The Institute of Modern Russian Culture (IMRC), affiliated with the University of Southern California (USC), is located in the historic Shrine Building by the main USC campus in downtown Los Angeles. Incorporated in 1979, the IMRC functions as a private, non-profit organization and is one of several independent research units affiliated with, and operating within, the administrative confines of USC.
To see the Institute's chronology, click here.
The full biography of the IMRC has yet to be written, but suffice it to say that its genesis was casual, modest, and bizarre. The story takes us back to Austin, Texas, in the late 1970s, when a group of enthusiasts -- John E. Bowlt (then a professor at the University of Texas), the poet Konstantin Kuzminsky (then living in Austin), the architect Emma Podberezkina (also living in Austin), and the literary historian Ilya Levin (then a graduate student at the University of Texas), united by their common interest in Russian culture, decided to join forces and establish a center for the study of Russian literature and art. They discussed the functions and goals of this center in the most unlikely places – as they walked their dogs, as they shot their guns in homemade firing ranges, as they cooked their bar-b-ques, and as they bathed in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. To them, the free spirit of Texas seemed to be the antidote to the regimented society of Soviet Russia and the natural place to develop a forum for the untrammeled study of Russian culture. Local well-wishers were many in those pioneering years, but particular mention should be made of Milka Bliznakov, Charlotte Douglas, Sidney Monas, Wendy Salmond, and Dina and Yasha Vinkovetsky. Enthusiasts from far and near were quick to lend their moral support, including Sarah Burke, William Brumfield, Ella and Jack Freidus, Gerald Janecek, Marie Lampard, Edward Kasinec, Nikita and Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky, Nicoletta Misler, and Bernice Rosenthal.
Founding such a center as a non-profit organization in 1979 was a simple, cheap, and painless procedure, but its initial activities were driven by dreams rather than by material reality. For example, the legal title of the IMRC, The Institute of Modern Russian Culture at Blue Lagoon, was inspired by the wish to solicit handsome fiscal donations, to acquire land on the banks of Lake Travis, near Austin, and to build a scintillating structure of concrete and glass. That vision did not come to pass, the image of unending largesse gave way to a standard membership program, and the fabulous palazzo became a modest suite in the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, but the name stayed and the basic idea of the IMRC – to collect and promote the accomplishments of Russian culture, especially the visual arts of the early 20th century -- has remained the common ideological denominator. That mission continues to guide the policy, direction, and achievement of the IMRC.
It is important to remember that Russia (and America) in 1979 was very different from the Russia of today. Kuzminsky and Levin had been forced to leave their native country because of non-conformist behavior, the Soviet Union and the USA were engaged in the Cold War, and there were still two Russian cultures – one inside the USSR and the other within the Western diaspora. From the very beginning, a primary intention of the IMRC was to pay homage to the other Russia by acquiring materials which treated of the two main waves of emigration, the dissident movements and those intellectual subjects which, still in the 1970s, were considered to be irrelevant, if not pernicious, to the social and political structure of the USSR -- whether the abstract painting of Kazimir Malevich or the poetical clamour of Aleksei Kruchenykh. At that time, the art and dance of the Silver Age – Russia’s cultural renaissance of the early 20th century, for example -- were still vastly underrated in the Soviet Union, which is one reason why the IMRC focused, and continues to focus, on these particular strata. During the 1980s the IMRC did much to acquaint the American public with this unfamiliar legacy by co-organizing art exhibitions (such as Ilia Chashnik, 1981), conferences (such as “Pavel Filonov” at the Solomon R. Guggeheum Museum, New York, 1983), and publications (such as Kuzminsky’s Blue Lagoon Anthology of Modern Russian Poetry, 1983). Needless to say, the Soviet opinion of the IMRC was highly ambivalent, the general assumption being that it was a vast organization, financed and controlled by the CIA, so, inevitably, members of the Soviet establishment who happened to visit the IMRC in the early 1980s were puzzled and surprised by the innocence and spontaneity of the modest operation.
