Saving The Soviets: The Art Media Loses Its Mind In Moscow

Much of the city of Moscow, as you are probably aware, was scarred with hideous buildings during the Soviet era. Films such as “The Bourne Supremacy” show the bleakness of 20th century Muscovite residential architecture in a way that brings home why we won the Cold War. Because honestly, who would *want* to live in these sorts of places? As it turns out, a number of Muscovites do, but not for the same reasons that architectural experts want them to stay right where they are.

Over the past few weeks, the art press has been wailing and gnashing its teeth over plans by Moscow’s mayor to demolish a large number of low-rise, Soviet-era apartment buildings. The reaction has been predictable, for those who follow the arts. “Moscow’s architectural heritage threatened by development plan” screams Apollo Magazine. The Art Newspaper had the gall to compare the proposed demolition of these buildings, which were built in the aftermath of a murderous land grab, to that very land grab itself. “Describe [sic] by many residents as a property grab akin to the forced collectivisation of property under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the demolition plan has proven so unpopular that thousands turned up for a demonstration against it in Moscow on Sunday 14 May carrying signs with slogans like ‘My house is my castle’.”

What’s most telling amidst all of the histrionic reporting on this story is the fact that almost none of the reports provide any images of the buildings proposed for demolition. There are plenty of photographs of protestors, in the half-dozen or so articles from the art world that I’ve read on this story. The media always likes covering protesters (apart from pro-life protesters, of course.) For the most part however, not one image of these apparently precious apartment blocks appears anywhere in the reporting itself.

Why is this the case? Surely, buildings of such architectural significance ought to be shown by the art media to the international reading public? How else do they expect the outside world to develop a collective sense of concern, and galvanize support for the preservation of these important structures? In the interest of their cause, then, I present to you one of these architectural wonders, which is currently slated for demolition:

Now, if I was arguing this case in court, at this point I’d probably say something to the effect of, “res ipsa loquitor.” This particular gem was one of the first low-rise blocks built under Khrushchev, a figure not exactly known for his innate sense of good taste. If this building was located in the U.S., I’d expect there to be a strip mall across the street with a cracked parking lot, a gas station, a Chinese takeout place, and a nail/threading salon, along with several boarded-up shop windows bearing “For Lease” signs.

There’s a further wrinkle to this story, beyond the perhaps inescapable conclusion that the art press has lost its collective mind, and that is a consideration of what the residents of these buildings themselves want to see happen. They know, and freely admit, that these structures are ugly, dangerous places, which are always falling to pieces and in need of constant repair. The only thing pleasant about them is the fact that they are mostly low-rise apartment blocks, rather than high-rises. Older Muscovites, in particular, do not want to live in high-rise apartments, particularly ones that are built to (questionable) Russian standards, and that’s fair enough.

When you drill down into the reporting, it turns out that what the inhabitants of these apartments are really concerned about is not architectural preservation, or the alleged glories of socialist style. Rather, these people are worried that they will not receive new apartments which will be better than the ones that they currently live in. For the majority of these apartment dwellers, their concerns are focused on money and square footage, not celebrating the supposed brilliance of Soviet-era design.

Among the cognoscenti of the art world however, the demolition of these buildings – which of course, they themselves do not have to live in – would wipe away large swathes of the kind of hideous, leftist architecture which they and their predecessors have promoted and fetishized in our cities for nearly a century. For those focused on the preservation of these sad reminders of the evils of socialism run amok, such oppressive structures represent the good that leftism can do, when it ignores conventional ideas of both beauty and individuality. It is as if Captain Picard would have been better off remaining in the Collective as Locutus of Borg.

Having seen but one specific example of the hundreds of Soviet apartment blocks slated for demolition, I’d certainly be willing to consider whether Moscow’s urban renewal plan is going too far. Perhaps there is some work of significant architectural beauty that is going to be torn down, which my readers could share with the rest of us in the comments section of this post. Yet given the reticence of the art press to provide even one example of such a structure to date, I’ll be very much surprised if you can find any.

Advertisements

​Waiting To Change: An Update

I hope you had a blessed and happy Easter. Mine was so unbelievably full of activity, that by the time I got to evening on Easter Sunday, I was so exhausted that I’d made myself ill. I can well understand why in many countries, Easter Monday is a public holiday.

You’ll recall that a few weeks ago, I wrote about wanting to make some significant changes here, and I’m very grateful to those who responded with their thoughts and suggestions. As it turns out, things have been moving in an entirely unanticipated direction over the last few weeks, thanks to some opportunities coming my way from very encouraging people. While I can’t make any announcements until everything is finalized, I can say that I won’t be going away, I’ll just be moving to a new home – er…homes.

Most of you who honor me by subscribing to this blog tend to fall into two categories: those mainly interested in Catholic culture, and those mainly interested in secular culture. Some of you came to know me many years ago, as a result of many kind people in the Catholic media community taking an interest in my work and allowing me to share my thoughts with their audiences. Others of you may only know me from more recent years, when once again a number of good-hearted people in the world of secular media have helped me to become better known to their readers. I’m indescribably grateful to find myself in this position, with a great diversity of subscribers, followers, and engagers.

However, over the past two years it’s become very difficult for me to express my interests in both the sacred and the profane through a single, self-sustained media outlet. Everything on this site comes down to me: content, editing, layout, publication, distribution, marketing, feedback, etc. All of this is time consuming, and I don’t do media for a living. I don’t have minions, and no one pays me to write this blog; any advertisements that you see here are making money for WordPress, not yours truly. At the same time, I’ve gotten so used to being a one-man band, that I’ve been reluctant to consider yielding control over my work to someone else.

