It is rather difficult to wrap one’s mind around the idea that one of the world’s most impressive art collections is in a desert in Uzbekistan. Since yesterday’s film screening of “The Desert of Forbidden Art” at the Museum of Modern Art, this is what I have been attempting to do.
Igor Vitalievich Savitsky, a Russian artist, went to Karakalpakstan in 1950 as the artist in the Khorezm Archeological and Ethnographic Expedition. He stayed after the dig and began collecting art and cultural objects from the local people. Shortly thereafter he began collecting works of the Russian avant garde, which the Soviet authorities were then banishing and destroying, and bringing them back to Karakalpakstan. Today, the Savitsky collection remains in the Karakalpak Museum.
The surprising collection was, perhaps, first brought to the attention of the New York art world in 1998 by Stephen Kinzer’s article in the Sunday New York Times. There had been an exhibition of a few hundred pieces in a medieval convent in Caen, France. Kinzer says in the documentary that he expected a few New Yorkers choked on their English muffins a little when they saw the piece.
Although the collection no longer faces the threat of destruction from the Soviets, it is now faces a much bigger threat – nature. The Soviets accidentally drained the local water body, the Aral sea, and now the region faces severe extremes of hot and cold. It is difficult for the works to survive in such conditions. And like every other museum, maintaining adequate funds is also a problem. However, even though the majority of works can’t even be displayed, the director of the museum wouldn’t dream of selling a single piece. Her commitment to keeping items in the collection is interesting in light of the deaccessioning debates in New York.
Do the museum owners have a duty, legal or moral, to use best efforts to share this collection with the public, both national and international? Would such a duty be fulfilled by selling the works to museums with more visitors, by moving the collection to a more accessible location, or by improving the conditions of the museum? The filmmakers expressed the hope that the documentary would bring further attention to the collection and its needs.