St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, Reinvented
Russia’s revered State Hermitage Museum is drawing on international philanthropic partners to expand its brand.
In St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, it’s easy to drift into a dreamscape, to be overtaken by this mysterious palace of a bygone era, once home to Catherine the Great, Alexander I and Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II. Founded by Catherine in 1764 and first made public in 1852, this imperial museum is a singular expression of Baroque architecture and design, a gilded showcase of nearly incomprehensible wealth, beauty and artistic achievement. The Hermitage comprises 365 rooms and some 3 million objects, a collection so vast that it would require more than a decade to spend a minute with each piece and a journey of nearly 22 kilometres (13 miles) to traverse every room.
Since the early 1990s, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Hermitage has begun a visible process of reinventing itself, expanding its identity to make itself contemporary and relevant—indeed, to enable itself to survive. The Hermitage has drawn on the help of new international partners and philanthropic friends to introduce its collection outside Russia’s borders and to bring more modern art and contemporary influences to St Petersburg. The result is a bold expansion of the Hermitage brand.
Examples of change abound, many of them having benefited from the financial and active engagement of the Hermitage Museum Foundation (USA) and other Friends of the Hermitage groups in the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, Canada and Italy. Recognising that the museum is missing post–World War II contemporary art “due to historical circumstances,” director Mikhail Piotrovsky and his curators worked with the Hermitage Museum Foundation (USA) to feature exhibitions in St Petersburg including Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning, Chuck Close and Bourgeois. This is part of what Paul Rodzianko, chairman of the board of the Hermitage Museum Foundation (USA) in New York, describes as his group’s commitment to “cultural diplomacy” and the combination of “continuity and innovation.”
In addition to raising about USD 3 million to restore gates, buildings, flooring, paintings and tapestries, the foundation also organised acquisitions such as The Printer’s Mistake—a set of prints by Russian-born, American-based artist Ilya Kabakov—and a significant collection of antiquities from Urartu, an Iron Age kingdom located where Armenia is today, to augment the museum’s Oriental collection.
With the help of the Hermitage Foundation UK, established in the late 1990s, the Hermitage displayed works in Somerset House in London for seven years and helped mount shows on sculptors Henry Moore and Antony Gormley, among others. These days, the U.K. leadership has set its sights on assembling shows that highlight 20th-century art: Dadaism, Surrealism and Pop Art. Many of these art movements have never been seen in a museum in Russia before. “The Hermitage needs outside bodies such as ours to promote and raise awareness of the museum,” says Katya Galitzine, chief executive of the Hermitage Foundation UK. “It is only with international funding and sponsorship that it can maintain its position as a museum of international status.”
The next two years will see the finishing touches to the dramatic expansion of the Hermitage—just in time for the museum’s 250th anniversary in 2014. The addition of a renovated General Staff Building across from the Winter Palace will provide a significant increase in storage space and new galleries to exhibit 20th- and 21st-century art. Half an hour away, a vast new complex of eight buildings called Staraya Derevnya will provide a home for the restoration and display of works that have largely remained out of view: ornate Russian carriages, large-scale tapestries, Russian paintings, furniture and iconography among them. “The Hermitage,” Rodzianko says simply, “can’t stand still.”