20 January 2017

A new era

by Marc Masurovsky

As the transition in political and economic power unfolds in the United States, the world is apprehensive, wondering what the new administration, one unlike any that has set foot in Washington, DC, Congress and the White House, has in store for the average person living on American soil and for the rest of the world. A unique event in American history, not an unexpected one, but, nonetheless, one that has taken many people by surprise, not the least in the United States proper.

For those who are unfamiliar with the dynamics inherent to right-wing populist movements that operate on emotions, machismo, raw power, and domination games, you are in for a long ride. The potential for violence is high, intolerance is at our doorstep, and the opening of deep rifts along ethnic, social, cultural, religious, political, and economic fault lines is imminent. The new folks in Washington have no desire to heal wounds produced and salted by the most egregious presidential campaign in American history. Make no mistake, they are set to dominate, intimidate, and rule like a theocracy.

Intolerant, dogmatic, populist movements are driven by hatred of the “other” and resentful of the “educated”, those whose views extend far beyond those of the village, the local church and its requisite cemetery, fields pockmarked with farms, small towns with few distractions available to a restless youth, minds shaped by myths and legends of once glorious nations fighting bloody battles, overpowering real and imagined enemies, always on the defensive, considering other peoples as too different, not enough like them, and frankly ripe for enslavement and/or extermination. Constantly fed a mantra of negative stereotypes pertaining to “those” people responsible for their perceived or actual misfortunes, these folks have now unleashed their petty revenge on the alleged guilty ones, they have freed themselves of the shackles of their own failures by deflecting them on the “others.” 

It is not at all surprising that the first targets of the new administration’s ideological fury should target government funding of the arts and culture across the United States. The Nazi regime indulged in such bloodlust against culture--Kultur!--for 12 years both inside the Reich and in territories its troops and security henchmen occupied and devastated. Obsessed by difference, these "purgers" seek homogeneity, they yearn to create a monolithic echo box in which they can see and hear themselves every morning and not fear the "other", no longer. Difference must be quashed at all cost. How will the art world react? No one knows for certain.

If the new administration does actually plan on gutting Federal funding of the arts, it will destroy in one fell swoop a vast landscape of creative cultural and artistic expression across the United States, in small towns, large cities, in rural and urban areas alike, red States and blue states. The crusade launched by the enemies of culture in the works for decades now has finally found its articulation in the incoming administration. In short, to satisfy a Puritanical fundamentalist agenda, they will end up throwing the baby out with the bath water and isolating the United States as a dark place with which the rest of the world wants nothing more to do.

American museums, concert halls, public art and cultural activities, will all be affected as much as State-level arts initiatives and local arts programs. Artists of all kinds, traditional and unconventional alike, will be the victims of the hatred of these ideologues whose sole inspiration is a faith-based fundamentalism that resembles more the outlines of Calvinist orthodoxy and belief in the eternal sin of man on earth than anything else. Should this massacre of the arts unfold, it will be unlike any other in American history.

A new "obscurantism" is about to take hold in the hallways of American political power, one that appears to sate the cruelty and viciousness of the current leadership in the US Senate and House of Representatives, as much as in State legislatures across the red expanse of the United States.

Joseph Goebbels would have been proud. Were he alive today, Joe McCarthy might wonder if this incoming administration is not going too far, too fast, despite the fact that his mentee is now about to be enthroned as the 45th president of the United States.

Stay safe.

13 January 2017

What is to be done?

by Marc Masurovsky

Locating looted art in public and private collections, auction houses, galleries, is one thing; recovering these plundered objects is quite another.

The search for looted cultural assets is extremely tedious. Some people get lucky with “low-hanging fruits” like well-defined provenance information for objects being offered for sale or being displayed in a museum, which contains critical information that might lead to a match between the object and a plundered owner.

Those instances are rare.

The tedium of research concerns all other objects—weeks, months, sometimes years of research, often led by one or two people, most of the time on a part-time basis because there is no reliable source of money to underwrite such an investigative and analytical effort.

If progress has been made on documenting cultural losses at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators over the past twenty years, there has been no progress in establishing a solid, long-term funding mechanism to ensure that research into the ownership histories of countless objects and their location is sustained over a long period of time.

To remedy this chronic shortage of funds for research into the looted cultural heritage of the Jewish people, historians, investigators, researchers, even curators, have tended to focus their attention on single collections and/or a small clutch of plundered objects. These efforts aim to clarify the history of objects coming from a single owner, or located in a single museum or collection. But even those efforts are lengthy, arduous, and end up yielding few fruits, for all sorts of reasons, the main ones being lack of capital and legal and logistical obstacles to gain access to relevant data.