But listening to Mac Barron last evening talk about a new job he’s taking, and how he’s happier and more productive when he’s given structure, really hit home for me. His observation reminded me of a conversation I had near the beginning of this process, with someone whose experience in and opinions on media I very much respect. He pointed out that I, too, seem to do better when I’m given structure, instead of trying to create everything myself. And that’s absolutely right: I’m a lists and research guy, not a seat-of-the-pants guy.

So, for those of you mainly interested in my commentary on Catholic matters, you’ll be able to read and engage on a far more regular basis than you have lately, and in a forum which you are probably already visit regularly. For those here primarily for the arty-farty stuff, you’ll have a brand-new product from a familiar brand which will give you what you’re already coming here for and even a bit more, which will hopefully serve as a practical resource. For those of you who stop by for both, well, pretty soon you’ll have double the pleasure, or displeasure, depending on your view of my scribblings.

Of course, this isn’t last call just yet. I’ll give plenty of actual notice before this old blog gets put out to pasture. But if you can, please keep these upcoming changes in your thoughts and prayers, and thanks for your continued support.

Museum Madness: Why I Was Right To Worry About The Met

I’m afraid that today’s post is going to involve a lot of links, but trust me – it’s a fascinating and important story, and one that I greet with a mixture of satisfaction in knowing that I was right to question what was going on, while simultaneously regretting that I was right to be worried.

Back in August, I wrote the following in The Federalist about the problems faced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it is millions of dollars in the red, despite receiving more than 6 million paying guests annually. The Met plans to cut a total of 100 employees by the end of 2016, and has reduced the number of special exhibitions it will hold. Yet despite its financial woes and staff reductions, this year the Met has taken on a costly new lease to expand into the hideous, Brutalist former premises of the Whitney Museum of American Art, as part of an effort to make itself appear more up to date.

Then on February 28, 2017, Met Director Thomas Campbell suddenly announced that he was resigning his post. This took place three weeks after the publication of a rather damning article in the New York Times which asked, inter alia, why one of the wealthiest museums in the world couldn’t afford to pay its bills. At first, much blame seemed to be put squarely at the foot of the outgoing Director, as someone who could not seem to manage the behemoth institution.

Mr. Campbell, a tapestry curator at the Met, took over running America’s largest and most important art institution in 2009, following the retirement of Philippe de Montebello, who reigned over the Met from 1977 to 2008, and presided over the single largest period of expansion in the history of the institution. Naturally, his was going to be a hard act to follow, and as more and more press reports emerge about the internal culture at the Met over the past several years, it’s clear that America’s premiere artistic institution has become something of a floundering mess.

Yet it doesn’t appear that Mr. Campbell himself is entirely to blame for what went wrong. Last week, the New York Post published this eye-opening piece on the six- and seven- figure compensation received by Met leadership, including members of the board, even as the museum was financially sinking.

In follow up to this story a few days later, ArtNet published an internal email which seems to show the museum justifying the millions of dollars in payments by noting that that the payments were in line with those made to executives and board members at comparable institutions. Of course, the email does not make clear whether the comparable institutions were failing as well, with staff asked to resign, retire, take pay cuts, or suffer pension cuts.

In the April issue of Vanity Fair, now available online, reporter William D. Cohan takes a fascinating, deep dive into the culture of The Met under Mr. Campbell’s leadership. He begins with the aforementioned Times piece, which included an interview with former Met curator George Goldner, about what has gone wrong with the museum over the past several years. He also ends his piece with Mr. Goldner, and an interview in The Art Newspaper from the day after Mr. Campbell resigned. Among the cacophony of voices explaining why The Met went off the rails, Mr. Goldner’s rings the truest.

Mr. Goldner noted that when he started at The Met in 1993, it was “a very traditional institution, which focused mainly on exhibitions, acquisitions, scholarship and the galleries. It had a clear identity and a manageable agenda.” By the time he left, it was trying to be trendy and fashionable, in order to make even more money from donors and draw even more visitors to its halls and concession stands.

“There was an argument that all the new rich people collected contemporary art,” Mr. Goldner told The Art Newspaper, “and we weren’t going to get their donations otherwise. I don’t believe that’s what a cultural institution should base its programme on. I don’t think that the Harvard Law School decides what kind of law they teach based on future possible donations.”

Personally speaking, I suspect that Mr. Goldner is incorrect as regards the motivations of Harvard Law School. But be that as it may, he did hit the nail on the head when it comes to thinking about exactly what large museums like The Met are supposed to be doing, and what guidance their leadership should be providing. And the buck, as the NY Post and ArtNet seem to indicate, does not stop with Mr. Campbell.

Among the major problems which the art world faces is that of the art museum which tries to be all things to all people, but neglects to do its core job properly. Trying to turn The Met into MoMA or The Whitney is an example of this line of thinking. As Mr. Goldner commented, “[h]aving a big centre of Modern art at the Met is like having a centre of Italian paintings 20 blocks away from the Uffizi. Part of what has created the morale issue is that other departments have felt that their concerns have been relegated to a secondary position behind contemporary art and digital media.”

At some point, someone is going to have to come in and clean house at The Met. There needs to be a renewed focus on preserving and enhancing the core collection of the institution; improving visitor facilities and services; commitment to the training, retention, and good compensation of loyal, professional staff; and a rededication on the part of leadership – including at board level – to passing on the legacy of the institution to future generations. It is a privilege to serve on the board of America’s finest art museum, but it is also a significant duty, and ought to be treated as such by those fortunate enough to be in a position of leadership at a cultural institution which must exist outside of what is merely trendy.