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Russia: Hermitage Museum Cannot Rest On Its Laurels

St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum ranks among the world's great art museums and, although it benefits from more government funds and attention than most of its Russian counterparts, the Hermitage has also had to adapt to new realities in changing economic times. RFE/RL spoke with Vladimir Matveev, deputy director of the Hermitage, on the challenges facing his institution, as well as the problems confronting Russia's museums as a whole.

St. Petersburg, 9 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum is one of Russia's flagship cultural institutions.

The more than 400 rooms and ceremonial halls of the former imperial Winter Palace house one of the world's greatest collections of art -- from antiquity to the 20th century -- ranking alongside the holdings of the Louvre, Prado, or the British Museum.

But the Hermitage can no longer afford to rest on its laurels. Like all cultural institutions in post-Soviet Russia, even this venerable museum has had to cope with shrinking state subsidies and the laws of the market.

RFE/RL caught up with the Hermitage's deputy director, Vladimir Matveev, who oversees the museum's exhibition and development departments, for an insight into how the Hermitage is managing.

Matveev is eager to dispel the notion that the Hermitage is a stuffy and staid museum. He points to the state-of-the-art computer center, where visitors can get a virtual tour of the galleries, and a brand-new Internet cafe. Matveev says the museum now counts its real as well as virtual visitors. "Our [Internet] page is one of the most interesting museum pages in the world. When we count the number of visitors to the museum, we also now count the number of visitors to our site. You will find both numbers in our annual report. It's close to 2 million hits. A year and a half ago, it was around 1 million hits per year. So it's a site that is growing dynamically," Matveev says.

Matveev says Russian museums are learning to cater to a more demanding public, which expects museums to act as more than mere "storage spaces" for art. "The museum occupies an important leisure niche -- and I'm speaking about different types of leisure, both educational and pure relaxation. The museum is becoming a focal point for many categories of people, for many professions and all age categories: from the youngest to teenagers to pensioners. It's not just an educational center in its pure sense," Matveev says.

The Hermitage today runs several after-school programs aimed at introducing pupils and students to the arts. It's a good business strategy, too, says Matveev. Children who grow to love art will one day become regular museum visitors and in the intervening time, their parents are also encouraged to spend time at the Hermitage.

The Hermitage has long maintained relationships with institutions abroad. With state subsidies currently making up less than 50 percent of its budget, the museum has had to look to foreign sources to cover shortfalls in its operating revenues.

Thirteen percent of the Hermitage's annual funds now come from licensing agreements on art reproductions, souvenirs, and products bearing the museum's seal.

An important part of increasing the Hermitage's visibility abroad has also been the opening of joint exhibition spaces, in cooperation with other leading museums. One of the most unusual is the Las Vegas-based Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, which features several masterpieces lent by the Hermitage and the Guggenheim Museum of New York.

Matveev explains: "The Guggenheim has a wonderful collection of 20th-century art, and the Hermitage, although we have many objects from the start of the 20th century and even later, this has never been our focus. Most of the collecting stopped after the Bolshevik Revolution, although the number of objects we have acquired since 1917 has grown many times over. So, uniting our strengths -- a museum with an amazing collection such as the Hermitage's combined wit 20th-century art -- it's extremely interesting, and we see no limits to where this cooperation can take us."

Matveev says Amsterdam will be the next site for a Hermitage center. "We have another center appearing in Amsterdam. The project has been worked on for many years, but it is just now coming to fruition. It's going to open in 2006, although independently of this, we have been holding yearly exhibitions in Amsterdam. And this year, we are planning an exhibition on the Stroganoff family as art collectors -- it's a very big project. But as regards these Hermitage centers, we are moving ahead with them because the Hermitage is a symbol of culture around the world, and the exhibitions [are] a big draw, so we are going to continue with this idea," Matveev says.

Far from a money-making deal, says Matveev, the lending of the Hermitage's works abroad often ends up costing the museum more funds. But what the museum spends in cash, it often regains in increased name recognition and most important, a trove of temporary exhibitions that grateful foreign museums send to St. Petersburg, ensuring Russia's 'cultural capital' continues to live up to its name.

While the Hermitage has worked hard to expand its ties abroad in recent years, Matveev also sees the museum's mission in helping its counterparts within Russia. "Discussions are also under way about opening Hermitage centers in Russia, in Kazan, for example, and other cities. We have exhibitions in many museums around Russia, and in Kazan, I really think we're going to open this Hermitage center. It will contain not only exhibition rooms but also an educational center for children, a media center, [and] a center for restoration experts and other researchers," Matveev says.

The Hermitage, unfortunately, is still limited in the number of Russian museums to which it can lend its artwork -- due to security concerns. Matveev concedes that few museums in Russia have the up-to-date antitheft systems the Hermitage's insurers require. But he notes that the example of Kazan, where the authorities have extensively renovated the city's Fine Arts Museum to meet international standards, as well as the more modest example of the newly reopened art museum in the southern Russian city of Lipetsk, show that where there is a will, there is often a way. Money, he says, is not always the primary issue.

Four years ago, the Hermitage opened its own school for art restorers in the western Siberian city of Yekaterinburg, which provided the space for classrooms. Matveev says the lack of professionally qualified museum personnel in some of Russia's outlying regions is a problem. Not everyone can afford to travel to Moscow or St. Petersburg, where the best training is available, so the courses must come to where the need is greatest. The Hermitage now regularly sends its own world-renowned art restorers to Yekaterinburg, where they conduct master classes for museum staff from all across Siberia.

Many visitors who come to the Hermitage ask about the admission fee, currently set at 300 rubles ($10). Russian citizens, if they choose, are eligible for a major reduction, which allows them to get in for just 15 rubles ($0.50). Matveev defends this dual-pricing policy, calling it a "one-price policy with a system of discounts." He notes that students and children of all nationalities -- who are among the Hermitage's poorest, but most enthusiastic visitors -- get in for free. Russians who can afford the standard admission price are also encouraged to pay it.

But Matveev has little time for foreign tourists who have come halfway around the world to see the Hermitage and still seek a discounted admission ticket. "We get many foreign visitors who, seeing the admission fee, find all sorts of wonderful reasons why they are too poor to pay. And this covers people of all nationalities -- from Europe, Asia. They want to pay the discounted admission fee, like Russians. And the first question I always ask them is: 'Do you have enough money for a return air ticket? Maybe we could help you out with that too?' Of course, then it turns out that just to get to St. Petersburg, they've spent a minimum of $200-$250, one way. But they are arguing over the most minimal sum, by comparison, and they consider it not fair to pay. But I think this is an amoral attitude, and not just in relation to the Hermitage, but to museums, to Russia in general. They had a goal, to visit a cultural institution. A person has to understand that supporting museums is our common responsibility," Matveev says.

Sometimes, although he stresses he would not want to return to communism, Matveev dreams of mounting an exhibition on the scale his museum could undertake in those days. "In Soviet times, many interesting projects were realized, which we can only remember with nostalgia today. Such projects will not happen again. I know it's not right to think about it this way, but it's the truth. For example, we had fantastic exhibitions of Western European still lifes and landscape paintings from the collections of socialist-country museums. We supported each other and the exhibitions were terrific. Today, organizing an exhibition one-tenth that size is already a major undertaking," Matveev said.

But the life of a museum director, Matveev says, has become definitely "more interesting." And, he hopes, so has the life of the museum visitor.