Guggenheim-Hermitage: a budding co-operation

Magazine issue: 
#4 2005 (09)

The unprecedented exhibition of Russian art labeled precisely and appealingly “RUSSIAI" that opened in New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in mid-September has inspired great interest from the West in Russian art, and stimulated similar interest from the Russian side in the Guggenheim museums, particularly the Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum (Las Vegas); it is the only one of the five Guggenheim museums directly associated with Russia - and the contact is with one of the internationally most famous Russian museums.

June 20 2000 proved the official start of a declaration signed by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Hermitage museum, declaring their long-term co-operation based on mutual intentions to strengthen international activity in the field of the arts and culture, and to use to the full extent their experience, status and reputations. The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna joined the alliance in January 2001. The strategic aim of such an international joint venture is to create the best possible conditions in order to find various ways to make the contribution of each of the partners most effective. Such kinds of co-operative activity help to make the circulation of the rich collections and funds of the museums-partners as efficient as possible, and serves to effect a shared goal in the fields of exhibition projects, publications, and public and educational activity.

The Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum was organized in Las Vegas - the city of entertainment, where there had previously been no arts museum of such a level. The "non-stop" principle characteristic of the entertainment industry applies to the new Las Vegas museum whose working hours extend from 9:30 in the morning until 8:30 at night, seven days a week. Such a schedule represents a very special tendency in the contact between a museum and its viewers, and is not typical for the world's so-called "classical" museums.

The first joint exhibition "Masterpieces and Master Collectors, Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings from the Guggenheim and Hermitage Museums", presented a selection of 45 masterpieces that highlighted the distinct but highly complementary strengths of these two world- renowned collections, featuring key examples of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and early Modernism, including paintings by Cezanne, Chagall, Kandinsky, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Renoir, and van Gogh. This was a great success and further proof of the fruitful and promising co-operation. Numerous other exhibitions followed, in which the contribution of the Hermitage was not limited only to loans.

Elizabeth Herridge
Elizabeth Herridge
Director of the Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum

In this exclusive interview, the director of the Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum Ms. Elizabeth Herridge gives readers of the "Tretyakov Gallery" magazine the chance to become acquainted with the current work of the museum, its perspectives and fundamental principles.

It was conducted by Natella Voiskounski.


N.V. The word "Guggenheim" is not associated with just one museum. It seems to be a kind of network, embracing a large part of the world from New York to Venice, from Las Vegas to Berlin and Bilbao. Is there any co-operation and co-ordination among the Guggenheim Museums; in other words, how does this network work? Does it practice exchange of collections, joint exhibitions, collaborative expertise? Or, on the contrary, does each museum function separately?

E.H. Yes. Of course, you are correct. The word Guggenheim is not just associated with one museum; it is a network of five museums embracing a large part of the world, as you say! There is co-operation and co-ordination amongst the various Guggenheim Museums; there is a kind of network. I think of it in this way, we are like five adult children who have all grown up together, but now pursue our unique but related interests in the different cities where we live. As we have grown up, we have developed our own interests and expertise that have led us to pursue different areas of speciality. As a result we have gone off in different directions to pursue many very good opportunities. But when it comes down to it, we are one family with fundamental values in common, but each has their own style and we support each other in this way. We do have an exchange of collections, ideas, personnel, sometimes joint exhibitions, and we have had exhibitions travel from one Guggenheim venue to the next. There is an important element of collaborative expertise but, at the same time, each museum is a kind of freestanding entity that is largely responsible for its own operational function and for its financial support.

N.V. The Guggenheim network is enthusiastically exhibiting Russian art - we remember "The Amazons of Avant-garde" exhibition that "wandered" (I purposely use the word "wander" to associate it with the Russian "peredvizhniki" - or, "wanderers" - movement) from the USA to Europe. In September, 2005 the New York Guggenheim opened an unprecedented exhibition "RUSSIA!" to which the Tretyakov Gallery is one of the major contributors. In between these two events the Las Vegas Guggenheim-Hermitage museum was organized, and it seems to be the only one - and thus, unique in the Guggenheim museums' network - to deal and co-operate on a regular basis with a Russian museum - the Hermitage.

How did it all come to be? Will you characterize the collection? On what principles was it formed? What is the professional staff of the Museum? How many exhibitions per year do you have? What is the annual number of visitors? What is the Hermitage's contribution? What are the perspectives of such a co-operation? What is the viewers' attitude to the Museum? Are they aware of the fact that the Museum is a joint venture with one of the Russian museums?

