Gold (Baltimore Magazine)

By Jim Paterson

Baltimore Magazine
Baltimore Magazine

It was a grammatical change that caused Ellen Reeder to explode. But then it never seemed to be the big things – problems with the availability of the objects in the exhibit, worries about funding, concerns about handling priceless treasures as they traveled around the world. Those she expected. Those she could handle.

It was the endless, senseless approvals, the nit-picky revisions, the grammatical corrections – the never-ending drip of obstinance that pushed her to her limit. Reeder has come to Kiev to finalize the contract for a key venue of the Scythian-art exhibit she was curating for the Walters Art Gallery.

She is in the last of many negotiating sessions with Serhii Chaikovs’kyi, director of the National Museum of the History of the Ukraine, and his sometimes difficult deputy, Ivan Yavtushenko. This meeting, one of many held at the long table in Chaikovs’kyi’s stark office in a massive ’50s-era government building, comes after three years of similar debates. It comes after months of revisions to these contracts for the last venue, the Grand Palais in Paris.

After nearly a week of negotiations and reviews of the site in France. After days of even more review back in Kiev, back in this room. All she needs is Chaikovs’kyi’s name on the dotted line and a critical venue – one of the most famous museums in the world – will be in place to host the show and Reeder will be close to victory.

But she’s embroiled in even more negotiations, and trying to stay calm. She’s trying to use her impressive negotiating skills, and to remind herself that some of this is cultural – a uniquely Ukrainian way of doing business. Some of it is care for national treasures, or perhaps paranoia from years of dealing with the USSR’s totalitarian bureaucracy. And some of it is simply the personalities involved.

Finally, out of tricks and needing to move her show along, Reeder, the consummate negotiator, yanks hard on the reins. As Serhii lifts his pencil as if to make a correction to what is supposed to be the final draft, Reeder  can take no more. “You don’t know what we are trying to do for you, do you?” she says, leaning over the table and tossing around papers and folders, reviewing the history of these drudging negotiations. “I’m sorry, but this is ridiculous. This is not the way this thing is done. This is a waste of time. I’m leaving tomorrow, and if this isn’t signed before then, I wash my hands of this agreement.”

This month Baltimore meets the Scythians – these fierce and enigmatic Hells Angels from 500 years before Christ, nomads who swept across the plains north of the Black Sea, proudly displaying the skin of their enemies, celebrating victory with wine and hemp . . . and indulging their love of beautiful, delicate golden works of art. They arrive in a stunning display of their treasures at the Walters Art Gallery – Gold of the Nomads: Scythian Treasures from Ancient Ukraine.

The artwork – intricate and skillfully crafted objects used for ceremony, ornamentation, and battle – is striking, and its power is evident in an instant in this dramatic, carefully constructed exhibit.

What won’t be so clear to the exhibit’s audiences, entranced by this remarkable art, is the four years of labor that brought these objects here. What won’t be on display in the Walters’ serene galleries is this show’s journey – a hard-won battle fought with eye-catching promotion, exhausting scholarship, attention to numbing detail, and delicate, difficult, sometimes illogical diplomacy, all pulled and shoved and driven by the shear determination of Ellen Reeder.

The history of such an exhibit can be as long and dramatic and tumultuous as the history of the objects themselves. That’s the case with Gold of the Nomads, a show whose story reaches back more than four years. Reeder became interested in the Scythians’ gold in 1996.

Curator of ancient art for the Walters (she has since accepted a position at the Brooklyn Museum of Art), she was approached by a colleague suggesting a show with an archeological theme about the influence the Greeks had on the Scythians, whose fascinating art was still being unearthed in the Ukraine.

She knew immediately that this was something she needed to do. She knew the work was important. This culture and their art has fascinated the rest of the world since the 1700s, when Catherine the Great was so impressed by samples that she ordered its thorough study.

Excavation of the kurhans – the thousands of large mounds that served as burial sites – has continued since then, and some of the most remarkable pieces in the show, unearthed only within the last 10 years, have never left the Ukraine.

Reeder had been very impressed by a much-praised Scythian show in New York in 1975. But this show was significant to Reeder because as far back as college she’d studied the art of the Greeks, who had very much influenced their crazy trading partners to the north.

And Reeder, a avid equestrian, was attracted to this culture that celebrated the horse – even burying horses with their owners in these elaborate burial mounds. < “If I didn’t do this show,” she says now, “I’d be sitting on a park bench as an old woman thinking this was the one I should have done.”

