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'It’s lucky we managed to open up at all' Russia’s most audacious cultural project in recent years, GES-2, opened in Moscow last December. On February 24, its future was forever altered.

Source: Meduza

Six months ago, GES-2, an arts and culture center housed in a decommissioned Moscow power station, opened on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Embankment. It was the brainchild of Leonid Mikhelson, one of Russia’s richest businessmen, and was initially headed by Italian curator Teresa Iarocci Mavica. The building, which was originally built in 1907, was reconstructed by influential architect Renzo Piano. In December 2021, after seven years of design and construction work followed by a private showing for Vladimir Putin, the center was officially opened to the public. GES-2 instantly became the center of Moscow’s cultural life — until Russia launched its war in Ukraine. Cut off from the West, the institution found itself in isolation, while its philosophy suddenly appeared incompatible with Russia's new reality. The staff, from curators to executives, began to resign. Ksenia Korobeynikova, an art critic and author of the Ku-ku Telegram channel, spoke to Meduza about the center’s uncertain prospects.

'Teresa was the soul'

GES-2's story began back in 2007, when the Russian businessman Leonid Mikhelson and the Italian curator Teresa Mavica came up with an idea for a foundation to support Russia’s artists. The foundation, dubbed the V–A–C, was established in 2009 and would later grow into GES-2. After its inauguration on December 4, 2021 (with performances by Zemfira and Mumiy-Troll), the new center embarked on its first creative project. The plan was to produce a remake of Santa Barbara, the 1990s cult TV series, under the directorship of the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. His exhibition To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!, which included artists from a variety of countries, was also launched there.

Around the same time, GES-2 also launched a public program of varied cultural offerings, from classes in contemporary dance styles to artists’ workshops, philosophy lectures, and fashion shows. There were ateliers, studios, a screening room, a concert hall, a library, a skating rink, and lots of food — a bakery, a cafe, a cafeteria, a bar, and an haute-cuisine restaurant.

Alexandra Khazina, the former head of educational programs at GES-2, spoke of her “intellectual team” who “thought deeply about the projects” and “delivered original results”: “What mattered was that the impetus always came from below, not from above. The strength of GES-2 was in that powerful energy, in the ideas generated through dialogue. This enabled us to discover new names, and to realize ideas in original, unexpected ways.”

From day one, the public queued up for admission to GES-2 — with European art critics, members of the world art community, and celebrities all turning up in line to enter. Most of them were delighted by what they saw — if not by the program, then certainly by the architecture and the space. Everything seemed to be going even better than planned. But on December 28, 2021, the center’s leadership unexpectedly announced Teresa Mavica’s resignation from both the V–A–C and GES-2.

A source from the V–A–C told Meduza that Mavica left her post “on mutual agreement” with Mikhelson. Before resigning, she had always scheduled the cultural center’s programming at least two years in advance. Even after February 24, she's remained on the board of directors of GES-2, and she continues to curate Zaterre, V–A–C’s Venetian venue. Referring to Mavica and Mikhelson, our source at the V–A–C said, “This was their joint and carefully weighed decision, which took several years to arrive at, in view of the future need for strengthening the programs in Venice.” Mavica also continues to advise Mikhelson on international projects and to curate long-term partnerships (like collaborations with Chanel and the Salzburg Festival).

Meduza’s source at the V–A–C suggested that Mavica’s resignation might have been related to her inability to scale ideas incubated in the V–A–C for the gigantic new space of GES-2. But Mavica's long-time reputation of being a visionary curator, capable of working on large-scale projects in venues of any scale — be it Zaterra, ММОМА on Petrovka Street, or the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale — casts doubt on this assertion.

Teresa Mavica herself has declined to comment “under the current circumstances.” In conversation with Meduza, a source close to her emphasized that Mavica’s resignation should not be interpreted as the end of her involvement with the foundation. “This is silly, given that she herself came up with and programmed the project. V–A–C is Teresa herself. She still visits and takes part in lots of things.” As for GES-2, added the source, “it is staked on management, as a way of realizing ideas, rather than curatorship that generates them.”

The same source added that Mavica’s resignation could be explained by burnout from years of demanding work leading to the launch of GES-2, and possibly even health problems.

One of the former GES-2 curators, Ekaterina Krupennikova, who left the center after February 24, confessed that Mavica’s departure was a shock to the curatorial staff. “Teresa was the soul of the V–A–C Foundation from the very moment of its inception,” she said. “I came to V–A–C to work with her, and she was gone by the time I left.”

