6 december 2011

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits Moscow’s Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, chairs a meeting on the museum's further development

Transcript of the beginning of the meeting:

Vladimir Putin: Hello. Ms Antonova and I met recently. She came to the federal government headquarters with a plan for the further development of the museum. During that meeting, she expressed her concern over the possibility that the museum is becoming excessively commercialised.

But as I understand it, no one is forbidding the museum to live as fully as it should, offering its visitors everything that a cultural institution should, including prints, books, artwork and souvenirs for sale. Ms Antonova believes that the original proposals fully correspond to the philosophy of development for such centres in Europe and the United States.

This is a matter of making the most of the space that is going to be transferred to the museum, and setting up depositaries in a manner such that research and exhibition work can go hand in hand. New areas for lectures and other educational activities, including for children, also need to be created.

Ms Antonova believes there is enough room here for activities of every kind. However some people are of the opinion that certain activities should be organised outside the museum’s main compound. Let's now discuss all these issues calmly and in detail.

Based on what Ms Antonova has told me about the new development concept, it appears to be quite appealing and practicable. I’d like to discuss this today in greater detail. Expert opinions should function as our reference points here, as well as elsewhere. Ms Antonova, please go ahead.

Irina Antonova: First of all, I’d like to point out that the need for the museum's expansion arose a long time ago. Over the years, the museum's initial collection of 9,000 exhibits has reached 650,000-660,000. By the early 1930s, it had become clear that the museum did not have enough room to display even the most precious of its holdings.

Copies had formed the basis of the collection, but it was subsequently enriched with original artwork, many of which were transferred in the ‘20s from nationalised museums and private collections. Later, other sources for new acquisitions appeared, including archaeological excavations. We now have an exhibition hall filled entirely with artefacts from archaeological sites. We work in Kerch, on the Taman Peninsula – in ancient Panticapaeum, with large teams in operation there. We recently rearranged the display and decorated a splendid hall for it. And we are continuing with our archaeological efforts, which started back in 1926.

Our ancient artefact sections have grown dramatically. Yet no one has been able to see our 200-item collection of Buddhist sculpture, for instance. Then again, each era brings about new goals. I think it’s time for us to start doing what other major museums in the world, such as the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have been doing for quite a while. It’s time we began displaying African art. At the Met, for example, this is one of the best sections. We’ve arranged a display [of African art] using items from St Petersburg-based collections. Russian ambassadors who have served in African countries have joined us in this effort. An exhibition of this kind would be highly interesting to stage and to show, especially because African art appears a bit underestimated for today.

There is a big museum in Paris, the Musée du quai Branly, that is devoted entirely to this subject. In general, it is necessary to depict non-European civilisations on a larger scale. Our museum displays global art and there is no getting away from this. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we could increase our collection of paintings by two or two and a half times. We must mount an exhibition now, and what can we do? We have removed all 17th century Italian paintings and we exhibit Caravaggio here, but we don’t have any special exhibition premises. If we were to acquire them, we would be able to exhibit our wealth that is now being stored in repositories. The same applies to other sections, and this is a real possibility.

Generally, I believe that the main resource of every museum is its exposition, its materials. We will never compare with the Hermitage – that train left long ago. The division of the world’s art treasures took place a long time ago. Everything has already been divvied up, and it is virtually impossible to buy a Rafael painting now – it can only happen by chance. Therefore, a museum’s capacity to do what it can with what it has is becoming tremendously important. First of all, it should exhibit its best specimens and its best work to increase its number of visitors.

We have had all sorts of drawbacks and shortcomings in working with children, but we are trying to bring our work up to the highest level. People are coming to us, even foreign experts, but still we have little room for… We have now established family groups that receive children with their relatives – mothers, fathers, grandparents or aunts (it makes no difference to us), because they will continue discussing this subject at home. It’s not as if a child would come and say, “This is what I saw.” These are wonderful groups. If only someone ever had the time to come and see how this actually happens! It's a great thing. When we form these groups in autumn we cannot keep up with this influx of new applicants because this experience has already become widely known – people love it and we must develop it.

