Promoting Creative Engagement: An Interview With Erarta Contemporary Art Museum

Photo of Ellen Von Weigand
26 January 2016

Erarta, a new and innovative Art Museum in Saint Petersburg that opened its doors in 2010, attempts to remove the filter that determines how viewers relate to contemporary art. Through interactive displays, encouraging dialogue, and a democratic collection philosophy, Erarta facilitates comfortable engagement with artworks, and has become one of the most popular destinations in the culture capital of Russia. Ellen Von Wiegand interviewed Anastasia Blokhina, Director of Communications at the museum, to learn more about the project.

Can you describe the different initiatives that form Erarta? How do these various projects interact to embody your overall vision?

Erarta is a project that consists of four principal parts: Erarta Museum – the largest private museum of contemporary art in Russia – the international group of Erarta Galleries in St. Petersburg, New York, London and Zurich and soon to open in Hong Kong, Erarta Design – which provides interior solutions involving contemporary Russian art – and finally, special program, which are aimed at connecting people to contemporary art and often immersing them in the creative process. All parts of the project work towards one common goal, which is to share our love of art with the audience and to fuel their passion for it. Erarta’s main goal is to maximise the audience which is interested in and derives pleasure from contemporary art, to bring people closer to art because we believe art can become an important part of everyone’s life, one that makes it more interesting and happy. Everything that is done within the Erarta project is done with this vision in mind, and it is important to stress that these goals cannot be achieved by simply exhibiting one’s collection or by explaining to the public what is considered by some authorities to be great art and what, by contrast, is not. Art has to be ‘internalized’ in a way, everyone has to find their own path in it – only in that way can it truly become interesting to the viewer. At Erarta we try to surround people with contemporary art while simultaneously creating a friendly and pleasant atmosphere. For this reason, in the main Erarta building in St. Petersburg, there are always creative events such as plays, festivals, etc. taking place, while exhibits in the museum collection are accompanied by literary forewords, animation and even music. People who enjoy theater and literature are capable of broadening their passion for the arts, which is why a mixing of genres is fully justified. Today’s humankind is always developing while contemporary art is constantly broadening its boundaries, so our experiments are always relevant and never out of context. It is most rewarding to hear from our visitors that before coming to Erarta, they never imagined that contemporary art would be their thing, but after visiting, that has changed – and we hear that often. It is also wonderful to see that our audience keeps coming back, follows us online, joins our membership scheme, acquires works of art from our galleries, contributes to the project and supports it – we are extremely grateful for this level of participation because we exist precisely for that purpose.

The idea to show a museum collection under the same roof as a commercial space is unusual. Can you talk a bit about how the idea to merge these two realms of the art world was developed?

It was always envisaged as two organic parts of one big whole, each not making sense without each other – so much so that Erarta would have never been established as only a museum or only as a group of galleries. A museum acts as what can be described as a centre of ‘life’ in St. Petersburg, it is a place we want people to come and enjoy contemporary art, to develop a love for it. Galleries enable people to take home a little part of what they have come to love, for we believe love without the possibility of possession is not complete. It is not even necessary to make the step of acquiring artwork, but it is important to know that such a step is possible. In this way, the galleries existing under one roof also helps us build connections between people and the art. Also, one of the missions of the overall Erarta project is to support, promote and showcase contemporary Russian art not only domestically but also abroad, and our international group of galleries, established in New York, London and Zurich as well as St. Petersburg enables us to do that. There are plenty of projects which exhibit international art in Russia, but we believe that there are some incredibly talented artists which deserve their niche on the world stage. Without the galleries, it would not be possible to achieve this very important goal, one towards which we will make another important step when we open Erarta Hong Kong later this year. Finally, it is important to stress that all profits from sales of works in Erarta’s commercial galleries, along with all other profits from its other parts, are reinvested back into the overall project and go towards financing the museum, its educational programmes etc. – everything within Erarta goes towards supporting and promoting Russian contemporary art.

Erarta has assembled an extensive selection of contemporary art works for such a young museum. Can you touch upon the museum’s philosophy of collecting?

Our collecting policy is really simple – there is a selection committee consisting of three people, and works are only acquired to the collection if each one of the three approves of it and can talk about why they love it in an interesting manner. As a result, the museum collection does not have a single work which we don’t truly love ourselves, and about which we cannot clearly express our love to our viewers. The collection currently numbers 2,300 works of art by more than 170 artists from over 20 regions of Russia. The last part of that sentence is another important aspect of our philosophy – we are different from the vast majority of institutions which only work with Moscow and Saint Petersburg and aim to show the world that there are extremely talented, authentic artists who live throughout Russia and have an incredibly different perspective on life with often surprising ways of showing the viewer a glimpse of it. This gave birth to our main museum exhibition project, which is called ‘Russia in Erarta’ and showcases contemporary art of Krasnodar, Perm, Novosibirsk, Samara, Stavropol, Rostov-on-Don and many others. We also aim to be at the forefront of contemporary art trends – for example, one of the museum halls is dedicated to the genre of science art, something that is more commonplace in Europe and the US but is extremely new for Russia and its people.

A key focus of Erarta is the idea that visitors should be able to create their own meaning and connections to the art works. Can you talk about how this idea affects the curatorial vision for the museum?