When John E. Bowlt relocated to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in 1988, the IMRC came with him. In any case, by then the Texas connection had weakened inasmuch as Kuzminsky and Podberezkina had moved to New York and Ilya Levin had joined the US State Department. Still, a native Texan, Mark Konecny, now became Associate Director, the Section Heads remained the same, and the IMRC continued – and continues - to be engaged in international activities, from the conference on “The Russian Avant-Garde” at USC in 1990 to the Palaia Dance Project in Italy in 2003, from the exhibition “Theater of Reason/Theater of Desire: the Art of Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst” to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation in Lugano in 1998 to the “Shadow of Stalin” music festival and conference for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2007. The Library now totals over ten thousand imprints and continues to grow apace, the Archive contains unique materials such as a diary by Alexandre Benois, Nikolai Evreinov’s treatise on theater, and Nikita Baliev’s repertoire book, and current activities include the publication of an annual scholarly journal – Experiment – which offers essays on diverse aspects of Russian art, literature, and the performing arts. Even if the IMRC does not occupy a futuristic mansion on the shores of an iridescent lake, it does take pride in its handsome premises on the campus of the University of Southern California in the historic Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, not too far from the shining Pacific Ocean.
The IMRC is a research facility devoted to the history and evaluation of the arts and letters of Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russia, manifesting a particular interest in the visual culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These subjects are the focus of the IMRC newsletter, published twice a year, and of its annual journal Experiment (1990 onwards). IMRC membership entitles automatic subscription to the newsletter and discounted acquisition of Experiment.
As a center of higher learning, the IMRC offers its services to scholars interested in the history of the Russian visual, literary, and performing arts as well as of material and political culture. The IMRC, therefore, is used primarily by USC undergraduate and graduate students, working closely with the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and it enjoys a long track record of involvement in student projects, specialist seminars, and lecture programs. However, as a repository of artifacts and documents, the IMRC also collaborates with museums, galleries, publishing-houses, libraries, and private collectors worldwide, contributing, for example, to international art exhibitions (e.g. “Vanguardias Rusas” at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, in 2006), conferences such as “Il collezionismo in Russia” at the Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici, Naples, Italy, in 2007, and other cultural projects such as the graduate seminar and exhibition "Myriad Thoughts, Myriad Desires: Luidmila Ivanova. An Artist in Soviet Russia” at the Fisher Gallery, USC, in 1999). These events often involve other cultural organizations both on campus such as the Stalin conference “Beauty and the Beast” in 2006 and “A Chant of Universal Flowering: The Art of Pavel Filonov” at the Getty Research Institute, in 2005.
The IMRC maintains a close collegial relationship with scholars and institutions worldwide, especially in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Omsk and, within the framework of professional exchanges, travelling exhibitions and academic symposia, collaborates regularly with the State Tretiakov Gallery and the State Institute of Art History in Moscow and the State Russian Museum and the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. Representatives from these and other institutions visit the IMRC and researchers from USC visit Russia under the auspices of the USC-Russia Exchange sponsored by the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation.
Among the principal assets of the IMRC are the Library (the major part of which is on extended loan from a private collector) and the Archive of manuscripts, photographs and material objects. Other highlights include a collection of sound recordings (78 rpm and long playing records, tapes and cassettes) of music and voices also on extended loan from a private collection, amplified by a recent private donation of rare operatic recordings, and a collection of vintage propaganda photographs donated to the IMRC by the Los Angeles Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR in 1990. Within these larger entities, there are several, special, focused collections, for example, the large corpus of satirical journals from 1905-07 (one of the most extensive in the USA), the Ferris Collection of Soviet Culture (donated by Jeri Ferris in 2007, the collection of books, journals, newspapers, and photographs relating to Boris Pasternak (donated by Aviva Ladyzhensky in 2008), the collection of programs, menus, visiting cards, and other ephemera documenting the history of the St. Petersburg Stray Dog cabaret, a substantial collection of photographs, manifestoes, and memorabilia documenting the history of Leningrad non-conformist art, and the evolving collection of texts, photographs, catalogs, and books documenting the life and work of Moscow artists Francisco Infante and Nonna Goriunova.
Since its establishment at the University of Texas at Austin in 1979, the IMRC has been directed by John E. Bowlt (professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at USC). Associate Director, Mark Konecny, holds particular responsibility for the library and archive. The International Advisory Board, consisting of distinguished scholars, represents various disciplines, artistic, archival, literary, theatrical and philosophical.
To see images of the IMRC, click here.