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Philanthropy still rare in Russian cultural landscape

As St. Petersburg celebrates its 300th year, many of its museums go begging.

In the grand entrance to the Winter Palace, where the boots of Bolsheviks scuffed the sumptuous floors as they seized power here in 1917, a small brass plaque thanks some of the giants of Western capitalism for help in surviving more recent tumult.

The palace - which the Soviets converted into the Hermitage art museum - is among many Russian artistic institutions learning the difficult ways of the free market after state support dwindled.

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In the post-Soviet search for private funding, a homegrown brand of philanthropy has been slow to develop. Western companies have come to the rescue of the highest-profile projects, and just a few of Russia's biggest firms have followed.

With its three million exhibits, ranging from ancient Scythian gold to Picasso, the world-renowned Hermitage - which at one point in the 1990s couldn't even afford to pay its heating bill - is now in far better shape than thousands of smaller Russian museums and other cultural institutions inherited from the USSR. Most still eke out an existence on state subsidies, which have stabilized but will never return to Soviet-era levels.

For most, following the trail blazed by the Hermitage in tapping the private sector seems an impossibility.

"The conditions are not yet in place to permit private money to flow into cultural purposes," says Yelena Kononenko, a historian with the St. Petersburg Museum, which owns the Peter and Paul Fortress and several other important sites. Though the museum started its own fund-raising department a year ago, it has yet to see any corporate dollars. "In Russia, it seems that problems can be clearly understood, but they are inevitably put off to be solved in some vague future," says Ms. Kononenko.

One obstacle, most experts say, is the Russian government's refusal to enact a tax policy that encourages cultural donations. "Every kopeck donated to a museum is taxed to the hilt in this country; there are no deductions," says Mikhail Kamensky, an art expert who worked at Moscow's Pushkin art museum for many years and recently became an adviser on cultural contributions to the powerful Bank of Moscow. "The government regards such donations as money spent to buy advertising services," he says. "This discourages companies from giving, and distorts their relations with the museums when they do."

Another obstacle is the slow growth of medium-sized businesses in Russia. The economy remains dominated by a a few corporate empires, which increasingly do contribute to culture, but only to foremost institutions such as the Hermitage.

Further, in St. Petersburg - Russia's top tourist draw, celebrating its tricentennial this week - there is still no association of restaurateurs or hoteliers that might see the point of raising money to assist the full spectrum of local attractions. "Businesses here are too young, too focused on their own immediate survival, to see the larger picture," says Kononenko. "That will come eventually, and I hope we're still here to benefit from it."

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Museums use a variety of enticements to persuade companies to donate, including free entrance tickets for the contributor's employees, the right to stage publicity events on museum premises and even opportunities to borrow art masterpieces for temporary display in company offices. The most generous donors may have a permanent plaque, with the corporate logo, placed inside the museum.

But in Russia, where the fine line between commerce and culture is still largely unmapped, misunderstandings are frequent. "Museum directors often feel entitled to money, and resent giving any acknowledgment to corporate donors," says Mr. Kamensky. "On the other hand, some businessmen feel that paying money gives them the right to demand anything. Mutual respect takes time to develop."

Western corporations, with long experience behind them, seem to fit smoothly into the complex role of art patrons. Coca- Cola, for example, celebrated a decade of assisting the Hermitage in mid-May with a low-key reception in the Winter Garden of Peter the Great, one of the museum's most cherished halls - an event that satisfied both the company's desire for publicity and the Hermitage's need for discretion.

As they seek corporate help, museums have faced controversy. St. Petersburg's Russian Museum, which houses the world's premier collection of Russian art, has taken public criticism for accepting funds from multinational tobacco companies. "We had a lot of internal discussions about this," says Irina Likhomanova, the museum's director of fundraising. "We have agreed from the very start that we are not promoting tobacco, just the noble face of art."

Most of Russia's struggling museums can only dream of such troubles. "For all the starving cultural institutions across Russia, there is only one way," says Mr. Kamensky. "Museum directors must learn to innovate, appeal to the public, and reach out to local business. And Russian businesses must see that it's in their interest to support regional art and museums. Hardest of all, they must develop the tradition of working together with mutual understanding and respect."