In a way, Erarta is trying to create a ‘collective work of art’, where the initial impulse is created by the artwork, and is then interpreted by the viewer so that he/she can then share those thoughts with other viewers and our guides. In this way, we encourage dialogue rather than monologue in our tours. Erarta doesn’t claim to being a guide in the world of art, instead we don’t believe art is for the chosen few; we address our activities to everyone, under the motto that everyone is an artist. While, not all of us is like Da Vinci, but without their ‘viewer’ interpretation, art is meaningless. The viewer and the art are like two mirrors opposite each other – if the viewer sees something of their own in a work of art that reflects his or her thoughts, feelings or mood, then the infinite process of back-and-forth begins. Thus Erarta’s curatorial vision lies in selecting works from the standpoint of trying to understand how they are relevant in today’s world, and that they’re able to generate a reaction in viewers. We also try to show the viewer examples of others’ creativity and the different ways of interpreting an artwork, in order to let them self-reflect.

Can you describe some of the more intriguing projects that Erarta has been involved in?

This is probably the most difficult question to answer because there is so much going on and so much that we are trying to do. We have come up with annual celebrations of public creativity called ‘Showcase yourself at Erarta.’ One day each year, we take down all works of art on display in the museum and replace them with blank canvases so that each guest can create their own work of art – we have over 3,000 guests every year for this event. We have launched an international festival of short films about painting entitled ‘E-motion pictures,’ creating a cross-art festival designed to showcase emerging and combined art genres. There are a couple of huge projects that will be unveiled later this year – one is to do with launching a museum of contemporary fashion, while the other is a cartoon series about art, which tells of the adventures of Malevich‘s Black Square after it comes to life.

What are U-spaces? Can you talk a bit about the idea behind these?

This project is one of Erarta’s creations aimed at building connections to contemporary art; it has become our ‘calling card’ of sorts. U-spaces are total installations, which immerse the viewer in a particular world. The 15 minutes, designated to visiting a particular U-space, offer a glimpse of another life, which resonates in a unique way to each visitor. Each total installation has its own theme, but it always carries a personal direction, set only by the viewer. My House – My Fortress U-Space makes one consider the fragility of personal space within the wider world. What’s Left When Everything’s Gone deals with the feeling of loss, unavoidable in life. Childhood U-Space looks at the world through the eyes of a kid. Origins U-Space grasps one’s roots and history; Cherry Orchard U-space – resonates with hope and rebirth.

Can you describe other interactive elements of Erarta?

Since one of Erarta‘s goals is to immerse the viewer in the creative process, there are many interactive features available to our guests. Audience interaction exists almost everywhere else in the museum. For example, we have a project called ‘art-literature,’ which is open to the public – anyone who is inspired by a work of art in Erarta’s collection and is able to describe his/her feelings, associations or thought process in an interesting and creative essay can email their ideas to us. We then exhibit the best examples next to corresponding art works, which helps visitors to consider a new perspective on the piece. We have QR codes next to works of art, and one of their features enables guests to suggest alternative titles for them, while available touch screens invite visitors to make their own drawings. On an even broader level, because we want guests to feel comfortable around the art, we actively encourage photo-taking and then search and publish the very best ones tagged with #erarta in our social media groups. We invite you to come to Erarta and experience them for yourself!

How does being a private museum rather than a government run museum affect your creative endeavours?

We don’t really believe that being a private museum rather than a government-run one encourages or impacts our creativity. Rather, creativity is something that is inherent to us; Erarta is an innovative institution and was conceived and executed to function this way. Creativity is crucial to our philosophy and that is why so many of our efforts go towards fostering and stimulating creativity. The benefit of being a private museum is that we are able to make decisions quickly; we do not have to follow any certain path or work in a particular way that is common in the art world. We wanted to break new ground, and it is easier to do so this way, and we are taking advantage of this freedom by moving dynamically in our development.

How has Erarta added to the art scene in St. Petersburg? Can you talk a bit about the city’s current art scene?

It is evident that the city of St. Petersburg, its officials, institutions, the art world and most importantly, our audience, have started to appreciate Erarta as an organic part of the city, a bright spot on its cultural map. Erarta has become a cultural center, where there is always something happening every day – an exhibition opening, a concert, a play, a lecture, a cinema screening – there aren’t really other places in the city where all these genres can be combined so naturally. It’s incredibly rewarding to see our audience reciprocate – we have over 150,000 people following us on social media networks, we have the second most check ins on FourSquare in the museum category in the city, just behind the State Hermitage Museum, and we are among the top ten sights in the city on TripAdvisor.

Erarta is a living museum, meaning that the project is constantly developing. Can you offer some insight into what this might mean for the future of Erarta?

It’s easier to say that will always remain the same, and that is our ideology – we love art, and we want to share it with our audience. For our future, we are always going to have new developments and projects that try to bring people closer to art. We have an ambitious goal of being a big international project and have already made some steps beyond Russia. Also, we are currently expanding our museum building in St. Petersburg to 10,000 sq. m. by adding a new wing which will become a permanent home to the aforementioned ‘Russia in Erarta’ and contemporary fashion museum projects, as well as a concert hall with 300 seats. One thing is for sure, we will always try to show our visitors something interesting and unique in an effort to share with them our passion for art and for life.

Interview Questions by Ellen Von Wiegand

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