There is another age as well, which is known as the Third Age in the West. This group consists of people who have retired, but are still active and want to see things they had no time for when they worked. These Third Age groups exist in a number of countries (I have observed them in particular to understand this concept). They come in the evening (when the children are gone) and attend hobby groups, draw, listen to lectures and so on.

We are still an educational museum – Moscow University continues to exert its influence on us – just like the imperial style of the Hermitage, for instance, or the merchant style of the Tretyakov Gallery. These genes are ineradicable. They live on – this is common knowledge. And we have the spirit of the Moscow professor corps, which is very important for us, but now we are reaching a different audience.

For example, we have staged an exhibition of outfits by Christian Dior. They made a proposal to us to host this exhibition: simply Dior. He relied on many sources of art. He collected paintings and loved the art of the 18th century. Those who visited this exhibition remember -- Versailles sent us costumes from the 18th century to compare them with those of Dior, and we could see the extent to which he borrowed from art! We received paintings by Van Gogh and Modigliani and we integrated them into one show. Visitors were able to see costumes and art at the same time. The visitors were young – from 17 to 25 years old. The same audience came to see Salvador Dali. They heard about surrealism, some tricks and so on… I asked them whether they had visited our museum before and they replied, “No, but your museum is an interesting place.” I invited them to see other things as well. In other words, we have won over this audience and they are beginning to return to us. They came to see Caravaggio, as well as other exhibitions. This is our mission to expand the audience.

We say that these activities, our work with the audience, is the most important goal for any museum, because a museum is a monument and we are the intermediaries between it and the audience. We must also arrange to have some food available – some inexpensive cafes. We must also have some special rooms (people come to visit for a long time, three to four hours, and they bring along children). We have special rooms with experts who can look after children while their parents take a tour of the museum. So, there are many such things for us to attend to, and we are dealing with some of the issues already.  In short, we can say that we are aware of these problems.  

When we began working on it, in 2003, we came up with a concept for museum development. The museum Academic Council approved it the same year. It has changed since then, as we updated it in 2007 and 2008. This year’s concept is the latest update. Mr Putin, a government decree you signed was drawn on the basis of the 2008 development concept. It was essential – not only did it allow the museum to expand but it also earmarked necessary funds. 

Please come after this talk to look at the books we have put on display this year. We could never have afforded to publish them were it not for that decree. We had to be quick because we were told that if we didn’t use up the grant within the year, we wouldn’t retain it as carryovers – we’d have to cede it. So we did all we could and published books we could never have published in any other circumstances. Who would care to publish an academic catalogue in 17 volumes, or Ivan Tsvetayev’s correspondence with Yury Nechayev-Maltsov, the principal museum donor? Here is the three-volume set right here. The fourth and final volume will come from the press in two weeks. These are wonderful books. You can leaf through them later. These books are priceless, given that they will likely never be republished. They contain complete information about the establishment of eleven major Russian museums. Once again, they would have never been published were it not for the decree.

The development concept was not infallible, of course. Mr Avdeyev told us just today about the Bolshoi Theatre’s newly built underground halls, which turned out to be something of a failure.

Alexander Avdeyev: I’d say, on the contrary, they’re quite good.

Irina Antonova: So they are good, after all? With regard to our own underground construction, we learned just how deep we could go only after the job started. Accordingly, we changed our expansion plans – we trimmed a bit more here and a bit less there. What matters most is that the museum should expand. The house we are in was built by the architect Roman Klein. It’s very beautiful, but it needs thorough repairs. It stood roofless throughout WWII – here are the photos. Bombs fell right on the Philosophy Institute located next door in its first months. This house was also damaged – see the scarred marble? We had snow in every room for four years. We did receive help, however. The windows were glassed in and the roof was restored in the first post-war years. Nonetheless, this house is a hundred years old, and it needs major repairs. Moreover, we have an opportunity to expand. Pity it’s too dark now, you can’t see our two patios. The architect Klein wanted them roofed in, someday. [Norman] Foster jotted down all this information. I’ll show you now (showing photographs). See, the roofs will be here and there! These are conventional monuments, of course – but we have another two patios, so it’s another chance for expansion. Here is a photo of our new premises. The house, built in 1826, was in ruins. Now it’s an exquisite mansion, the kind which consecrated Moscow after the Napoleonic War set it ablaze. Here, incidentally, is proof (on this photograph) that we saw this building back in 2008 before you signed the document. Here are all the people involved – Bashmet, Tabakov… he was also included, as cultural figures. Is that right?

