Wednesday, 23 September

Marat Guelman is one of the most famous gallerists, art managers and art critics of the Eastern Europe. He has been living in Montenegro for several years now and turning this small mountainous country into the world-famous art-center. Mr. Guelman has come to Odesa for several days to see his old friend, artist Oleksandr Roytburd. Opinion has talked with the art critic about Ukrainian culture, the Odesa Art Museum scandal and about the ways of perception of modern art.

Marat, it is 9 a.m. now – not very common time for an interview with a representative of the art world. Different activities and events usually start in the evening and end late at night. How do you manage to combine an early waking up with a routine of a gallerist and art critic?

I have 3 little children. Ehor is 4, Petia is 2 and Marusia is 7 months. I wake up… rather I am waken up at 6 a.m. Marusia is the first to climb on me, then – Petia, then- all together. That’s why I’ve changed my schedule. I live in the Mediterranean (in Montenegro) now and there is a very good tradition – to have rest in the afternoon. I have a very active morning and evening, but in the afternoon I have siesta.

You have come to Odesa only for several days but you have quite a busy schedule: a lecture at the Zelenyi Teatr (Green Theatre) and at the Odesa Art Museum. What will happen to museums in the XXI century – is a topical issue for us now. Every European museum (even in the country) has Internet access, a café, own souvenirs. Not speaking about good state of the building, climate-control and other related facilities. As for Odesa, workers of the main city museum had to put baskets under pictures during the rain. As far as I know, you visited the museum yesterday. What is your impression?

I have the same impression as others. The building requires at least renovation. We discussed it with the governor (Maxim Stepanov, the Chairman of the Odesa Regional State Administration) yesterday. Every museum has two main functions: preservation and exhibition of materials to audience. The tradition of preservation has existed for thousands of years, the tradition of exhibition – only some hundred years, since the XVIII century, when England opened a portrait gallery for everyone to combat alcoholism. Only sober, neat and clean people could enter. The next step was taken by Louvre when the monarchy was overthrown, and the palace got opened for people so they could see how royals had lived. If our attitude to museums is based on all the above, than the Odesa Art Museum needs just repairing, climate-control and comfort for guests. However, I want to talk not about this. Museums have taken on more ambitious functions now. They’ve started to take part in art life, not just to collect works of the past. The Odesa Art Museum has to become a champion in looking for the uniqueness of the city and the region. It has to become the headquarters of changes. It has to become the reason why people come to Odesa.

“Museums used to collect the past and a cultural life was always happening aside. However, in the XX century, galleries started to collect works of living artists. That abolished everything, which we had known about the world of art. The idea of “contemporary art” appeared and gave an opportunity for artists to get into eternity. This system works more than productively, so the chance that engaging art will disappear reduces.” Marat Guelman at the lecture “What will happen to museums in the XXI century?” in Odesa.

In my opinion, museums will be the key institutions in the XXI century. The world, moving from the industrial to the postindustrial, is going from the universal to the unique. Competition is complied by territories: Rome vs. Berlin, Prague vs. Budapest, Odesa vs. Lviv. There’s a “fight” for a person who will spend his or her resources, money. Tourists would never say that they go to “Hilton”, they’d say they go to Odesa, Tokyo, St. Petersburg. Yes, they will live in same hotels, but hotels are not the reason why tourists come to these cities. They come there to find unique artifacts. A museum is a producing institution, which collects the unique. In the XXI century, it will become as significant for the city as a university.

However, maintaining a museum and pictures requires money. An entry ticket to any Ukrainian museum costs 2-3 dollars. It is clear that galleries cannot be self-sustained this way, but they have to take money from somewhere. How can Ukrainian museums not only survive but also develop, taking into account that the Ukrainian government finance culture on leftovers?

Firstly, about these calculations… The point is how to calculate this entry ticket. An average tourist in St. Petersburg spends 200 euros per day: a hotel, food, taxi and so on. Application forms show that the two out of four main reasons for tourists to come to the city are the Russian Museum and the Hermitage. Others two are variable, but we can say that 50% of these 200 euros were earned by museums. Not for themselves but for taxi drivers, cooks, hoteliers and so on. And the city’s commitment is to return part of this money to museums. It is a matter of calculations, indeed. That’s why museums perfectly fit in the economical image of a modern city. I used to live in India, and there was a very rich dying man in the village who wanted to help his village very much. He brought a very famous doctor from China and paid him money so he could live there and heal people. People from the whole country began coming to this doctor as far as he saw patients for free. There was a long queue, people had to live somewhere, eat something and the village came back to life. The same with museums. If we get to the bottom of it, the city creates unique places of interest, which let the city come back to life, consequently, the economy also revive. It is an important challenge for the government.

