It’s been a tough year for the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art (PERMM) with the directorship changing hands three times in a matter of months. In June, celebrity curator Marat Guelman was fired as head of the museum for organising an exhibition critical of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, a political hot potato. The exhibition, part of the city’s White Nights festival, put a satirical spin the Games with posters of the Olympic rings as nooses and Joseph Stalin in a polar bear suit.
Not long after, Guelman was replaced by Elena Oleynikova, a gallerist who had worked with the museum since its launch in 2008. Weeks later, she too was given the heave-ho for agreeing to host a forum with civil society organisation Pilorama on the grounds of the museum. This month, Yelena Petrova, 30, who has worked as acting director at PERMM since the summer, was officially appointed head of the institution. Unlike firebrand Guelman, Petrova, whose background is in finance, is not a household name. While many were surprised that a relative unknown was given the prestigious position, Guelman has spoken in support of the apporintment: “It was the only possible decision. Yelena knows the museum well. I believe she won't let the collection disappear or be destroyed.” In an interview with The Calvert Journal, Petrova who is from Perm native and has degrees in law and economics, talks about censorship, the future of the museum and her curatorial plans.
TCJ: Can you tell us a little about your career before this appointment?
YP: I’ve been working at PERMM since 2009 as executive director. I was in charge of the finances and operations. I also helped to organise the creative processes, which is to say, Marat Alexandrovich [Marat Guelman] was the ideologue and we made sure that the museum ran smoothly. We also put together the museum’s collection.
TCJ: What did you do before joining PERMM?
YP: I worked in the finance division for the Ministry of Social Development of the Perm region. I had a varied job there too. Then I went for an interview with Marat Alexandrovich and he offered me a job — the museum needed someone who would look after its finances. At the end of the day, the museum is a state institution.
TCJ: I’ve heard that the Ministry of Culture is planning to appoint an art director and that it might be Olga Sviblova, founder of the Moscow House of Photography. How accurate is this?
YP: It’s an open question. At the moment one of the most important issues we need to solve is moving the museum to a new space. Everything depends on that. Until then, there’s no point in developing new plans. One of the possible spaces for the museum is the tram depot in Razgulyay.
TCJ: What do you think about Marat Guelman’s role in the museum and his efforts to help shape the image of the city?
YP: Without a doubt, the museum is very important for the city. As for the future development of PERMM, my position is to continue what has been started and keep moving in the same direction.
TCJ: Are you not afraid of censorship or criticism from the authorities?
YP: No. The museum has never encountered censorship from the authorities.
TCJ: What about the Slonov exhibition?
YP: That wasn’t at the museum. It was a city exhibition.
TCJ: But then they moved it to PERMM from the White Nights Festival?
YP: No, they didn’t move it here. There were reproduction prints of the words shown in the museum, but the exhibition itself stayed in the city. It wasn’t moved into the river station building so I can’t comment on this.
TCJ: Although it’s still early, what artists would you like to work with or what exhibitions would you like to show in the museum?
YP: I would like us to work first and foremost with different curators. We plan to host exhibitions using outside curators as well as on our own. It’s very important for us to develop our own collection. We are planning to show exhibitions not just in the museum but also in the Perm region and across Russia. Firstly, we like to exhibition the museum’s collection outside of the museum.
TCJ: Are there any museums or galleries in Russia or abroad that you take inspiration from?
YP: Of course, we study the experience of others. But PERMM is an independent institution with its own goals and tasks.