'A different level of flexibility'

Telegram’s writers about culture have dropped hints that Mavica's resignation wasn't exactly voluntary. She was known to be opinionated, and her opinions frequently contradicted Mikhelson’s. Mikhelson didn't simply finance the cultural center; he would personally approve, and sometimes alter, key concepts in the works. Mavica wanted to see GES-2 as more of a liberal institution, while Mikhelson’s idea was more neutral. She saw it as an instrument of change in the Russian museum sphere; he saw it as the means of introducing the public to contemporary culture.

Several days before GES-2's official opening, which was scheduled for December 4, 2021, the venue held a private opening for Vladimir Putin and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. Afterwards, Moscow art sphere was pervaded with rumors that Putin had criticized the project and had personally told Mikhelson that “there was much he didn’t understand.” (Meduza’s source in the Kremlin did not confirm this information.) According to this version of the events, Mikhelson then made the decision to distance Mavica from GES-2 and to demote her within the structure of V–A–C — thus showing the President that his opinion had been taken into account.

Vladimir Putin at GES-2, with Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, Leonid Mikhelson, and Teresa Mavica
Russian Presidential Press-Service

A source close to Mikhelson told Meduza that the founder of GES-2 had not been informed about the plans for the cultural center’s inaugural exposition. What he knew, according to this source, was “approximate and based on an outdated presentation from at least a year ago.” "It had become the norm at the V–A–C “to have the founder approve detailed budgets — and very approximate descriptions of the content of the projects. Mikhelson was miffed when they didn’t bother to inform him [about the inaugural exhibition]. He decided to show that he wasn’t just a nominal owner, and that it matters to him what’s happening at the cultural center, given that he is personally responsible for it. That's probably the reason he had to alter Mavica’s position,” said a source who knows Mikhelson personally.

After Mavica’s departure, GES-2 was headed by its former deputy administrative general director, Artyom Bondarevsky, a lawyer who had no connection to the art world prior to his work at V–A–C. The foundation described him as someone who had worked with Mavica for two years, “on numerous issues, from operations to programming.”

“Artyom is a pleasant and highly professional lawyer,” his acquaintance of many years told Meduza. “He continues to be a lawyer even on his post as director,” he said, referring to Bondarevsky’s new position at the cultural center. "He tries to immerse himself in everything, but it’s not clear how much time it’s all going to require. Legal thinking and language are different from the arts-and-culture-speak. Besides, compared to Mavica, he has a different level of flexibility. His discussions with Mikhelson are not critical, they're purely functional. Artyom is very good on organizational questions. He landed the job spontaneously, and had to sort out some complicated and traumatic problems. It’s unfair that he’s being scapegoated. He’s well outside of his comfort zone, and he isn’t relishing the situation."

Meduza’s sources claim that Mikhelson promoted the deputy director because the previous five years of joint work convinced him of Bondarevsky’s capabilities and trustworthiness. At first, Bondarevsky was not excited about the promotion and didn’t know what to do, they say. But, within two months, he found his footing and settled into a “policy of politesse” that satisfied everyone “above and below.” Bondarevsky himself has not been available for comment since getting promoted.

Until December 2021, all of the main ideas and decisions had come from Mavica’s. Beginning in January, however, Mikhelson became much more active in shaping the programs at GES-2 (since, in the words of one of the curators who spoke with Meduza, “there was no one to keep him at bay”).

The center’s operations remained Bondarevsky continued to run the center's day-to-day operations, while artistic decisions were handled by V–A–C's former art director Francesco Manacorda and head curator Ekaterina Chuchalina. Responsibility for programming decisions would be shared by everyone, including the foundation’s Director for Development, Victoria Mikhelson, who is both the founder’s daughter and the foundation's namesake.

Former GES-2 curator Ekaterina Krupennikova is convinced that, despite their slogan, “art accessible to all,” GES-2's leadership implemented censorship. “Without dialogue with Mavica, "Mikhelson’s conservative vision gained strength and began to swallow up everything that was avant-guard, meaningful, relevant, all that had been conceived programmatically and structurally," she said. “This was the beginning of the end, and the end came suddenly, on February 24. There’s much you can avert your eyes from in peacetime. But when people are being killed, everything becomes fragile and traumatic, and there is no escape from thoughts about ownership and control and the way the sources of funding shape the content.

