fortunate to acquire. Considering the importance of the collection and the substantial funds (not to mention the rarity of works in the market) necessary for purchasing them, the possession of such a collection is the museum’s greatest asset. But it is also one of its liabilities for its activities are constantly measured up against the collection’s eminence. It also makes the contradictions become more apparent; the fact, for example that the museum’s premises are divided between two completely different areas of the city, that it is understaffed and has not yet developed specialized research departments, all probably due to the hasty opening. Greece was nonetheless missing such a museum for years before that, so its opening has been most welcome. But such difficulties are gradually overcome; the museum’s former and current projects as well as future plans show a rapidly growing institution already well known in the international community of museums and an active participant in cultural exchanges worldwide. Museum Director Miltiades Papanikolaou, who spoke to the English Edition of Kathimerini on the occasion of the retrospective exhibition on Greek-American artist Cris Gianakos at the National Museum of Contemporary Art and a parallel symposium on art in the Balkan region (both a couple of weeks ago), unraveled the museum’s objectives and drew a picture of its potential. As expected, most of the emphasis is given to the Costakis collection undoubtedly because of the collection’s international renown. Besides the collection’s permanent display at the Lazariston Monastery building, the museum also holds temporary exhibitions that highlight a different aspect of the Russian avant-garde each time. Last year, it was about Tatlin and constructivism (supplemented by an excellently researched catalog, for which Papanikolaou says the Getty Museum sent its congratulations), and next year it will include a large retrospective on Solomon Nikritin, the first retrospective on the artist ever held and in collaboration with Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Plans also involve a large exhibition on Kasimir Malevich, which the museum will jointly organize with the Dutch Stedelijk Museum. Another exhibition, this time on Russian avant-garde preparatory drawings (mainly of Ivan Kliun and Gustav Klutsis) and in cooperation with the Pushkin Museum is scheduled for fall 2003 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the birth of the late Giorgos Costakis, the man who put the collection together. Each exhibition is supplemented by a conference. The relationship between the Russian avant-garde and Byzantine art has been the subject matter of two consecutive conferences. The lectures heard on each occasion have been published as part of a series on the Russian avant-garde launched by the museum as a way of documenting the research conducted on the occasion of each exhibition. The idea is that each project creates a chain reaction that helps advance more research and promote further exhibitions. Indeed, the conference on the Russian avant-garde and Byzantine art has provided the idea for a future exhibition on the subject which will be initially held at the Frankfurt Ikonen Museum and at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in 2004. Again, this is one more example of how the Costakis collection has made it possible for a Greek museum to be in constant contact with museums and scholars internationally. (John Bowlt, a leading scholar in the field of the Russian avant-garde, has become a steady collaborator.) «We have daily contacts with international museums that are interested in exchanges. What is also interesting is that we see an increasing interest in the lesser known names of the Russian avant-garde,» says Papanikolaou, suggesting that the study of the Russian avant-garde is becoming more sophisticated. «Our objective is to form nuclei of friendships around the world, in Europe, the States and Russia… Russians know the Russian avant-garde very well, they are very good at discovering archives,» he says. The museum has already lent works from the collection to museums such as the Guggenheim, the Palazzo Grassi, the Tate Modern, the Reina Sofia Museum, the Pompidou, and the newly formed Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Trent in Italy. Cultural exchanges have been mutual. Lending works means borrowing something in exchange thus ensuring large exhibitions at the Greek museum’s premises. An example is the exhibition that explores the relationship between art and the technological advances made in flying; the exhibition is organized by the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Toulouse and will travel to Thessaloniki next year. An exhibition on Italian arte povera is also under negotiation with a museum in Trent. Another positive side to the Costakis collection is that it can potentially help create new areas of international scholarly interest for Greek universities. Papanikolaou, who also teaches art history at the Aristoteleion University in Thessaloniki, says that the museum provides the opportunity for students to become experts in a field which, because of its international appeal, will potentially make Greek scholarship known internationally. «We help create an interest. I think that in future years, Greek researchers will be in a position to produce knowledge that will reach outside our geographical boundaries and will be linked to important aspects of European civilization… it is important that last year’s graduate students started to learn Russian,» he says. Throughout, a constant objective is to keep the audience coming to the museum to see the works. This is not always feasible and Papanikolaou plans to employ more popular techniques such as a museum shop. He also plans to hold exhibitions that will show the effects of the avant-garde on contemporary culture; an exhibition in collaboration with British-based fashion designer Sophia Kokosalaki is under discussion. There are also plans to enrich the permanent collection with additional supplementary material that will show the developments of the avant-garde in relationship to other modern movements across Europe. As a museum on contemporary art, the National Museum also plans a host of other activities outside the strict realm of the Russian avant-garde. The present exhibition on Cris Gianakos is one of a series dedicated to accomplished Greek-born artists who made a career abroad. Exhibits on Alkis Pierrakos and Constantin Xenakis will follow in this line. There are also plans for a large exhibition on the drawings of Akira Kurosawa. Another forthcoming project is the establishment of a Biennale of Contemporary Balkan Art, scheduled for the year 2004. (The Center for Contemporary Art – which is the more experimental branch of the National Museum of Contemporary Art and is run by Sania Papa – is especially active on issues of contemporary art in the region of Southeastern Europe.) Although not the exclusive content of the biennale, art from the Balkans will be its main focus. As in most of the museum’s other projects, the idea is to encourage more networking and internationalization. «Cosmopolis,» which is the title that Papanikolaou came up with, echoes this spirit of growth, contact-making and exposure.