Update on Vkhutemas Exhibition
Dear Cooper Union,
Twelve days ago, we made the decision to provisionally postpone a School of Architecture exhibition scheduled to open later that day. Many have asked why we postponed it, why the postponement came so close to the opening, and what would happen next. It was a difficult decision to make, but one that was critical and that I stand by. I am grateful for the work that has been done since then with colleagues, including the exhibition’s co-curators, to formulate a path forward that considers a full range of perspectives.
The exhibition, co-curated by Anna Bokov and Steven Hillyer and titled Vkhutemas: Laboratory of the Avant-Garde, 1920-1930, was developed to explore the work and pedagogical approaches of an interdisciplinary design school that existed in the Soviet Union over 100 years ago, committed to democratizing design education. The school was shut down after ten years by Joseph Stalin, effectively erasing its contributions to the field. The exhibition features student work, created during courses taught at Cooper beginning in 2019, that reconstructs and analyzes design objects, architectural projects, instruments, and artwork originally made at Vkhutemas.
Upon our announcement of the exhibition in early January, The Cooper Union received questions and concerns both privately and publicly. Some in our beloved neighboring Ukrainian community expressed anger over the timing; the exhibition was perceived as a celebration of Russian contributions to architecture at a time when Russia is destroying architecture across Ukraine and killing the families of our neighbors. Others viewed the exhibition as contributing to an idealization of Russia and its contributions to art, architecture, and culture more broadly at the very moment Russia is obliterating Ukrainian art, architecture, and other manifestations of Ukrainian culture. These concerns increased, and the confusion and upset that occurred in advance of the public opening made it clear that we needed more time to assess, listen, and learn before moving forward.
Many criticized this postponement and conflated it with “censorship” or “historical erasure,” while others applauded the pause as an important step in understanding the sociopolitical dynamics at play. Our view was that moving forward with the exhibition as planned at that time, without consideration of the nuanced history, diverse perspectives, and increasingly sensitized environment through which the work would be considered, would have done a disservice to all involved. Anything less would, in my view, have been an abdication of our mission, our commitment to robust discourse, and our responsibility to the neighborhood we call home.
Acting Dean Eber, Exhibitions Committee Chair Tochilovsky, and I have spent the past two weeks in a series of meetings to better understand the diverse range of views and to help us consider our path forward. We had productive and informative meetings with the co-curators of the exhibition, the School of Architecture Faculty, students whose work is in the exhibition and members of the School of Architecture Student Council, Ukrainian faculty and staff at Cooper Union, as well as other experts and peers in the field.
Together with the exhibition’s co-curators, we have decided to open the exhibition this spring along with additional contextualizing frameworks and expanded public programming; we are sharing these details with the public today. These changes, informed by our conversations over the past week, will offer an opportunity to reflect on and situate the work within the important sociopolitical landscape in which Vkhutemas operated a century ago and the relationship it has to our present context.
I hope you will join me in learning about this multi-dimensional set of issues—the importance of uncovering a history lost to political suppression, committing to an honest and complete exploration of that history, and understanding how the once-lost history of an institution could be instrumentalized for political gain today. We will be hosting a series of sessions with Cooper Union students prior to the exhibition’s opening to unpack the history and connections to present day and will hold a public roundtable to discuss and debate these issues. This is an important moment for The Cooper Union to live up to our commitments to provide forums for courageous public discourse that foster a just and thriving world and to serve as a center of learning and civic discourse in addressing the critical challenges and opportunities of our time.
This month, we recognize with deep pain the one-year anniversary of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Our hearts remain with our Ukrainian colleagues, students, and neighbors, as we stand in solidarity with Ukrainians around the world in calling for an immediate end to the horror of Russia’s ruthless and unprovoked war against Ukraine.
With hope and in solidarity,