Nick Hoffman,

Nick Hoffman,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 3 1998 3:30 AM

Nick Hoffman,

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     10:30 a.m. The crack of dawn at the Hermitage. On my first day here I turned up all eager at 8:30 only to wait for two hours for someone to come and unlock the door to the administrative offices. I get ejected from my office between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., though the pleading looks usually begin earlier. I tend to do a lot of work at home before and after "work." 11 a.m. I try to focus on my two main tasks--planning for the new wing and creating a master, prioritized list of projects that need funding (these range from $150 million for the new wing to $1,000 to put glare-resistant glass over one painting). I am usually inundated with all sorts of minor tasks involving international contacts, exhibitions, and fund raising. I was sternly warned about this when I arrived--it's because I nevertheless put my phone number and e-mail address on my card. I am mildly oppressed by the problem of finding a place to "park" a large U.S. donation, as it seems unwise to hand it over to a Russian bank for safekeeping. Olga Nikolayevna, the Hermitage's "head of household," a battle-ax who keeps everyone in line and all the buildings tidy, tells me to "buck up" as she bulldozes by. A friend was crying one day because she had ruined a press conference, and Nikolayevna put her arm around her and told her, "One does not cry in the Hermitage." I like her, because she seems to accept my alien presence near the director without a second thought. Most of the staff appeared quite confused for a few months at a foreigner working for the Hermitage. 11:30 a.m. A few of us meet to go over our advisory board's advice on the new wing. The economic crisis has ironically given us time to think about the curatorial program for the building in greater depth. Because the Hermitage prides itself on preserving the collections exactly as they were, and because museums are extremely conservative institutions, this has been very difficult politically. But the advisory board has helped us focus on the great things we can do artistically.    Dr. Mikhail Piotrovski is a sort of moral compass in matters of exhibitions and amid all this economic planning. He rarely stresses the shorthand of revenue generated, visitors served, audience broadened--instead zeroing in every time on why an exhibition or a new gallery is intellectually, educationally, artistically demanding. Our exhibition schedule follows a "Diamonds and Philosophy" principle: Give the audience something to bring them in ("Nicholas & Alexandra" has jewels, " Schliemann. St.-Petersburg. Troy" has trophy art, " Paul Cézanne and the Russian Avant-Garde" has, well, Cézanne), then hit them with something intellectually challenging and unexpected. He is both a safe pair of hands (his father was director for 26 years) and also a modernizer (fluent in eight languages, responsible for massive change to meet the post-Soviet era). Some things don't change: The most popular exhibit for Russian schoolchildren is the tattooed mummy skin. 12:30 p.m. I wait in vain with my colleague Vadim for someone from a large Moscow bank to show up. The bank was one of the first corporate sponsors of anything in Russia; its head, one of Russia's seven "oligarchs," has been very supportive of the museum despite the bewilderment of his employees. We find out that the banker never left Moscow because of the crisis. It was more surprising that he had agreed to come in the first place. Vadim, a "scholar-archaeologist-writer-historian" by his card, and one of the museum's great dilettantes, goes back to writing his dissertation. 8 p.m. I venture into the metro (alas, not as fantastic architecturally as Moscow's) to go to dinner at a friend's house. This means at least six hours of toasting, feasting, and cramming 20 people into a two room flat. In this case, toasts lead downhill into charades, a game for which I am ill-equipped in Russian. Luckily I know that most Russians' knowledge of Charles Dickens and Truman Capote is superb, and I survive.

Nick Hoffman is assistant to the director for economic affairs at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.