NUKUS, Uzbekistan: More than 50 years after its founding, the Nukus Museum of Art in Uzbekistan’s remote Karakalpakstan region still startles and charms visitors in the spirit of its eccentric late founder.
But having survived Soviet censorship and predatory foreign art dealers in the 1990s, some fear the world’s second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art, faces a fresh threat.
The Friends of Nukus Museum, a Dutch-registered charity that has provided thousands of dollars in support to the museum annually since 2001 is expected to disband at the end of this year.
The main reason, its chairman David Pearce told AFP, is an impasse over gifts donated to the museum including books and audio equipment more than three years ago that have disappeared.
“As far as we are concerned they have been confiscated or stolen,” said Pearce, whose charity also serves as an important voice for the museum abroad.
The museum’s new administration refused a request from AFP for an interview about the charity’s claims.
Doubts about the museum’s new leadership have increased concerns for the state-run museum’s remarkable collection.
Its unique trove of Russian avant-garde art from the first half of last century was assembled during the Soviet era at considerable personal risk by the collector Igor Savitsky.
The Savitsky collection captures a flowering movement later crushed by the Bolsheviks.
It may be housed in the remote town of Nukus — population 300,000 — but only the State Russian museum in Saint Petersburg has a larger collection of this kind of art, which was essentially forbidden under communism.
Concern for the collection was first sparked by the sacking in 2015 of the museum’s director, Maranika Babanazarova, who had worked closely with The Friends of Nukus Museum.
Babanazarova was widely regarded as a scrupulous gatekeeper of the approximately 90,000 items at the museum which, as well as the avant-garde works, span Uzbek folk art and millennia-old archaeological artefacts.
The end of her stewardship also severed an important link back to Savitsky, who had begged her to take over his position as director of the museum on his deathbed in 1984.
Today, few museum staff remember the man himself, but there are still some exceptions.
Valentina Sychyova, the museum’s 71-year-old chief curator, first encountered Savitsky roaming the corridors of its original building in 1971.
“He was wearing ripped trousers and a crumpled, clay-specked shirt,” she recalled. “I assumed he was a maintenance worker or a builder.”
Russian-born Sychyova was simply visiting relatives in the then-Soviet republic. But after an enthralling conversation, she ended up working for him, she told AFP.
Savitsky’s collecting habit repeatedly took him to Russia and back.
His efforts would one day see the Nukus museum hailed as a “Louvre of the Steppes” by excited European art critics.
But in an era when state-sponsored socialist realism eclipsed all other forms of art, his was a dangerous undertaking.
Artists featured at the museum include little-known Russian painters such as Lev Galperin. He was among those artists whose work was repressed during the Stalinist terror of the 1930s.
Others, like Ural Tansykbayev, a native of the Karakalpakstan region, became celebrated artists in the socialist realism style. They left their earlier, less propagandistic works to fester in cellars and attics.
Savitsky, usually short of cash, deferred payment to artists and their relatives for many of the works that he rescued. At the turn of the millennium, the museum still owed money for parts of the collection.
Some artists, however, donated their paintings, happy to have found an appreciative audience — and astounded that local authorities in the far-flung region were quietly supporting Savitsky rather than locking him up.
Nukus’ geographical distance from the centers of Soviet power afforded Savitsky and the state-owned museum he founded vital breathing space.
But Pearce and others have wondered aloud whether his legacy would now be better served if at least part of the avant-garde collection was rehoused in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, or even Europe.
Last year the museum whetted art world appetites outside the country when it sent over 200 works as temporary exhibits to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
Nukus is never likely to see more than a trickle of visitors, despite the state investing up to $20 million in a museum expansion completed in 2017.
But ex-director Babanazarova is among those who would find it hard to see the precious works ripped away from the town permanently.
It was Savitsky’s love for this adopted region and efforts to support Karakalpak cultural heritage that persuaded the influential local officials he befriended — including her academic father — to indulge his vision.
During the economic chaos of the 1990s, her team fended off shady Western art dealers who arrived cash-in-hand promising untold riches.
Rapacious Uzbek officials also heaped pressure on the collective, but Savitsky’s disciples refused to sell out his legacy, Babanazarova told AFP.
Choosing a favorite from the collection is hard for her.
“People sometimes ask me, ‘If the museum was burning down and you could only save a painting, which one would that be?’” she said.
“I always tell them I would sooner stand in the halls and burn with them.”