Can Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Museum Redefine the Russian Art Scene? Four Moscow Curators Weigh In

  • Exterior view of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, 2015. Photo by Lily Idov for Artsy.

Situated in the heart of Moscow, Gorky Park could be read as a barometer of its city’s mercurial political and cultural attitudes. In the last 40 years, the vast public green has reflected the vicissitudes of the Soviet regime, its fall, and recent reconstruction efforts. In 2011, the park rapidly transformed from a dilapidated anathema into a lush oasis dotted with public art and playgrounds. This Friday, Gorky Park will see another boost to its resurgence—the grand opening of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art’s first permanent space, a storied 1960s Soviet-era building updated by Rem Koolhaas.


Established in 2008 by collector and philanthropist Dasha Zhukova (full disclosure: Zhukova is also Artsy’s co-founder and creative director), Garage is one of several privately-run contemporary art institutions in Moscow. Until now, it has mounted shows with international artists, from Marina Abramović to John Baldessari to Michel Gondry, in temporary residences including a former bus depot refurbished by Konstantin Melnikov and a prefabricated pavilion designed by Shigeru Ban. With its new 5,400 square-meter home—slated to host a rotating cast of experiential exhibitions by Russian and international artists, an ever-growing Russian art archive, and an active education program—Garage is making a bid for the role of Russia’s most progressive contemporary art museum. In advance of Friday’s festivities, we spoke with four Moscow-based curators—situated at both private and state-run organizations or acting independently—about the history and future of their city’s art landscape and how Garage fits in.


Viktor Misiano

  • Courtesy of Viktor Misiano.

Viktor Misiano was curator of contemporary art at the Pushkin National Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow from 1980 to 1990, director of the Center for Contemporary Art (CAC), Moscow from 1992 to 1997, and has curated major biennale and museum exhibitions worldwide. In 1993, he founded the Moscow Art Magazine and continues to work as its editor-in-chief. 

What is the status of art institutions and of contemporary art in Moscow? 

I lived through this whole post-Communist transformation and, from the early ’90s to now, the position of contemporary art has changed a few times. In the ’90s, contemporary art was in a paradoxical position. It was a time of economic disaster in Russian society and the art community was very fragile. Social infrastructure was practically paralyzed and museums were simply surviving—there was no money for art, no market yet, and the art scene was reduced to a very close circle of devoted contemporary art activists. But, at the same time, contemporary art was very much requested by the media. Internationally, contemporary art of the ’90s was interactive, socially provocative, relational, and engaged in a dialogue with mass media, so a kind of alliance between contemporary art and mass media developed in Russia as well. More than any other cultural practice, contemporary art represented that time of transformation in Moscow—a desperate wish for the new: for a new dimension of life and of values.


The situation changed in the middle of the next decade, when Putin’s prosperity was just appearing, when the first symptoms of market were emerging, and when the first Russian collectors started to build their own collections and become actors in the art scene. It was also a moment when the state confirmed, for the first time, its interest in contemporary art as a medium of propaganda, transformation, and as a confirmation of its legitimacy. At that time, the fact that contemporary art is an international practice was thought of positively by the government because it was in favor of Russia’s integration into the international market. This climate brought a lot of contradictions because from one side, it’s what the art scene in the ’90s dreamed of: to be the focus of attention and to be surrounded by protectors, investors, and politicians. But, from the other side, the most non-conformist artists immediately noticed certain contradictions in this new status. Not all of them wanted to become a part of the regime; to become art of the regime. That provoked internal dialectics and internal debate from those who were pro-Putin’s art system and those who decided to take a more critical position.

“Contemporary art has returned to itself.”

Recently, the situation has changed again, in the sense that the new conservative term of the third Putin presidency canceled the previous alliance between state policy and contemporary art. Contemporary art is not very positively received now by state bureaucracy, and state subsidies into contemporary art institutions have been reduced. 

How can a private institution like Garage play a different role than state-run institutions in Moscow’s art landscape?

In this climate, an institution like Garage—an institution which is subsidized by private sources—is extremely, extremely important. As a counterpoint, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, and the whole chain of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (with venues in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Nizhnii Novgorod, and more) is one of the leading institutions in the country—but it’s a federal institution with a very small budget. I’m working with them now on a very ambitious project, and the budget is coming almost entirely from external, private, or international foundations because the state has reduced subsidies to an essential minimum. It’s not an easy time, but at the same time, it’s important to stay positive, because art is no longer corrupted by power. Contemporary art has returned to itself. 

What was your first or most memorable experience at Garage? 