How does one resolve this paltry state of affairs?

One cannot locate any looted object if one does not devote the needed resources to conduct solid, forensic, investigative research into its whereabouts, ensuring that it is the correct one, locating its potential owners, and if there are none, declaring the looted object to be heirless property.

What does one do with objects deemed heirless? Remember that heirless property is simply unclaimed property for which no owners have been found ---yet. Since there are no well-funded research organizations or institutions in the business of searching for these objects’ rightful owners, they remain to a large extent heirless, deprived of their history, their context and their identity.

For instance, Jewish museums are stocked with heirless objects, coming from communities that have been systematically erased from the face of the earth. But not all displaced objects in Jewish museums are heirless. The mission of Jewish museums is to safeguard these objects, not necessarily restitute them. Hence, when faced with a restitution claim, a Jewish museum is more likely to behave like most art museums by opposing the act of restitution which would require deaccessioning the claimed object from its collection.

Governments of nations that were subjected to the horrors of Nazi and Fascist policies and global war, hold untold numbers of objects which were “found” at war’s end.  So far, little to no information has been released which can help apprehend the true extent of this seventy-year old problem.

The Russian puzzle is the most egregious. So-called “trophy art” picked up by specialized Soviet military units in all territories that the Red Army “liberated” in the months before the end of WWII is stored in museums across the ex-Soviet Union. Most of the objects that the Red Army “repatriated” as compensation for Soviet losses are presumably concentrated in what is now the Russian Federation, Byelorussia and the Ukraine. But there is also looted cultural material belonging to exterminated Jewish communities in the custody of governments in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, to name a few.

In an ideal world, the most logical way to address the question of researching and documenting the complete history of cultural plunder between 1933 and 1945 is to orchestrate a massive inflow of research monies and establish an international research and documentation infrastructure. Only in this way can one address systematically the full scope of looted cultural heritage (outside of Judaica which has attracted significant attention over the past decades) of the Jewish people, identify the location of plundered objects, figure out which ones have still not been restituted, match them with their rightful owners. If there are none, then the question of heirless property comes into the picture.

A vast international, even transcontinental, network or infrastructure of research institutions facilitated and nurtured by a mix of government agencies, independent organizations, and academic centers across the Americas and Europe should coordinate this effort. This is not a one-or three-person job. In order to get a handle on what was stolen, where, when, by whom, sold and resold to whom and where and when, one needs a small army of intelligent, motivated, educated, trained, PAID, worker bees.

There is a strong likelihood that “heirless” objects having once belonged to Jewish owners before the Holocaust era ended up in the permanent collections of museums, be they State-controlled or privately owned.

How does one persuade these cultural institutions to deaccession heirless objects which they argue were acquired in good faith and have no owner?

How does one convince governments which control cultural institutions holding such objects to return them? And to whom? Even in Israel, this policy is controversial.

The solutions to the above have always been complicated and laced with political overtones. Art makes people irrational. For an institution to part with an object is fraught with strong emotions and potent defenses against such an act, even it is for a good cause, even if restitution through deaccession is meant to heal wounds and provide a small gesture towards an act of justice. It goes against the grain of museum practices worldwide to restitute.

To end on a less negative note, it is worth exploring the different ways that exist to restore a modicum of justice to the victims of cultural plunder. But those approaches need to be anchored in victims’ rights, not in private property law and antiquated notions of cultural patrimony. In and of itself, such an approach could open new doors on how to manage in a more ethical way tomorrow’s museums and the global art trade.

And above all, a massive amount of money is needed in order to rewrite the history of looted objects, return them to their rightful owners, and establish much better practices in the global art market, the museums that display objects, the galleries and auction houses that buy, display, and sell, and the collectors and dealers who do the same.

Higher ethics, stringent due diligence, thorough provenance research and true transparency, transparently clear (as opposed to less opaque), like a sheet of cellophane or saran wrap, your choice. That is the goal.

19 December 2016

Master of the game

by Marc Masurovsky

Mikhail Piotrovsky is a heavily-decorated, scholarly, and savvy art historian who has been raised in Soviet then Russian museology. He is a true son of Mother Russia.

In a Washington Post article dated April 23, 2003, Piotrovsky was described by Linda Hales as Russia’s cultural ambassador. In an interview given that year, he described the Hermitage as a mirror of Russia. At that point, he was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deputy on the President’s Council on Culture, “Russia’s official voice in matters of culture.

