Art Survives: Gyumri’s cultural life unshaken by life-changing disaster

Cultural energy is Gyumri’s landmark – a mixture of everyday life routine, unequaled sense of humor in all of Armenia, life stories of its residents, each of which could become a plot for a good book or a movie.

Two and a half decades after the 1988 earthquake they still say that culture is a living organism in Gyumri - it has helped to survive, made them go on living, gave them strength to create.

“Five months after the earthquake, Gyumri hosted [renowned Russian violinist Vladimir] Spivakov’s concert. Coffins could still be seen around the city, there were people who had not yet found their missing family members from under the ruins. I was crying, telling Spivakov nobody would come. He told me not to worry and that even if a few people came he would play for them. Then there they were –women covered with black shawls, men in black coats, dusty, slowly coming and coming, returning from cemeteries. Tears were streaming down Spivakov’s face as he said: ‘What kind of people these are – they come from cemeteries to a concert hall!’ The hall exploded with applause as music filled their hearts… This year during his concert he saw a hall beautifully decorated with flowers, neatly dressed audience, but said: ‘Never in my life would I forget that day’,” recalls advisor to Shirak governor Hasmik Kirakosyan.

Surviving the first aftershock of the disaster she collected the musical instruments, locked them away, then collected the piles of books scattered around in the streets, loaded them on donkeys and sent to adjoining villages, where people stored them in their houses. Today those books make the regional library of Gyumri.

A year after Gyumri was shaken by the natural calamity which took thousands of lives, “Still” Fine Arts Museum opened, where the first modern art exhibition was held, lit by use of a power generator.

“The city was in ruins, mourning people visiting the graves of their lost loved ones had no heart for exhibitions, museums. Living in temporary shelters, hungry, cold, no future, no electricity, and suddenly in an illuminated hall they saw pieces of art, and contemporary art at that,” tells director of the Museum and Gyumri’s Central Library Artur Mkrtchyan. “The museum was founded to show that life goes on: we did not die, those who have survived will fill in the gaps left by the dead. This was life, this museum, this theater – they proved that life was not over.”

Artist Samvel Galstyan, heading Gyumri’s almost century-old Merkurov Art School, says post-earthquake Gyumri reminded of a dream.

“The city was in the forest, or the forest was in the city, it’s hard to say… in our district called Antaravan [literary ‘forest settlement’] there were three forest layers to shield the city from northern winds. Fountains were built in that natural setting, creating an interesting boulevard environment, where fairs were held, each of them a big festivity of sorts. I fell in love with Gyumri ,” he says. “It is a city of crafts, and when crafts turn into pathology, art is born.”

Kirakosyan, with her 38 years’ experience working in the sphere of culture, says professionalism in art and culture grew after the earthquake.

“Culture seemed to have grown even stronger as a countermeasure to the natural disaster, to keep people living. The number of amateur groups decreased, because of the destruction of industrial workshops, instead, after 1988, the number of state orchestras – symphonic, national folk - grew. Today we have nine museums, and more professional bands have come forth,” she says.

“Still” museum director can’t help admiring Gyumri residents’ outstandingly gentle approach to cultural values and art.

“When I visit Europe and see prospering culture and public approach to art, it is understandable to me, but when 1,200 people fill a 600-seat hall for Spivakov’s concert… I know people who would not take food home, but would come to a concert or a performance. Our bard’s words are truly justified: ‘They have no money, but have built seven churches, look at how smart they are,” says museum director Mkrtchyan.

Kirakosyan says the love for culture is in the genes, passed down to generations of Gyumretsi:

“You won’t find a home in Gyumri where you wouldn’t hear a song upon opening the entrance door. On a Gyumretsi’s table, side by side with jam, there has always been humor and engaging conversation. Even when serving pure bread they do it in a special way. What I’ll say is a sad thing, but after the earthquake there were cases when a child’s body was found and the father said: ‘Wait a minute, I’ll go get bread and vodka to treat you, because you have come to this [burial] ceremony…’”

Artur Mkrtchyan is trying to solve the enigma of Gyumretsi’s artistic gene pool. He says in 1837, when Alexandrapol was created, many moved here from Western Armenia, and the local Russian and the ‘imported’ European cultures mixed together turning Alexandrapol into Europe’s extension, its farthest point. He says old Gyumri, Amsterdam, Krakow, as well as many French and English small towns have been built principally the same way – the spirit and the environment are similar, only the materials are different.

“When they started building the city, it dictated people to integrate into the environment. The Russian officer personnel was here, their women in cute hats, Gorki Park with a wife holding her husband’s arm, taking a stroll, the brass band – shaped the municipal values and conditioned the cultural development. Then entrepreneur families started to form – the Dzitokhtsyans, Tsaghikyans… they founded exceptional schools – Yevangulyans’ School of Embroidery, the Tsar Gymnasium, among others. It all shaped a society mindful and appreciative of arts and culture,” says Mkrtchyan.

In all of Caucasus, Gyumri became the second cultural city after Tbilisi.

“The cultural seed was planted and genetically passed down four-five generations, without exception,” he says with pride.

Despite the poor social-economic conditions, Gyumri’s art schools and libraries have no shortage of students. Residents of this city, where 4,000 people still have no permanent housing and continue living in “temporary” districts, hold high spiritual values in their children’s upbringing.

The 92-year-old Merkurov Art School has 60 students studying in very poor conditions. Director Galstyan says a strong generation is growing up with an outstanding power of self-expression.

“The mentality of the youth puzzles me, catches by surprise – they have fantastic ideas, such that take your breath away,” he says.

People of arts complain that everything is centered in Yerevan only, while it has to be distributed evenly all over the country. They suggest a graphics Museum be founded in Gyumri and all the graphic art pieces be transferred there from the National Gallery, downtown Yerevan. They say moving the culture ministry to Gyumri would also be appropriate.

The Chekhov Russian Library is being built at the moment. Western and Arts libraries are planned to be built here as well.

“The arts library would have halls for concerts, presentations, film screening; science libraries would have encyclopedia and dictionaries. We are planning to open four children’s libraries in different parts of the city to cultivate reading in the little ones,” Mkrtchyan says with excitement about happy prospects.