Vladimir Putin:  They are our  people.

Irina Antonova: Our people! So, it didn’t all come from nothing. It was all discussed. I don’t think that we should invite some other specialists to make improvements. Everything can be improved, of course, but it was all thought out, it didn’t spring up from nowhere, it was all thought through.

Vladimir Putin: I see.

Irina Antonova: I have an urgent request to make. First of all, it is unacceptable, as we see it, to stop the construction. The organisation we are working with has provided some disappointing designs. I told you so and I said as much to Ms Nabyullina back in 2009. I said that things weren't working out with them and that something had to be done. We were expecting recommendations on what to do. I think that the architect that works for us, Norman Foster, the British architect who has built a large number of museums – precisely museums – and not so much built as restored and improved, with various buildings added and so on – that he is a virtuoso, considering downtown Moscow’s environment, where it is so difficult to match the landscape and where so many bans are in existence. I think he has made a brilliant design from the point of view of landscape-matching. And he hasn’t spoiled anything. And then again – modern architecture… Pardon me, but we have the Kremlin and Moskva Hotel and the Manezh, all in close proximity, all creations of different epochs, sitting side by side and complementing one another.  You can't just say that everything from the past has to be frozen in time. This is why a modern building in our museum cluster, which you saw, or rather two buildings – an auditorium and exhibition premises – won’t interfere with anything. On the contrary! You know, ours is not just a museum cluster, it is also an architectural cluster. We have the 16th century Church of St. Anthipius, a 17th century palazzo, and buildings dating back to the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Why shouldn’t we have 21st century ones? It’s a museum cluster. We can organize guided tours for people to see how Moscow's architectural culture is evolving. But it has to be a high-quality affair. That’s the most important thing. And it can't be banal. We can build another exhibition hall with colonnades, and so on. But that isn’t very interesting, I think.

Vladimir Putin:  Let's discuss it.

Irina Antonova: We don’t want angry reactions. We showed it to the Russian public. Mr Rakhmatullin of Arkhnadzor (Rustam Rakhmatullin, culture expert, founder and coordinator of Arkhnadzor (Architectural Oversight), a public movement in defence of architectural monuments) visited us and saw the whole thing. He made just two remarks, one about  moving a façade over slightly, Foster’s façade (Norman Foster, British architect, Honorary Foreign Member of the Russian Academy of Fine Arts), and so on. They accepted it calmly, they didn't get upset. I mean members of the public, who are attempting to protect Moscow. This is why it is unacceptable to stop the construction. It has to be continued. And the Mosproekt-5 problem should be addressed immediately as well.

I believe a solution to the property problems should be found as quickly as possible. If this is not done, what will we have? What premises will we have and where shall we build? If for some reason someone is displeased with the concept that the museum abides by, then a public discussion is in order. Let me say this. We showed the design to Mikhail Pyotrovsky, not in his capacity as Hermitage director but as chairman of the Russian Museum Association. He approved it. We displayed it at the Academy of Fine Arts, and it was approved. We displayed it at the Culture Ministry’s Institute of Art Studies and at the Russian Division of the International Council of Museums (supervised by Vladimir Tolstoy). Finally, a large-scale model was displayed at the Biennale in Venice, a well-known exhibition venue. I showed it for one and a half hours in the Louvre, where it was  looked over by the international museum public – members of the International Council of Museums.

We have been through many stages. But now, I think, it has to be shown to the Culture Ministry’s Board where members of the public would be invited. If we are mistaken in some or other respect or went too far, let them say so and point out where we are in error. But I am against putting foreign specialists on this project. Let me say why. You should know the museum and the Moscow environment well, and know how things are done in Russia. You cannot treat all museums the same. Take the theatres. The Maly Theatre is not the same as the Arts Theatre, which is not the same as the Lenkom (Lenin YCL Theatre). Each has the right to exist. Each follows a line of its own. The Hermitage is extraordinarily rich and it takes pride in its collections. We feel we are at a lower level, but we are located in the capital, where art-related activities are of high importance. I believe a discussion of this kind is absolutely imperative. It is high time we moved forward.