To demonstrate Piotrovsky’s willingness to wield the stick in order to get his way, he has threatened to cancel loan commitments to “Western” museums if his conditions were not met. For instance, a series of exhibits in London in 2005 was jeopardized by his insistence to obtain assurances of immunity from seizure. It’s simple. To gain access to the Hermitage’s treasures, museum leaders from around the world must play by Piotrovsky’s rule book.

The Hermitage Museum, which he has headed now for twenty years following in his father’s footsteps, is the pearl of the Russian museum world and an object of global envy and admiration. The Hermitage fuels Russian pride and is used to project Russia’s cultural hegemony. The 1995 display of “trophy art” at the Hermitage was the clearest expression of this sentiment.

The Hermitage is the cultural expression and, as such, the agent of Russian foreign cultural policy. It holds and stewards some of the most important collections in the world of Old Master paintings (from the West), Impressionist works (from the West) and antiquities from all parts of the ancient world (including those that were seized during the liberation by Soviet Army units of the eastern parts of Germany and other countries). It fuels the insatiable appetite of world-class “globalist” or “universalist” museums in Western Europe and North America. Russian leaders make wide use of the museum as a backdrop for high-level encounters with foreign heads of state and their delegations. When was the last time that an American president used the Metropolitan Museum of art or the National Gallery of Art as a similar backdrop to State visits?

To remain competitive and constantly be noticed, American museums through their lobby group, the AAMD, maintain good relations with Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, and his superiors in the Kremlin, so as to continue to have access to Russia’s cultural riches and to be able to share bragging rights with Russian museums when staging exceptional exhibits.

One of Dr. Piotrovsky’s early allies was Thomas Krens, then director of the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York, to whom he had asked for advice in creating joint projects that would be of direct benefit to the Hermitage (hence the Russian government) and to American museums.

Piotrovsky's thinking, his vision for the Hermitage is interdependent with that of American cultural institutions. But he does not always share their policies regarding repatriation of looted antiquities to source nations. In an interview that he gave to a Russian news outlet in 2013, Piotrovsky preferred that looted antiquities should only be returned with a court order, seemingly balking at the bilateral talks which led American museums to repatriate looted artifacts to source nations. “American museums should stop giving back various antiquities to the Italians and Greeks without court rulings.”

Piotrovsky is a fierce advocate of the globalist, universalist museum vision, which pretends to transcend all politics. Conversely, he is equally a fierce opponent of “deaccession”, which also includes, restitution of looted cultural assets. In his words, “Deaccession is wrong. A museum is a monument, an organism of history.”

In a 2009 statement issued by the Woodrow Wilson Center, Piotrovsky was described as being totally committed “to cultural diplomacy with the United States.” The Hermitage Museum Foundation is one of the instrumentalities through which these ties are expressed. Does this commitment go as far as seeking to exert influence on the legislative process of the US Congress and encouraging the passage of bills that favor Russia’s position as a global cultural lending power?

In 2011, when a US Federal District Court issued a judgment against Russia, Piotrovsky cancelled all scheduled and future loans to American museums. In his words, he advised American museum directors to “go to the State Department. The problem has to be solved. The year 2013 was declared the year of Russia and the U.S. Now the established cultural relations are under threat.” The reassurances offered by American museum directors to the Russians that the immunity from seizure procedures at the State Department were sufficient to protect Russian loans did not satisfy Piotrovsky.

In short, Piotrovsky, as Russia’s cultural ambassador, works very closely with his American counterparts to ensure that their vision of how museums should steward their collections, even the looted ones, are one and the same, in order to ensure proper cultural relationships in step with Russia’s views of the inalienability of cultural objects in museum collections, a view, by the way, that is routinely echoed and upheld by most European museum directors and their governmental overseers.

S.3155 gets the American museum world one step closer to conform to this arcane view of museum governance and its passage harmonizes AAMD’s vision with that of its European partners.

The new cultural imperialism?

18 December 2016

Russian activity on the plundered art blog

by Marc Masurovsky

What could be so interesting about the “plundered art” blog that it has attracted a blizzard of pageviews unlike anything seen since the blog first started in 2010? The mission of this cultural blog has always been and will always be: to document and discuss acts of cultural plunder, the restitution of looted art, and the ethics of museum administrators worldwide.

