ifa: How did your institution cope during the crisis and how has it managed since? How has the current situation changed the work of your museum and its conception of itself?
Diana Gurova: Moscow’s self-isolation regime meant that the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow (MAMM) had to close all art shows presented as part of the Photobiennale-2020, just 12 days after they had opened. This was a very painful for the museum, as we could see the exhibitions had engaged great interest among the public and press. Working remotely for 10-12 hours, we transferred the entire exhibition content online.
At the same time, we invented new formats that would enable maximum possible online access to all other current exhibitions, so that our audience could see close-ups as well as the complete installation. This was very important for us. As a result, we devised the 'Look in Silence' format. We also filmed different tours for each project, revealing the same exhibits through the eyes of the artists themselves, from the point of view of the director and artistic director of the Photobiennale, and museum staff. Moreover, during quarantine we recorded new concerts relating to the art showcased in the empty halls of the museum. These were improvisations on the theme of the displays as well as specific works. On our museum’s YouTube channel, we organised live broadcasts with artists, above all young artists, including students from MAMM’s Rodchenko Art School of Photography and Multimedia, as well as interviews with art critics, filmmakers such as Ilya Khrzhanovsky, collectors, and anyone with whom we could discuss the crisis and the suspension of creative activity. All the new formats are in great demand and this allowed us to increase the MAMM audience, even during the crisis.
Many exhibitions were in planning when the crisis hit. One of them was 'Our Victory – 75', devoted to the 75th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. This was due to open in April. We have now placed all the materials online, on a specially-created page at our museum’s History of Russia in Photography portal. Since the project was transferred online, we have managed to increase the resources to include clips based on materials from our collection and from family archives, as well as videos about the war photographers. The wealth of material led us to divide the exhibition into chapters for successive release over nine weeks, to avoid overwhelming the viewer. Each week heralds a new chapter.
Throughout self-isolation, we were very active on the museum’s social networks, its official site and YouTube channel. In total this brought us more than 62,000,000 views. Every day, the number of virtual viewers and subscribers increased, not just those from Moscow and the Moscow region, but also from other parts of the country and even abroad. We worked out which online formats should be retained and what material could be developed and added, for example 3-D presentations of our exhibitions. At present, we are seeking funding for the portal 'Russia in Photographs' to be translated into English.
Online exchanges have become even more important, and clearly this will be the case after the epidemic, too. We continue to work actively in this direction, seeking new specialists and new opportunities. The work of the Rodchenko Art School of Photography and Multimedia has also been transferred to an online format. This was not easy, but we are pleased to say that the school’s work has been just as effective. All staff have adapted to remote working. This experience has been useful for all of us, however difficult it may have been.
The museum reopened to visitors on 16th June and on 30th June we closed for reconstruction work, as previously scheduled. We took all the necessary precautions for our visitors during post-quarantine activities. Purchase of tickets has only been possible online, and shoe covers, masks and gloves were provided free of charge on entry. Every two hours, the halls closed for disinfection. The number of visitors was restricted to 300-350 per day. Tours were offered with groups of maximum five people. In spite of everything, we saw how the public missed us, and how glad they were to return.
We know the virus is still present; that it’s part of the new reality and many restrictions could stay with us for a long time. We hope for the best but should always be prepared for the worst, and that’s why the development of online formats remains a top-priority task.
MAMM plans to open the new season in September. We are very sorry to close the museum for five months. Even during the full-scale reconstruction that lasted many years, we kept open every day and the museum continued to function, creating new projects and exhibiting them to the public. Due to the long closure, our plans have been subject to change. Some exhibitions have been postponed to 2021, others to 2022. But we are trying to do everything as planned. We may have to shorten the length of exhibitions, but if we achieve our goal and produce 3D and maybe VR presentations of our projects that should not be a problem. Online formats will help us offer these exhibitions to the widest possible audience.
In autumn 2021, MAMM will be 25 years old, and we had already begun working on our anniversary year. The programme will be launched in Moscow by an international triennial, Art for the Future. Art for the Future will feature the art of new technologies and their reflections. On the one hand, these will be offline international and Russian projects. Work on the Russian projects will largely rely on graduates from our Rodchenko School. On the other hand, Art for the Future will serve as a permanent platform for displaying art that is created and lives exclusively online, and reflects the laws of our online life. This art already exists, and quarantine has shown that online is our new reality, that seeing how art lives within this reality, and how it reacts, is of vital importance.
ifa: How do you address your public in this new context? What kind of public do you expect and what do you expect from your public?
Gurova: During quarantine conditions, online communication was the only available option. Live broadcasts and zoom calls have shown that people were ready for these formats and find them interesting, and that everyone can adapt to them without difficulty. All these means of communication existed previously, but thanks to quarantine they became even more popular and will remain so in future.
MAMM is one of the most visited museums in Russia. We have an absolutely unique audience: 85 per cent of them are aged 18-35. They easily adapt and accept new information, and enjoy learning and participating in discussions, so long as the theme has been chosen correctly and touches on relevant issues. Above all, it is important to be sincere.
ifa: What do you consider to be the primary social responsibilities of your museum?