Not a political venue

In early February, GES-2's scheduled programming included the theater curator Olga Tarakanova’s workshop called “The Horizontal Veche.” Her plan was to discuss governance in the Russian historical context, and to present the Novgorod veche tradition as a case study. A day before the scheduled workshop, it became apparent that the talk would address current political events. GES-2 canceled the talk, and Tarakanova accused the institution of self-censorship.

In response to Meduza’s query, the foundation explained that Tarakanova’s workshop was planned as part of their Santa Barbara season, and was conceived as a commentary on “Scenes of Western Culture,” one of the works on view. This conception had been agreed on by Tarakanova herself and the program curator Varvara Ganicheva.

“Less than 24 hours ahead of schedule, the invited speaker made a decision to change her topic and the subject of discussion, despite the closed bookings and the published announcement. This precipitated the curator Varvara Ganicheva’s decision to cancel,” said the source at the foundation. In V–A–C’s opinion, the proposed changes “were beyond the scope of the season program” and transferred the discussion onto a political plane, which “did not correspond with the expectations of the registered audience.” “GES-2 is a cultural space, not a platform for political activities,” the institutional source told Meduza.

The incident with Tarakanova reminded people that shortly before the center’s opening, an internal committee had replaced a work by Michael Portnoy with another that “conformed to [the official] age-appropriateness guidelines,” and completely excluded Curver Thoroddsen’s “Naked Crawl” from the exhibition, on the grounds that it was “provocative.” There was also a hubbub surrounding Ragnar Kjartansson’s work, which was catalogued under the title “God, Moscow," but exhibited as “Untitled” in the exhibition. According to an official statement, the title was changed with the artist’s permission due to “the difficulties of translating from English to Russian.”

Ragnar Kjartansson
Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

'The lack of a position is a position in itself'

When Russia's “special military operation” in Ukraine began, GES-2 issued a statement, albeit a dry one that seemed calibrated not to offend the regime: "GES-2 is a cultural institution, and a creation of individual human beings. Each of us is experiencing powerful emotions and feelings. Under current circumstances, our work is aimed at counteracting alienation and supporting our city’s residents, our visitors, and our staff. The cultural center will continue to host all events that are possible to host."

This approach did not satisfy a number of participants, including Ragnar Kjartansson, who shut down his Moscow projects earlier than planned. Another key person who left was V–A–C’s creative director, Francesco Manacorda, who stated that “current events have significantly altered his working and personal conditions,” and that he would be “unable to continue work with a dedication he could be proud of.” The decision had cost him “much anguish and regret.”

Manacorda was respected by the team, and it was difficult for them to part with him. Although several staff members acknowledged to Meduza that Manacorda had begun to “lose his autonomy” with Mavica’s departure, he nevertheless remained an important figure within GES-2's structure. As a Western curator, he never tried to lecture his Russian colleagues about how they should work or what direction they should be moving in.

After Manacorda’s departure, the curatorial staff began to change. Curators Varvara Ganicheva, Ekaterina Krupennikova, Ekaterina Porutchik, Nikita Rasskazov, Evgeniy Ukhmylin, Alexandra Khazina, and the mediator Daniil Dvinskikh, all left their jobs at GES-2. Most of them say that they had planned to resign before the inauguration.

Each of these people cited specific reasons for leaving. One of those who left was “bothered by Mikhelson’s meddling in the institution’s policies": “After the opening of such a large venue, inspections became more common, content had to be submitted for approval, we constantly had to talk to lawyers — it was burdensome.” Another person felt physically exhausted by the labor-intensive launch. One staff member burned out after five years with the foundation; someone else decided to leave Russia.

One of the people who resigned told Meduza that he did not want to work in an international institution without foreigners (like Mavica and Manacorda), and without dialogue with colleagues from the West. Another person was dissatisfied with the lack of transparency in decision-making: “It wasn’t clear who makes decisions — whether it’s Leonid Viktorovich [Mikhelson], Victoria [Mikhelson], Teresa [Mavica], Francesco [Manacorda], the board of directors, department heads — and how they shape our work. Sometimes it was radically altered.”

At least two of the people just mentioned resigned because of GES-2’s refusal to voice a position on the events in Ukraine. As for the mediator Daniil Dvinskikh, his contract was not renewed because he had “committed an act of vandalism” — by writing an anti-war slogan on the center’s wall.

