Report from AICA Russia

We, members of the Russian section of AICA, write to express our deep concern about the abolition of the autonomy of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA). The main outlet of the NCCA in Moscow, along with its seven regional branches, has for many years been the main platform for ​​collecting, researching and popularizing contemporary art in Russia.

The NCCA was created in 1992 during a time of global democratic reforms, in order to revive state support for contemporary art, including the works of its progenitors, who were called Soviet “Nonconformist” artists, as well as its successors, by accumulating and displaying the works of the following generations. By approving the very act for the creation of the NCCA, a new Ministry of Culture in a new Russia abolished the practice of the suppression of independent modern and contemporary artists and innovators, which had been inherent since the early 1930s thanks to the cultural policies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The NCCA had become an agent for the recognition and promotion of the avant-garde aspects of Russian culture. In the twenty-four years of its existence, the NCCA held hundreds of exhibitions, not only in Moscow and abroad, but also in almost all of Russia’s major cities, places that had never before reached. The NCCA was in charge of the Russian Pavilion at various Biennales and initiated two major events that are still scheduled to take place in Moscow: “Innovation,” an annual artist award and the Moscow Biennale for Young Art. The NCCA’s travelling exhibitions, publications, and lectures have given rise to the emergence of a new wave of professional, contemporary artists, collectors and gallery owners in the Russian provinces. The NCCA has established branches in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Vladikavkaz, Tomsk, and Samara. A plan is currently in the works to increase the number of these affiliates, which have served as the platform for introducing the Russian populace to the diversity of modern Russian culture. The Moscow headquarters of the NCCA became a key center of a new and thriving culture where lectures, workshops, discussions and even plain café meetings united artists, art historians and critics from all around the world. The Moscow Center’s collection grew rapidly. Videos, photos, and text files started to require more and more space, the research team grew, and a single exhibition hall could no longer cope with the influx of materials. After many years of searching for investors, budget money, and a suitable site in Moscow, the construction of the NCCA headquarters, which would include on its premises a large-capacity museum and all of the necessary attendant services, finally began. Leonid Bazhanov, an art critic, founder and director of the NCCA, assured journalists, not without pride, that the huge building at Khodynka would become the “Russian Centre Pompidou”.

However, this building will no longer belong to the NCCA. At the end of May 2016, following a decree from the Minister of Culture of Russia, Vladimir Medinskiy, the NCCA was all but destroyed. It has lost its legal, financial and academic independence and has been made legally subject to ROSIZO, an organization, whose main objective for many years had been to provide technical and logistical support for the activities of Russia’s museum exhibitions. It prepares containers and packaging materials, produces and fills in customs declarations, and runs a carpool. Parallel to this, ROSIZO also manages the National Museum Fund. This agency also stores works of art based on the decisions of the Union of Artists and the Academy of Fine Arts. ROSIZO served a similar function during the immediate post-Soviet period, when it stored works at the request of museum curators. Ministerial experts selected the best works in ROSIZO’s collection for display on the territory of ROSIZO, and the rejected items were automatically sent to storage in the ROSIZO funds. Now the fund stores more than 40 thousand exhibits, the majority of which are typical examples of Socialist Realism, the official Soviet art. Now, on the other hand, a 5000-thousand-piece collection of free and experimental post-Soviet art collected by the NCCA faces the fate of being buried in ROSIZO’s seemingly limitless storage facilities. The ROSIZO staff consists of experienced workers. However, their expertise does not encompass the scope of contemporary culture. Sergey Perov, the newly appointed director of ROSIZO, a capable manager and a graduate of the military academy, who has worked in the Kremlin apparatus, frankly admitted as much to reporters.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture has set new challenges for ROSIZO, which are not economic. It sees ROSIZO as one of the locomotives for promoting the new official art. According to a publication in the newspaper Kommersant, Russian officials explained the decision of the Minister in the following way: the unification of the ROSIZO and NCCA collections will create the country’s largest collection of twentieth and twenty-first century art. This will allow ROSIZO to organize larger exhibitions in the Russian regions. ROSIZO, an organization, which previously had no exhibition space, now has at its disposal a vast hall in Moscow called Gallery ROSIZO. It has already begun to hold exhibitions that display reactionary tendencies similar to those seen in official Soviet art and museology. Moreover, such fantasies of government officials sound like dreams of the proverbial “patriotic realism.” For the purposes of legitimatizing highly dubious material, it is blended with works by recognized non-art maitres, such as Erik Bulatov and Oscar Rabin. Real innovators in art are not welcome in this gallery, of course. The opportunity to exhibit their works in the halls of the NCCA and its affiliates is now closed to them. The main hall of NCCA is to be abolished and refashioned into offices for new employees. Video equipment has been taken to the warehouses. Exhibition plans have been canceled. Meetings in general, and especially with outsiders must now be approved at least a month in advance by the ROSIZO management.

The absorption of the NCCA carries the negative consequences not only for the many employees of this network organization, but also for Russian artists, for the general cultural situation in the country, and for the development of Russian society. But it is exactly this negative result that the Ministry of Culture of Russia, which for the last decade has been in a hidden, sordid struggle with the country’s most relevant art and artists, is trying to achieve. Now the struggle has entered a new, open phase. With the destruction of the NCCA and its affiliates we can talk about a return to communist methods of ideological control over the institutions engaged in the distribution, promotion, study, and conservation of contemporary art in Russia. This resurgence of the cultural policy of the Communist Party deserves categorical condemnation in our view.

We, members of the Russian section of AICA, appeal to colleagues of other national sections and to the leadership of the organization with an offer to join our voices in protest against the abolition of the NCCA and its affiliates.

Andrey Erofeev (co-chairman of the Russian section)
Nina Getashvili (co-chairman of the Russian section)
Josef Backshtein
Marina Dmitrieva
Larissa Kashuk
Andrey Kovalev
Yulia Liderman
Vitaly Patsyukov
Liza Plavinskaya
Natalia Semenova
Anna Tolstova

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