On a snowy night last February, Russian journalists, curators and collectors descended on the Stella Art Foundation in Moscow to discover Udo Kittelmann’s plans for the Russian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, which opened last week. Over a lavish dinner, the director of the Nationalgalerie, State Museums of Berlin, told the assembled art crowd that eyebrows were raised in Germany last year when he was appointed curator of the prestigious Russian pavilion.
Kittelmann presents a show of works in La Serenissima by Vadim Zakharov, a founding member of the Moscow Conceptualist art movement in the 1970s. The radical decision to appoint a non-Russian curator was taken by the influential and glamorous patron/collector Stella Kesaeva, commissioner of the pavilion and founder of the eponymous foundation.
In 2010, the then culture minister Alexander Avdeev named Kesaeva as commissioner of the Russian pavilion for the next three Biennales. “The decision to put so much patronage in the hands of one person – and a relatively recent arrival on the Russian art scene at that – set more than a few tongues wagging,” The Art Newspaper reported.
From the outset, Kesaeva’s focus was on Moscow Conceptualism, which dominated Russian artistic discourse from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. Encompassing such figures as Igor Makarevich and the high-profile husband-and-wife artist duo Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, the school took aim at Soviet bureaucracy and ideology.
Respected curator Boris Groys, who coined the term Moscow Conceptualism in 1978, filled the Russian pavilion at the 2011 Biennale with works by Andrei Monastyrsky, founder of the Collective Actions performance art group. A reconstruction of a gulag dormitory dominated the exhibition.
Zakharov’s new project, entitled Danaë, is based on a Greek myth. Golden coins fall from the pavilion ceiling on to the lower floor where female visitors carrying transparent umbrellas (men are barred from this area) collect the currency from the central pile. According to Kittelmann: “The falling shower of gold makes reference to the seduction of Danaë as an allegory for contemporary human desire and greed, and also to the corrupting influence of money.”
But there are detractors, unhappy that the spotlight is once more on the Moscow Conceptualist movement. “While I respect the generation that [Kesaeva] is trying to represent at the pavilion, this principle of selection leaves out a huge chunk of interesting and important artists both from the previous and the next generations,” says Valentin Diaconov, art critic of Russian newspaper Kommersant.
Kesaeva is undaunted, convinced that this historical strand of Russian contemporary art deserves this platform. “I think we have a responsibility to show works by prominent artists. Young artists can be shown at the galleries and art fairs,” she says.
Her insights spring from more than a decade of experience in the art world. In the early Noughties, she briefly ran a contemporary art gallery in Moscow, showing works by Tom Wesselmann and Andy Warhol in a show entitled From Pop Art to Transavantgarde. “Pieces came from [New York-based] dealers such as Tony Shafrazi Gallery and Gagosian Gallery,” she says. “They were afraid to give me the works because nobody knows what will happen in Russia from one day to the next. It was extremely difficult to organise. I had to pay 100 per cent security deposit for the works.” Significantly, she insists that none of the works was for sale.
Kesaeva’s foundation, located in a historic district of central Moscow, was established in November 2003. For the first two years it operated as a commercial space but failed to turn a profit. So in 2005 the foundation turned non-profit, and in recent years it has participated in major exhibitions at such prestigious venues as the Louvre in Paris and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
“I fund all those exhibitions [abroad] myself. I only work with big institutions and present important Russian artists,” she insists.
As the wife of tobacco tycoon Igor Kesaev (whose net worth Forbes puts at $2bn), Kesaeva is independently wealthy. Oligarchs’ wives are power players in Russia’s contemporary art scene, with Kesaeva often depicted as a rival to Dasha Zhukova, partner of billionaire Roman Abramovich.
Zhukova launched the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture in 2008 in a 1920s bus garage built by the constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov (the GCCC has since decamped to a temporary base in Gorky Park ahead of a move to a new venue designed by Rem Koolhaas). Kesaeva hoped to transform another bus depot, also designed by Melnikov, into a contemporary art museum, but the ambitious plan has stalled because of Russia’s infamous red tape.
“We worked for three years on this project. It’s very difficult to organise things with the Moscow government, which is very bureaucratic,” says a visibly rattled Kesaeva. “We put together the documentation but the project was stopped. I’ve discussed the initiative with the Ministry of Culture. They suggest that we renovate another building as the Melnikov garage is now a working bus station.” Moscow, she reiterates, desperately needs an institution with the pulling power of London’s Tate or the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Kesaeva’s other gripe – “taxes in Russia have to be reduced” – also looks unlikely to be addressed. But, surprisingly, the Russian Ministry of Culture contributed €600,000 to the Russian pavilion in Venice this year, more than double the budget in 2011. Kesaeva, meanwhile, shelled out €650,000.
Next year, she plans to publish a second catalogue detailing the 1,500 works in her collection, which includes works by heavyweight Russians such as the Kabakovs, Dmitry Gutov, Anatoly Osmolovsky and Zakharov (the latter is evidently a favourite of Kesaeva’s).
“Maybe I will give the works to my children as an investment,” she comments, adding that she is keen to work with the Tate and the Victoria & Albert Museum. “Next year might be the right time, when the bilateral UK/Russia Year of Culture takes place,” Kesaeva says.
As I turn to leave, I casually ask if she trained as an art historian. The question prompts a round of laughter. “I’ve educated myself. I just love it,” she quips, adding with steely resolve: “I know what I want and I know what I have to do for artists and Russia.”