Irina Antonova, director of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, sits at a colossal desk and frequently has to shift from Russian to French to answer her many telephone calls. I used these interruptions to admire the patterned carpets on the walls and the antique furniture. I found myself thinking that the interior goes nicely with Antonova's image. For several decades now, she has been the custodian of the immense treasures of one of Russia's best museums. Her strong character and profound knowledge help her perform her duties as custodian, manager and organizer of connections with museums and galleries throughout the world. Antonova is not a poet, artist or musician, but considering the work she does, it is quite possible to talk about her personal contribution to the art world.
IA: I came to work at the Pushkin Museum as a researcher after I graduated from the institute in April 1945, shortly before the end of the war. For 16 years, I worked as a researcher and was promoted to senior researcher. Since 1961, I have been the director. Looking back, I must say the beginning of my career coincided with a very hard time for my country the time of mourning for the dead mixed with the elation of the victory and hope.
LS: Did you have a personal vision for the museum and its development?
IA: Two years ago, we marked the museum's centennial. When I started to work at the museum, I did not have any other vision but to restore it and make it open to the public. You know, the museum was closed back then. Later, with time, I began to develop a certain concept. Regarding my personal attitude, the most important thing is to take care of our heritage, of the museum's stock of collections. Before the revolution, the museum belonged to sort of an "educational" class. It emerged from the idea to reconstruct the great memorials and effects of ancient Egypt, Greece and Latin culture, and the Renaissance period. Initially, the museum contained very few originals. Emulating the practice of museums which appeared earlier in Germany, Spain and France, the founders created it as a museum of replicas, not copies, but exact reproductions of such masterpieces as the David, the Parthenon and Venus. These replicas played a very important role in getting people acquainted with the great works of world art. After all, not every person can afford to go to Italy, Greece, Great Britain, Spain or France. Beginning from the 1920s, the museum entered a period of rapid development and transformation from an education and enlightenment center into a world-class art museum.
LS: Did the Soviet authorities, namely Commissioner of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky, take care of the museum?
IA: Commissioner Lunacharsky was a remarkably intelligent man. Currently, our younger generation lives in a world of cliches formed by the media. But not everything the papers say are true. The 1920s in Russia saw an unprecedented bloom of arts, cinematography and theater. The idea that a bad regime always begets bad culture is deeply mistaken. On the contrary, economically prosperous countries ruled by democratic regimes often suffer a decay in the arts. It does not surprise me that the idea to develop the museum into a world-class museum of fine arts appeared in the 1920s, during Soviet rule, and was realized with support from Lunacharsky perhaps the best Soviet minister of culture. The idea was first pronounced by Ivan Tsvetayev, the father of famous poet Marina Tsvetayeva, professor at Moscow University and the museum's founder.
LS: There is a tradition in our country to collect Russian and foreign works separately, as if there are no connections and Russian art does not blend into the context of world culture. Is it correct to say that the aim of your museum is to break this tradition?
IA: Our museum was established as a foreign art museum and all our exhibits represent foreign art. The tendency to collect Russian and foreign art separately has existed in the past and is alive today. In Moscow, Russian arts are displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery and foreign arts in our museum. And the situation is similar in St. Petersburg, where foreign art is in the Hermitage and Russian art is in the Russian Museum. But, as I seem to remember, we began going against this "tradition" in 1972 and since then, we have organized exhibitions displaying Russian and foreign works together. And this countertrend has developed with my participation. Our "mixed" exhibition of 1972 generated a strong public response. Renoir and Serov, British portraits of the 18th century and Parasha Zhemchugova famous work of a Russian serf painter. I believe such exhibitions help the Russians perceive themselves in comparison with other nations and get an idea about their place in world culture. Since 1972, we have organized many mixed exhibitions and every time people stood in long lines to enter and feelings ran high inside. I remember the "Moscow-Paris" exhibition a display of works of the first three decades of the 20th century, when the century's artistic trends had sprouted up. The exhibition had the effect of a bomb blast for one simple reason it was 1981, long before perestroika began, and avant-garde pieces were kept away from the eyes of the general public. Displaying works of Malevich or Kandinsly was out of the question. Many people came to see "Moscow-Paris" 10 and even 15 times not so much for French paintings as for those of their unknown compatriots. And several years later, we organized a "Moscow-Berlin" exhibition. To make a long story short, I'll say we managed to raise, at least a bit, the veil that kept Russians shut off from their own culture. I think that we emerged as pioneers for that.
LS: Have you ever been threatened with dismissal for your liberal views?
IA: When the question of choosing a venue for the "Moscow-Paris" exhibition was discussed in the ministry of culture, the directors of the Academy of Arts and Tretyakov Gallery said almost in chorus: "Not as long as we are alive." I was present at the meeting and said: "the Pushkin museum does not need dead bodies for that." This took courage, of course. And it paid. There were several moments in my life when my own fate was at stake but somehow I managed to stand firmly on my own ground and implement my own ideas. I am not a revolutionary nor an iconoclast, but I had always understood that censorship and limitations involved in the Soviet society obstructed the development of arts.
LS: Which period of time was the most dangerous for you?
IA: Speaking of my personal fate, the most dangerous time was the early 1980s. Before that, I often received reprimands from then Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva for showing works of "rogue" artists to the public, but I managed to persuade her that there was no crime in it. The most dangerous time was after the show of "Moscow-Paris." The exhibition infuriated some powerful people who classified it as an "obviously harmful action."
LS: Currently, the museum is experiencing financial problems, but there is an association called "Friends of the Pushkin Museum" which raises charity and renders some assistance to the museum.
IA: This is not quite true. The change of leadership made our image more pleasing to the West, and we saw expressions of good will from people who are not indifferent to the fate of culture. But I must say our country still lacks conditions for such friends to appear. Our present-day friends sponsor those projects in which they are interested themselves, but it rarely amounts to permanent and durable contacts. The country does not have a system to promote patrons of the arts and there is no law to encourage sponsorship of arts, for example in the form of tax exemption. At the moment, preparations are being made in the United States to establish an association of the Pushkin Museum's American friends. Maybe this association will be very effective.
LS: What are the museum's present sources of funding?
IA: We have found ways to survive. Of course, we get proceeds from the sale of entry tickets, giving lectures, and selling printed editions and souvenirs, but this is not enough. It has been quite a long time since the government gave us official permission to rent out our premises and use the money to finance the museum's development. Instead, they're offering a system where we will have to file official requests with the appropriate government offices to receive our own rent money back for the museum's needs. I'm against this plan.
LS: I heard you are planning to raise funds to build a Children's Arts Center as within the museum's framework. How have you dared to start the plan now that the museum is experiencing hard times?
IA: Children come to our museum every day and make up 50 percent of our audience, there are many talented ones among them. Since the 1960s, our museum has been known for its innovative methods of working with children, but we have no premises to accommodate classes, studios, etc. Children come to try their hand at drawing and literally sit on each other's heads in a 28-square meter room. Therefore, we need this center badly. The center will be built in the garden in front of the museum's main building and will include classrooms and a small theater. I hope a charity evening which we plan to hold on June 14 with Yuri Bashmet and the Mercury company will be helpful for the project.
LS: You do your work day after day. Can you recall days when you felt most satisfied when leaving for home after work?
IA: It is difficult to say. Maybe after a successfully launched exhibition, if the public liked it. But frankly speaking, the greatest pleasure in my life is music. If it were not for my love of music, our regulars would hardly have had the opportunity to enjoy concerts that are arranged on the museum's premises from time to time.