YEREVAN, Armenia – Every weekend at the Vernissage Market here, locals and tourists survey
handsomely woven Persian rugs, vintage Soviet military medals, samovars, chess sets and
intricately carved jewelry boxes. It’s like a step back in time to a Silk Road bazaar.
In contrast, just across the street sits a staid and humble building, designed as an auditorium
when the Cold War was drawing to a close and then, for a time afterward, left vacant. In front,
appropriately, is YervandKochar’s towering 1959 sculpture “Melancholy,” seemingly serving as
a testament to the political and economic crises that have convulsed Armenia since the collapse
of Communism in the region nearly a quarter century ago.
The statue, however, also gestures promisingly to the building itself, which since 1995 has
housed the NorarPordzarakanArvestiKentovon, or Armenian Center for Contemporary
Experimental Art. Founded by Armenian emigres to the United States and hailed by many as
the epicenter of Armenia’s culture revolution and renaissance, it hosts exhibits by young, avantgarde
artists and offers concerts and performances in its large auditorium.
Among other endeavors, artists at the center initiated and organized Armenia’s participation at
the Venice Biennale in 1995, and continued to do so for eight [times, 16] years. And the center’s
founders are set to introduce an independent study program for graduates in the arts and
architecture, modeled on a similar one at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
“It used to be that many of our young artists would exhibit their work in underground galleries,”
said SevadaPetrossian, the center’s coordinator of architectural events. “We like to think of the
center as a mainstream place for alternative art.”
For a city of roughly one million, Yerevan’s artistic standing and cachet have been notable in the
past century. In 1972, the Soviet Union established its first Museum of Modern Art here. The
city’s National Art Gallery showcases the third-largest collection of European masters in the
former Soviet Union, including works by Rodin, Rubens and Tintoretto. And Yerevan itself
exudes a distinct bygone elegance, with its softly hued 19th-century tuff stone edifices that line
its leafy boulevards.
Aside from the center and its focus on experimental art, there is also the Cafesjian Center for
the Arts. Opened in November 2009, it holds an extensive collection of contemporary and glass
art, as well as works by Marc Chagall and John Altoon, who was of Armenian descent.
And yet, despite Yerevan’s artistic, when Edward Balassanian and his wife, Sonia, set out to
establish the contemporary and experimental art center, they expected – and encountered –
“While we believe in academic education, we also promote breaking away from it once study is
completed,” Mr. Balassanian said. “Those within certain art circles, namely some artists
schooled during the Soviet era and most of the members of the Painters Union of Armenia, still
either don’t understand the center’s motives and/or vocally reject its projects.”
The Balassanians are part of Armenia’s global diaspora of eight million. They were both born
and raised in Iran, fleeing the country in 1979 after the Islamic revolution and eventually settling
in New York.
But when Armenia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Mr. Balassanian,
an architect and urban planner, and MrsBalassanian, a painter and poet who has exhibited at
major venues in the United States and Europe, including The Project Room of the Museum of
Modern Art in New York, were eager to return.
After the Islamic revolution, Mrs. Balassanian began concentrating her art on cultural, political
and social suppression, and she felt a natural calling toward Armenia. In 1992, she organized
her first contemporary art exhibit in Yerevan, including her work and that of eight other artists,
culminating in the center’s official opening in 1994. She and her husband gradually introduced
video and multimedia art to the Armenian art scene, as well as photography as its own art
Not everyone in Yerevan has been receptive. Among those is Anatoly Avetyan, who began his
artistic career in the 1970s and has gone on to command strong sales of his art, which includes
metal works, paintings and sculptures now owned by current and past presidents of Russia,
Finland and Germany, not to mention George W. Bush.
“Much of the best generation of artists has already passed away,” he said. Rather than reinvent
the wheel, he said, he and his contemporaries are pushing for a larger building to house the
works now at Yerevan’s Museum of Modern Art.
In response, Mr. Balassanian says the establishment of the Museum of Modern Art in 1972 was
indeed “a daring act,” and he draws a parallel between it and the center he co-founded.
“It was an expression of resilience and audacity under politically repressive conditions,” he said,
noting that his center had “institutionalized the concept and role of the curator as a distinct
profession, something that didn’t exist previously in Armenia, as such tasks had been performed
by government-appointed managers.”
With poverty, corruption and a weak democracy continuing to bedevil Armenia, the center’s
artists say they seek to tether their work to social and political issues alongside questions of
national identity and culture. The center organized an exhibition in 2007 called “Yerevan Crisis,”
for example, which focused on social problems resulting from rapid growth, a spontaneous
boom in high-rise construction and escalating property prices.
This issue was also at play in 1997, when GagikGhazareh, a film student at the time, was hardpressed
to find a place to screen his work. Despite Yerevan’s growth, there is only one
operating cinema in the city, and he did not feel it fit his alternative genre, he said. A friend
suggested contacting the center, which offered him a screening room.
“One year later, I was invited by the center to chair their cinema department,” said Mr.
Ghazareh, who joined in 1999, later becoming the center’s artistic director and has since gone
on to develop annual festivals in Yerevan for film and theater.
VahramAkimian, another young filmmaker who joined the center’s staff in 2005, is now the
program director for the “One Shot” International Short Film Festival, which has partners in Italy,
the Netherlands, Russia and Slovakia, among other countries. He was also the center’s
associate curator of the Armenian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009. Today, he is the
center’s director of video, cinema and theater.
“Our government speaks of a ‘national culture’ or ‘national art,” said Mr. Akimian one afternoon
at the center as he looked across the street at the bustling Vernissage Market. “But there’s still
no agreement today on what that is.”