Meet Armen Yesayants, a curator, art historian, and our 2022 Fellow.
October 26, 2022 | by Creative Armenia
The curator and art historian Armen Yesayants has been collecting the lost, forgotten, neglected, and abandoned works of Armenian art like puzzle pieces. One by one, he carefully and caringly has been piecing together the scattered fragments to reveal its surprising diversity to the world. And his perspective, insights, and discoveries have found a home at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, where Armen, as the Director of Exhibitions, has been shaping the direction of contemporary arts.
Some of the acquired wisdom Armen shared in his interview with our team. Be ready for a deep dive into the world of Armenian art through the insights and stories of our 2022 Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow.
Creative Armenia: Tell us a little about how you began your journey of becoming a curator and art historian.
Armen Yesayants: I wouldn’t say I planned this as a kid. I have always been into arts, of course. I was fond of drawing, went to a musical school, and was involved in all the performances at school. However, I wasn’t sure about my future career. Eventually, I got into the Yerevan State University’s (YSU) Chair of Armenian Art History and Theory at the Faculty of History. I did my BA, MA, and Ph.D. at the alma mater. During my years at YSU, I worked at different places that had nothing to do with the arts. But I also worked on a couple of exhibitions and was part of the team developing the Galentz Museum with Galentz’s heirs, featuring works by Haroutiun and Armine Galentz (my Ph.D. was about H. Galentz’s color perception in visual arts).
The department I studied at was mostly focused on medieval Armenian art but I had always been more fascinated by modern and contemporary art. In 2012, I came across a job opening at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts (CCA); working there had always been a dream of mine so I regularly checked job announcements at that institution. I applied, and fortunately got the position of Curatorial Assistant. It was an interesting new challenge for me and I was happy to give practical application to my theoretical knowledge. In 2016, our Board of Trustees decided to promote me to the position of Director of Exhibitions. Parallel to my activities at the CCA, I also worked as a lecturer at YSU and Russian-Armenian University, was involved in varied state and private initiatives related to fine arts worked with artists, and promoted them internationally.
In 2016 and 2017 I participated in two essential programs in London: the first one was about creating contemporary art exhibitions, held by British Council at Whitechapel Gallery, and the second one was a conference Tate Intensive at Tate Modern. As my international connections developed, in 2018 I got a Chevening Scholarship and moved to London where I studied Arts and Cultural Management (MA) at King’s College London; this new page in my life was fully supported by CCA. This was an amazing journey bringing not only new knowledge and experience but also connections and interesting collaborations including Sotheby’s Auction House and Armenian Institute. I came back to my position at CCA in 2019 and continued my endeavor of putting Armenian contemporary art on the global map.
CA: Tell us about your creative inspirations and what you have learned from them?
AY: It’s hard to pick one particular inspiration, as I consider myself a cultural omnivore. Thus, I can be inspired by both Henri Matisse or Jean Michel Basquiat, KanYe West or Arvo Pärt. However, when we look at the creative industry from a management perspective, I look up to such professionals as Nicholas Serota, the director of Tate for many years who founded Tate Modern, one of the finest institutions of modern and contemporary art in the world.
Another great inspiration for me is Hans Ulrich Obrist, who is not only one of the most celebrated curators in the world but also an author of many books that now are considered cornerstone publications.
Nevertheless, I am inspired not only by international curators and managers but also by my colleagues/peers in Armenia. For instance, I have learned a lot working with Nazareth Karoyan, Ruben Arevshatyan, Vigen Galstyan, Nairi Khatchadourian, and Susanna Gyulamirian.
CA: As the Director of Exhibitions at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, you have curated and organized over a dozen exhibitions throughout the years. What principles do you follow when bringing an exhibition to life? What is the most important thing for you in the process?
AY: The important thing to understand about the position I am in, is that I am an institutional curator, so I need to follow the principles essential not for me personally, but for the institution, I work at. The mission of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts is to bring the best of contemporary art to Armenia and present the best of Armenian culture to the world. We are inspired by the vision of our late founder Gerard L. Cafesjian offering a wide variety of exhibitions, including a selection of important works from the Cafesjian Collection of contemporary art.
However, there are essential points in my approach that I try to apply while I am working on the exhibition. First of all, it should be something new. Even when we have done shows of celebrated Armenian artists, it has always been a revelation of layers never shown before. My MA dissertation at King’s College London was focused on the role of CCA in Armenia, which helped me to discover new perspectives about the institution I had worked at for six years. Thus, in the last couple of years, I have focused on younger artists, new media, actual and urgent topics to make our institution more open, progressive, and democratic.
The most important thing for me in the process is the process itself. I am fond of putting the concept of the show together, connecting the dots, revealing new layers while I am working on the exhibition, and finding out something new till the opening day; and even after the exhibition is already open to the public it can be full of surprises.