“A postindustrial person is an artist. The main competition will be held for a unique product. Art is not sold into private collections anymore. Museums arrange audience’s leisure due to exhibits. It is the institution which will form the unique.” Marat Guelman at the lecture “What will happen to museums in the XXI century?” in Odesa.

Secondly, more crucial thing is that every former soviet country will have to let a private person enter culture. People say: patrons should give money, but you can’t make a person give you money and then say to him “Stay away!” The main tendency now is erasing borders between a worker of a museum and a visitor. It is the loyalty system, which let audience take part in a museum’s life. Private money is beneficial for culture not only because it is fast and bureaucracy-free but also because every person has his or her own taste. It is a private person who brings diversity to culture. A patron wants to take part in a museum’s life, for example, to support a young artist, to help him arrange an exhibition. The aim of a museum is to destroy borders between a worker and a visitor. To turn a visitor into a friend and a volunteer into a small sponsor. It can be changed through the legislation.

The third thing we’ll have to face is reorientation to the city. People of art have now two partners: government and business. We are not comfortable with both of them. State institutions spend state money that’s why they say, “You’d better do something fundamental or just don’t create any opposition works.” A business asks, “Make something beautiful, make a party for us, entertain us.” It is what an artist, most frequently, doesn’t want to do. Moreover, they look down on the culture. But now the third partner appeared – it’s a territory, a city. What does a city want from a cultural establishment? “Make such a cultural event so it will become known all over the world and make investors come to us. Or make our people stand in block-long lines.” It is what an artist wants as well – everyone wants his or her works to be successful.

Oleksandr Roytburd headed the Odesa Art Museum several moths ago. It is difficult to do any conclusions yet, but the museum has been getting only benefits so far: there is a careful attention to it, patrons, volunteers. He used to be a director of your gallery in Kyiv. Could you kindly give a characteristic of him as of a museum worker as far as his opponents claimed that an artist can’t be a successful manager?

Even if Oleksandr Roytburd didn’t do anything for the museum but reigned, he would be still better than any other manager for this museum. Because museums can’t live in a vacuum, they should always be within a communication system. The head of a museum is like a chief director, not a facilities manager or an administrator. Before we begin talking about his managing skills, let’s take into account that such a beckoning extravagant person is already a big advantage for the museum. Yes, he may manage worse than some people who are specially trained, but he replaces the lack of knowledge by passion. What a manager would do in an hour, Roytburd would do in four hours, but would spend them productively. I’ve asked him, “How much time do you spend on the museum?” He answered, “All my tine.” I spent on the museum two days a week and he spends all his time.

The question is for how long he is ready to do it. Being an artist is the destiny, which indulges you much: you don’t wake up early, do only what you like and never what you don’t like. And he used to live that way all his life, and now he has to answer letters from those officials. He is unlikely to be fond of that. The question is personally in him: is the game worth the candle? I’d recommend to stimulate him by praising. Because an artist is used to such a motivation. He will find the reason to leave the museum some time, but it is crucial that he wouldn’t do it in a year. Three or four years are needed to boost the process of changes. By the way, if I see that the state of the museum improves, I will make a generous present. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

During the election of a new director of the museum, some officials and their followers threw much mud at Roytburd. They used against him his political position as well as his pictures. The region council didn’t vote for him, that’s why he was appointed by the governor himself. But even now his opponents don’t miss the opportunity to sting him or to upset the apple cart. You were one of the first who stood up for him. But didn’t you really want at least once to recommend Roytburd not to take on this dirty work?

It is not a dirty work, it is a beautiful one. It’s just another kind of activity. Roytburd has got a social temperament – he’s always tried to do something else except of only creating pictures. I tried to calm him when all that was happening. He was worrying a lot, and I thought: wow, a person takes to heart that he can’t take on so much work. I consider wrong to talk him out of that. It could influence negatively him as an artist. Because he has a social temperament, but he doesn’t have it in his art. It means he sublimates this temperament somehow. This way he will experience a conflict in his art or get involved in politic art, which is unlike him. He found the way for his energy to come out here. Meantime, an art manager is also an artist. The XXI century makes any profession closer to the work of artists.