Some of the remaining curators told Meduza that, under the conditions of state censorship, GES-2 could not voice any sharp criticism of the government. But there are others who think that the center should have shut down in protest. One of them shared his feelings:

I don’t understand how anyone could carry on after February 24, when culture essentially ceased to exist. I was appalled by the institution’s position, but even more so by the fact that nothing coherent had been voiced within it. Different employees made suggestions about what could be done. For instance, to say that this is a humanitarian problem, and that culture stands against war. But we never got anywhere with that topic.

At first, I had the feeling that the center was going along with Russia’s current politics, pretending that culture is not political. At that moment, I could no longer see where the project was going, its purpose, or why it should stay open. This feeling grew stronger after the Garage found a way to voice a position by issuing a statement.

(Garage, another Moscow art venue, canceled all events in protest.)

“The lack of a position is a position in itself,” said Ekaterina Krupennikova. “It can be equated with the position of the state. To demand that the head of Novatek voice a position is nothing but tragicomedy.” (Mikhelson heads the natural gas company Novatek’s board of directors.) “But he could have expressed his human viewpoint, his sorrow,” she continues. “As of today, the cultural center’s existence is meaningless. It’s an institution from another time. . . from 15 years ago, or possibly 15 years in the future.”

“We started out with the feeling that we were working on Russia’s most progressive project,” reflected one of the former curators. “And we ended at a point where conservatism and caution triumphed. [...] The original program had been different, and would have resonated differently, both in Russian and international contexts. But the utopia, as Teresa would sometimes refer to GES-2 and its future, failed to materialize. It’s lucky that we managed to open up at all.”

GES-2's official position on the events in Ukraine is essentially as follows: the cultural center is a neutral and apolitical territory that doesn't allow emotional and careless statements — especially statements that might reasonable be expected to lead to a shutdown. GES-2 positions itself not only as a project of Mikhelson and his team, but also as something that belongs to the city and its residents, whose differing opinions should not be reduced to a single position.

Despite dissenting opinions, the center did not lose all of its curatorial staff, which still includes about twenty people. Many of them wish to continue working at GES-2, in spite of the institution's difficult position. Their reasons include the project's “unique” nature, with nothing analogous in Russia, the “strong team,” the center’s location in downtown Moscow, high salaries (ranging from 70,000 to 500,000 roubles, depending on position), and practically unlimited funding.

One of the former curators is convinced that the project was compromised by the influx of employees whose mindset was managerial rather than “culturological.” The public attention the venue captured also didn’t help. Another factor was the lack of agreement among the staff about the institution’s true mission. “No one had been able to determine a mission that everyone could sign on to, the way it’s done in Western institutions,” the former curator explains. “We verbalized something — that what we’re doing is supporting society, developing the Russian art scene — but it turned out that everyone had a different understanding of what this meant. And it backfired.”

The emptiness

In March, GES-2 began work on an exhibition called Tuning, which was conceived under Teresa Mavica. The exhibition is comprised of several sound installations permeating the space and its architecture. The installations were created by composers who now set Russia’s contemporary music scene — including Eduard Artemyev, Oleg Gudachev and Vladimir Rannev.

The project is purely sound-based. Visitors enter empty rooms containing nothing but the sound equipment, and sometimes only seating. This is probably why Telegram channels have noted the emptiness of GES-2. That impression is compounded by Renzo Piano’s design, which organizes the space in such a way that, even on crowded days, there are few people in sight. Admission to GES-2 is also limited, and requires pre-registration.

A queue for admission to GES-2. April 14, 2022
Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Yaroslav Alyoshin, one of the venue’s curators, thinks that, despite having to give up, after February 24, on its feature exhibition To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!, as well as the Santa Barbara project, whose author refused to continue work in Russia, GES-2 was “not especially affected” by these changes.

"The space continues to function. We organized the project Weekend Communities, inviting members of urban communities to talk about themselves, their interests and practices, and about what can generally bring people together today. We have classes in sketching, chess, different board games," said Alyoshin. "The result is that there’re hardly any free spaces, sometimes even on weekday mornings. And this certainly says something, though we don’t chase after these metrics." Other remaining GES-2 curators have declined to comment.

Tuning was an exhibition conceived by the art curator Dmitry Renansky and the former GES-2 curator Nikita Rasskazov, who resigned on February 25. His reason for leaving was that he “could not represent an institution that keeps silent and resorts to administrative pressure on artists and employees.”