Gurova: We believe that the museum teaches people to think and feel. It is important to understand that the world is organised in a complex manner, and our relationship to it cannot be fixed or unambiguous.
Just before quarantine, we closed the retrospective of work by Lucio Fontana. With this exhibition we wanted to remind viewers that Fontana’s slashes and holes in the canvas invite us to look beyond what we know, beyond the accepted decision-making algorithms, to see and feel the cosmos and understand what response our utterances may bring. Contrary to the great Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev’s declaration: 'Not for us to foretell how our words will echo'.
We believe that the museum’s principle task is to lead people towards the integral perception of the world that is now increasingly lost, due to the ever-increasing speed of life and the fact that vast amounts of information become available with a single click. There is simply no time to assemble a complete picture from the fragments of this information. In the end, we want every viewer to think how his or her life is connected to the life of preceding generations, and how we can influence the future facing new generations. We want to communicate that life is a blessing and that we should bear responsibility for every word and deed. People should comprehend that creativity is accessible to everyone, that we must relate to life creatively, and that this is not merely the prerogative of those traditionally referred to as the creative professions.
ifa: How should museums convey and reflect stories, images, and narrative patterns?
Gurova: We always present exhibitions so that our audiences see the historical context of the past, and at the same time we try to develop our programme so people understand that any art today is relevant, no matter whether it was created many centuries ago or in modern times, because we look at history and try to comprehend our place, find our identity in the present day. History, including the history of art, helps us plan for the future.
MAMM has a separate programme about history that is one of the museum’s most important strategic programmes – the History of Russia in Photography. Without knowledge of history, it is impossible to live today and make plans for the future. Historical content plays an enormous role, and we try, by choosing and sometimes changing our exhibition plans, to offer whatever seems in tune with the problems of today.
ifa: Do you see your museum as a place of political discourse?
Gurova: For every one of us, politics is an integral aspect of our existence, whatever country we live in. Politics is part of history and the present-day history in which we live. By articulating the historical context in our projects, we also touch on politics. However, I don’t think the museum is a place for direct political debate. In the language of art, political discourse acquires different dimensions. Losing its momentary character, it penetrates the past, affects current issues and gives perspective to our vision of the future. We live in a world of round-the-clock news with constant exposure to current political agendas. Art lets us see reality from a rather different perspective, just as Breughel’s perspective from above allowed us to see different characters preoccupied with their own mundane and often sinful pursuits.
ifa: How can museums work internationally, post-nationally and responsibly today?
Gurova: Museums should work at both the international and national level. They cannot do otherwise. Culture must be globalised, and today this is increasingly obvious in the modern globalised world. Hence the MAMM programme was and is being built exclusively on international content, with 50-60 per cent of the projects coming from abroad and 40-50 per cent of Russian origin. Sometimes there is a slight shift, with the bias on international projects.
Working internationally will probably be more difficult after the pandemic, with a reduced budget for museums. The organisation of such projects includes transport expenses, insurance, and sometimes a rental fee. I hope cultural exchanges can be sustained, and that museums become more flexible on the amount of rental fees. Perhaps we can look for ways to optimise transport expenses. Recently, Russian museums have found things particularly difficult at an international level, due to geopolitical and social problems. Nevertheless, we will continue our activities. I think that the transition of museums towards online formats can be an important factor in our openness to one another, since online art knows, by definition, no boundaries.
ifa: Museums nowadays perform many functions. How would you define what the museum is or should be today?
Gurova: Museums are places for open dialogue.
- People communicating with works of art are communicating above all with themselves.
- The museum is a space for discussions about art, during which we discover different opinions and learn to understand them in a spirit of tolerance. The most beautiful thing is that art has no single interpretation, and so the museum increases people’s tolerance towards another worldview.
- The museum provides a place for communication between different communities; these are people of various ages, with differing views, diverse experiences and living situations.
- The museum is an accessible environment that welcomes people with disabilities. Accordingly, all museums, including MAMM, pay attention to inclusive programmes.
- The museum offers an educational platform for enlightenment, not only in the field of art and culture, but also in science, new technologies, philosophy, sociology, political science and other fields of world knowledge.
- The museum is an interdisciplinary environment and meeting place for visual art, art related to new technologies, music, cinema, performance practices, etc.
- Most importantly, the museum should be friendly and open to all; it should use every means to encourage participation in the life of the museum. The museum is the viewer. This is an ongoing dialogue. People of different generations come here. MAMM devises programmes for all generations.
The museum is a comparatively new institution, a constantly changing environment. If it resists change, it will die.
Diana Gurova is exhibition curator of Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow
Under the title 'MuseumsNow', ifa asked actors from international museums about their current experiences, challenges and visions – also against the background of the Covid 19 pandemic. The interviews and reports provide an insight into current museum practices and civil society actions of museums worldwide.