Vladimir Putin: OK, we will. Let us see what has been done under the resolution. It was approved on July 18, 2008, almost three and a half years ago. It listed some clearly-defined plans. Ms Antonova here mentioned the property matters. She meant the transfer, in accordance with established procedure, and registration of a number of real estate items, such as 8 Volkhonka St., and some others. Jointly with the Russian Academy of Sciences, proposals should have been drafted before December 1, 2008, on where to accommodate the Institute of Philosophy and on the amount of budget funding. Twenty-three billion roubles has been allocated from the budget…

Irina Antonova: Yes, all the funding comes from the federal budget.

Elvira Nabyullina:  In two stages.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, more than 23 billion roubles, or between 800 and 900 million U.S. dollars. It is a lot of money, enough to solve the problem. In the Ministry of Culture’s budget, it is a significant amount, comparable with those earmarked for other projects, such as The Bolshoi or the Mariinsky Theatre. Without any exaggeration, it is one of our national priorities. We are doing a lot for museum affairs in general. Ms Antonova didn’t mention Mr Gusev (Vladimir Gusev, Director of the State Russian Museum). His museum has been presented with huge new areas of floor-space in recent years. I don’t know of a similar precedent anywhere in the world.

Irina Antonova: Yes, it is a unique example. But you know, St Petersburg is rich in houses that can be used as museums.

Vladimir Putin: Yes. When I visited St Michael’s Castle in St Petersburg for the first time, I thought we would never be able to put it in order. Mr Sobchak and I came in, looked around, and he said, “We’ve got some renovation work to do here.”  But I thought to myself, “That’s unrealistic!” The building then seemed beyond repair, you see. But eventually we got it fixed and transferred to the Russian Museum, along with other structures. The Russian Museum is today the world’s largest in terms of territory, I think.

Irina Antonova: Looks like it. If we add up all the constituent structures…

Vladimir Putin: All those spaces, yes…

Irina Antonova: Second only to the Hermitage Museum, maybe...

Vladimir Putin: Well, I don’t think...

Irina Antonova: …that the Hermitage’s larger?

Alexander Zhukov: If we factor in the storage facility that we’ve just got up and running for the Hermitage, it then may well prove larger…

Vladimir Putin: The Hermitage does boast a new high-quality storage facility, but I just don’t think it comes anywhere near the Russian Museum in terms of size. But maybe I’m wrong, so we should check. Well, let’s now get back to the Pushkin Museum, shall we? So the first item on the agenda is…

Elvira Nabiullina: …is property. We’ve got a problem with the Philosophy Institute. Ms Antonova touched on this earlier today. The institute is operational; its premises have now been formally transferred to the museum by Russia’s Property Committee, but no replacement has been found for it yet.  There are reputed scholars working there, and it would be wrong to make them move someplace uptown. We’ve discussed with them at length the various options offered by the Russian Property Committee and finally they’ve picked the building on Goncharnaya Street. Next in line are issues related to rent and to the transfer of legal rights…

Vladimir Putin: Is this building vacant?

Elvira Nabiullina: No, there’s a need for relocation. 

Vladimir Putin: And who’s renting?

Elvira Nabiullina: There’s more than one tenant. 

Vladimir Putin: Do we have money for relocation and renovation? We cannot just have the tenants move out without offering them some other housing, can we?

Elvira Nabiullina: No, we don’t have any funds allocated for the purpose as yet. Recently we met up with [President of the Russian Academy of Sciences] Yuri Osipov to discuss this problem. He is in the know. We’ll see if some money could be taken from the Academy’s coffers. Otherwise we’ll have to finance it all from the treasury.

Vladimir Putin: I think it would be wrong to take money away from the Academy. The budgetary funds we allocate for them aren’t meant for such purposes, actually. And then again, the Academy’s own budget doesn’t provide for that kind of expenditure. So I’d rather we don’t…

Elvira Nabiullina: We could take a certain amount as a supplement…

Vladimir Putin: Indeed, a supplement may come in handy. Please make appropriate estimations and submit relevant proposals, will you? Preferably before the year’s end.

