ifa: How did your institution cope during the crisis and how has it managed since then? How has the current situation changed the work of your museum and its conception of itself?
Vasili Tsereteli: It was a hard time for our museum, as it was for any other institution that works directly with the public. Like our colleagues all around the globe, we had to start working in an online environment, to which our team adapted quite quickly. Mostly, they focused on an online, digital museum program, creating online exhibitions, educational programs, collection commentaries, and interactive discussions. These programs attracted a wide audience, and our online presence doubled. It was a very challenging experience for our entire staff to transition into Zoom conferences and to continue working directly through online platforms. Since we re-opened our museum on June 16th, we have implemented all the most efficient practices from the online experience and have likewise maintained our online presence. In particular, all the interesting programs that we developed during the quarantine period remain accessible to the public through our website, YouTube, and other platforms. We will definitively keep working on both aspects: online and offline.
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?
Tsereteli: First of all, we tried to connect with our dedicated public and keep people engaged with art through lockdown through digital programs and by presenting our exhibitions (especially MMOMA 99-19, our big 20th anniversary collection show) online. At the same time, we have developed new audiences thanks to different online platforms and social media. Likewise, we have seen that the public is happy to come back to the physical museum. Obviously, the numbers are less than usual, since we adhere to capacity regulations. In addition, we inspect the museum every few hours, follow all the mandatory precautions, ask our visitors to wear masks, and gather no more than five people for a guided tour. We are trying to adapt to these new norms but at the same time to make the experiences as comfortable as possible for our public.
ifa: What do you consider to be the primary social tasks of your museum?
Tsereteli: The primary social task for our museum is to educate people and to make them acquainted with the history of art from the beginning of 20th centuryto present day. We think it's our mission to teach and inspire people to learn about and experience the art and language of contemporary art together, to find common ground through art – and through its histories. We have dedicated resources to the opening of an Educational Center, with a big public library and an array of programs, including 'The Collection. Vantage Point', which consists of laboratory-like shows providing fresh and unexpected angles on our diverse holdings. We are happy to see that both scholars and regular members of the public are returning to work there, discovering something new, and thus transforming the museum into a place where all kinds of people are coming and enjoying the experience, aesthetically and intellectually.
ifa: How should museums convey and reflect stories, images, and narrative patterns?
Tsereteli: Our museum tries to convey different stories through collaborations with architects, curators, artists, and different kind of researchers, scientists and so on – depending on the exhibition or subject matter. We see the process as a combination, a teamwork of different people from different fields. Some of our curators, for example, are invited guest curators, while others are internal. All of them try their best to articulate the general message of the museum, and the particular message of each exhibition. On the other hand, like our colleagues in Russia and beyond, we see the museum as a site of synergy between the dynamic architectural space, the visual arts, the narrative, the research, the expertise, and the mediated public experience. A particular image or artifact works best and is understood better when embedded in such a balanced combination of forces.
ifa: What concepts do you pursue with regard to accessibility to and participation in your holdings, to knowledge about and interpretations of them?
Tsereteli: It is important for us to have a nuanced outlook, and focus on different kinds of access. We have programs for various categories of the public, all of them with an educational agenda. We have programs for people with special needs, notably for the visually and hearing impaired. We conduct special guided tours and interactive programs for kids and we try to be accessible to a broader audience and build trust and long-lasting relationships with new audiences, so that the museum becomes a sort of home for anyone who wants to learn and experience contemporary art. Our exhibitions and collection displays are always public-oriented and strive to introduce people of a broad range of backgrounds to the art we show. In this regard, we’re striving to constantly refine our means of communication and articulate our message to people who may have little prior knowledge of the material.
ifa: Do you see your museum as a place of political discourse?
Tsereteli: The museum addresses different subjects, but not so much political ones – rather social ones. There is no such thing as a taboo topic for any of the museum's projects or discussions. For example, the exhibition 'MMOMA 99-19' focuses on different messages and diverse aspects of our contemporary life, including social tensions. Over the years, the museum has organized different shows which were mainly based on the curator’s personal ethics. So yes, we mostly focus on various contexts of creativity and the artistic process. Society, with all its complexities, is one such defining context.
ifa: How can museums work internationally, post-nationally and responsibly today?
Tsereteli: Our museum participates strongly in national and city programs. We try to interact closely with the other Moscow museums, and also try to collaborate with museums in other parts of Russia – for example, in Magadan, in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in the Far East, in Ekaterinburg in the Urals, in Samara on the Volga, and many other interesting places. At the same time, we work hard to maintain cultural ties internationally. Even when budget restrictions are tough, we always try to bring great international exhibitions to the museum. We recently showed the solo show of Yoko Ono, for example, and we have an exhibition of Michelangelo Pistoletto planned for next year, as well as shows of other artists from different countries.
ifa: Museums nowadays perform many functions. How would you define what the museum is or should be today?
Tsereteli: I don't think that a museum should be defined by just one thing. We’re dedicated to many different aspects of the museum today. A museum is something that evolves every day, depending on new ideas and new inspirations, and the tasks at hand. It both projects and reflects current processes. I rather see the contemporary museum as a place of self-reflection, and, in a way, of prediction of different social and artistic ideas. It is also, importantly, a place of heritage preservation – in our case this is the heritage of contemporary arts. We try to give a platform to young curators and young artists to create new narratives, dialogues, and discourses so that they can raise challenging and important questions, and to involve as many people as possible in these conversations. The museum is always changing, so I don't think that there has to be a definition: every definition locks you into a box of descriptions. Today, the museum is much more than a place focused on the collection and its preservation, study, and research. It is about creating new ideas and showing new ways of interpreting art, helping artists to deliver their message, and to project it to local, national, and international audiences.
Vasili Tsereteli is the Executive Director of Moscow Museum of Modern Art
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.