On January 25, the exhibition Vkhumetas: Laboratory of the Avant-Garde, 1920–1930 was slated to open at Cooper Union’s Houghton Gallery. However, following the official announcement of the exhibition’s debut a week prior, University Dean Hayley Eber issued a notice of postponement on opening day, citing the current context of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The show’s halting has prompted concerns and backlash regarding the status of academic freedom at the university.
An open letter signed by over 500 artists and scholars calling for Cooper Union to set an established opening date for the exhibition has been circulating since January 30.
“We stand in full solidarity with the people of Ukraine and all those who oppose Russia’s unjustified and brutal invasion,” reads the letter, signed by scholars including Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois. “To conflate the work of an architectural school based in Moscow a century ago (and shut down after just one decade in a wave of cultural and political suppression) with the actions of the Russian regime today, however, represents both a profound misunderstanding of the history of Vkhutemas and a troubling instance of censorship and historical erasure.”
Curated by Cooper Union Adjunct Assistant Professor Anna (Anya) Bokov and Steven Hillyer, the director of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive, the month-long exhibition would have been comprised of research and architectural studio work from former and current Cooper Union students examining the Vkhutemas School in Soviet Russia. An acronym for the Anglicized transliteration of Vysshiye Khudozhestvenno-Tekhnicheskiye Masterskiye, or the “Higher Art and Technical Studios,” Vkhutemas was a multinational school that operated in Russia between 1920 through 1930 until it was quashed under Stalin’s government, which ushered in the era of mass industrialization. Despite the differences between the two, Vhkutemas has been referred to as the “Soviet Bauhaus” for the movements’ shared components of a modernist art and design curriculum rooted in entwining craftwork with technological advancements.
The Cooper Union announced the exhibition’s opening on Tuesday, January 17 and shared it on the official university Facebook page the following day. Multiple Facebook users commented and shared negative reactions, calling the exhibition “inappropriate” and “disrespectful,” citing the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as the institution’s location in the heart of New York City’s Ukrainian Village.
The scholars’ missive expresses concerns over the institution’s last-minute decision not to open the show, alleging that it was “in part fueled by an intellectually questionable article” published online last week. On January 21, the architecture-focused online publication Archinect ran an op-ed addressing the impending exhibition by Peder Anker, a professor of History of Sciences at New York University, in which he invokes many of the talking points brought up by the Facebook commenters and calls for the exhibition to be terminated completely. “The exhibition and the courses in Soviet architecture at The Cooper Union are an exercise in non-coercive ‘soft power’ to make Russian legacies, and thus policies, more appealing to the architectural community and New Yorkers,” Anker wrote. “Even though the scholarly work behind the exhibit is solid, it serves in the current cultural politics as Russian propaganda.”
In the initial version of the text, Anker also made comments implying that Anna Bokov had connections to Vladimir Putin, which Archinect later removed along with an editor’s note citing Bokov’s characterization of the claims as “false and defamatory.” (Archinect’s editors also stated they were not aware that “the author knows the curator personally, which could have led to intentional or unintentional bias.”)
Anker also called for the suspension of Cooper Union courses about Soviet architecture. In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Anker opined that “curriculums are not politically neutral, and they should not be.”
“Generally, I believe curriculums should reflect a school’s values, aspirations, and community,” Anker said. “Cooper Union is no exception.”
In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, the School of Architecture’s Acting Dean Hayley Eber acknowledged that the op-ed “spread misunderstanding” but added that “the decision to provisionally postpone the exhibition was not made because of one person’s opinion and was not made lightly.”
“We felt it was critical to have time and space to consider a way forward that both respects the study of this important period of architecture and is mindful of the environment in which the work is presented,” Eber said. “To that end and as a priority, Cooper Union leadership is continuing to have instructive discussions with our students and faculty, as well as with members of Cooper’s Ukrainian community throughout the coming weeks. Plans for the project will be announced once these perspectives are thoughtfully considered.”
Signatories of the recent open letter call upon Cooper Union to immediately reflect on the decision and open up a platform of discussion to include participating students, experts and scholars, and the community as a whole in the decision-making process regarding the exhibition moving forward.