Elvira Nabiullina: There’s also the problem of…

Vladimir Putin: …because there are revenues and inflation is low. And then, the necessary amount isn’t all that large.

Elvira Nabiullina: Of course. As for the other project, it is to be implemented as part of the [construction’s] second leg. We’ve seen that cinquefoil layout. The idea requires further examination, with a number of questions still unanswered. But this building is meant for the second leg, which we haven’t yet started. We’re already dealing with the problem of relocating the nearby petrol station, though. There are still quite a few particulars to be settled, including the station’s new location, with no suitable site found for it as yet.

Vladimir Putin: Please discuss this with Mr Sobyanin and counterparts from Moscow [City Hall].

Elvira Nabiullina: We’re already discussing the matter with Mr Sobyanin.

Irina Antonova: Besides that cinquefoil layout, there are others, more traditional.

Vladimir Putin: When are you going to move on to the next stage?

Elvira Nabiullina: We planned subsequent stages for 2012-2015, initially. But we’ve failed to complete the first leg on schedule; we’ve had to delay certain things because of the economic crisis and to put some new projects on hold. The delays arise from the unfavourable economic situation as well as from slow architectural planning. Our initial intention was to proceed to the next stage in 2012, but now we’ll have to postpone it to 2013-2014 because an earlier start just looks unrealistic at this point.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, but there are certain procedures to perform and a final choice to be made and confirmed. Ms Antonova is right in saying that we should go about it in such a way as to ensure that people in charge of Moscow’s development are directly involved in the process. There would then be no rejection on the part of the professional community and the project would fit in harmoniously with the neighbourhood’s existing architectural landscape. The project should be put up to a public vote, otherwise it may stir discord.

Elvira Nabiullina: We need a modern building, but one that wouldn’t be at odds with Moscow’s historical centre. And the same is true of the projects to be realised during the first leg.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I agree, we’ve got to start broad-based debates on this. Ms Antonova has suggested the idea and we should go ahead with it, holding hearings both in the State Duma and the Moscow Duma and posting all the submitted projects on the Web. We should do this under a crowd-sourcing scheme, as we did when a new healthcare bill was under discussion. That bill isn’t perfect, of course; there are issues there that could have been handled differently. But most people have approved it, eventually. The same here. We shouldn’t repeat the mistakes we made when pushing forward the Gazprom tower project in St Petersburg. Quite a handsome sum – over 23 billion roubles – has been allocated [for the Pushkin Museum project] so we should work quickly on it. 

 Mr Avdeyev, please go ahead.

Alexander Avdeyev: Mr Putin, I’d like to begin by saying that we’ve come a long way. Let me express my thanks to Ms Antonova for her commitment and her willingness to solve problems even beyond the scope of a museum chief’s responsibilities. She has spent years working toward the goal to which she once committed herself. She’s been working consistently to translate into reality her vision for the museum’s future, with its architectural aspects as well as museological. And the sheer fact of the state taking care of the Pushkin Museum’s renovation is the fruit of Ms Antonova’s committed, years-long efforts.

We’ve got architectural blueprints already. These will be finalised once the construction concept is ready. We’ll hand the final version over to architects so that they could put finishing touches on it and put it up for public consideration. You’re absolutely right in saying we won’t get public approval unless we open ourselves to public criticism. We should acknowledge Mosproekt-5, which has agreed to modify its project to make it fit it better with the neighbourhood’s architecture and with Moscow’s traditions. Across the street, there’s the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, for which we should show due respect.

Vladimir Putin: We shouldn’t pay anyone their dues until after the final decision is made. And then we should calculate how much is actually “due.”

Alexander Avdeyev: Yes, without losing momentum. It’s only natural that there’s no single vision for the museum’s development. We’re just through with our two-year discussion on the Polytechnic Museum’s development plan. There the situation was very similar.  I must say that the debates were fierce but respectful. We will continue our discussions further so as to bring them to completion as fast as we can, picking the best project.