Rasskazov thinks that GES-2 was unable to maintain the horizontal character of the V–A–C’s style of work and its values. "The management — and we have to distinguish between the artistic leadership and the administration — has set the task of radically simplifying the program. There’s nothing wrong with accessibility, on the contrary. But when it becomes the pretext for removing anything that’s complicated and demanding, it turns the art space into an amusement park, or a mall," he said.

Nevertheless, the Moscow public’s interest in GES-2 is on the rise. According to its staff, the center saw about 1,350 visitors a day since December 4, but attendance on March 7 was 1,700, and 2,442 on April 9. The cafe is often completely full on weekends — especially since Mikhelson’s announcement of a 50 percent discount on the entire menu, to “support the visitors in this difficult time.”

The Udarnik movie theater

In April, rumors spread that a high-powered state bureaucrat had taken interest in the future of GES-2, and that Mikhelson himself was apparently planning to divest himself of the vexing project. The discussion began with a post on journalist Ksenia Sobchak’s Telegram channel:

Leonid Mikhelson conducts lots of meetings with the President’s Office on the subject of being relieved of GES-2, which he has been building for many years. It’s that building on Bolotnaya Embankment in front of which the sculpture “Big Clay #4” has been installed. The power station [referring to GES-2] cost him 2.78 billion roubles, with 8 more billion to be invested according to contract. Later, that sum increased to 10 billion, and the real expenditures are only known to Mikhelson himself.

Mikhelson’s wish is completely understandable; in connection with the current geopolitical situation, no international exhibitions can take place there, now or in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, he is actively pressured to lend the venue to various patriotic events, such as a concert of [Oleg] Gazmanov. Further sanctions, then, are not desirable for Leonid Viktorovich, but Gazmanov, too, is not a very attractive prospect.

One of GES-2's former curators say it's quite possible that Mikhelson is considering the sale of the cultural center, since the institution may become a “toxic asset.”

Still, Meduza was unable to discover any real proof of negotiations about the sale of GES-2; nor could we uncover any information about the people with whom he might discuss this deal. Besides, since early December, the art community has been discussing Mikhelson’s apparent plans to continue developing Moscow’s Bolotny Island, the location of GES-2. These rumors have not ceased even since February 24.

According to Meduza’s source at the APEX architectural bureau, which has been commissioned for a new project of Mikhelson’s, the latter is planning make the defunct Udarnik movie theater a part of GES-2. Until recently, the Udarnik building belonged to the businessman Shalva Breus, who planned to create a museum of contemporary art there. A source from Moscow's Cultural Heritage Department confirmed that the V–A–C foundation was interested in acquiring the plot and would take part in an open auction next summer. According to the source from APEX, if the deal goes through, the new space will be open sometime after 2025. It will reportedly be used for “educational and recreational activities.” 

Mikhelson’s foundation declined to comment on the future of Udarnik, since V–A–C “is presently realizing its programs strictly within the space of the GES-2 cultural center.”

As for Mikhelson’s interactions with the Kremlin, sources in the President’s Office have confirmed that the entrepreneur continues to be in touch with the officials “on questions regarding the cultural center”—and “just as intensively as before its launch.”

According to our sources, the municipal and federal officials really did propose that GES-2 host certain cultural events—but this probably did not mean performances of the singer Oleg Gazmanov (as suggested by Ksenia Sobchak). Instead, something along the lines of “concerts and award ceremonies” like those held at Gorky Park was probably meant. No agreement has yet been reached on this matter.

Meduza’s sources in the President’s Office note that they know nothing about any plans for the sale or transfer of Mikhelson’s institution to anyone whatsoever. They also point out that, in the absence of connections with the West, GES-2 can be reoriented towards Asia.

It's unclear what path GES-2 will take with its programming going forward. Exhibitions assembled from pre-existing art objects are at odds with its philosophy. Meanwhile, professional curatorship in present-day Russia, where responding to the situation in Ukraine has been made illegal, would be problematic. The whole sphere concerned with contemporary culture is fragmented: some people have been fired, others are paralyzed by the catastrophic political situation, and still others have fled abroad.

GES-2, meanwhile, remains the only Moscow institution with ties to contemporary art that has continued its work in the wake of February 24. Its next exhibition is planned for the coming summer. Nothing is known about it, but according to Meduza's sources, it will focus on private collections — and on the Russian artists that have been supported and fostered by the V–A–C from day one of its existence.

Story by Ksenia Korobeynikova

Translation by Anna Razumnaya

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