From Russia with Art

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at080819b.jpgBy the rules that applied to everyone who grew up in the Russia of yesteryear, I was destined to live and die in the same city, the same apartment, holding the same job all my life. But in my lucky case, the city happened to be beautiful St. Petersburg -– then called Leningrad -– and the job I had was in a very special place: the Hermitage, the famous museum founded in the 18th century by Catherine the Great. After studying Greek and Roman history at Leningrad University, I joined the education department at the Hermitage and stayed there for eight years. Working at this former imperial museum was a privilege; no college course could equal the opportunity to be immersed, on a daily basis, in one of the greatest art collections in the world.

at080819a.jpg In the mid 70's, under American pressure, the Soviet government was forced to allow Russian Jews to emigrate. So on April 26, 1978, my family –- parents, sister and myself, along with our little dog and a library of two thousand books –- arrived in L.A. I wish I knew the magic ingredients of the chemistry I had from day one with the City of Angels. Everything was new, everything looked different, and absolutely nothing, thank God, triggered nostalgia for what I had left behind. The first order of the day was to learn to drive; I still remember the feel of my first car -– a big, long, shiny brown Buick Electra 225 -– talk about sexy.

at080819c.jpg My first years in America were defined by good luck and many instances of the kindness of strangers. Teaching a class on Russian culture at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena provided me with an introduction to the Los Angeles art scene. At one gallery opening, I was introduced to Ruth Seymour a meeting that turned out to be one of those 'defining moments.' She said, "I am interviewing some Russian expatriates about the state of the arts in the Soviet Union; you should join us." A week later, I was sitting in front of a microphone at KCRW, being interviewed by Ruth. That's how we began a conversation that, thirty years later, we're still in the middle of. We started going to galleries and museums, and she would say, "You have such wonderful stories, you have to tell them on the radio." "No way!" I protested. "My English is so bad I would make a fool of myself in front of the whole city." But Ruth doesn't take 'no' for an answer.

at080819d.jpg And that's how Art Talk came to be. Beginning these weekly broadcasts was the most tortuous thing I have ever done: speaking in a foreign language of which I didn't have full command -– think of a ballet dancer trying to dance with heavy boots on. I screwed up one take after another. Finally, my producer, Sarah Spitz, looked at me with a mixture of sympathy and pity, and said, "It might be a good idea if you write out what you want to say. You see, Edward, even people who do speak English read from a prepared text." Years later, my friends at KCRW told me that in the early days of Art Talk, listeners would call, saying, "This new guy, we like his accent, but for heaven sakes, what language does he speak?" If I had known about these calls, I probably would have quit right then.

at080819e.jpgThese days, it's definitely easier to deliver my weekly 'art sermon,' but it's still not easy and probably never will be. I believe it was Laurie Anderson, the great performance artist, who famously said, "Talking about art is like dancing about architecture." Yes, it's illogical –- almost impossible -– but still, that's what I've been attempting to do all these years, hoping to persuade my audience that art can be, and should be, an essential part of our lives.

Banner: Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia