Society 16:07 25/03/2019 World

Eurasianet: Armenia's new leadership embraces landmark exhibit in New York, underplaying role played by its political enemies

Eurasianet independent news organization has reflected on the landmark exhibit showcasing centuries of Armenian art, “Armenia!” opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in September.

The author of the article, Grigor Atanesian, says Armenia’s new government "has embraced the New York show while underplaying the role played by its political enemies."

“The show has been almost uniformly praised. But behind the scenes, its origins have stoked evident embarrassment. Pashinyan’s government is distancing itself from the man who set it in motion: Vigen Sargsyan, a long-time high-ranking member of the former government,” the article reads.

In an interview with Eurasianet, Sargsyan said that he pitched the idea of the show during a September 2015 presidential visit to New York, when he was chief of staff to then-president Serzh Sargsyan.

Still in New York, Sargsyan shared his idea with Aso Tavitian, an Armenian-American tech entrepreneur and large donor to cultural and art institutions including the Met and New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Tavitian made some calls and a meeting was scheduled for 7 the next morning with officials from the Met including Helen Evans, a curator specializing in Armenian art. Eventually the Met agreed to work on an exhibition.

When the exhibit eventually opened months after the “Velvet Revolution” in Yerevan, the new authorities embraced it, the article says, adding a few days before the opening, then-minister of culture Lilit Makunts was asked at a press conference whether a figure from the old regime was indeed behind the show, she said she didn’t know all the details about whose initiative it had been.

And when Pashinyan visited the exhibition shortly after its opening, he thanked a long list of those who helped make the show a reality: the curator, museum officials, donors, and Armenian church officials. Sargsyan again went unmentioned, the author says.

“The fact that this exhibition took place makes me the happiest man,” Sargsyan told Eurasianet.

“Armenia!”, which closed in January, showcased a wide range of Armenian medieval art and liturgical objects, from khachkar tombstones to manuscripts and jewelry from around the region. It even included The Holy Lance of Geghard, the spear believed to be used by a Roman soldier during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and subsequently held at the monastery by that name in Armenia.

The exhibit enjoyed good press, with The New York Times calling it a “great show,” and similarly glowing reviews in the New York Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

But the exhibition inevitably left some Armenians dissatisfied, Atanesian says. In particular, Claude Mutafian, a prominent French-Armenian historian, penned a review calling the show “a complete failure, unworthy of an institution as famous as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Mutafian presented a long list of what he saw as the exhibit’s shortcomings, including its failure to address head-on the destruction of some of Armenia’s cultural patrimony by Turkey and Azerbaijan. Most importantly, Mutafian claimed, was that the show ignored Armenia’s pre-Christian past and thus framed Armenia as inseparable from Christianity. “It would have been fair to call the exhibition ‘Christian Armenia!’ and briefly explain with an introductory panel that Armenia did exist long before, and that Christianization opened a new artistic era,” Mutafian wrote.

In a post on Twitter, Grigor Atanesian, a freelance journalist covering Armenia, said the story of the Armenian PM opened the exhibit “gives a good insight into his team’s PR strategy: take credit for everything positive, blame predecessors for all the difficulties.” 

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