“An artist is a professional at creating things, which no one needs, and giving them some sense. If robots do all the work, then an artistic thinking will let people create the unnecessary and give it some sense. It is a unique situation. For example, Picasso. Everything he created is twice as expensive as the “Gazprom”. All his works are estimated at about 270 billion. He created things, which no one needs, which have no pragmatic value, and this is the magic of art. The unnecessary product is immediately got surrounded by marketing, which boosts the economy.” Marat Guelman at the lecture “What will happen to museums in the XXI century?” in Odesa.

By the way, the opponents of Roytburd said that his pictures are not art but just pornography because of the naked bodies he depicted in some his works. For an unprepared audience it was quite a strong point. Nevertheless, Oleksandr is considered the most successful artist in Ukraine. In a nutshell – how should we perceive modern art?

One research said that 60% of art pieces contain naked bodies. Our culture is built on the cult of Christianity and the cult of a naked body. The cultural consuming is a correlation with what you’ve seen. You see a new picture and recall all the art pieces you know, some connections appear in your mind and thus you can judge the painting. These people are likely to get associations with what they’ve seen. By the way, one tip on how to perceive art – not ask yourself whether it is art or not. Moreover, a modern artist always leaves some part of work for audience. The classic art depicted an artist who was a genius and dreamer. A philistine could only admire that art. As for a modern artist, he got his head out of clouds and gave away a part of his work, and in the case of minimalists – the lion’s share, to audience. The latter has to take efforts to perceive a piece of art. A viewer becomes an accomplice, a co-creator, and this contextuality means that the more people see, the more they understand.

Nevertheless, some radical groups not only fail to understand art, but are also ready to destroy it if doesn’t coincide with their belief system. In Russia, orthodox activists and cossacks blockade and vandalize openings of exhibitions, in Ukraine, it is done by far-right groups. Why can people destroy a piece of art and not receive any punishment?

Government uses fanatics for their aims when it can’t act straightly. When cossacks tried to smash and ban the exhibitions I arranged, I almost always knew that it was the government which acted through wing-nuts (Mr. Guelman refers to the 2012 “Rodina” (“Motherland”) exhibition in Novosibirsk, which contained ironic statements towards the jingoism. The exhibition was held only at the third attempt). However, they can’t say to these fanatics: you can smash here and here you can’t. Once they gave them cart-blanche, and activists don’t stop. In this case, the principle of loyalty is above the principle of tolerance.

The principle of loyalty says: I won’t break your rules and you don’t break mine. On the contrary, the principle of tolerance says: I will put up with your tricks and you put up with mine.

These are key ideas for a modern society, but wing-nuts deny both the principles. They say that their point of view is the only possible, and those who have another one are enemies worth of dying. In Russia, it is the government, and as for Ukraine, I think that if they exist, feel confident in getting get no punishment, it means that they are supported by serious powerful people. And there is a problem – artists didn’t want to be courageous, they wanted to be talented, and those who wanted to be courageous became soldiers.  That’s why I don’t blame my colleagues who became conformists to the current government, who haven’t found courage. However, they should remember that this conformism will take revenge so that their art career will suffer.

“Most people don’t want to live in the future, they stay at the XIX century and say: this is just the mindset. Every city or town has people of the XV, XVIII, XX and XXI century. When you advocate for the modernization of a city or a territory, people of the past are against it because you take their territory away from them. We need to leave this territory to them and build a bridge into the future. And lead people across it. A university is a long process, it works in a generation, and we need it much faster. Art let do it as soon as possible.” Marat Guelman at the lecture “What will happen to museums in the XXI century?” in Odesa.

Netflix shot the film here, designers created several Couture collections, musicians come to shoot music videos. However, in this case, the country is not a product but rather a location for work. What should Ukraine do to make the West get interested in our culture?

Europe has already long been interested in Ukraine. I know many foundations which want to help but don’t know how. Attention has already been caught, unfortunately, by such tragic events. The key formula is before Ukraine comes to Europe, Europe should come to Ukraine: European artists, galleries, foundations should see themselves here. It is not difficult, indeed. Meantime, we should look for a place. I live in Montenegro now and, obviously, it can’t compete with Paris, Rome, London – there are only 7-15 such cultural capitals in the world. Others need to look for their own unique features. In my opinion, it is easier for a city than for a country to find its uniqueness. It is what we should focus on: which way Kyiv can become more attractive, Odesa – more engaging and so on. For example, there is the association of coastal cities: Barcelona, San-Francisco, Marseille. Odesa could join these cities. Kyiv could join other cities. It is easier to do, and it is more precise than just developing general state directions and making every city follow it.

Interview by Kostyantyn Rul

Photo by Maryna Bandeliuk


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