Not all the members of our trustee board had the same approach. For instance, we couldn’t agree on whether there was really a need to engage foreign specialists. This particular question has already been answered, though, with a foreign architect taken on. That’s a step in the right direction, I think. But it’s important that this architect be respectful towards Moscow’s architecture as well as sensitive to Muscovites’ requests.

As for the architectural idea, it’s very sophisticated, and a dozen transnational giants have spent the last few years working on it. When developing a project for the Polytechnic Museum, our trustee board invited the services of foreign companies that had been involved in developing some of the world’s most prestigious museums. So I don’t think it would hurt if, while preparing our own version, we ask outside specialists for advice. Because the architectural plan and display arrangement across exhibition areas are things crucial to attendance, and they will largely determine the museum’s appeal to visitors, young and old.

In our view, asking for outside advice is indispensable because Russia is lagging behind other nations in museum technology. We shouldn’t feel humiliated if we turn for advice to some of the world’s leading specialists in this domain.

By building this innovative museum, we’ll be laying groundwork for the entire 21st century. It is for our children and grandchildren to appreciate. We should get it right and make sure we don’t make any methodological mistakes. I agree with Ms Antonova that we need to achieve a balance between the common museum laws and the operating principles of a museum district. It’s not in every city that you will come across a museum district, but all of the world’s major cities and cultural capitals do have something of the kind.

We should draw from the relevant expertise of France’s Louvre and Centre Georges-Pompidou, as well as that of Vienna, England, and the United States. We cannot create our very own museum district without studying related foreign expertise. If we don’t, we risk repeating other people’s mistakes. So I think that the trustee board’s idea to seek advice from some of the world’s major museums and companies is only natural, especially given that this is to be financed with sponsors’ money rather than from the treasury.

It’s highly important to make this district appealing to young people. Many museum districts across the world have managed to achieve that, but there are some that have failed.

Young people seem keen to visit the Centre Pompidou, which, along with exhibition halls, houses a library, a number of cinemas, research centres, children’s areas, shops and so forth.

I agree with Ms Antonova that the museum district we’re aspiring to create should be comprehensive and that it should also include a commercial dimension, aimed primarily at stimulating young people’s interest in the arts.

Experience indicates that general directors of museums should not control museum malls – cultural management is a very special field. We should employ the best managers this country has to offer, and if there are none, we must educate young people for the purpose. There are some promising young men and women. World experience reveals that there is a difference between museum management and museum mall management, with the latter subordinate to the former – that’s the fundamental distinction of this project.

Vladimir Putin: The main thing is to prevent clashes, such as those that occur in stage companies between the head manager and the artistic director.

Alexander Avdeyev: Quite right. The Louvre underground mall, for example, is controlled by a hired manager who coordinates all essential matters with the museum's general director. There are many independent shops in the mall that sell books at lower prices than up in the city – art books, books on the world’s leading museums, on local history and geography, and so on. Small replicas of sculptures are sold by an independent production and trading unit.

It would be interesting and useful to follow the example of the Louvre when it comes to prints. The Louvre has the world’s richest print depository. When I served as the Soviet ambassador to France, I asked the people at the Louvre to give me several dozen prints to decorate Soviet embassies. I was not successful of course. I see now that I acted foolishly – things are not done that way. I now understand that we should have asked for new impressions from genuine old wood blocks. The Louvre has these blocks, and there is a shop that trades in such prints. They are certainly genuine, only they have been made quite recently. Printmaking and the sale of prints is a major field of commerce.

The mall should have a framing shop, a children’s art book store, definitely a post office, a pharmacy, an exhibition hall and several small restaurants – not fast food stalls, but restaurants. Many museums have these now. Such restaurants are very popular, and they contribute to the public image of the host museum. An observation deck is very important, especially considering the unique panorama of the Kremlin that opens up from the perspective of the museum. Mr Putin, no one has an idea yet just how beautiful this is. We could potentially build a platform in the seven-story house I mentioned.

Irina Antonova: A bookshop for children.

Alexander Avdeyev: Yes.

Irina Antonova: The shop will sell books on how to look at sculptures, paintings and prints. I’ll explain it all now to give you a sense of the idea.

