The Hermitage proposes a Museum of Applied and Decorative Arts. $150 million wanted for joint commercial/museum scheme

British architect, Christopher Seddon, is the project manager



The Hermitage in St Petersburg is launching an ambitious project to establish a new Museum of Applied and Decorative Arts which it promises will rival London’s Victoria and Albert Museum or the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. A foreign commercial partner is being sought to turn this dream into reality.

The site of the new museum is just across Palace Square, opposite the existing museum in Catherine the Great’s eighteenth-century baroque Winter Palace. Russia’s federal government has handed over the east wing of the crescent-shaped General Staff Building. Built in the 1820s, it originally housed the Czar’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Finance (the other wing, west of Victory Arch, is currently military offices).

The additional space will enable the Hermitage to display 10-15% of its three million object collection, as against the current estimated 5%. Among the works to be shown will be furniture, arms and armour, militaria, tapestries, porcelain, costume, jewellery, glass, silver, clocks and sculpture. Project manager for the scheme is British consultant architect, Christopher Seddon.

The Art Newspaper was taken for a tour and we found the General Staff Building to be a five-storey hulk of dusty, largely deserted space, still home to a small military medical clinic which is slowly packing up its equipment. The size of the rooms, many of which are small, will pose a challenge to exhibition planners, because the historic building cannot be structurally altered.

What the Hermitage now needs is expertise and money. Last month an outline scheme was sent to potential commercial partners, and they are being asked to respond with preliminary proposals by the end of October. In a second stage, the most promising proposals will be refined into detailed plans, and on this basis a developer (or a consortium) will be chosen, soon after March 1999.

Dr Piotrovsky has a revolutionary vision for the scheme, in order to attract capital and crowds. He suggests that the covered courtyards of the General Staff Building will provide a walkway between Palace Square, the cultural centre of the old city, and Nevsky Prospect, its main commercial thoroughfare.

He envisages the courtyards lined with shops and restaurants (including an ethnic food court and a cyber café), while the upper floors might house cinemas, theatres, light shows, concert halls, virtual reality and electronic entertainments (perhaps building on the Hermitage’s current $1.6 million grant from IBM), a waxwork display, and restoration studios working both for the museum and the private sector. The shops could well include art and antiques outlets. Another idea is a 100-room hotel-style club.

“We want the new museum to be a very important part of the life of the city. I want people to be here, around the museum, for twenty four hours every day,” Hermitage director Dr Mikhail Piotrovsky told The Art Newspaper. There might be fashion shows complementing a new Costume Institute. Children would play with replica arms and armour in the museum armoury. The restaurants could use replicas of Imperial dinner services. Such plans are revolutionary for the Hermitage, whose current visitor facilities (among them one tiny café for the whole museum) are desperately limited.

One proposal is to begin by opening up twelve rooms overlooking Palace Square, including the magnificent former living quarters of the imperial Foreign Minister. These would showcase some of the finest pieces of the decorative arts, such as clocks and jewellery.

The major problem, of course, is money. The preliminary cost estimate for the basic renovation is $38 million. The full costs could well push the total up to $150 million, a huge sum for a museum whose annual budget is around $15-20 million.

“We are beginning a major fund-raising campaign,” declared Dr Piotrovsky, who good-naturedly complains that one-third of his time is spent looking for money. He is targeting corporations, foundations and other private sources to fund the new wing. After giving our interview in St Petersburg, Dr Piotrovsky flew to London to give a series of briefings on the new project, and to investigate possible sources of funding.

The Hermitage head is quite clear that he is looking for is a “commercial partner”. Under this capitalist solution, the partner will provide funds and expertise in return for benefits from the project, in terms of commercial opportunities in the General Staff Building.

Nothing will come from the State, at least initially, and this reflects the new realities in Russia. “First you have the project, then you get the money. This is the Western system. The Soviet system was that you got the money, and then you began to make plans.”

Disengaging from the Soviet funding structure, when the State covered all of the museum’s costs, has not been easy, but it does offer new opportunities. Today the Russian government underwrites approximately 70% of the museum’s annual budget and this means more autonomy. “When we were totally funded by the government it meant that it had the absolute right to order every small step we made... In a way not having enough money is the price we’re paying for our freedom. I know the difference between my time and the time of my father,” said Dr Piotrovsky, whose father was director 1964-90.

Nowadays, getting funding from the State involves ceaseless arm-twisting. According to 1996 budget figures, the Russian government paid only 45% of what it had been initially promised in the State budget. Likewise, last November only $13 million of a promised $25 million arrived at the Hermitage (though museum officials hope the remaining funds will come through eventually). Since last year the Hermitage has officially been under the patronage of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, but Dr Piotrovsky must fight continually to keep his cherished, hard-won line in the State budget, which enables him to receive funding directly from the Ministry of Finance, bypassing the bureaucratic Ministry of Culture.

Over the past few years the Hermitage has put great efforts into forging closer ties with the West. In 1995 the museum opened a tiny development department, where four people of minimal experience faced the daunting job of approaching international and Russian foundations and corporations, and developing and expanding a network of “Friends of the Hermitage”.

Edmund Pillsbury, chairman of the International Advisory Board of the Hermitage and former director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, has closely monitored the situation. “What has changed in last eight years is the realisation that the future of the Hermitage lies in developing exhibitions, programmes, and services for a democratic society. The challenge is how to democratise the Hermitage without sacrificing the special magic and allure of the collection.”

Completing the new Museum of Applied and Decorative Arts is still a long way off, and one target is 2014, the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage. Beyond that, there are yet more ambitious plans. The Hermitage and the governor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Yakovlev, have worked out a plan to use the great historic buildings around Palace Square as a basis for the regeneration of the historic centre of the city. A new military museum, an archaeological museum and an art reference library would turn the area into one of the world’s largest museum complexes.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '$150 million wanted for joint commercial/museum scheme'