But she envisioned something more than an exhibit of fishhooks and tools that her colleagues were suggesting. “I think I saw the 800-pound gorilla-the stuff that would stop traffic: Nomads, burial ruins, gold coming out of the soil.”

A year later in Kiev, she got to see the golden gorilla for herself. Dressed impeccably as always and displaying her keen ability to put people at ease, Reeder sat at a desk in a small, dark office on the11th floor of a bedraggled concrete building.

It was a facility for the Archeological Institute in Kiev, one of the four locations in and around the city where the pieces that Reeder wanted for the show were stored.

On that day, Reeder was in Kiev for the first time see the most recently excavated pieces – some of the most elaborate of the Scythians’ impressive work These are the moments she lived for – when she could put aside the jet lag and bad food, the unexpected delay and the illogical negotiations. When she got to see those beautiful works of art that exist for her as just that. This is when she gets to see and feel and really sense these beautiful works of art from so long ago – these rare links to the past that she wants so badly to share with the rest of us in a way that will make clear their importance.

The Ukrainians bring in cardboard boxes > from which they draw smaller, slightly dented cardboard boxes of varying size. And out of them, wrapped in simple tissue paper, come the glittering objects she’d been aching to see necklaces and parts to a headdress; a golden strip that wound around the handle of a whip; decorations for horses’ bridles.

She’d carefully reviewed these pieces to prepare her checklist – studied them endlessly in photographs. But now in this simple setting, here they were even brighter and more startlingly beautiful then she’d pictured. “It was very strange in a way but incredibly thrilling,” she says.

Thrilling – and just the motivation Reeder needed to put the exhibit in motion.

Throughout the summer of ’97, the wheels started turning at the Walters. Reeder began to lay plans for an extensive $300,000 media campaign. She helped contact potential venues willing to host the show for some $375,000. She started to think about the scholarly 350-page, $100,000 catalog she would edit – plus the nearly 20 contributors she needed to contact, the hundreds photographs that needed to be taken, and the introductory essay she needed to write.

At the same time, Reeder began talks with Walters registrar Joan Elisabeth Reid, whose task it would be to move these priceless, ancient items through six cities halfway across the world – a process that would include insurance, packing, shipping, security, customs, detailed reports on the art’s condition, and agreements with venues about their handling of the pieces.

Things were off to a good start. But Reeder knew any such show of objects from a culture so different from ours and so new – the Ukrainians had only been independent since 1991 – would be fraught with drama. She knew borrowing a nation’s treasures is always risky business.

Enormous trust needs to be established, and cultural clashes can be as difficult to negotiate as they are inevitable On an icy, gray day in Kiev, Reeder would be reminded how difficult such a process could be. In mid-December, 1997, The temperature in Kiev is 28 degrees below zero. Ellen Reeder and Gerry Scott, director at the San Antonio Museum of Art, co-sponsor of the show, have come here to sign contracts with the Ukrainians that will give approval for the artwork to visit the initial four venues.

It’s so cold, the two can see their breath at lunch in a restaurant; space heaters just barely take the chill off in their rooms. (“It was the only time I’ve ever gone from a fur coat to the bath right back into a fur coat,” Reeder says.) Despite the cold, Reeder and Scott are excited about the show, and hope to seal it legally with the Ukrainians, who had for several months been amending the initial contracts.

The gifts Reeder learned from colleagues to bring on each trip – soap, keychains, scarves, or baseball hats – are well received among museum staff, some of whom were cool to the prospects of seeing Americans take some of their most treasured art on a two-year journey.

It is on this visit that she meets Nadia Shatskaya, a 28-year-old interpreter who Reeder quickly recognizes as someone who not only can efficiently translate for complex negotiations, but also could provide the Americans with valuable insights about the culture and the idiosyncrasies of their counterparts.

On what turns out to be the coldest day of their visit, Reeder and Scott sit on one side of Chaikovs’syi’s long table, wearing coats and drinking tea to stay warm. There is little furniture in this uninviting room; nothing on the walls. Space heaters drone on. The

Ukrainians face the Americans, and Nadia, wrapped tightly in her coat, sits at the end of the table, interpreting for both sides. Nadia, Reeder discovers, does more than translate words. As the two groups begin their discussions, she helps Reeder understand Chaikovs’kyi and his deputy, Yavtushenko, who – perhaps at Chaikovs’syi’s direction – is often the more difficult of the two.

