By Lyubov Zolotova
Do you wish to explore a new, cutting-edge arts space in Moscow? Head to Metro Avtozavodskaya and walk for about 10 minutes to the ZIL Culture Centre. The Centre stands out from the rest of the Moscow creative clusters. Having emerged back in the early soviet times as a ‘Palace of Culture,’ today it presents a fascinating combination of old and new, public and private. It is a modern space of an impressive scale which today collaborates with an impressive number of local and international partners, offers residence to creative industries and pursues commercial arts projects, as well as provides public services.
The founding: history and soviet heritage
The space has a long history, its founding dating back to 1930s when it was set up as a ‘Palace of Culture’ of the ZIL automobile society (Завод имени А.И. Лихачова) on the grounds of the partly demolished Simonov Monastery. This was the time when networks of the so-called houses and palaces of culture were beginning to spread across the country, helping to shape the new ideals of well-rounded and culturally educated Soviet citizens, but also acting as an important propaganda tool. Some of the largest of these public arts and education facilities were set up as a part of the community infrastructure of large industrial centres and factories. ZIL is a perfect case in point.
The venue itself is a major landmark, a fine example of ‘Soviet constructivism’ designed by the Vesniny brothers, and is a heritage site. The project, completed in 1937, was of ambitious scale: spreading across a territory of 23,000 square meters, it housed several theatre halls, a lecture hall, a movie theatre, two libraries, a spacious pillar hall, numerous studio rooms, a winter garden and even a small observatory set up in a roof dome. For many decades, it served as a community arts and entertainment centre for generations of employees of the ZIL automobile factory and their families, as well as local residents of Avtosavodskaya district. However, it was not really present on the Moscow arts map and remained a fairly closed and low-impact establishment until fairly recently.
2012: redefining identity
Things really began to change when, in consistency with the Moscow Government’s new cultural policy, ZIL Cultural Centre became the city’s flagship project to modernize the off-market ‘houses of culture.’ The Centre changed ownership, now being under the economic jurisdiction of the Moscow City, received a lavish government grant for redevelopment purposes (around 170 million roubles, or $5 million) and a new forward-thinking management took over. The key rebranding goals included turning the space into an up-to-date urban arts centre, attracting a wider audience, and boosting public awareness1. Some of the key target audience now included the new ‘culture vultures,’ Moscow’s solvent middle-class with sufficient cultural capital to enjoy.
The modern day: fusing the old and the new
ZIL Cultural Centre today presents a truly unique blend of different things. Whilst remaining a part of the large network of Moscow community arts centres co-funded by the government, it has been reinvented as a modern-day creative space, thus combining traditional — and still very popular — activities of the ‘houses of culture’ (such as children’s arts studios, young engineers and science clubs, and summer city camps) with new formats. It has also opened doors to creative industries, offering them residence and PR support and thus turned into one more creative cluster of Moscow.
Present-day identity and activities. Largely because of its direct association with the major automobile producer and its unique architectural heritage of Soviet constructivism, ZIL Cultural Centre positions itself primarily as a centre of modern urban and industrial culture. Its key activities are thus consistent with these priorities, and much emphasis is placed on promoting urban and industrial culture.
Over the past few years, the Centre has virtually exploded with creative initiatives. By turning its face to the outside world it has managed to set up numerous partnerships, both local and international, and launch hundreds of new exciting projects. Some of the highlights include innovative art and design studios, a robotics technology lab, an automobile design studio, contemporary dance and music studio, art house cinema projects, lectures and workshops by leading field professionals, and visual art projects (including installations). Of particular interest is the annual arts contest, whereby the prize winners (typically, young promising visual and performing artists) receive a grant for executing their ideas and then exhibiting their work at ZIL for 4 months, as well as benefit from significant PR support offered by the Centre. Another fascinating initiative is the Fashion Factory ZIL; Moscow’s first fashion designers’ incubator and a communication platform for fashion-bloggers and designers. Overall, the Centre carries out over 2,000 projects annually.
