Museum Director Fired Over Controversial Exhibitions

June 20, 2013
Aleksandr Kryazhev. Source: RIA Novosti

[ examines the motivations behind the firing of prominent museum director Marat Gelman from the PERMM Museum of Modern Art, pointing to controversial exhibitions as the impetus behind his dismissal—Ed.]

The Perm authorities announced the dismissal of Marat Gelman from the post of director of the PERMM Museum of Modern Art. Experts say this will result in the demise of the Perm Cultural Project.

Marat Gelman was fired from the post of PERMM Museum of Modern Art. The gallery owner himself broke the news on his Twitter account. Later the information was confirmed by authorities in Perm. Igor Gladnev, acting Minister of Culture, announced his intention to break a fixed contract made with Gelman under Art. 278, Par. 2 of the Labor Code, which stipulates that employers are not obliged to provide an explanation for such a decision. Gelman will be paid the compensation indicated under the law.

According to Gladnev, a competition for the filling of the vacant post of the PERMM director will be held in the near future.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Perm was founded in 2008 at the initiative of Gelman and Senator Sergei Gordeyev; Gelman took up the position of Director at the end of that same year. PERMM is the only Russian museum of contemporary art located outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Gelman’s dismissal was announced the day after a meeting at the office of Perm Territory’s Governor Viktor Basargin, at which the territory’s Control and Accounts Chamber was given the assignment to inspect the White Nights Festival; earlier the federal Accounts Chamber had announced such an inspection.

In an interview with, Gelman linked his dismissed to a conflict between him and Gladnev, the recently-appointed head of the cultural ministry of Perm.

The conflict concerned several exhibits that were included in the program of the White Nights Festival 2013, which opened 1 June and was closed following the decision of officials.

The first show to be closed contained the works of Krasnoyarsk artist Vasily Slonov, titled “Welcome! Sochi 2014,” which satirized the symbols of the Sochi Olympics. It was closed three days after opening. Soon afterward, an exhibit by the New Barbizon group from Israel was banned; its participants had expressed support for Slonov. Then the exhibit by Sergei Kamenny titled “Russian Barocco” never opened, as it contained photographs of Moscow street protests. Moreover, a city camp for art activists, the Occupy Perm project, in which the Novosibirsk artist Artyom Loskutov was set to take place, never opened in its full capacity.

Gelman was outraged by the censorship and moved the banned exhibits – one to PERMM and two others to the Rechnik Cultural Center, promising to raise the question of his continued work in Perm if his decision was overridden by the authorities.

“We opened these shows to preserve the reputation of Perm as a cultural capital. The authorities could not do anything about it,” said Gelman.

It is noteworthy that the announcement of his dismissal found Gelman in Moscow, where he had gone to introduce his new joint project with LiveJournal, a social network for the art community, According to Gelman, this project was demonstrated to good effect during the White Nights festival, and is expected to have a great future. Gelman is also not concerned about the fate of the national Russian project Cultural Alliance.

“Cultural Alliance will develop. Furthermore, now I will have more time which I can then devote to this new project,” said Gelman.

Gelman expressed hope that his dismissal would not result in the complete closure of the Perm Cultural Project, but warned of the possibility of another danger – the profanation of the project.

“From the perspective of budget planning, there is nothing to distinguish a bad exhibit from a good one,” said Gelman.

According to Gelman, White Nights, for which he had served as artistic director, will be held according to plan – the Movement, Literary Festival and other events will go as planned, but the “profanation” can be expected during the festival next year.

“At the same time as my dismissal, the governor announced that White Nights will continue, and that an organizing committee for the 2014 festival is being created which should do everything in accordance with local cultural conditions,” Gelman revealed. “But there isn’t a single city in the world that is capable of organizing a full cultural life only through its own forces – cultural exchange is needed.”

He expressed doubt that under the circumstances, the Perm authorities could interest anyone in the competition for the position of the new director of PERMM.

“Of course, I’m concerned about what will happen to the museum; I founded it, and helped the territory to obtain the building of the old Rechnoy Station, and took part in the formation of the collection. But the main thing is that they not sell off the collection. A catalogue was published; I have already managed to do something that will remain, regardless of me, the situation in the city, and in art,” said Gelman.

“The fate of this museum concerns me regardless of whether I am the director or not,” he concluded.

“This dismissal is yet another symbolic gesture, yet another signal that the Medvedev era is over,” said Daniil Dondurey, a cultural sociologist and editor-in-chief of the journal Iskusstvo kino [Cinema Art]. “Marat is a significant fellow, and always walks the edge in all his games. Now they are letting us know in no uncertain terms – the game of ‘cultural innovation,’ ‘modernization,’ the attempt to make a cultural capital of Russia out of Perm and approach an analogous status on the level of Europe is over, all of these words have to be forgotten,” he said.

According to Dondurey, Gelman’s dismissal was not likely approved by local authorities with the Kremlin. “The territory government simply catches the drifts and moods of the center and acts in accordance with that intuition,” he said. In his view, there has always existed a small group of local cultural figures in Perm who always envied the space allocation, the money, the support, the presence in the city – and now the territorial government is expressing their interests.

“I think that the museum will be preserved. Nominally. But it will be absolutely deformed and neutralized. And its entire program, which was an example for other cities in the Russian provinces, is neutralized,” says Andrei Yerofeyev, an independent curator and art critic. “Not only the program of support for fine arts, but the program of support for new Russian literature, film and so on – all culture in fact. The project that Marat Gelman was doing was a model one, in the old understanding of that word, as a model for imitation,” he added. He equated Gelman’s dismissal to the virtual liquidation of the museum and called it an extraordinary political event, indicating “that the government has taken a line to liquidate or suppress modern culture in Russia.”

“This line…is in the logic of the ideology which is now being promoted – the ideology of reliance on the most retrograde conceptions of the world and the human being, of his relationship with the state and creative potential,” said Yerofeyev.

It is possible, Yerofeyev concluded, that the authorities will pressure not only institutions but artists themselves will be squeezed out of the public sphere – so this won’t happen.

Daniil Dondurey is also pessimistic about the future of the Perm Cultural Project. “I’m afraid that after Gelman, Boris Milgram will also have to stop working in Perm [former Vice Governor and one of the originators of the Perm cultural revolution—] and other Muscovites. Teodor Kurentzis [artistic director of the Perm Opera, which was transformed into a theater, and the head of the ensemble Musica Aeterna—] will not be touched for now, because the authorities don’t understand anything about music.”

Some of the projects started by Gelman will survive – but only as “window-dressing” in the form of scattered projects. “In the form of a working infrastructure, in a unified, integral form, they don’t need modern art – they are afraid of it,” Dondurey surmised. Gelman will have to return to Moscow, Dondurey believes, and implement his projects in the capital where there are much greater internal conventions, and the possible scope of cultural projects and the resonance from them are far less. Yerofeyev is more pointed: “If the artistic world in this case does not show solidarity, then in a little while everything will be driven into the underground, like rats and mice.”