For me, it was Garage’s first exhibition: the incredible Ilya and Emilia Kabakov show. It was a powerful and genius gesture. The choice of Kabakov was, I would say, a sniper shoot because Garage performed the great return of an artist who left Russia in the late ’80s. In fact, I was with Kabakov [Ilya] on his last night in Moscow—he left expecting to come back in three months but practically never did. So, Garage performed this brilliant, triumphant return of a great Russian artist.

How do you hope to see Moscow’s art community grow and change in the next 10 years? What role do you see Garage playing in this growth?

Garage’s vantage point and leadership now stands out amongst other institutions for their precise program, with a very precise idea behind it. Of course, it is not the only institution in Moscow; there are many. But what is crucially important is their mission to be international but also to be in dialogue with the local situation. This attempt to be “glocal”—to think globally but act locally—is unique to Garage in Moscow, or at least they are the only institution which has succeeded in realizing it. Some institutions in Moscow are too local and some are exaggeratedly international or provincially international. Garage finds an intelligent, reasonable, and productive position in between different counterpoints. 

“The real value of this kind of thing is so beyond the pervading ideas about art and its value in Russia currently.”

I also think it’s very positive that Garage is trying to build a system of connections with the most progressive people nowadays—and with the most advantageous, experimental, and intelligent institutions. It’s an institution which for years has existed between the West and the East and accumulated incredible knowledge about this transitional position. So from this point of view, Garage’s decision to build a small intellectual community—and involve people like Zdenka Badovinac from the Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana, Georg Schöllhammer from Vienna, and Clare Bishop from the United States who are some of the most brilliant but not arrogant intellectuals from different parts of the world—is a very intelligent decision. This was never requested in Moscow but, in reality, it is needed very much.


Lastly, their decision to support the archive (collected by the former Soros Center for Contemporary Art and now part of Garage) is also essential. It’s not a Damien Hirst piece or a large Francesco Clemente painting. It’s just paper, VHS, and cassettes, but there’s enormous intellectual capital in it. Somebody needs to preserve it. The real value of this kind of thing is so beyond the pervading ideas about art and its value in Russia currently. It took a certain courage to make that decision. 


Zelfira Tregulova

  • Courtesy of The State Tretyakov Gallery press office.

Zelfira Tregulova is the director of The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Previously, she served as director of the ROSIZO State Museum and Exhibition Center and the deputy director general of the Moscow Kremlin Museum. She has organized and produced major exhibitions of Russian art around the world, including the Guggenheim Museum’s 1992 exhibition “The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932.”

What is the status of art institutions and of contemporary art in Moscow? 


I would say that there are two major, long-established state museums engaged with contemporary art: the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts with their new director, Marina Loshak, and The State Tretyakov Gallery. Pavel Tretyakov [who founded the museum, and donated his collection to the city of Moscow in 1892] collected contemporary Russian art. Today, we are continuing this tradition and have a very active contemporary art department titled “Department of the Newest Tendencies in Art.” The Moscow Museum of Modern Art, which operates under the cultural department of the City of Moscow, is also quite efficient. They have several spaces in the city and present both contemporary Russian artists and classical modernism—like their 2013 Joan Miró show. Similar to that, you have the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA), which is in the process erecting a new building on Khodynskoe Pole in Moscow. But if you are to mention the most influential space focused on presenting contemporary art, I would say that’s Garage. They housed the best of the Moscow Biennale presentations and they’ve presented the first large-scale exhibitions in Russia by international artists like James Turrell and many others. 


How can a private institution like Garage play a different role than state-run institutions in Moscow’s art landscape?


They really have more flexibility—although every institution, whether it’s a state institution or a private institution, is somehow dependent on the authorities which are at the head. The state museums are dependent on the Ministry of Culture, but private institutions are also considering the point of view of their founder and funder. You can't work in or create ambitious projects with museums completely on your own—there is always collaboration between individuals and across institutions. Private organizations have more freedom with their programming, that's true, but perhaps the biggest difference is that they are not part of the state system requiring each funding proposal above around 5,000 USD to be approved through a long, bureaucratic procedure of tenders. 

“This new building enables them to host the most complex and the most high-level exhibitions from major world museums—exhibitions of contemporary art and of classical modernism.”

Free of this process, private spaces can execute projects more quickly. If they have a founder who is providing the basic funding, it's easier for them because we, as a state institution, receive government funding for only our basic needs—all exhibition and special programs are funded with money that the museum raises from sponsors. 

What was your first or most memorable experience at Garage? 