The Centre has much benefited from offering permanent residence to creative industries and independent non-profit organisations. Some of these include:
• Ballet Moscow (Балет Москва), a well-established contemporary dance and ballet company featuring Russian and international choreograhers www.baletmoskva.ru/en
• Polytech (Политехнический Музей), a leading science and technology museum in Russia www.polymus.ru/eng
• Smart Moscow (Умная Москва), a company which offers interactive science programs and workshop for children and adults www.smartmsk.com
• Selivanov art and design studios (Мастерские художественного проектирования Селивановых) www.art-edu-studio.com
According to Ksenia Filimonova, Deputy Director of ZIL Cultural Centre, collaboration with such groups has had a powerful synergy effect on reaching a wider audience and enhancing the Centre’s image. The residents benefit from PR, administrative and infrastructure support as well as reasonable rent costs.
The Centre’s international partnerships are also impressive. It holds international film, art and theatre festivals, and the so-called ‘Culture Days’ of different countries and liaises with international partners as well as embassies and cultural centres in Moscow. ‘Culture Days’ generated particularly strong interest with Moscow audiences.
Roughly 60% of the Centre’s annual budget is government subsidy which covers all of the Centre’s free-of-charge activities, full time staff salaries and maintenance costs. The remaining 40% is generated through commercial activities. These include ticket sales, charged services, winter and summer children camps, film festival revenues etc. The Centre is very popular with film companies thanks to its atmospheric interiors (like Brezhnev-style offices), so that accounts for a good part of ZIL’s revenues. The Centre also has several sponsorship contracts. All in all, the Centre generates around 80 million roubles (around $1,300,000) of its own income.
Changing local landscape and community
Since its rebranding in 2008-2012, ZIL Cultural Centre has had a noticeable effect on the local district and its overall image in Moscow, says Ksenia Filimonova. The Avtosavodskaya district used to have a somewhat dubious image as a dodgy and marginalized industrial area of the city. Since ZIL arts space became much more visible on the Moscow arts map, generating up-to-date arts content, public attitude towards the area began to change as well. It now attracts visitors from around the city. It has become particularly popular with arts management students who come here to do various placements and internships and enjoy the free Wi-Fi area and a reasonably priced café.
The Centre has also been approached by local businesses, and several interesting partnerships have already taken place. Of particular interest was the PURE ART image project carried out in partnership with a local shopping mall. This was an environmental exhibition featuring professional art installations made from trash. The installations were exhibited at the Orange shopping mall and it received a fairly good media coverage.
What’s there for Moscow expats?
ZIL Cultural Centre remains an under-explored space by us, and yet can offer a plethora of entertainment, educational and collaboration opportunities to the city’s expat community. Top-quality contemporary dance performances (staged by leading Russian and foreign choreographers), an international film festival and art exhibitions, to name but a few activities, are held there regularly. Though English language activities are limited, the centre holds regular talks and lecture series conducted by English speakers (e.g., Art Talks for Teens by a Latvian Ph.D.). The Centre has recently launched an English language audio guide that takes you around the ZIL venues, available through izi.travel (www.izi.travel/en/app). There are tons of activities for children, and if you don’t know how to keep your kids busy during the long summer months, consider the ZIL summer art camp where children can engage in theatre, film, media and animation workshops, not to mention receive 3 hefty meals a day!
The Centre has still a long way to go to reach out to the expat community in Moscow, starting with its website which for now is only available in Russian. Yet, this is a fascinating place to explore, with plenty of resources and opportunities to tap on.
To discuss possible collaboration ideas, contact Ksenia Filimonova firstname.lastname@example.org
The author kindly thanks Elena Melville, Director of ZIL Cultural Centre, and Ksenia Filimonova, Deputy Director of ZIL Cultural Centre for sharing valuable insights on various aspects of ZIL Cultural Centre life and activities.