ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — When the British Museum lent one of the sculptures known as the Elgin marbles to the State Hermitage Museum here last year, the move angered Greece, which wants the sculptures back, and set off a spirited debate about restitution. But it was also a diplomatic coup by one man: Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage and a skilled cultural ambassador.
Since Mr. Piotrovsky became director in 1992, after the 26-year directorship of his father, Boris Borisovich Piotrovsky, he has navigated one of the most complex periods in contemporary Russian history: The transition from the Soviet Union to the advent of democracy, the privatization boom of the ’90s, the rise of President Vladimir V. Putin and now the dramatic strain in Russia’s relations with the West after that country’s annexation of Crimea last year.
Visitors to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, viewed the sculpture of the Greek river god Ilissos on Friday.Greek Statue Travels Again, but Not to Greece DEC. 5, 2014
These days, Mr. Piotrovsky, 70, has a dual mandate: Maintaining the Hermitage’s centuries-old ties with the wider world amid the chill, and making the case to the international art world that Russia is still a respectable partner. The loan of the Elgin marbles helped on both counts. He is also hoping to help resolve an impasse that has blocked all museum loans between Russia and the United States since 2011 after a legal dispute over a collection of Jewish books.
A gallery in the State Hermitage Museum with portraits of generals who fought against Napoleon. The empty frames are of those who died before their portraits could be painted. Credit James Hill for The New York Times
The director is not shy about the importance he places on cultural exchange and the talents of museum officials. “We are better economists, we are better diplomats, we are better politicians. We certainly understand better relations between people and religion than politicians do,” Mr. Piotrovsky said in a recent interview in his office, which has soaring ceilings, a view of the Neva River and a portrait of Catherine the Great, who founded the museum in 1764.
“I’m sorry,” he added, “but it’s my arrogant opinion.”
There were some tense moments last summer when the Hermitage hosted Manifesta 10, an international contemporary art biennial. While some Russian Orthodox activists protested what they saw as offensive art, others in the art world — including the renowned St. Petersburg collective Chto Delat (What Is to Be Done?) — pulled out of the show to protest Russian government policies and the fact that some Manifesta labels were rewritten or not translated into Russian to avoid offending conservative values.
The boycott resonated. “For Manifesta, the main problem was not Russian activists, with whom we know how to deal; it was the Western opinion that you can’t bring an exhibition to such a terrible country as Russia,” Mr. Piotrovsky said. His counterargument was, “If you want to hurt the regime, you have to help Manifesta to be there, because it’s freedom of opinion.”
In 2013, Mr. Piotrovsky, who is trained as an expert on the Arab world and Islamic art and archaeology, held fast after Russian Orthodox activists complained to government authorities when the Hermitage exhibited a diorama by Jake and Dinos Chapman, “The End of Fun,” which included a figurine of Ronald McDonald being crucified.
Mr. Piotrovsky made the case to Russian prosecutors that the Hermitage was a place for art. “You can do in the museum what you can’t do in the street,” he said in the interview. He expressed this position before Russia passed a law that criminalized acts offending religious believers, legislation that he disdains. “Now,” he acknowledged, the museum’s right to show such art “would be a little bit difficult to protect.”
Mr. Piotrovsky’s deftness has won him plaudits. “I think most of us regard him as the greatest museum director in the world,” said Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, who is stepping down at the end of the year.
In the past two decades, “None of us in any great museum has had to confront anything like the changes and the transformations that the Hermitage has,” Mr. MacGregor added, referring to the changes in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. “It’s stayed completely true to its traditions of being a great repository of great things, a full part of the international community. One can only guess at how complicated that must have been — administratively, politically, financially.”