Thinking about the most memorable experiences, number one is of course the [Third] Moscow Biennale, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin [held at Garage]. And as for one-man shows, notwithstanding my appreciation for the scale, grandeur, and complexity of the Marina Abramović exhibition [in 2011], my strongest artistic impression was from the exhibition of James Turrell’s work—he is among my favorite artists—or the installation of works by Bill Viola in the exhibition from the [François] Pinault Collection, which they presented some years ago.

How do you hope to see Moscow’s art community grow and change in the next 10 years? What role do you see Garage playing in this growth?

With the opening of the new space, re-designed by Rem Koolhaas, I think Garage will play a more and more important role in Moscow. This new building enables them to host the most complex and the most high-level exhibitions from major world museums—exhibitions of contemporary art and of classical modernism. I know some of their plans because it’s very important that we, as two major institutions, think about our programs in parallel, even though we might represent different generations and have different foci. Garage’s Director Anton Belov and I are both working on multidisciplinary exhibitions focused on art from the time of Nikita Khrushchev, between Stalin and Brezhnev—art between Stalin’s reign and Brezhnev's stagnation. About a year ago, we both realized that this art, and this type of creative thinking happening in the former Soviet Union, is valuable for today's understanding of art in the second half of the 20th century. We both sensed that this historical time is becoming a focus of interest—and that was wonderful to realize.



Alexandra Kharitonova

  • Courtesy of The Ekaterina Cultural Foundation.

Alexandra Kharitonova is the Art Director of the Ekaterina Cultural Foundation, a privately-run nonprofit focused on the exhibition and support of Russian and international contemporary art.

What is the status of art institutions and of contemporary art in Moscow? 


To my mind, though a lot of young institutions have appeared in the last couple of years, contemporary art is still on the periphery for the mass audience. That’s why at Ekaterina Cultural Foundation we prefer to combine contemporary art shows with something more traditional and understandable for most of the Russian viewers. We think it is very important to attract the public in a very subtle way—not to force anything upon them, but to first and foremost explain and educate. We are a small institution, but we try to do our best. There are still a lot of gaps, especially in the state educational system, and there is still a lot of work to be done in this field. That’s why I think Garage, with its educational program, is a prime example of an institution trying to change this.


How can a private institution like Garage play a different role than state-run institutions in Moscow’s art landscape?


It is very important [for both state-run and private institutions] to work together. The National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA) was a pioneer in this field. As the first state-run art institution, it started to promote contemporary art not only in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, but in other regions as well. 

“Garage was the first institution which brought outstanding shows of the iconic contemporary artists to Moscow.”

Private institutions emerged in the early 2000s and each of them plays an important role, like pieces of a puzzle. Each of us is playing a different role, but I think each is as valuable as the next. 

What was your first or most memorable experience at Garage?

Garage was the first institution to bring outstanding shows of the iconic contemporary artists to Moscow. And today they are doing a great job in the field of education and consolidation of the archives, dedicated to the history of Russian art of the 1990s and 2000s. It is a very time-consuming project—and maybe not as immediately impressive as their James Turrell exhibition, for instance—but it’s crucial from a historical perspective. It was also a wonderful experience to collaborate with the Garage on the “Reconstruction” exhibition in 2013-2014. They issued a two volume catalogue for the exhibition, which could easily be a textbook on the history of Russian art of the 1990s. 



Irina Kulik

  • Courtesy of Irina Kulik. 

Irina Kulik is an art critic, writer, and lecturer at the Institute of Contemporary Art Moscow.

What is the status of art institutions and of contemporary art in Moscow? 


The number of institutions dealing with contemporary art in Moscow is so few that it is difficult to name rivals—rather, they work as a consortium and towards a common cause. 

“The Moscow community used to be afraid of contemporary art.”

One of their common achievements, in which Garage has played a significant role, is the more widespread emergence of public art that has historically been of interest only to a narrow circle of professionals.


How can a private institution like Garage play a different role than state-run institutions in Moscow’s art landscape?


The Moscow community used to be afraid of contemporary art. Through educational programs and by creating a friendly environment, Garage is helping to discourage and remove this fear founded by the Soviet upbringing.

How do you hope to see Moscow’s art community grow and change in the next 10 years? What role do you see Garage playing in this growth?

Moscow still lacks a museum with a permanent collection and exhibitions of international art of the 20th century. We are also missing a building that represents the innovative architecture of our time, like the Guggenheim in New York and Bilbao, or the Centre Pompidou in Paris, for example. I hope that the new Garage space will be the museum and architectural landmark that we’ve been looking for.



—Alexxa Gotthardt


Explore Garage Museum of Contemporary Art on Artsy.


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