A Moscow-based Curator who Speaks of Curatorial Highs and Lows, like she would of a Walk in the Park, and who Reminds us, like Rilke, that No Feeling is Final
I took the position of curator at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow since 2013 because I really wanted to work in a young, emerging institution that is not located in the obvious centers, such as where I was working when I got the offer (Art on the Underground, in London). And also for personal reasons–I am half Russian but I had never lived in the country before I got this job, I wanted to somehow retrace my roots.
Back in 2013 when I started, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art was still a Center for Contemporary Art, we were a very small team. The chief curator, Kate Fowle, who introduced me to the institution, and myself, were actually the oldest in the team. We were even older than Anton Belov, the director of the museum! The growth that happened from a center into a museum was truly amazing to experience. It grew from a cultural center that was more like a young platform for all kinds of programs with no collection, to a museum that produced its programmes in-house and had a vast collection of archives. I had worked before for a similar private institution, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing, and I was initially a bit sceptical about the true intentions of the founders, about how much freedom they gave to their team, whether or not it was a vanity project and how long they were committed to sustain such a high-cost institution with a slight expansionist, as it turned out, inclination. Garage is now spread across several buildings in Gorky Park, whilst the studios are in another area across town, similar to a university campus in a way. Over time I learned how dedicated, caring, smart, and ultimately visionary was most of the team I worked with, which obviously blew my suspicions away.
What I love most about this job are the artists, the sometimes blind trust that much of my work is based on, the freedom, the critical debates, the invigorating ability to put things together and see your thoughts materialize, and the power of art that opens up to me and periodically reaffirms itself when I happen to lose faith. I remember back in 2015 I worked on a project with the Museum of American Art in Berlin (a very unusual museum) to partly reconstruct the American National Exhibition that took place in Moscow in 1959. That was the first time I worked on an exhibition reconstruction. Together with the technical assistant of the museum in Berlin (who wishes to remain anonymous), we did an amazing show about a show, with almost no original artworks! This opened up a whole way of organizing exhibitions that was really more about concentrating on getting across the general ideas behind something, with all sorts of creative means, instead of worrying about loans, copyrights, transport etc. It was an eye-opener and a much more audacious curatorial course than many established curating programs (one of which I had graduated).
What I could do without is the art world around art. The discrimination, the sexism, the hypocrisy, the exploitation, the over-commercialization, the toleration of obnoxious, abusive, toxic behavior and deeds in the name of art, the public that is permanently lamenting how they don’t understand contemporary art whilst making little efforts, and so on.
Before, I was a sinologist with huge humanitarian dreams. I dreamt of translating books to save the human race in a monastery in Tibet. Well, I spent nine years in China, never went to Tibet, and didn’t translate a shit and saved nobody’s life. But it was a unique journey anyway. (although an artist friend of mine, Anastasia Potemkina, says I did save hers, that’s a little bit reassuring; just a little bit). It was in China that I got close to a whole bunch of artists that work with radical performance, which was the theme of my graduation thesis at Nanjing University. The gallery I first worked for, Beijing Tokyo Art Project + TOKYO GALLERY, became famous for supporting that sort of art and I thought that was really courageous. In the first years they made almost no money, it was only when I became manager that I pushed sales quite a lot in order to support more and more local artists. There is a story I do not tell often, as I am not sure he wants me to, but it was one of those performance artists that later gave me money to pay for the first few months in London when I moved there to get my MFA in Curating at Goldsmiths. It’s one of my most cherished stories from that period of my life.
I take my breaks on the couch in the office, or in the cafe in the museum. Or I just take a walk in the park outside the office. Gorky Park was established over 90-year ago, and was named after social-realist writer and political activist Maxim Gorky. It’s the size of Central Park in New York and is filled with trees and leisure equipment.
A particular place in the museum that is emblematic of the institution is the Soviet mosaic in the atrium. It’s nothing special but it’s nice we kept it, contemporary art looks at odds next to it, not to mention that the museum was redesigned by Rem Koolhaas. But I like that. That particular mosaic symbolizes Autumn (the building we are occupying as a museum was once a restaurant called Seasons of the Year) and is an allegory of the abundance of the land, an homage to its laborers in yellowish-tones reminiscent of harvest time. We couldn’t find the other three mosaics in the building.
But my personal favorite is the small terrace in our office that is actually what is left from the first sound cinema in Soviet Union, which was bombarded later during WWII. The remaining ruins is what I look at every day from my desk.
The way I reconcile my personal taste with the mission of the museum I work for, well…Sometimes I can’t reconcile at all and that’s when I leave. It happened three times in my career, and we all stayed friendly later, but for me it was clear that no renconcialion is sustainable in longer term. Although many times reconciliation is possible, as things tend to shift unacceptably, you find out that the next time you try they work out! This is when it pays off to be persistent in your position, assuming that it sometimes takes a bit of time for the others to understand it.
