Indomitable women have long played a powerful role in Russia’s art world. The legendary Madame Antonova reigned as steely champion of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow for 52 years, only stepping down aged 91 in 2013 after one political battle too many. Olga Sviblova founded the Moscow House of Photography in 1996 and then transformed it into the state-of-the-art Multimedia Art Museum (MAMM), seemingly by sheer force of will. Now a new generation is battling to establish an international contemporary art market in Russia.

It is a battle, for creating an art market in Moscow is a labour of Sisyphus — after every successful initiative of the past two decades, the art market boulder has rolled right back down the hill. One determinedly pushing it back up again is Margarita Pushkina, who first launched the international contemporary art fair Cosmoscow in 2010 and then had to spend three years assembling the right team and finding the right venue in order to revive it in 2014. Against all odds, Cosmoscow’s third edition took place earlier this month in the 18th-century Gostiny Dvor; against even greater odds, perhaps, it appears to have been a success.

Pushkina, 46, is typical of this new, privileged and entrepreneurial generation. She is well educated, well travelled and exceedingly well dressed. Her own circuitous journey as a collector and supporter of contemporary culture could be seen as a blueprint for the new generation of buyers and patrons she is striving to encourage.

Margarita Pushkina at Cosmoscow
Margarita Pushkina at Cosmoscow

We meet at her home on a gated road in one of Moscow’s forested suburbs, an open-plan, light-filled Modernist house that she and her husband Sergei commissioned from PANACOM in 2005. Architecture was Pushkina’s introduction to contemporary art. Born in Irkutsk in Siberia, her first degree was in engineering; her second, after she began to work in banking in the 1990s, in finance. She left to publish the architectural magazine Project Classics, which was founded at a time when Moscow’s building boom was resulting in the wholesale destruction of historic buildings and their reconstruction as luxe period fakes, and when war was raging between the classicists and modernists.

“It was an exciting time and a very important project,” explains Pushkina. “I began to meet a lot of architects and I wanted to understand more.” That involved studying art history in both St Petersburg and Moscow: “I realised that I wanted to be involved in art.”

She began to collect, buying mostly paintings, and consulting Moscow’s earliest gallerists such as Elena Selina of XL Gallery, returning to the financial sector to head the private banking department of KIT Finance.

“The bank was very cutting edge in its use of modern technologies and I was asked whether I would like to create a corporate contemporary art collection. It was the first of its kind in Russia.”

She wanted it to include international as well as Russian artists, so she began scouring international fairs and galleries, acquiring work by the likes of Thomas Hirschhorn, Hans op de Beeck and Tracey Emin. Many of the same artists are represented in her own collection. Hanging in her kitchen is a photograph of one of Hans op de Beeck’s oversize, monochrome “Table” installations, the stagey set deserted and bleached of colour save for vibrant leftover cherry pie, cigarettes and coffee. Over her bed hangs one of Tracey Emin’s calligraphic erotic neons, “Blinding”.

Estonian gallery Temnikova & Kasela at this year’s fair
Estonian gallery Temnikova & Kasela at this year’s fair

An early acquisition is one of Evan Penny’s eerily warped and stretched hyperrealist portrait busts reimagined through photography and crafted out of layers of pigmented silicone augmented by human hair, fabric and resin. Another is the large Dexter Dalwood canvas hanging above the staircase.

A recent favourite is an abstract photograph by Eileen Quinlan, Laura, a yoga mat folded and draped to reference a body. These abstract photographs are grounded in feminist history and material culture but Pushkina is more interested in her own aesthetic and emotional reaction to a work of art. “I ask questions, and more questions, to artists, gallerists and critics, and in this process I think my taste is developing,” she explains, “though I don’t think too much about the concept of a work of art, but rather feel it.”

Next on the list is a canvas from Artist of the Year Alexandra Paperno’s “Star Maps” series. “Her painting touches me and I feel that there is something very serious and important beyond their aesthetic beauty.”

The fair’s Artists’ Patron Programme was established to support cutting-edge artists and Pushkina has acquired works and supported projects by Andrey Kuzkin and video artist Taus Makhacheva as well as established artists such as Oleg Kulik. “Working with artists is the most exciting aspect of collecting for me,” she says.

Cosmoscow grew out of conversations with artists and gallerists. “I realised that Moscow had an urgent need for a dynamic international contemporary art fair. We needed to develop the infrastructure of the market and to attract an international audience. Part of the parallel process was to introduce a new Russian audience to contemporary art and involve them by encouraging a dialogue.”

She pauses. “We had to start at the beginning. There is no modern history of collecting in Russia — it only started 20 years ago.”

The Collector’s Eye exhibition
The Collector’s Eye exhibition

When the fair’s second edition launched last year it was with Sandra Nedvetskaia, 33, the impressive former director of Christie’s Russia, as her co-director. Their main challenge, the pair felt, was to overturn various misconceptions — not least that Russian collectors don’t buy contemporary art, or that nothing bought on the international market comes home. The Collector’s Eye loan exhibition last year disproved both.

No one could have predicted the near-disastrous geopolitical and economic situation. What seems to have saved the fair — along with new support from Credit Suisse — was the explosion of Russian buying evident at auction in New York in May and London in June. “We had a lot of encouragement to continue,” says Nedvetskaia. “There seems a real appetite for such an event. The opening of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art was another boost, as was the Alexander Calder show, the first exhibition of a postwar artist at the Pushkin Museum.”

The Pushkin’s forthcoming retrospective of video artist Bill Viola explained the presence of the artist’s gallery Blain|Southern at the fair; the gallery is concluding the sale of the artist’s “The Encounter” to a Russian client.

For the most part, however, dealers brought small-sized works and works by younger rather than established artists, with prices between €1,000 and €600,000, and photography sold particularly well. Some of the best stands were those presented by regional galleries (including Ukraine), not least Temnikova & Kasela from Tallinn, or those showing artists from CIS countries.

There are still dots to be joined in the Moscow contemporary art scene — the Moscow Biennale (until October 1), for instance, opened 10 days later — but this was a stylish and highly professional fair. There still may be only fewer than a dozen major contemporary art collectors in Russia and around 50 regular buyers but, on the evidence of this event, interest is growing: visitor numbers doubled this year to 14,000. Edging upwards, too, is the number of foreign collectors the fair is attracting. If anyone can make this work, it is the powerhouse Pushkina Nedvetskaia.

The two sisters

Gulnur Mukazhanova’s ‘Postnomadic reality in Kazakhstan 7’
Gulnur Mukazhanova’s ‘Postnomadic reality in Kazakhstan 7’

One of Moscow’s latest art ventures, Artwin, founded in 2012, has cemented its success this year by moving into its own bricks-and-mortar space, writes Jenny Lee. Established by the glamorous 29-year-old twin sisters Madina and Marianna Gogova, who are the mirror image of each other, the gallery is curated in their reflection: striking, contemporary and intelligent. At Cosmoscow they featured the work of two Kazakh artists. Almagul Menlibayeva’s compelling digital prints shrewdly capture her vision of contemporary Kazakhstan. Women stride in front of the camera lens, dressed in khaki and not much else. Their compelling confidence strikes a strong contrast with the deserted soviet battleships and dry pastoral landscapes they appear to have conquered. Menlibayeva’s compatriot, Gulnur Mukazhanova, presented sellout pieces dubbed “Postnomadic reality in Kazakhstan”. This astute and unnerving mixed- media series features striking pieces crafted out of earthy, rumpled felt, sculpted to resemble animal hides and eerie human spectres.

Photographs: Anastasia Shpilko; Ivan Kleymenov

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