This article originally appeared in The Guardian
The world of street art abounds with irony. Supporters of this art form (which is largely predicated on defacing other people’s property) have protested plans to demolish the graffiti-covered 5 Pointz building in Queens, New York. The “outlaw” Banksy is a savvy self-promoter whose new Dismaland project, in the English seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, has been described as “the most shameless commercial art project since Disneyland”.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this outsider art form now has its own official cultural venue in the Street Art Museum in St Petersburg, Russia. If such an institution seems a contradiction in terms for an art form that, by definition, is supposed to take place on the street, curator Nailya Allahverdiyeva seems to be its biggest opponent. “In general, I hate street art expositions, because I consider that to be a profanation of street art,” she told the Moscow Times. “I have done everything I can to drive artists out on to the street.”
And yet, Allahverdiyeva is one of the co-curators of this year’s exhibition at the Street Art Museum. “The idea that a street art museum couldn’t exist is very popular among the people,” says Albina Motor, the museum’s producer. “But we are not a museum in the conventional sense. It’s just a name for much more.”
Most visitors looking for art in St Petersburg will check out the Hermitage or the Mariinsky theatre. The Street Art Museum is certainly not yet on the agenda – nor, as Motor says, is it a typical museum. For one thing, it’s located inside an active factory, the Sloplast plastics laminate works, in an industrial zone far outside the city’s central tourist core.
A working factory is, of course, a perfect setting for a street art museum, as factories are a typical “canvas” for street art performances. But beyond the art itself, the museum is seeking to create a cultural identity in a district that’s currently mentally, as well as physically, a world away from the city’s historic core. St Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 as a “European-style” capital, with architecture that exudes the refined charm of western European cities. It is also endowed with a legacy of renowned cultural institutions, which help make it the most-visited Russian city for foreign tourists.
But the tourist zone in the city centre is fairly small. St Petersburg was also developed into a huge industrial centre: it is ringed with miles of factories, many of them now closed. As with many post-industrial cities, “Piter,” as Russians call it, needs to reinvent itself for a new era.
So how do you refresh an industrial district in the middle ring of this classical city? With street art, of course. The Street Art Museum engages with both functioning industry and the world of art – for which the city is already well-known. Even the museum’s logo – a spray can styled as a classic architectural column – playfully draws on the city’s high-culture reputation. But this a different kind of art for a different kind of district, one that is drawing tourists and international attention to the kind of urban zone that seldom sees much of either.
Whereas the more well-known institutions in St Petersburg are oriented towards the past, the Street Art Museum is engaging with the present – not just in terms of street art, but also contemporary issues facing Russians. Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian turn has lent a degree of seriousness and importance to Russian street art that transcends the mere posturing and thinly veiled commercialism too often present in the west. Examples range from the anti-Putin works of the late P183 to the street performance of art-collective Voina.
It was the factory owner himself, Dmitry Zaitsev, who created the museum, and his son Andrey is the museum’s director. Because it’s in a factory, a good deal of the “permanent collection” comprises murals overlooking active factory floors full of workers, such as God at Work by Roman Kreemos or Supreme (in homage to suprematism) by Petro.
“The original idea was to make this place cosy for working,” says Motor, highlighting the industrial logic behind these works, which are normally off-limits to museum-goers and require special advance arrangements to see. The relationship between factory and museum goes the other way, too: the chairs in the museum cafe were made from the factory’s products and assembled by its workers.
But is street art something the workers actually like, or just something the creative class thinks they should like? Motor recalls a conversation between two workers about street artist Kirill Kto’s artwork Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No: “Sometimes yes, sometimes bullshit” – a sentiment to which anyone who’s ever been to a museum can probably relate.
A massive outdoor area and decommissioned parts of the factory, like the boiler house, are used for temporary exhibits, such as The Cage by Zuk Club, Toy Group’s humorous “flyers”, or an enormous wall-sized manifesto called Everything I Know About Street Art by Timothy Radya.
The venue also provides street artists with the opportunity to work experimentally in forms they have never used before, and the space to create work that won’t immediately be disregarded as disposable. For example, Andrey Olenev exhibits a series of charred logs that encircle a room. The charred smell is still present, lending an extra dimension to this piece – and, as with many of the best works of contemporary art, it has an ambiguity that captures your attention: it is not immediately obvious whether it is art or debris, or indeed exactly which parts of the room are art, which are “gallery” and which are factory. You can’t simply drift past these exhibitions like so many paintings on a wall.
Could the idea catch on? A group in New York called the Street Museum of Art tours exhibits on the street, while Amsterdam’s Street Art Museum is a walking tour. The V&A in London has a street art collection, and there are plans afoot for something similar in New Jersey; but, in general, the paradoxical nature of the idea helps explain why the Street Art Museum is the first of its kind.
Meanwhile, as with all street art, it’s an idea that is constantly changing, as the gallery mixes up the collection, and the fortunes of the factory itself fluctuate. “Some people think that museums are kind of cemeteries for art,” Motor says. “We have no intention of becoming a graveyard for street art.”