RUSSIAN MUSEUM CURATOR SEEKS TO FILL CHASM LEFT BY DEPARTING ARTISTS
Among the myriad problems the Russian people still face after the
thawing of the Cold War and the breakup of the former Soviet Union,
there’s one that may not be at the top of their lists.
Collecting contemporary art.
To most Russians, contemporary art has meant what the state dictated
was proper to view. Usually the theme was political in nature -
Socialist Realism. Artists who wanted to express what was in their
own imaginations fled the country, leaving a chasm in the art world
But now that these artists are welcome in their own country, it’s
Alexander Borovsky’s task to lure their canvases back to be hung on
the venerable museum walls of their homeland.
Borovsky is the chief curator of contemporary art for the prestigious
St. Petersburg Russian Museum, and he’s just completing a semester of
research at USC.
While Borovsky is in Los Angeles, Jennifer Cahn, a USC doctoral
candidate in fine arts, is in St. Petersburg. Cahn, who speaks fluent
Russian, is delving into the Russian Museum’s archives and conferring
with scholars there. She may also have access to archives at the
It’s a wonderful trade, and an artistic coup for USC, said John
Bowlt, professor of Slavic languages and literatures and an expert in
20th-century Russian art and culture.
The exchange program is funded for $15,000 for one semester of study
for each of three years by the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation,
which provides travel and a stipend for both participants. It was
Bowlt who came up with the exchange idea that benefits both
Bowlt and Lynn Matteson, dean of the School of Fine Arts, worked to
get the support, then invited Borovsky here and arranged for him and
his architectural historian wife, Elena, to stay at the downtown
Embassy Residential College.
“I like it very much there. It’s very much like a family,” said
Borovsky, who spends much of his time trying to arrange meetings with
emigre Russian artists and visiting galleries up and down the coast.
It is a delight for him to do so, since there’s a dearth of galleries
in his country. In Russia, Borovsky said, museums have traditionally
dealt directly with artists. A fledgling gallery system is just
getting off the ground as private businesses struggle to get started.
Bowlt, whose book Russian Art of the Avant Garde: Theory and
Criticism 1902-1934 translates various manifestos, articles and
missives of artists of that era, met the curator on a previous visit
to St. Petersburg. “Sooner or later you go to the collection, ” said
Bowlt, speaking of the Russian Museum, which is the world’s largest
depository of Russian art.
“It has important strengths in Russian icons and avant-garde art. Dr.
Borovsky is trying to build a truly contemporary collection.” It
hasn’t been easy, either politically or financially, he added, to
acquire contemporary works. The avant-garde art it did have was never
shown to the public.
Now that the political climate has changed, Bowlt said, Borovsky has
a daunting task ahead of him. The curator has to catch up with a
great number of artists whose works are missing from the museum’s
collections, from abstractionists to postmodernists.
“But Borovsky is now able to establish creative contact with Russian
artists who have left over the past years and can encourage them to
donate works to the motherland.”
One challenge will be to separate the truly fine Russian contemporary
artists from those who have perhaps garnered fame simply because they
were dissidents. Borovsky wants to bring back only the contemporary
art that measures up to international standards.
He recently met with Selma Holo, director of Fisher Gallery.
“He came looking for me,” said Holo, “and I’d been hearing about him
as a major figure in contemporary Russian art.
“We seem to have made ourselves a reputation here at USC,” she added,
“as the only people in Southern California who have shown an interest
in contemporary Russian art.”
The gallery has mounted two major shows in recent years, both of
which have traveled across the country. And Holo said the fact the
University’s own museum recognized that there was “an art scene worth
recording” from Russia has had a significant impact on its status in
the art world.
Borovsky draws a parallel between his country and the Chicago of the
1920s, where anything went. In that sense, he said, the art scene is
“There are a lot of possibilities,” Borovsky said, “but of course,
also a lot of dangers. There’s a lot of criminal activity.” He said
there’s more money, but much of it comes through illegal means. But
he’s excited about the new openness of cultural and intellectual
While here, Borovsky is arranging contacts with contemporary Russian
artists, some of whom he’s met through New York art circles. And he
recently spoke to students and faculty at the Institute of Modern
Russian Culture, which Bowlt directs. Bowlt said the curator
discussed the contemporary art scene in Russia, and “touched on the
whole notion of the commercial art market now developing and national
boundaries breaking down.”
Before any collections can be shown in St. Petersburg, much work
needs to be done on the existing museum, and that awaits financing.
The Russian Museum has been given two additional palaces for museum
use, said Borovsky, but the 18th-century buildings used by the
Bolsheviks also require extensive restoration.
Borovsky isn’t sure what the future will bring for the art world in
the new Russia.
“It’s important to think ahead,” he said with a laugh, “but we don’t
know what it will be like in five minutes!”
[Photo:] John Bowlt (left) and Alexander Borovsky, with samovar in
Kerckhoff Hall. Borovsky is here as part of an exchange program
with the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.