A Flashy New Museum’s Downfall Embodies Russia’s Cultural Decline

A spate of high-profile departures, canceled exhibitions, and anti-war protests have shrouded the once-promising Moscow museum GES-2 House of Culture in controversy that has come to symbolize how cultural sanctions are impacting Russia.

GES-2 House of Culture. Photography by Michel Denancé

GES-2 House of Culture, a contemporary art museum located opposite the Kremlin, opened this past December to much fanfare and promise. Joining the Garage Museum and the Pushkin State Museum along Moscow’s Museum Mile, the highly anticipated institution was intended to mirror the Soviet “Houses of Culture” in the late 19th century that brought theaters, galleries, libraries, cinemas, and schools together under one roof. The project is the brainchild of Novatek gas magnate and oligarch Leonid Mikhelson’s nonprofit V-A-C Foundation, which aims to elevate Russian artists to the international sphere. 

Mikhelson enlisted Italian architect Renzo Piano to transform a derelict power station into GES-2’s shiny new home and a vitalizing force for creative Muscovites. Conceptualized as a vibrant piazza open to all, the soaring 215,000-square-foot venue comprises a library, auditorium, design workshops, recording studios, and ample exhibition space. Four of the original building’s 230-foot-tall smokestacks were upgraded into royal blue chimneys that provide natural ventilation and clean air for an interior birch forest while reducing the building’s energy consumption and establishing itself as a neighborhood landmark.

GES-2 House of Culture. Photography by Michel Denancé

“We put a lot of effort into rethinking the opening program to help the local context, to reinject positive energy into the crisis that Covid had brought with it,” museum co-founder Teresa Iarocci Mavica told The Art Newspaper when GES-2 opened. “Our intention is to open up this part of the city and make it permeable and dynamic by turning it into a place where all kinds of people want to be.”

Though GES-2 opened to acclaim and heralded an exciting addition to Moscow’s burgeoning presence in the contemporary art landscape, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two months later has dampened the early excitement. Since then, the institution has been beset by a controversial slew of high-profile resignations, canceled exhibitions, and anti-war protests that have come to symbolize how cultural sanctions are impacting Russia’s creative clout. The disarray began when Mavica departed her director role two weeks after giving a widely publicized tour to Vladimir Putin. The Italian-born Mavica was transferred to V-A-C Zattere, the foundation’s space in a Venetian palazzo that opened in 2017 and overlooks the Canale della Giudecca. 

“Santa Barbara&rduo; by Ragnar Kjartansson at GES-2 House of Culture. Photography by Mikhail Grebenshchikov, courtesy of V-A-C Foundation

It continued when Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson announced he would be halting performances of Santa Barbara—his recreation of the American soap opera that became wildly popular in Russia following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. Touted as the museum’s marquee attraction, the performance was supposed to kick off an ambitious five-season program until he swiftly pulled the plug and revealed his role in helping Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina flee Russia to avoid persecution for her anti-Putin activism. Kjartansson reportedly convinced an unnamed European country to issue her a travel document that allowed her to seek refuge in Lithuania. “A lot of magic happened” that week, she told the New York Times. “It sounds like a spy novel.” 

Two days after Santa Barbara unraveled, both GES-2 and V-A-C Zattere closed indefinitely; the latter has yet to reopen. Shortly after the 59th Venice Biennale kicked off in April, more than 100 Global Project protesters targeted V-A-C Zattere by hanging banners on its facade that read “Let’s expropriate Russian oligarchs for peace and climate justice.” In a statement, the group called out the European Union for not including Mikhelson among the Russian tycoons subject to sanctions—likely due to the region’s reliance on Russian gas.

V-A-C Zattere. Photography by Marco Cappelletti

Since the invasion, the museum has seen a revolving door of high-profile executives come and go. Mavica’s name was recently removed as a V-A-C co-founder on the foundation’s website, and she claims to have “no role” in either institution since GES-2’s opening. Francesco Manacorda, the V-A-C Foundation’s artistic director, resigned in March and was replaced by Ural Industrial Biennial commissioner Alisa Prudnikova as program director. Though the museum hasn’t listed current or future programming besides an Alexandra Sukhareva exhibition, it hosted a forum overseen by Putin called “Strong Ideas for a New Time” in July. 

What unfolded at GES-2 is one of many examples of Russian institutions suffering blowback from the war. The Kremlin has been actively censoring theater directors, filmmakers, and musicians across the country, quashing any creative expression with Western influences to the point where anti-war criticism is outlawed. 

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