Transformed City of Perm Could Be Russia's New Cultural Capital

Another eyesore has since been turned into a cultural attraction and, even more than the military museum, has become a popular gathering place for Perm residents: the Stalin-era piers on the Kama River. Not too long ago, the crumbling walls were still vermin-infested, and the old dock along the river, with its classical columns, was closed to the public. Now that the piers have been restored, the Museum of Contemporary Art, managed by Marat Gelman, has moved into the new space. Gallery owner Gelman sold half of his shares in his Moscow celebrity gallery and moved to Perm. "It's more exciting here," he says. "Perm isn't provincial. Perm is a new beginning."

His first exhibition was a triumph, and its motto became the buzzword of the economic crisis, and the favorite rhyme of the intelligentsia and the mentally confused alike: "Russkoye bednoye." Thirty-six artists displayed 120 works, made of materials like garbage, old metal and scrap. After the opening exhibition in Perm, the works were shown in St. Petersburg and Moscow and will soon be on display in Milan and New York.

The second exhibition, which is currently underway, is no less thrilling to the senses. A shiny, futuristic Robocop is standing outside, next to sandstone sculptures. Inside the museum is an exhibit of photographs of naked people. A basketball basket is attached to the forehead of a huge portrait of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In front of the portrait are balls and the instruction to throw them. Some of the works on display in the high-ceilinged rooms with a view of the river seem abundantly eccentric, while others are trying too hard to be original. But none of it is boring.

Perm residents, who have been visiting their new museum in large numbers, apparently agree. Locals and the few tourists long viewed the riverfront promenade, with its rotting docks, as a dangerous no-go area used by gangs as a hideout. But now, as a desirable side effect of the city's cultural revitalization, a peaceful urban scene has taken shape around the museum. Street vendors sell kebabs to retirees, while a DJ attracts young people.

Perhaps the city's traditions explain why so many people here welcome all types of art with so little prejudice. Even under Ivan the Terrible, art blossomed in Perm. In the mid-16th century, the czar gave free rein in Siberia to the Stroganov family, legendary for its patronage of the arts. And even though some things were buried in the communist era, the ballet in Perm shone during World War II, when the Kirov ensemble was evacuated to Perm from Leningrad, boosting the reputation of the local Tchaikovsky Theater, which is still standing today.

According to the will of the city fathers, the avant-garde and the classical go hand in hand here. The opera is producing both "Swan Lake" and a musical version of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's famous gulag work, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." In the rebuilt cathedral, old masters are hanging on the walls and the roof trusses are decorated with a collection of carved saints. Perm has even more nostalgia to offer: Near the restored Dr. Zhivago house, which is believed to have served as a model for Nobel Literature Laureate Boris Pasternak, stands Russia's first statue of the long ostracized writer.

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