She describes their mood, provides nuances of their cultural tradition, and tries to explain their sometimes inexplicable objections. After some pleasantries, Nadia’s tone changes: There’s bad news. Details still need to be worked out. Necessary approvals haven’t been obtained. There are delays. Reeder and Scott leave frustrated. “We had told them we wanted to finalize it,” Reeder later explains.

“That’s why we were there. They apparently thought we were coming over for more discussions. I think that is the Ukranian way: To do something doesn’t imply you’re going to accomplish it; it means you are going to begin to do it. We American type-A personalities-we thought we were going to hash it over and sign it. Their reaction was, ‘that’s not the way we do things.’ It was maddening, but I don’t think it was really malicious.”

It did, however, become a pattern. Chaikovs’kyi and his deputy had somewhat inexplicably taken responsibility for the artwork from all four locations and they would often balk about preparation of the material, about anything requiring a signature, about security, about the display of an important piece..

They would also sometimes explode over what seemed to be small matters like reimbursements for minor work by their staff. Nadia, always the diplomat, would keep Reeder calm: “He just needs to get this off his chest,” she would say. Often she was right and the issue being fumed over one minute would no longer be a point of contention the next. Despite such difficulties, Reeder pressed on.

During the spring and summer of 1998, the Ukrainians signed the key contracts and approved the checklist of objects for the show.

The details were coming together, but Reeder is still assembling the show in her mind – putting together the pieces of the puzzle. To help, Reeder makes another trip to the Ukraine in June.

This time she takes exhibit designer Alex Castro – who she’d chosen because of a successful collaboration they’d had in another show. Deep inside a quiet old monastery where another of the four groups of Scythian objects is housed, the assembled pieces are casually splayed out on a long table.

Reeder bolts around the dimly lit room taking photographs and notes – trying to assemble that puzzle, but distracted by details, obstacles, and an annoying seam in the well-worn carpet that threatens to send her sprawling into the golden objects. Castro, however, is still – his eyes fixed on a thin slice of gold about the size of a Texas belt buckle. Kneeling near the table to examine the art, he is transfixed. He’s found the piece that is critical to a show like this because it tells the story of the people who created it. “Look at this, Ellen,” he says. “This is remarkable.”

Reeder kneels next to him, listens, then sits back on the floor and joins in, talking excitedly in her fast-paced, acrobatic way. She’s back – back in touch with the art-and she knows they’re on to something.

Castro talks about how this object, probably a decoration for a bowl or mug, reflects the Scythians’ nomadic lifestyle and the influence of other cultures. It’s raised design simply shows a bird, which the Scythians admired for it’s mastery of movement, but as you turn it, other birds grow out of the first – more motion, and the influence of Asian art with its evolutionary theme, here in the midst of work clearly linked to Greece.

he piece has a roughness, a bold theme and a distinctive beauty that perfectly captures the people who created it. That’s the story, he says – that’s what the show needs to be about. “I had been so focused on being the art historian and object person that I wasn’t paying enough attention to these people,” Reeder says now. “Alex helped me see the sense of movement in these pieces and the other influences on their lives. I had to establish who they were as a people before I could talk about their artistry.

Understanding that was a huge step” She was closer. By the summer of 1998, photographers had been dispatched to Ukraine for catalog photos. Reeder had begun consultations about the exhibit maps, which needed to show the Scythians’ ancient land and the new Ukraine, striving to be partners with the west. She was spending more and more time on her catalog, recruiting contributing writers, enforcing deadlines, editing, and beginning to organize her own thoughts for her keynote essay.

She also got speedy approval for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former classmate at Wellsley, to serve as honorary chair for the exhibition. In the midst of progress, however, another unforeseen and surprisingly stubborn obstacle: This time, Plexiglas. The Ukrainians had mounted many of the objects on it, and while for the Americans it was unattractive and difficult to use, the Ukrainians liked it and were reluctant to have it removed or covered.

They wouldn’t budge Until now, Reeder had done pretty well wrangling her way through these discussions – she had learned to use more than her charm and unexpected down-to-earth sense of humor to get her way. Each time she visited, she brought along a male colleague, for instance; although she took the lead, it seemed to put the Ukrainians at ease to know a man was seriously involved in the negotiations.

She chose seats with her back to the window, forcing the Ukrainians to squint to see her silhouette and putting her in an advantageous position. And she brought folders and placed them squarely on the table in front of her. (At a previous meeting, when she had produced such a folder and kept a finger on it as she spoke, her opponents’ tone changed. One Ukrainian simply circled the room nervously.