CA: One of the projects you are currently developing is the Armenian Art Network digital platform. Where did its vision come from and what problems do you hope it will solve?
AY: To be fair, the problem is on the surface and is very obvious. We don’t have a museum of modern and contemporary art in Armenia. What we have is an old-fashioned institution that was the only museum of modern art in the USSR in 1972. But today it seems like the museum hasn’t changed much since the 1980s. There you have the gap.
Our contemporary artists are not presented to the wider public. The main art institutions are focused on circulating the same names from the period of National Modernism or even earlier decades. I hope to develop an online platform to feature Armenian contemporary artists, which will grow and become more than just a simple showcase of the local contemporary art scene. I believe with this new initiative the artists will have an opportunity to present their oeuvre and access not only to Armenian but also to the international art community. Other than that, I want to found a network of art professionals of Armenian descent from important international art institutions which will help to develop varied joint projects and ideas.
CA: As someone who is actively leading the Armenian visual arts scene today, what rising trends, motives, and intriguing patterns have you noticed? What direction is contemporary Armenian visual arts heading towards?
AY: It is difficult to tell what is happening with visual arts today in Armenia and what to expect tomorrow. Does contemporary fine art in Armenia follow worldwide tendencies topics, styles, techniques, and media-wise? It is impossible to answer these questions in a single paragraph. But it is possible to present some layers of contemporary art in Armenia, which the wider public is not that familiar with.
One of the problems in Armenia is the lack of new media. Most artists work mostly in two-dimensional traditional media and techniques; although when it comes to topics and approaches they may be relevant and sometimes even innovative. Historically, painting and working with the image have been the most prevailing and accomplished art fields in Armenia. My recent exhibition featuring seventeen young artists was a litmus test to highlight that the tradition is still firm.
It is also captivating to follow what common topics, artistic approaches, and styles separate or connect different artists. In regard to technique and media, the scope is really wide, although traditional, as I have mentioned before: from oil on canvas to printmaking, photography, collage, embroidery, mosaics, and ready-made. There are some topics and discourses that stand out: narratives of everyday and household life, intimate and biographical layers, a post-modernist rethinking of classical art or cultural-historical heritage, reinterpretation of pop-art and conceptual art, a new manifestation of landscape and abstract art, artists’ self-reflection, and new aesthetics not only on canvas but also in sculpture.
Recently, I’ve been happy to follow how young artists initiate new projects and try to put their names out there without waiting for curators, dealers, institutions, or the state to do the job. In that regard, such organizations as Creative Armenia can and do play a vital role.
CA: What project of yours are you most proud of? What makes it special for you?
AY: It is hard to pick from all the shows I worked on because oftentimes you are most proud of the project you are working on at that exact moment.
However, I believe that from the institutional perspective the exhibition TOMORROW, which featured seventeen Armenian contemporary artists, stands out. Group projects give an opportunity not only to display more authors but also to touch upon more topics, genres, and layers in a broader comprehensive perspective. It is already the third such show implemented at the CCA. Nevertheless, compared to previous exhibitions, such as Reconsidering Nature and 11: Selections of Armenian Contemporary Abstract Art, the scope of TOMORROW was much bigger. It did not focus on just one theme but tried to reveal the current state of contemporary visual art in Armenia.
Presented for the first time at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, these artists created a platform for future individual and group projects to happen. Through it we will continue discovering the contemporary Armenian art yet to come, collaborating not only with these but also other artists. This also was an amazing opportunity for the artists to have an exhibition at CCA, an institution they might have considered elitist and too hard and complicated to get into. It was and still is the biggest exhibition I have worked on and I believe its importance for art history is yet to be discovered.
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
AY: At the moment I am focused on my creative career as a curator only, supporting the contemporary art scene in Armenia. However, having a gallery of my own that would feature a selection of contemporary Armenian artists can be a thing someday. But I don’t think about it as just a career; it is a really long-term vision.
CA: What do you plan on doing as a Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow?
AY: My main goal is to use the support from AGBU and Creative Armenia to start a platform for Armenian contemporary artists. However, this is also an amazing opportunity to create a new network and boost other projects with the community Creative Armenia has developed in recent years.
Moreover, I am open to sharing my knowledge and experience through this new network. I want to become an ambassador of this amazing initiative, promoting cultural ideas and projects within Creative Armenia and AGBU. I am confident that this is a bond that will bring to collaborations that we cannot even imagine at the moment. It will definitely go beyond just this fellowship. And I hope that someday I will become as useful for Creative Armenia as it is now for me. I see these kinds of collaborations as win-win situations and I plan to do my best in playing my part.