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Preserving Heritage of Russian City : Culture: The Getty Conservation Institute is working with officials from St. Petersburg to help save priceless artworks from theft or damage.

June 29, 1995|YEVGENIA BORISOVA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — With an infusion of American expertise and cash, the Getty Conservation Institute on Wednesday embarked on a quest to resuscitate Russia's second city by protecting its historic buildings and priceless art collections from fire, theft and the ravages of time.

An arm of the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Los Angeles-based institute teamed up with the St. Petersburg government and the Russian Academy of Sciences to create the International Center for Preservation to save the cultural heritage of this city founded by Peter the Great in 1703.

St. Petersburg's canals and avenues have inspired composers, writers and architects for centuries, as evidenced by the 80 museums, 2,900 libraries and more than 8,000 stately buildings listed with the city's historical registry.

But priceless books and works of art, as well as the crumbling buildings housing them, are threatened by flooding from the ubiquitous waterways and made vulnerable to fire and theft by outmoded electrical systems and poor security.

The world-famous Hermitage art museum has stalactites growing in its basement from water seeping in from the Neva River, and a fire recently destroyed the once-elegant library of the House of Writers.

"Many collections and entire unique historical buildings might soon be lost forever," Vladimir Lapin, director of the Russian State Historical Archives, told journalists at the preservation center's ceremonial opening.

Lapin said the institute provided the catalyst--and most of the funding--for a project local curators and artists have desired for years. He expressed the hope Russian authorities would do their part to augment the center's financing.

Organizers said the center would take a collection-wide approach to preservation of art and architectural treasures, rather than the piecemeal restorations favored by Russian curators.

Among the projects undertaken by the new center will be anti-theft initiatives to deter further incidents like the break-in earlier this year at a Hermitage restoration studio where more than a dozen valuable artworks were taken. Smuggling of icons, paintings and other treasures--many stored away in warehouses for lack of display space--has also become a major threat to the city's cultural heritage.

"We are at the beginning of the process of putting everything together, but the first thing we want to do is to start some training programs in preventative conservation," said Miguel Angel Corzo, director of the Getty Conservation Institute. "We will start doing some monitoring of certain buildings and then once we have finished that, then we will decide which ones need attention."

Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore, was on hand for inauguration of the preservation center she earlier championed to rescue the city's structures from pollution and neglect.

"In December, 1993, when I was here for the first time, I fell in love with St. Petersburg," Tipper Gore told those at the opening, recalling how she was moved by her original visit to the city's cathedrals and palaces.

"I can't tell which building we should start with," she said of the center's daunting future. "They are all magnificent."

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