E.H. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the State Hermitage Museum began to discuss a collaboration some time ago. Mr. Thomas Krens and Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky formalized this arrangement in 2000. Here in Las Vegas, where we are equal business partners with the State Hermitage Museum, we do not have a permanent collection per se, but we host two exhibitions per year strongly featuring work from the Guggenheim's permanent collection and from the State Hermitage's very expansive collection. Additionally, we are joined by the Kunsthis- torisches Museum in Vienna on many occasions, and other museums and private collections as is necessary and/or desirable. Normally we have in excess of 200,000 visitors per year and the Hermitage contributes its curatorial expertise and very important cultural connections and collections. We find this joint agreement to be culturally very significant in providing the very large Las Vegas audience with an opportunity to view these masterpieces. Las Vegas is a city where approximately 38 million visitors come annually, and our local population is now one and a half million, so it is a perfect way to bring masterpieces to such a diverse and huge audience. It is rather an exceptional opportunity we think! The viewer's attitude towards the museum is one of surprise and wonder, and frankly they do not come to Las Vegas expecting to be able to pay a visit to such an important cultural institution. Certainly the lure of not only the Guggenheim's permanent collection, but of the State Hermitage's collection as well draws a lot of interest. I cannot say that coming to Las Vegas to visit the museum is necessarily the first item on many visitors' agenda, but once they discover us, they enjoy visiting us again. They become fans and are kind enough to send us their compliments!

N.V. How does the Las Vegas Guggenheim-Hermitage museum correspond with the whole atmosphere of Las Vegas - the city, or rather the empire of entertainment?

E.H. Las Vegas is a city of entertainment and perhaps even the entertainment capital of the world, as some would like to say. When we came here with the State Hermitage Museum in 2001 our idea was to be a tourist attraction. While we always had an educational outreach program with the local school district, over the last 2 years, we decided to expand this not only to school children but to young adults and to more mature adults as well. We now sell museum memberships; we have a "Young Collectors Council" that has been very successful, we are doing a lecture series and other outreach programmes to families. It is my hope that we will become a more community-based museum while bringing world-class art to Las Vegas, so that not only the people who live here but also the many visitors will benefit simultaneously.

N.V. Las Vegas is gradually turning into the meeting point of scholars, businessmen, members of professional associations and other groups. Do you think Las Vegas will gradually become a city of arts too - of a really new world of art, taking advantage of all the opportunities, facilities and possibilities of the entertainment industry and high technologies and of the unimaginable number of potential viewers?

E.H. Las Vegas is undergoing a dramatic change. The state and the city are encouraging the establishment of all kinds of businesses that did not exist before and are not strictly limited to gaming. My own feeling is that in order to attract and develop this type of new economy one must also focus on developing a greater cultural milieu. We have exceptional restaurants, residential areas and shopping facilities, but support for the arts has not kept pace. We now have a Philharmonic Orchestra which is in its fifth year, we have a ballet company that has been here for about 30 years, two small opera companies, and other museums around town that have existed in some form for at least 50 years. Certainly, I am told that adding the Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum to the mix has been overwhelmingly advantageous from this point of view. We have an educational mandate as a non-for-profit educational institution and the Hermitage's loans from their superb collection have enabled us to pursue this type of educational programming with a level of resources that not many other institutions enjoy. I have a friend who has coined the term "edutainment" which perhaps fits us quite well at this time. We are both education and entertainment!

N.V. How do you - as a director of one of the Guggenheim museums - see the future of the great world museums - as "extrovert" museums (open to the globalization of culture, and united in the framework of worldwide projects) or as "introvert" museums, strictly pursuing their special peculiarity and single model of existence?

E.H. I am not really sure how to answer your question in terms of how I see the future of great world museums - certainly, museums like the State Hermitage whose collection is so expansive and frankly encyclopaedic, are in my mind not only World Heritage sites, but enormous repositories of culture and history. Contained within their walls is something that could not be amassed or replicated in our time nor in the future.

The fact that such a uniquely historical collection exists and has survived so much and now looks for outreach and partners, like ourselves, in order to bring the experience to a larger audience, can only be a good thing, and I am pleased and extremely honored to be a part of this undertaking.

I think there is a place for "introvert" museums, that is museums that are pursuing a specialized area of study, because enormous operations require enormous funding. In the United States we now live in an environment where the state does not fund the arts and art education to the same extent they once did. It has become the responsibility of the public and of concerned citizens and corporations. In Las Vegas it is most interesting that the role previously held by government as a patron/funder has now been taken over, in our case, by the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino where we are housed. And, why not? Why shouldn't Mr. Sheldon Adelson be a modern day de Medici? In Russia, there are a number of people, like one of our trustees, Mr. Vladimir Potanin, who through his charitable fund offers the larger Guggenheim organization vital financial support to develop and produce the kind of programming that we are known for. One is always grateful, extremely grateful in fact, for all of these very generous donations and all of these people who do understand our mission and are in a position to offer us help.

I think the globalization of culture is probably inevitable especially due to the speed with which information travels and is disseminated. However, I don't think there will ever be a replacement for "introvert" museums that are pursuing special areas of interest. In fact, I think it is rather important to try to maintain them because as institutions get larger and larger we may miss some of their more specialized programming. My biggest fear is that the smaller institutions that are not well funded or more precariously funded will lose out or be swallowed up by larger museums. I am not against change, but I think that it all comes down to funding. It is a shame that the arts, in general, are treated as a luxury rather than a necessity. Sometimes, only when these opportunities are no longer available, do we realize how valuable they were to us!

The exhibition “RUSSIA!” in New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
The exhibition “RUSSIA!” in New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Photograph by David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
Photograph by David Heald
© The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
Photograph by David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
Photograph by David Heald
© The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
Exhibition poster. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Photograph by David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
Photograph by David Heald
© The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York





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