Alexander Avdeyev: There is a seven-story block, now vacant.

Irina Antonova: There are superb books that are beautifully written. Just look!

Alexander Avdeyev: So the observation deck would be in that house or nearby, at the new depository. People who have visited the Centre Pompidou or New York museums understand what an attraction these platforms are.

I do not entirely agree with Ms Antonova about that house. I don’t believe that a residential block can be made into a library. A library requires huge rooms.

Irina Antonova: The rooms of the library will be fine.

Alexander Avdeyev: Really? Perhaps you're right. We’ll take a look at it in person and select the best option with expert assistance.

It's important to consider what the museum can do for Moscow’s residential neighbourhoods. The experience of the Hermitage is unique. The French are following in Mr Piotrovsky’s footsteps. Paris city hall decided a few days ago to build a museum depository in the suburbs – you know, the small towns around Paris, in order to bring some culture to them. The museums will provide pieces that are not vitally important to them, but that would enrich the culture of residential districts. We could do the same in order to establish these little kernels of culture, and to attract tourists not only to the central museum but also to its open depository. Cultural centres can achieve this brilliantly, in the same way that Piotrovsky has done. Foreign experts believe that we should do the same.

Irina Antonova: This arrangement doesn’t suit all museums.

Alexander Avdeyev: Possibly. We’ll discuss it all together and eventually come up with the best possible solution. Mr Putin, we Russians are different from, say, the French: finding the best solution is what matters most to them, while we care more about winning the argument. We try to rid ourselves of this bad habit, and I’m willing to make a concession to Ms Antonova and try to find the best option for a business that would last through the 21st century. We don’t need a hotel here. Everyone agrees about this. What we need is a small guesthouse.

Vladimir Putin: A pub as well.

Alexander Avdeyev: We will need a small house for visiting experts, because the construction experience of the museum centre interests our friends in the other CIS countries. They can’t afford Moscow hotels. In short, we are in the midst of a very active and interesting discussion. It becomes too heated on occasion, and as culture minister, I try to reconcile things. Our main goal is to work out a concept that is essentially important, and to do so quickly, as the architect will need some time to get things in order. Then we will offer it up for public discussion, after which we will pass it on to the authorities for approval. Mr Putin, we also must determine the project status, which at this point is still somewhat vague. Should we set up a construction office under the museum, or a managing company to arrange contests and control construction work? Or again, should we pass this task off to the Culture Ministry’s Moscow office, as was the case with the reconstruction of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theatre?

Irina Antonova: We proposed this back in the spring.

Alexander Avdeyev: Mr Putin, the discussion is proceeding, and we will think about it. We must work quickly, but not hastily, because the museum is intended to last a century and we’ll pay dearly for any blunders.

Vladimir Putin: Go ahead, Mr Zhukov.

Alexander Zhukov: I think there are several matters that we need to settle as soon as possible so as not to slow down the entire process. Creative discussion does not have any adverse effect on this whatsoever, and it should continue. There is the Institute of Philosophy, in particular. Restoring it will require additional funds.

Vladimir Putin: How much?

Alexander Zhukov: I am not sure whether these estimates have been made already. I think it will be something in the area of 500 million roubles, as the premises require thorough repairs. Several buildings were offered to the Academy of Sciences to serve as the new premises for the institute, a clinic on Leninsky Prospekt among them. None of these options were accepted because all of these buildings demand major repairs, while the decree does not provide funding. So I think the choice must be made, the house vacated and its repair started urgently in keeping with the project.

Vladimir Putin: All we need to know is what building to vacate.

Elvira Nabiullina: The Institute of Philosophy.

Vladimir Putin: I mean where it will move.

Alexander Zhukov: Its new premises have been chosen already.

Vladimir Putin: Are you certain?

Alexander Zhukov: Yes, it is satisfactory for the Academy of Sciences, though they cannot afford to repair and re-equip it. The job will take quite some time.

Vladimir Putin: We need a precise cost assessment, not the 500 million you conjured up at random.

Alexander Zhukov: Feasibility studies have been made.

Elvira Nabiullina: It's time for design works.

