The President of the Hermitage Museum Foundation Israel, an institution founded in 2013, told the Art Newspaper about the museum collaboration between Israel and Russia
Here in Russia people do not know anything about you. Could you please tell a little about yourself? When did you start be involved with the arts? What was your main occupation before coming to the Foundation?
I was born in Tel-Aviv in 1980. My grandfather started the family collection and today it belongs to the M.T. Abraham Foundation. We lend works from our collections to museums around the world for either short or long term periods. We also support publications, which are dedicated to the art of the first part of the 20th century, as well as art in general such as our recent publication dealing with “Selling Russian Treasures”. My grandfather died in 1999. He had a modest yet refined collection of Modern art, especially of Russian Avant-garde. The M.T. Abraham Foundation was established in 2004. My 10 years developing the activities of the Foundation have altered my relationship with art enormously. My previous professional experience was mostly limited to business, which left little room for creativity. My immersion in the art world has been motivated by emotion first and foremost, which is strangely liberating. When you look at a work of art uninitiated either it touches you or not. Now, after much time I have learned to look and to appreciate an art work whether I like it or not.
10 years ago, when we were just establishing the Foundation, its main objective was to preserve the collection for the future generations of the family. Soon after we decided to set up an annual operating budget to hold exhibitions, acquire new top quality works and finance the publishing activities we’ve been involved in rather intensively during the last five years. Apart from this, we provide support to exhibitions and cultural events all over the world that align with the M.T. Abraham Foundation’s mission to promote art learning and appreciation. It was quite natural for me to go deeper into it, even though I would never have believed quite how compelling it has become. Not many of my contemporaries share my obsession. Although I was surrounded by art since childhood, I came to some understanding of it only in my twenties, when I started going deeper, studying, reading books, understanding what I had in my own collection, learned to appreciate museum collections. No one is born with the knowledge of art. One has to acquire it; it’s a learning curve. That is why our Foundation provides scholarships, publications, and arts education programs. I always say: you should invest in the young generation, as they are the future.
Are you still heading the M.T. Abraham Foundation?
Yes, and I will keep doing so as long as it brings me satisfaction and joy. I am privileged that among the members of our Board are Nicolas Iljine, Matthew Drutt, Marc Scheps, Dalit Lahav-Durst and others, which bring many years of experience and knowledge to our institution. Each professional who is joining the Foundation’s team becomes a family member. So we have a very productive “chemistry” and a deep understanding of our current agenda and mission. I am pleased with our progress so far, but there is a long way to go to achieve our goals, we are very ambitious.
How did you come up with the idea of creating the Hermitage Museum Foundation? Did it emerge here or in Russia?
When I met Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky in New York back in 2011, the idea was in the air. At that time it seemed to be the crumb of an idea. I had a strong feeling it was important, even indispensable, to establish such a bridge between Russia and Israel – the two countries that are so closely linked to one another. Over 20% of our population in Israel is of Russian origin, and these people have had a very strong impact on our culture, science, and even politics. The Hermitage is the preeminent cultural institution of Russia, not only for the country itself, but for the rest of the world as well. I constantly stress that it is a reciprocal collaboration. We bring our culture to the State Hermitage, and the it lends its treasures to our Museums, for the Israeli audience to see them, is a great privilege.
The Hermitage friends clubs and even offshoots of the Museum can be found all over the world: in Amsterdam, London, New York and mane other cities. Why was Israel selected this time?
I hold Israel as the only cultural center in the Middle East. Culture is something that money cannot buy; it is rooted in the people for generations. The Israeli initiative was very natural for the State Hermitage as well as for us, the Board of Trustees, which comprises individuals of both Jewish and Russian origin from different countries. Our motivation and readiness to spend time, energy and money are even stronger, since we are based on a strong ideology. We are supported by individuales who possess experience, knowledge and vast connections. I defined our Board of Trustees as my “Dream Team”; without them nothing would have materialized. Dr. Piotrovsky, the Foundation’s Honorary Chairman, is our leading figure. We hold amazing meetings of the Board in Israel, we keep constant contact and certainly discuss all the projects in which we take part. Above all, we are enthusiastic about what we are doing and understand our responsibility and privilege to represent such a prominent institution.
What joint initiatives of Israel and the Hermitage have you already managed to bring to life? And what plans do you have for the upcoming 2015, and maybe even for the 2016?
