It all began nicely enough with an announcement in The Moscow Times on November 12, 2014 that “American Art Critic Donates $2M Collection to Russian Museum.” Then Sarah Cascone from Artnet News picked it up, corrected the “American art critic” bit and ran a report, “American Art Dealer Helen Drutt English Donates $2 Million Collection to Hermitage.” Actually, Drutt English did not donate the collection, at least not all $2 million of it; she organized it, some of it is hers, but not all. It gets more complicated from there, mainly the fault of poor journalism, it seems.
Moscow News notes that the collection will be on display from December 2, and it will be the first exhibition of U.S. artists in Russia in recent years. Helen (I have known her too long to call her anything else) is quoted as saying the following at a recent celebration of the Hermitage’s anniversary in New York:
“Relations between Russia and the U.S., two countries divided by an ocean, can develop further with the help of careful dialogue. By testing mutual curiosity and respect for each other’s achievements in art and culture, our people can continue to engage in the political, social and cultural spheres.”
The State Department may doubt the value of careful dialogue at this point but so far so good. Then the news hit Namita Gupta Wiggers’ Facebook page Critical Craft Forum and two of my favorite women collided, Helen and Jenni Sorkin. Sorkin was angered by the knee-jerk, button-clicking “like-monkeys” who were reacting to the post without thought and she let forth:
“People on Critical Craft Forum, please stop this tentative liking. This is not something to like. Helen Drutt’s collection is a major loss to the PMA, and frankly, a slap in the face wake-up-call to the current director who is not interested in craft. Her ideas about an American room abroad are interesting and legacy-invested, but only in theory. Rather, let’s call it what it is: it is a donation blinded by ego and completely tone deaf to the political situation in Russia, its social repressions toward the GLBT community, and its current aggressions in the Ukraine. Why reward a country whose cultural treasures are entwined with a dogmatic sociopolitical ideology?”
She stopped us all in our tracks.
Some agreed and some did not. What follows is some of the resulting ping pong contest. None of it is too harsh, the flavor for debate in crafts is vanilla, tough debate is extra strength vanilla. Craft, unlike literature, painting and other disciplines, is not a warlike tribe, for better or worse.
Bruce Metcalf — “Helen went for glamor, which Philadelphia lacks. As for Mr. Rub’s interest in craft, he is more supportive than his predecessor. Elisabeth Agro now has two nice galleries – not that pathetic hallway! – for 6 months a year for the display of craft. It’s an improvement. If the PMA didn’t get the Drutt collection, it probably means they didn’t court Helen assiduously enough. Are they to blame for that?”
Paolo Vincente Lim — Her jewelry collection went to Houston Museum of [Fine] Art and some of her ceramics went to PMA and Renwick Smithsonian Museum. This collection was collected from private collectors and her own money specific for Hermitage Museum. For the first time in history, because of her generosity, the works of American craft artists will be seen in a Russian Institution. She donated enough to Philadelphia MA over the years. And the artists that were donated to Hermitage Museum were already in the Philadelphia Museum of Art collection, before any one spew some negativity these works from the USA will be in Russia permanently long after Putin regime and will outlive all if us.
Jenni Sorkin — “Paolo: stating political facts are not the same as ‘spewing negativity.’
Mr. Lim also let the cat out of the bag by stating that the $2 million was probably an exaggeration, maybe only $500,000:
Paolo Vincente Lim — “A $2 million gift in reality is not a $ 2 million gift. A $2,000 Higby bowl is appraised at $15,000 value, likewise a Turner pot of $2000 value is appraised 3 to 4 times the value.”
First of all, this is not Helen’s collection but it comes from many collectors and from works Helen bought recently. Secondly, the US got her crown, the jewelry collection. The departure of the rest of collection, much of it already dispersed, is, with due respect, no loss to Philadelphia or the nation. There are more great craft collections looking for homes now than there are homes. So lets drop that issue from the stream.
The only concern here is sensitivity regarding destination. Mr. Lim, Helen’s gallant apologist, dismisses this, “I think that pretty petty to say you cannot donate to Russia because of Putin, it’s almost like saying do not donate work to Texas because its governor is Perry”.
If Mr. Lim were a gay man living in St Petersberg rather than one living in Philadelphia he would not make such a silly comparison. It is demeaning to the suffering of the LGBT movement in Russia.
Actually, he would not even be able to speak about being gay, just saying those words is an imprisonable offense in Russia. And if you said it in a public place, thugs would beat you up in front of the police and when you were nearly dead, the police would shake hands with your assailants and drag you off to prison for round two. This is not an exaggeration, it happens to the LGBT on a daily basis. You can watch the videos online of you have the stomach for it.
Included in the show is Helen’s living room, moved to Russia. But it will be returned.
Namita Gupta Wiggers — “The concept of an ‘American’ period room sounds fantastic. How might that represent the ethnic and cultural diversity of the U.S.? Yes, Russia will outlive Putin, but he’s in charge right now. For many people who choose to have organic food, drive a Prius, etc., how can art be apolitical?”
Paolo Vincente Lim —” Anyway any collectors in the country should be able to donate works to any institution or country of their choosing, no one you or I should be able to dictate that, This is a free country last time I heard about it.”
Yes, Mr. Lim, it is a free country and that is why we are also able to debate the wisdom of the gift to another country at this time. In Russia this kind of free discussion is unwise and has ugly consequences.
I know Helen well enough to know that she did this with the very best of intentions, even if it was politically naive. She is well within her rights to do this and it’s certainly idealistic.
Will this little storm do any damage? Not in isolation. In the craft world this event may be a big deal. In the greater art world it is barley a blip. Helen’s project will end up costing Russia more than it receives in return. Craft is a lightweight influence lever. One’s only worry is precedent being followed later on.
All we can do with Putin is to isolate his rogue state until; hopefully, the pain that is inflicted (including isolating its museums) causes such discomfort that it provokes change. It may not work; boycotts are not always effective. But does that make it O.K. to ignore this and do business as usual with a nation that has departed from the civilized world? And isn’t art is supposed to be especially sensitive to suffering? At least it always makes that claim as part of its raison d’être (although the Dubai art scene makes nonsense of that myth). Either way the last word goes to …
Bruce Metcalf — “Namita re: ‘What does it mean when major gifts of art are given to a country engaging in clear violations of civil and human rights?’ What it means (is) that no country is monolithic. No country consists entirely of its government. A wider and deeper culture always persists. It is that wider culture that Helen is addressing: those civilized people in Russia who care about culture and are passionate about an international outlook. They exist, and one can presume that Helen’s gift will encourage them. Putin and his minions, being uncultured power-mongers, won’t even notice.”
Bottom Line? This a learning moment for all concerned. And no matter which position you take, it’s nice to see the crafts world looking at the bigger picture and, if ever so gently, fighting for principle. You can continue the debate here and on Critical Craft.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
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