From Russia (& Belarus) with Love

02In the spring of 1991 George Ciscle, the founder and then director/curator of The Contemporary (known then as The Museum for Contemporary Arts), organized a landmark exhibition in Baltimore entitled Photo Manifesto: Contemporary Photography in the USSR (May 19–June 21, 1991). The exhibition included 240 recent photographs by more than 45 artists in the Soviet Union. Ciscle selected these works from a larger group of photographs assembled in New York by Joseph Walker, Christopher Ursitti, and Paul McGinnis, three independent curators and gallerists who were committed to Soviet-American cultural exchange. Walker, Ursitti, and McGinnis jointly edited and wrote for a book that accompanied the exhibition, arguably the most important of a group of publications on contemporary Soviet photography that were published around this time.

The exhibition was installed in Mount Vernon, in the former Greyhound service garage at Park Avenue and Centre Street (now part of the Maryland Historical Society). Ciscle thought its emptied-out interior evoked the alternative spaces in the Soviet Union where these photographers had shown their work. To quote from the special events card that accompanied the invitation to the opening:

Before Perestroika, “unofficial” art was denied access to public viewing. In the more tolerant climate of the Gorbachev era, “unofficial” art that has surfaced is exhibited in “raw” spaces—frequently disused warehouses and industrial sites. The former Baltimore Greyhound Service Terminal, provides an appropriate parallel to these spaces.

Indeed, traces of the 1941 building’s former use were present in the form of old signage and fixtures as well as the worn parking lines on the floor and the dented metal bumper guards on the walls.

Organized according to geographical region, the photographs in the exhibition were installed on temporary aluminum walls designed by architect Steve Ziger and illuminated by natural light coming in through the skylights. Because the staff of The Contemporary then, as now, was relatively small, Ciscle relied on a large corps of volunteers to serve as visitor services and security staff. While working on the exhibition, Ciscle learned that Baltimore had one of largest Russian immigrant communities in the United States; label texts and tours were thus given not only in English but in Russian as well. There was also a small library featuring books on the Soviet Union.

Photo Manifesto: Contemporary Photography from the USSR was mounted only in Baltimore, though initially it was intended to travel throughout the United States. Less than six months after the show closed, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.

One of the visitors to Photo Manifesto was Brenda Edelson, the BMA’s Director of Programming from 1973 to 1985 and currently one of the Museum’s National Trustees. Edelson recognized affinities between the works in the exhibition and the European modernist photographs that she and her late husband Robert Edelson had collected. The Edelsons subsequently began to acquire late 20th-century photographs from Russia and other former Soviet republics.

In 2012, Brenda Edelson gave 47 of these photographs to the BMA. Ranging in date from 1959 to 2000 and encompassing the work of 14 photographers from Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine, this significant gift complements the Museum’s collection of photographs—now numbering more than 4,000—by strengthening its contemporary material and widening its global reach. Twenty of these photographs were recently included in the exhibition New Arrivals: Late 20th-Century Photographs from Russia & Belarus in the On Paper Gallery in the Contemporary Wing (September 20, 2015–March 20, 2016). Through research we have determined that at least one of these photographs, Igor Savchenko’s toned gelatin silver print 11.89-6 from the series Alphabet of Gestures, was shown in Photo Manifesto. Given the importance of this exhibition, mounted in the historical watershed year of 1991, it could not be more appropriate that the photographs Edelson has collected have found a home in Baltimore.

My greatest thanks to George Ciscle for speaking with me about the exhibition as well as providing archival material (including photographs and a copy of Edward Gunt’s article “Parking the Art in a Garage,” published in the The Baltimore Sun on June 9, 1991).

Installation shots and documentation courtesy of The Contemporary, Baltimore.

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