Thanks to the support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, and the Consulate General of Israel in Saint Petersburg, we managed to obtain a license, and not only for a Foundation, also for an independent Hermitage Centre in Israel. We are very grateful for the honor of representing the Museum in Israel. Just recently, we had a formal visit of Dr. Piotrovsky and myself to the residence of the President of the State of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, where the Israeli President congratulated the State Hermitage Museum for its 250th anniversary, and stressed the importance of the Hermitage Museum Foundation Israel. Further future cultural exchanges were discussed, and we agreed to meet again at the State Hermitage Museum, during President Rivlin’s next visit to St. Petersburg. In 2013, in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Consulate General of Israel in Saint Petersburg, we organized the White City (Bauhaus architectural style in Tel Aviv) Exhibition, which was a big success. Later we supported the El Lissitsky – Kabakov exhibition at the Hermitage. Beside the fact the both artists are Jewish, we, at the Foundation felt that it was appropriate for us to support both El Lissitsky – a major Russian Avant-garde figure, and Kabakov – one of the leading Russian artists on an international scale.
Finally, our latest project was the Dada & Surrealism Exhibition from the Vera & Arturo Schwarz collection of the Israel Museum, which is one of the richest collections in the world. The exhibition was a phenomenal success. We brought it to St. Petersburg on behalf of the State of Israel as a gift to the Hermitage’s 250-years jubilee celebrations. I personally consider it to be one of the major exhibitions that took place in the Hermitage in 2014.
How do you see the future of your Organisation?
As we are going to maintain bilateral relations between the Hermitage and various Israeli museums, we plan to be able to achieve a lot. For the upcoming year we have planned an exhibition of works by Alexander Arkhipenko (the Erich Goeritz Collection) from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. For the first time 32 unique sculpto-paintings will be on show in Russia. Marc Scheps, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, and former Director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, will co-curate this important exhibition. At the same time, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art will receive works by Henri Matisse from both the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. After the Hermitage, the Pushkin Museum will host the Arkhipenko exhibition.
We exist in order broaden the existing bridges between the Hermitage and leading Israeli museums, and also to strengthen the existing cultural relations between Israel and Russia. The State Hermitage Museum does not only need our financial support — this is not the only issue, as Dr. Piotrovsky has made perfectly clear to me. The principal idea of the Foundation is to introduce the Israeli public to the treasures of the Hermitage in particular, and to Russian culture in general.
But the Hermitage is a huge museum, and Israel is a small country. Sure, it does have very rich culture and art, but their basis lies in ancient times and not in the modernity, and the Israeli collections are somewhat smaller than the Hermitage one. How do you see the next steps that could help this common cause?
Although Israel is a small country, we have major cultural institutions in all arts disciplines. We have some very good Modern art works that we plan to bring to the Hermitage sometime in the near future. As for our historical treasures, the fascinating 3rd century Roman Lod Mosaic was on display at the Hermitage this year, and the exhibition was a success, we also took part at it. In the coming years we plan to bring other archaeological treasures to the Hermitage, since space is not a problem in this gigantic museum. The Foundation also plans to inaugurate an ongoing academic and scholar exchange program, which will lead to a greater understanding of both countries’ heritage and cultural treasures.
Please, tell some more about the team that helps you in this work.
Our Honorary Chairman, Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky — is an outstanding personality. He has both experience and charisma. Working with him is an honor for me. What he has done and continues to do, not only in Russia, but on an international scale, is both fascinating and admirable. Being able to rely on so many qualified specialists helps a lot. Marc Scheps, the Chairman of our Board of Trustees and former Dirctor of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Ludwig Museum in Koln, is an eminent figure in the Israeli art world. Nicolas Iljine, who supports the Hermitage for more then 20 years. Matthew Drutt, former curator at the Guggenheim Museum and at the Menil Collection, Dalit Lahav-Durst, former curator at the Holocaust Memorial Museum (Paris), Karen Sanig, Head of the Art Law at Mishcon de Reya Solicitors, Gordon Hausmann of CH Hausmann Solicitors, Ivgenia Naiman, art specialist at Gurr Johns (London), and Avner Kreimer, former bank Director (Geneva), which has already established fruitful contacts with European banks that have agreed to sponsor our Foundation.
According to you, can the Hermitage Museum Foundation Israel contribute to the further Israel’s cultural success?
The Foundation’s first Gala, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the State Hermitage Museum, was held on December 21 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and hosted 250 guests. Our guest of honor was Dr. Mikhail B. Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage Museum. Among the distinguished guests were Mr. Ron Huldai, Mayor of the city of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, representatives from the Israeli Foreign Office and guests that arrived especially for the occasion from Europe and the United States. The event was a huge success, and described by the local press as the event of the year. The Israeli public was very enthusiastic.
Apart from the desire to represent the Hermitage, being both Jewish and Israeli, I realize the importance of the Foundation’s mission. For me, what we do is a form of cultural Zionism. As Dr. Piotrovsky said: “culture is the last bridge that must survive the bombardment.” Israel is much more then a political conflict, that is why we keep enhancing the Foundation’s activities in Israel, to prove that culture can transcend civil and political unrest, and perhaps bring people closer together, I have a strong belief in my country.