In early June, during Russian Art Week in London, all eyes were on the big four auction houses – Sotheby’s, Christie’s, MacDougall’s and Bonhams: what impact would Russia’s annexation of Crimea and US Treasury sanctions on Russian billionaires have on prices? By 2pm on the day of the MacDougall’s sale you could sense the relief as the company said: “Strong start to the auction. Full room and lots of telephone bidding. Confidence has returned to the market . . . ”
While a more nuanced picture would emerge by the end of the week, the mood was upbeat. Contemporary Russian art has, however, only a small part to play in auction sales. In recent sales, the market in post-1930 art was “generally more patchy”, says Sarah Mansfield of Christie’s, while Sotheby’s relied on Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, New Artists group founder Timur Novikov and his fellow artist, Georgiy Guryanov, both now dead. The latter two were on show at London gallery Calvert 22 in May.
This ought to be a moment of confidence in the Russian contemporary art market, as the 10th edition of the travelling contemporary art biennial, Manifesta, opens in St Petersburg with several exhibitions devoted to Russian art over the past 50 years. But London-based dealer James Butterwick tells me that the flight of money (the country’s central bank reported earlier in the year that in the first three months more money left the country – around $64bn – than in the whole of 2013) has left dealers in Russia facing a “grim time”. Added to that, controversies surrounding the decision to hold the fair in Russia at all, given the Russian establishment’s cultural conservatism, have exacerbated the gloom.
Volker Diehl, a Berlin-based dealer with a long-term interest in Russian contemporary art, whom I catch two hours after returning from Moscow, says: “There are so many wealthy people in Russia who are sitting on their suitcases. This does not make for a good atmosphere.”
Diehl co-founded the first Moscow-based international contemporary art fair Cosmoscow in 2010 with Vladimir Ovcharenko, director of the Regina Gallery. It ran for only one year. “Already in 2011 the political situation was getting bad,” he says. “I don’t know how many business people are in prison at the moment.” He adds that with little gallery infrastructure and no government support “it is not easy for artists to sell their work. Most artists are working in their kitchens as they did in Soviet times.”
Even established contemporary galleries, such as XL Gallery, Marat Guelman Gallery and Aidan, have had to reinvent themselves as non-profit supporters of artists’ projects and education. Ovcharenko – in Diehl’s words, “always fighting” – launched auction house Vladey last March to stimulate the market in contemporary art, mostly selling work estimated below €20,000. After two reasonably successful sales, the sale this March, while achieving a comparable €1.2m, saw only 57 per cent of 92 lots sold, and owed more than a third of its takings to one painting by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. For a major world city, these are paltry takings.
Diehl comments that it is this lack of support at home that explains the fact “there was never really a very good market for contemporary Russian art in the west”. He points to the way foreign interest in Chinese and Indian contemporary art has been sustained and supplemented by local collectors, who have encouraged and supported their own artists. The few Russian contemporary artists who do well in the west – besides the Kabakovs, he cites veteran photographer Boris Mikhailov and Olga Chernysheva, whom he represents – have been supported by international networks of curators and collectors.
Russians prefer to buy in London or New York, and to buy a glamorous Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons or Rudolf Stingel, validated by the Sotheby’s or Gagosian Gallery stamp of value.
Things may, however, be about to change. “There are now many younger people in Russia interested in collecting contemporary art,” says Sandra Nedvetskaia, former head of Christie’s Russia and now co-director of the relaunched Cosmoscow, which opens on September 19. The hope is that this interest will revitalise Moscow’s contemporary art scene. She cites several initiatives that show a concerted effort among established collectors to raise the profile of Russian contemporary artists. These initiatives include Stella Kesaeva’s foundation and support of Russia’s Venice Biennale pavilion, Shalva Breus’s Kandinsky prize, and the work of Leonid Mikhelson’s foundation, V-A-C, as well as Dasha Zhukova’s newly renamed Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
Garage’s active encouragement of young curators is partly an attempt to acquaint Russians with their missing art history. As Nedvetskaia explains: “When I speak to Russian collectors about Matisse or Gauguin, they have such knowledge – up until the 1920s. But then there is this big gap. There is this great Russian avant-garde of [Kazimir] Malevich, [EI] Lissitzky – and then suddenly you have paintings of Lenin.” In her former role she observed many Russian and Ukrainian collectors make the intellectual journey from Russian classical art, through modern and impressionist and the Russian avant-garde to contemporary art. However, at the peak of the Russian art market in 2007 and 2008, when Russians filled London’s auction houses, she suggests, “the understanding was still not there”. Now she claims “there are many people who have made this journey”.
Anastasia Mityushina, curator of education at Garage, also suggests that for a long time the problem in the market was not lack of collectors but lack of interesting new contemporary art. “Collectors were saying they had no choice.” Since 2000, a number of independent new art schools – including the Higher British School of Art and Design (established in 2003), Rodchenko School of Art (2006), the Institute Baza (2011) and the Open School Manege/Media Art Lab (2013) – have encouraged a new generation of artists with “independent thinking. They find art is the only way to understand their times.”
Quality is the key. Butterwick comments on London’s Russian Art Week, “The Russian market is very good if the pictures are good enough.” Certainly Mansfield has found that selectivity is the key to exciting non-Russian interest “Upwards of 70 per cent of our buyers are Russian speakers,” she says, “but we are now getting interest across the board from Europeans and Americans.”
Sotheby’s, meanwhile, held its first Contemporary East auction of contemporary Russian and eastern European art last November with some good results. Certainly one new contributor to Russian Art Week is optimistic. Maxim Boxer, dealing mostly in impressionist and modern art in Moscow, brought a curated exhibition of mostly contemporary artists, entitled Cosmism, to London’s Erarta Gallery, culminating with an auction on June 3.
The concept was very precise: the best works available by artists, with a price range of between £500 and £10,000, in a show linking the early 20th-century movement of cosmism with strands in contemporary Russian art. From his perspective, the show was a great success. There was press interest and visits by Tate representatives. Two works were bought by English collectors. A third of the works went back to Russia. He plans to return in November.