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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Cultural Affair

Once a month an exclusive cocktail party takes place inside the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Prominent Russian writers, bankers and businessmen gather for the latest exhibition, a concert and a buffet dinner.


But they are here for more than just socializing. They are all members of the Metsenat Society, a group of philanthropists dedicated to supporting the arts in Russia and while many in this gathering would agree that they are members of a new Russian class they also see themselves at the forefront of a movement far from new to this country.


"There are great similarities between the present and prerevolutionary times", said Sergei Yegorov, president of the Russian Banking Association, after a special viewing of the current Fernando Bolero exhibit at the Pushkin. "Just like then, there is a new class of businessmen. Just like then, businessmen feel strong ties towards culture and the arts. Russia might be unique in that its business community realizes the role of art is important. It always has".


In today's Russia, however, rediscovering a cultural heritage and supporting the arts has a high price tag. Despite the death of the Soviet state and a blossoming of artistic freedom, the Russian government's policy toward private financial aid to the arts has remained hostile.


According to the charity tax law, a firm that donates a sum to a museum must pay the same sum to the government. In addition, there is currently no government organization that supports the arts. The banks, firms and private individuals entering the world of sponsorship of the arts are facing huge taxes, government indifference and no laws or guidelines.


"In the West, sponsorship of the arts is like brushing your teeth in the morning, while here, it is a heroic deed", said Natalya Davydova, 52, the head of Metsenat. Davydova, an art critic, founded the society two years ago with the help of Pavel Piskov, executive director of Credo Bank.


Activities by Metsenat include its recent sponsorship of the Mikhail Pletnyov Orchestra, a classical music ensemble that tours internationally, and ongoing financial support of the Central Music School for Children, the Tabakov Drama Theater and MKhAT, the Moscow Art Theater.


Original members of the Metsenat Society include Credo Bank, Inkombank, the electronics firm Crosna and Russia's chapter of the international writer's group PEN. Today, Metsenat is made up of a dozen businesses and Davydova says that interest in the group is growing. The most recent addition was the All-Russia Stock Company, which presented the Pushkin Museum with a check for 20 million rubles ($20, 000) to support the "December Nights" classical music festival.


The current generation of Russia's philanthropists is following in some very large footsteps. In the 19th century, Savva Mamontov, a rich industrialist, supported artists such as Mikhail Vrubel, Ilya Repin and Vasily Polyenov by letting them live and work at his country estate, Abramtsevo. and the internationally acclaimed Matisse collection that was at the Pushkin Museum for most of the summer would not exist at all if it were not for the French painter's Russian patron, Sergei Shchukin. An admirer of Matisse and an art collector, he commissioned several canvases in the early 1900s and even brought the painter to Moscow.


By donating billions of rubles to theaters, museums and art schools, groups like Metsenat see themselves very much in the mold of their Russian predecessors. The society's name derives from the French for Maecenas, a famous Roman patron of the arts; the Russian term metsenat was common in prerevolutionary times.


For members of Metsenat this is a crucial moment to restore not only what was lost, but to nurture a still-fledgling arts scene. Indeed, Davydova says, the more dire the economic circumstances, the better the culture.


"It's surprising but in Russia, the worse the material situation is, the better our cultural life becomes", she said. "I know it's a paradox, but it's true".


As part of their mission, Metsenat members target specific areas of art. Crosna, a telecommunications firm, for example, has been focusing on sculpture lately. The firm has opened a sculpture salon, called the Crosna-Status Gallery, in the Moscow Academy of Arts on Ulitsa Prechistenka.


In the case of the sculptor Frangulyan, who only goes by his last name, Crosna supplied the space for a current exhibition. Frangulyan, whose sculptures mix classical themes and modern techniques, says that he did not need much help from Crosna as far as material was concerned, but he admits that the exhibit could not have taken place without the firm's help and guidance.


"I've been talking for a long time about having an exhibit, but none of the galleries felt right", he said. But then a friend put him in touch with Crosna, and the result is the current show. "Crosna did help me. I am lucky".


Still, despite apparent successes in keeping Russia's arts alive, some of Metsenat's members say they are waging a losing battle.


"Even if we have the financial capability to help art, we have no legislative basis for it", says Alexei Shatalin, acting head of public relations at Inkombank. "What we need is a civilized law, although we don't expect one anytime soon".


So why do firms get involved? Davydova says it is mystifying even to her. Ultimately, she believes it has to do mainly with prestige.


But the desire to protect Russia's fragile cultural heritage also comes into play. Prominent artists and gallery owners have been saying recently that with the influx of Western television shows, fashion and pop music, the nation's culture is dying. Members of Metsenat, and other companies that aid the arts, do not go that far, but there is a pervasive concern that Russia might lose its artistic identity - and, with that, its past, present and future.


"In some senses, Russian culture is in a crisis because the general situation in the country is so poor", Shatalin of Inkombank says. "But there are some very valuable and unique islands of culture in our society, and our task is to protect and support them".


Indeed, Metsenat is not alone in support of Russia's arts. Smaller firms not affiliated with the group are getting involved too. Germes, a trading firm, raised money for the construction of a new building for the Children's Museum of Art; it also sponsors the Moiseyev Dance Ensemble.


In February, Geros - a Russian-German joint venture company that exports caviar - sponsored "A Squirrel Called Tassel", an opera written by seven-year-old Olya Zarankina. Gero's motivation was simple, and charitable. They sponsored the project, says Raisa Milyukova, the firm's financial director, because "Olya is just a small girl, and children naturally need help".


Recipients of aid from the Metsenat group of companies are excited by the help. MKhAT is planning an elaborate performance of Pushkin's play "Boris Godunov" that will take place in May of 1994. Organizers of the production say that it will cost around 20 million rubles, and will be financed by Inkombank through Metsenat.


"Some firms think that if they pay for airplane tickets or buy curtains for a theater, that means they are corporate sponsors", says Irina Kharchevnikova, MKhAT's press secretary. "That's not true. Real sponsorship is working together and doing serious projects. Metsenat has just begun".


Indeed, Davydova has big plans for the future, despite the fact that there is no friendlier tax legislation on the horizon. She says she will continue to organize events for the group's members, and she plans to put out a culture magazine that also will be called Metsenat.


Meanwhile, for many of those involved in supporting Russia's arts, there is no question of stopping now.


"After 73 years of sovok rule we lost our traditions", said Mikhail Maistrovsky, Germe's general manager, using the slang derogatory term for anything Soviet. "But Russian culture is not dying, it's changing. Change is painful, but our culture will blossom again".