Alexander Zhukov: The same is true of the building of the former Assembly of the Nobility. This is our second priority.

Irina Antonova: The design is ready, so the work can begin anytime.

Alexander Zhukov: This project was simply postponed due to budget problems. It doesn’t require public discussion because it doesn’t need a new house.

There is another problem, regarding the petrol station on the site appointed for the new museum building. We discussed where to transfer it several times in the committee, but with no results. I gave the necessary orders on two or three occasions, if I'm not mistaken. A good site was chosen nearby in the garage under the Kamenny Bridge, but the fire safety board said it is prohibited to have a petrol station under a bridge.

Vladimir Putin: Find another location, then.

Alexander Zhukov: We simply need to order the city hall to appoint a site. Of course, this is a difficult task to accomplish in the city centre, but people surely need a petrol station near the Kremlin. I think a site can be found quickly enough.

Finally, there are several private houses that have not been mentioned today. The decree does not set aside any funds whatsoever to purchase them. This matter demands sizable allocations, because the owners demand a great deal above the actual market price.

Vladimir Putin: As usual. But the pricing needs to be fair, it needs to be based on the market situation. We should not do any harm to either the property holders or the state.

Alexander Zhukov: There is nothing we can do besides purchasing the houses, and the sooner the better. I think they are located somewhere in this area. As for the new construction projects, I believe they must be discussed by the public and a broad range of experts.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you.

As for the new museum, it must certainly be a 21st century museum, but this does not mean that its construction should take the entire century.

Please note that the 2008 government decree had to do with preparations for the Fine Arts Museum centennial, so we have to see what we can and should do for this anniversary, which is next year. So everything envisaged by the decree, everything that has been approved, that is not disputable, and that does not threaten to lead to any errors should be carried out – there are many such things.

Next, we might discuss whether some parts of the museum should move to other Moscow districts, but I don’t think we should follow the example of the Hermitage, because its new depository is not located in a distant residential neighbourhood. I know the place. It’s an industrial area that lacks proper infrastructure, and that is difficult to access. The work at the depository is carried out there, and it can be compared to what we are planning here. We should see whether personnel will find it comfortable to work at the new premises. The matter demands thorough consideration, and I will not insist on the museum depository moving out. If the area is satisfactory, why not make a new depository here?

Elvira Nabiullina: Then it must be accessible to the public, because it would be located in the city centre.

Vladimir Putin: Why not? I wonder why you continue to insist, despite the fact that Ms Antonova and the experts are certain that they will feel more comfortable here. The people in St Petersburg simply had no room.

Irina Antonova: Their new depository is for quite different exhibits – carriages and other huge unwieldy objects.

Vladimir Putin: There really is no room there. Piotrovsky is trying to obtain a new site but it is occupied by Defence Ministry projects, so he has not met any success, but we have enough room here, so why should they move? We should think this over again. The decision is not final. Please think it all over.

As for the Council of Trustees, there are certainly respectable people in it. And we should consider their opinion, because we established the council in order to seek its advice and discuss problems with them. Let’s call a spade a spade: you do listen to them but practical decision-making is up to the Ministry of Culture. The trickiest issues make it to deputy prime ministers. We know all of this, and I understand it. Let's not use the Council of Trustees as a smoke screen.

As I've already said, the principal work, which will be carried out based on a contest, necessarily requires public discussion to be as broad as possible. The new buildings must merge smoothly with the urban environment. They must harmonise with this part of Moscow and, at the same time, look modern and striking. We should also take final stock of the centre’s blueprints. I share Ms Antonova’s apprehension of an excessive commercial spirit. The museum must not turn into a shopping area. It is perfectly reasonable to connect part of it with commerce, but that part should be based on the museum’s educational activities. Let us proceed from here. Please report the concept as soon as possible.

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Before the meeting, Mr Putin visited a Caravaggio exhibition held by the museum as part of the Year of Italy in Russia. Museum Director Irina Antonova was his guide during the visit, telling him about the artist and the canvases on exhibit. The prime minister also viewed a model of the museum centre, which depicts not only the existing buildings, but also all those that are intended for construction, including an exhibition hall in the shape of a five-petal flower.