A written record, she thought, worried Ukrainian officials, still fresh from the secret, threatening files of totalitarianism. Subsequently, they often came with folders themselves rather than simply the Walters notepads she’d given them in her on-going good-will gestures.) But nothing was working when it came to Plexiglas. Not even mention of her friend the First Lady, whose name Reeder sometimes invoked, knowing that the Ukrainians admired her because she’d visited and taken on some Ukranian causes, including the plight of rural Ukranian girls who answered ads for exciting work abroad and ended up as penniless prostitutes.

Then Reeder’s male associate for this trip, Ted Theodore,< who Reeder thought even looked Ukranian, tried something else: “The Plexiglas is a wonderful way to display these things,” he said suddenly. “But this art is so old, and Plexiglas is so modern. It doesn’t seem right.” As Nadia translated “modern,” the Ukrainians began to smile. And soon they were nodding in agreement. Plexiglas was no longer an issue, and Reeder had absorbed another lesson.

“It was brilliant,” she says. “I wish I’d thought of it.” Reeder had learned other lessons. In may, officials from the famed Grand Palais in Paris quickly agreed to host the show at a meeting with her and Walters’ Director Gary Vikan, surprising the two Americans. Vikan took his wife to dinner at a Parisian restaurant and celebrated. Reeder worried. “I knew that making that come to pass was going to sit on no one’s shoulders but mine and there was a long journey to get there.”

She was right. The negotiations with the Ukranains in late summer over the Paris venue proved difficult and despite her preparation, resulted in what she refers to as “a meltdowns.” But Nadia’s translation of her threat to “wash her hands” of the negotiations, was remarkably short. Reeder can hardly get through the story today – breaking into her contagious, laughter. “Nadia was done in a second. I asked what happened to all that I said. I couldn’t believe how short her translation was.

But her Ukranian counterparts got the message and the agreement was signed Meanwhile, there was still a lot of work being done, but it wasn’t all high-level meetings and glimpses of gold. And Reeder was in the middle of it.

She would plan the layout of the show with Castro, review the virtual exhibit that he developed and help him select fabric for the displays, guiding them through the Walters’ careful process of screening for material that would “off gas” and damage the objects. She would travel to the Ukraine to direct shots for the video accompanying the show and spend hours on the exhaustive catalog She’d work for weeks on the labels for the displays, one weekend facing 1000 pages of comments from experts on the label copy she’d written. She went to sleep at 4 a.m. that Sunday. There were thousands of details. Betsy Gordon, manager of the show, took phone messages from Reeder with long lists of to-do items. The record was 25. Just weeks before the show opens, she slips into another hands-on project that draws her. She is in the studio of noted Baltimore sculptor Rodney Carroll looking at horseheads he’s created for her for a display of bridle ornamentation. “There had to be horses.” The clay models are perfect, but something is bothering her. She recognizes that the display won’t be accurate if the pieces are simply stuck to the horses head. The horseheads need bridles So in the midst of a tornado of last minute details, just days before the show will be assembled, Reeder, covered in wet clay from fitting a prototype bridle to the clay model of the horsehead, is running back and forth between Carroll’s studio and her saddelry having bridles made for her friends the Scythians. Creating the opening show in San Antonio brings together all the other effort in a dash of effort – major construction, extreme care and speed in the movement and display of the objects and carefully planned, eye-catching design, all overseen by Reeder. But it all pays off. When the show opens, everyone, including the Ukranians, are pleased. At the opening, Reeder gets congratulations from all sides. But one sticks out in her head. Ukranian Ambassador Anton Buteiko at dinner sits with Reeder and tells her how much he likes the show and how important it is for his country, now the biggest country in Europe and the owner of third largest stockpile of nuckear arms to be recognized this way. The battle has been won. Ellen Reeder is shuffling quickly through a large stack of photographs at a small restaurant table commenting in clipped phrases, but affectionately like a parent with pictures of her child. She looks a bit more rested and laughs more easily than she had a month ago. She pauses for a moment between photos of her Ukranian counterparts, who she seems to hold no bitterness toward, and the crew assemblig the show, who she praises broadly. “I once heard someone talking about Hollywood say that with the bureaucracy and obstructions and the politics it’s a wonder good films are made. They said it simply requires someone with willpower. Exhibitions are a lot like that too. So often just sheer determination makes it happen..” end –

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