This digital onslaught of “visits” to the plundered art blog has come from Russia. It coincides with the December 5, 2016,  publication of HARP’s study detailing the inability and/or unwillingness of the US Department of State to conduct provenance research when considering requests by foreign lenders for certificates of immunity from judicial seizure that provoked the Russian onslaught. Since then, the story has received more than 4000 pageviews. In our world, that number falls outside the range of “normal” readership on the plundered art blog. We’re happy if we get 2-300 pageviews in a month for a single article.

At the time of publication of the aforementioned article, the US Senate was considering a bill called S. 3155. This bill makes it possible for foreign lenders to obtain immunity from seizure for the objects that they consider lending to US museums. The American museum directors’ lobby, enshrined in the Association of American Museum Directors (AAMD) has been struggling for four years to pass such a law through the Senate. Twice defeated, the AAMD chose the “submarine” strategy. No publicity, no public discussion, just silent lobbying. It also obtained the good services of Mr. Sneak Attack himself, Senator Chuck Schumer, a “Democrat” from New York State, to shepherd the bill through the Senate.

Why would the Russian government be so concerned with an American administrative rule that ensures that works of art from abroad are not seized while on display in an American museum? The procedure in and of itself should be a sufficient guarantee that art works from Russian institutions will be adequately protected while on display in the United States. Apparently, that does not suffice. In a nation like Russia and perhaps other countries where the State oversees, to a lesser or greater extent, the cultural arena, explicit statements by national legislatures count more than an administrative rule. This might explain the motivation of the AAMD to go for the jugular and ask the US Senate to pass a law that enshrines the principle of immunity from judicial seizure as a clear expression of an American cultural policy that officially does not exist. The immunity from seizure procedure has been in place for decades, overseen and enforced by the US Department of State. So why pursue legislation that repeats pretty much what the State Department already does on a weekly basis?

There is no need to show up with reams of documents and thousands of emails to prove Russia’s interest in S. 3155. It is basic common sense to argue that it is in the interest of the Russian government that the AAMD should succeed in pushing S. 3155 through the US Senate.

And it did succeed, before the sun rose on December 10, 2016.

The AAMD’s success in the Senate should beam a strong enough signal to Vladimir Putin that American museum directors are doing their all to assuage him and to convince him to reverse his decision on the cultural loan freeze imposed by Russia since 2011.

S. 3155 will sterilize the American cultural environment at the exhibit level whereby all objects on display loaned by foreign institutions will not be subject to a claim for restitution by any aggrieved party. A perfect rendition of the absolutist idea that “Culture transcends History” as Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, head of the Hermitage Museum, would have you note, an idea in line with the philosophy of “globalism” touted by the world’s leading museum directors and their governments according to which the museums they lead are the sepulchers of culture and art. We should worship them and thank them for “safeguarding” samples of the world’s best art and most significant cultural artifacts. The globalist museum world believes in the free exchange of artistic and cultural objects without any impediments or restrictions placed by governments and their institutions. Globalists refuse to allow history and all of its abject manifestations--civil wars, military and political upheavals, economic dislocation, ethnocide, genocide, and other mass expressions of human cruelty—to interfere with their ability to acquire and display objects, irrespective of their origin, which means, irrespective of their provenance, of their history. Provenance research, for these institutions, is an option to be exercised when needed.

Governments, including the American government, have been complicit in allowing their museums to acquire and exhibit willy-nilly. Their ethically lax behavior emboldens theft and plunder. Once illicitly-obtained objects enter a museum’s collection, they are only rarely removed as restitutable items to their rightful owners. The United States government, by its very inactions, refuses to compel American cultural institutions which harbor looted cultural objects to restitute them to their rightful owners. Although looting is publicly condemned as a reprehensible criminal activity, its fruits are protected once they enter cultural institutions. This paradox is alive and well and has been so for decades. S. 3155 is but a mere expression thereof.

Public outrage against looting may be universal but when a museum accepts the fruits of such criminal acts, there is generally no effort to force it to disgorge those looted objects and return them to their rightful owners. S. 3155 confirms that absolutist, Statist approach to culture.

Now that the US Senate has passed S. 3155 and President Barack Obama has signed it into law, the American museum community has proven that the US does not really need a ministry of culture, because the AAMD, with the blessings of the US Congress, acts as the de jure cultural arbiter of the nation’s cultural institutions in line with the Federally-controlled Smithsonian Institutions; the US Senate and the US government are there to do its bidding. Put another way, the museum directors’ lobby usually gets what it wants, much like the National Rifle Association.