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Moscow Tretyakov Plans $150 Million Growth After Censorship Row

John Varoli, Bloomberg News

March 6 (Bloomberg) Ц Valentin Rodionov, director of Moscow's State Tretyakov Gallery, excitedly outlines a $150 million plan to increase exhibition space by more than half.

Then he sighs and wonders how much of the proposal will materialize without outside help, aware that little of the Russian government's oil income is going to culture.

He says the Tretyakov is ''a temple of Russian art,'' the greatest repository of the country's paintings, with 152,000 artworks. Rodionov wants to develop its modern and contemporary- art departments in a bid to thrive in the 21st century.

''I can't say if it will take three years, five years or more since we don't have the funds yet,'' says Rodionov, wearing a suit and burgundy tie. ''State financing of museums grows worse and worse.''

Rodionov, 71, has kept out the headlines in his 15 years running the gallery, apart from some unwelcome publicity in October 2007 when he removed 17 works from its exhibition of postwar Russian art in Paris, including ''Era of Mercy'' (2006), a photograph by the provocative Siberian duo Blue Noses showing two policemen kissing. He defends that decision in the face of international criticism.

''Today, Russia has no censor,'' he says. ''But we have responsibilities to the public, and we have the right to choose what is displayed. We can't show works that contain sex, pornography, and indecent poses.''

Crippling Repression

Soviet repression crippled the museum for most of the 20th century, preventing the display of artists condemned by the regime. The result is that few of the 1.3 million visitors each year get to appreciate modern art even though it comprises more than one-third of the Tretyakov's collection.

''Works of 20th century art Ц such as those by Kandinsky, Chagall, and Falk Ц were hidden from the public,'' says Rodionov, who is tall, well built and friendly. ''Only much later did we learn that we should be proud of this art. Russians love the old masters which they've been raised on. But now we want young people to learn more about 20th-century art.''

Among the museum's most popular artworks are 15th-century icons by Andrei Rublev, portraits by Ilya Repin and Valentin Serov, scenes of Russian life by Boris Kustodiev, and fairy-tale images by Victor Vasnetsov.

Extra Space

The Tretyakov is adding nearly 35,000 square meters of space at its main building, a kilometer from the Kremlin, where lines of people form to get in.

About 9,000 square meters will be exhibition space. The remaining 26,000 square meters will go toward conservation labs, state-of-the-art storage, and community centers.

The second task will be to renovate the New Tretyakov Gallery, located in a separate Soviet-era building near Gorky Park. This attracts fewer visitors and holds the museum's modern and contemporary-art collection.

Though work has barely begun, both projects have already run into serious obstacles. Financing is chief among them, because costs are expected to easily exceed $150 million just for the first project. The museum's 2007 budget was about $30 million.

Private sponsors are active, though on a small scale. They gave a total of about $2 million last year to finance exhibitions, book and catalog publishing, and some acquisitions.

Sponsors include British-American Tobacco Plc; OAO Severstal, the Russian steel giant; VTB Group, Russia's second-largest bank; and OAO Lukoil and OAO Surgutneftegaz, Russian oil producers.

Billionaires Help

Mining billionaire Alisher Usmanov paid for a show of works by 19th-century U.S. artist James Whistler. Oil billionaire and art collector Viktor Vekselberg paid to restore a hall holding works by modernist painter Mikhail Vrubel. None have yet shown a willingness to help with the major new expansion plans.

A portrait of the museum's founder Pavel Tretyakov hangs on the wall above Rodionov's desk in a 19th-century mansion next to the museum.

''We're very happy that companies and individuals are willing to sponsor the museum, but overall, most Russian businessmen still haven't matured to the level of Tretyakov,'' says Rodionov. Tretyakov (1832-1898) made a fortune from textiles and banking and amassed Russian art, including the most provocative artists of the last quarter of the 19th century, the Wanderers.

Rodionov, who said Orthodox icons are among his favorite artworks, sees contemporary art as the Tretyakov's ''biggest challenge.''

While the Paris censorship row created a divide between the museum and the contemporary-art scene, Rodionov is determined to ''fill in the gaps'' in the collection. He's reforming the acquisitions process, and will give art experts from the outside a voice.

''The main task is to figure out what truly deserves to go down in the annals of art history, and what is just an over-hyped sensation that will just disappear,'' said Rodionov.

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