The best way to work with a team, I found out, is when you are able to trust, to delegate, and explain your thoughts clearly. It is also when you are ready to let go of the control every now and then; to support and guide instead of complain and criticize, to collaborate and respect, and share merits! In short, the best way to work with a team is to win their respect.
I find that sometimes the best way to know an artist is not to talk about their art or any art at all! Writing about their art helps me at lot. I see better when I write. If we talk about my friendships with artists, well, generally, I do not have friend-artists whose art I do not like. There are some whose art I do not completely understand, but that’s my bad.
I never curate a show without a meter, lots of intuition, and asking for advice.
I keep sane by laughing, doing something radical or unexpected for myself at that moment, something that makes me respect myself again, by having good friends, a healthy family and bonding conversations.
When I am not working here I can be found walking my dog around Patriarch ponds or the Botanical garden. Patriarch ponds is really a magical place. I am not sure about elsewhere in the world, but in Moscow real estate prices depend on literature. That is the area in the city, for example, where Mikhail A. Bulgakov wrote his novel “The Master and Margarita”, one of my favorite books. So I really like to imagine the scenes from the book while I stroll along the pond or sit on the benches and watch people. Once in winter, we had a picnic with Prosecco and oysters in the middle of the frozen pond, that was a memorable experience!
My latest favorite book is any book! Since I have a kid, it’s happiness when I can even read a few pages. I’m now enjoying a lot reading all sorts of theory books, on cyberfeminism, afrofuturism, artistic research etc.
Music is important for me but I am a musical handicap, I missed all the music trends while I was in Morocco as a teenager, and then in China, so catching up is very traumatic for me. Fortunately, my partner is really into music and has a terrific taste, especially in the underground local music scene so he periodically “enlightens” me.
In curating, when I need to go back to basics it means that I need to feel potently again. I need to get to feel a lot (doesn’t matter if it’s joy or anger), or empty my mind without feeling guilty, let myself come up with ideas in times when they are not required. I think that’s called getting inspired.
If I ever need to reset my mind after a crazy busy time I do nothing for a few days. Like lie in bed and watch movies. My favorite time is during installation for an exhibition. We often work until very late everyday, and then the opening takes the little energy that was left in me. Afterwards, expect that I feel quite depressed that the project is born and I am in a vacuum again. I recoup my strength by doing very little physically and mentally.
My perfect holiday is usually an active one. I mean surfing, climbing, driving, but actually lately, my best holiday was playing chess and lying on the beach all day long for a whole month on the seaside in Bulgaria..
I manage to have a life outside the museum by having a kid! All your values are reassessed, it’s beautiful!
If I was an art collector I would collect a lot of women artists. I think that for another ten years we should still very consciously fight the gender imbalance in terms of women artists in collections and art history. After this, we can forget this gender-oriented approach. But for now, there is still much work to be done.
If my 10 years older self visits me from the future today, she would tell me: “No feeling is final, darling!”
If I wasn’t curating I would be a vet, a novelist, or a filmmaker. Or an actress! But ultimately, I think I want to have a bar and be able to surf somewhere in Southeast Asia.
Curator at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art
Snejana Krasteva (b. 1979, Plovdiv, Bulgaria) is currently a curator at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. She grew up between Belorussia, Bulgaria and Morocco, and relocated to China in 2000 where she received a BA in Chinese Language from Nanjing University (2004). In China, she ran the gallery Beijing Tokyo Art Projects + TOKYO GALLERY before joining the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. In 2009, she moved to London to pursue her education and received an MFA in Curating from Goldsmiths College. From 2011 to 2013, she was a curator at Art on the Underground in London where she realized a series of art projects in the public realm prior to taking up the position of curator at Garage in Moscow.
Krasteva’s curatorial practice is consistently cross-disciplinary. At Garage, she has curated and co-curated exhibitions such as The Coming World: Ecology as the New Politics 2030-2100 (2019); Allora & Calzadilla: Graft (2019); The Other Trans-Atlantic. Kinetic and Op Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America between 1950s to 1970s (2018); the first Garage Triennial of Contemporary Art (2017); NSK: FROM KAPITAL TO CAPITAL (2016); Grammar of Freedom: Five Lessons (2015), among others. She was initiated and realized large-scale commissions with artists Erik Bulatov, Katharina Grosse (all in 2015), Yin Xiuzhen (2016), Urs Fischer (2016), Viacheslav Koleichuk (2018), and Huang Yongping (2019). She has organized a number of international conferences including the 6th Garage International Conference To Which Time Do We Belong? The New Historicity and The Politics of Time (2018); Where is the line between us? Cautionary tales from now (2015) and Performance Art: Ethics in Action (2013). Krasteva was in charge of the newly established Garage Studios and Art residency program in 2019 and the leading curator of the Field Research program when it first launched in 2013–a cross-disciplinary research body whose aim is to produce new material on a wide range of overlooked or underrepresented social and cultural phenomena in Russia.
Since 2016, Krasteva has been teaching at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) master degree courses in History of Exhibitions and Organization of temporary projects. She has written in various catalogues and magazines, lectured locally and internationally.