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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Weaned from State, Artists Seek Galleries' Succor

In the evolution of Russian cultural history, Moscow's private art galleries are mere zygotes, simple cells produced by the union of freer political and business environments and a gaping need for new venues of showing art.


In their few post-perestroika years on the scene, dozens of fledgling art galleries have stepped in to fill the gap, acting as art's middlemen, as Russia's new cultural brokers in bringing public and artist together in a mutually beneficial relationship.


During the Soviet period, when the Artists' Union kept a tight grip on artists and their output, life was simpler -- if straitjacketed. "Artists who got into the Artists' Union could survive, for better or worse, but they wouldn't drop out of sight," said Natalya Sopova, art historian and director of Vmeste, a gallery that just entered the fray on Oct. 30.


"[The artist] was guaranteed a certain minimum, given a studio, was in some way supported. On the other hand, he wasn't allowed to breathe."


With breathing room no longer restricted by the state and the influence of the Artists' Union on the wane -- tainted, many think, by its links with the Soviet past -- private galleries have been springing up since the late 1980s. Natalya Kosolapova, director of M'ARS, Russia's first independent gallery, founded by artists from the underground in 1988, estimated the number of galleries in Moscow at close to 100, though she thought that only about 10 of those could be considered "serious."


While each gallery concentrates on showcasing a particular style, promoting certain genres or presenting select artists, each struggles to survive -- without sucking off the federal teat -- amid the political and economic volatility that is today's Russia.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many galleries and their artists survived -- indeed thrived -- on the crest of the wave that was the foreign mania for anything Russian. "The situation then was such that you couldn't finish one work before [foreigners] were saying, 'Give us more, more, more,'" said artist Vladimir Nevrov, 37, who exhibits his works with the M'ARS gallery.


Nevrov, standing in one of that gallery's spacious halls last Wednesday while taking a break from his work on a new canvas, explained that foreigners "bought everything" in those halcyon days because "it was fashionable."


Now the situation has changed radically: The initial voracity of foreigners for things Russian has been sated, and galleries must now develop ways to attract new clients, both Russians and foreigners.


Kosolapova put Nevrov's comments in the context of the wider gallery scene. "In the beginning, the demand was frenzied. Mostly foreigners were buying; they exported tens, hundreds of works. The works were inexpensive, but they were bought in large quantities. As a result, we survived.


"Then with the development of the market economy, wealthy people, the so-called New Russians, appeared. What made me particularly happy was the reappearance of what I saw as a middle class. The middle class is the basis of everything, everywhere.


"People started coming to our gallery -- normal people, intelligent people, doctors, teachers, engineers -- they started buying inexpensive works, but at least they started to buy. That's very positive," Kosolapova said.


Sitting in her office on Malaya Filyovskaya, the walls hung with works by Valery Bashenin, Nikolai Smirnov and Giya Gogitadze, Kosolapova fielded questions about M'ARS while instructing her assistant to take messages on frequent phone calls. Fanning a sheaf of the gallery's colorful catalogues across the table, Kosolapova explained that, though M'ARS is now well established, it nevertheless feels the effects of the fluctuations in the art market.


"Unfortunately, since September of last year, the process started to slow down, I think because of the political-social situation and economic factors. One could create a diagram and see exactly what's happening in the country. The first things to suffer are things such as art, things that are, as it were, unnecessary -- luxury items. The first organizations to get hit are ones such as ours. We felt the drop in demand."


But for M'ARS, the drop in demand for its paintings -- which cost from $250 up to $50,000 -- has not actually threatened its existence. The drop has, however, delayed development of the gallery's mammoth project and raison d'?tre: the creation of a museum of modern art on Pushkaryov Pereulok.


That M'ARS can even entertain the idea of creating a museum -- a complex of both new and old buildings in the city center -- suggests to what extent it has succeeded in the free-for-all that is the Russian art market. In exhibiting what it considers the best and brightest of modern artists from Russia and other CIS countries -- Sergei Sherstyuk, Sergei Sharov, Natalya Nesterova -- M'ARS has used the proceeds of sales to keep the gallery afloat, while setting aside 1,200 works for the museum.


For Kosolapova, the museum of modern art -- the vision of artist and M'ARS board chairman Konstantin Khudyakov -- should have been built long ago. But with the state's emphasis on socialist realism, any progressive movement in art was viewed by the Soviets with skepticism and hostility. "The country that gave the world Kandinsky, Malevich, Orlov and Goncharov, that gave an impulse to modern art -- it doesn't yet have a museum of modern art. That's a shame."


As her gallery pulls together a project whose construction might cost as much as $7 million, Kosolapova hopes that the present political situation will stabilize, thus bringing her Russian buyers back into the fold.


"Up until last year, our clients were divided 50-50, Russians and foreigners. Now it's starting to get a little better again. Apparently, the Duma elections happened, the presidential elections happened, the president had a successful operation. And it seems that there's a relationship between the success of the operation and the number of people coming here. I felt it on the next day."


While Kosolapova and M'ARS are counting on Russian buyers to buoy sales, Natalya Bykova and her NB Gallery are betting on the foreign community. NB, founded in 1991, deals almost exclusively with foreigners, including members of the diplomatic and business communities.


NB strives, Bykova said, "to continually show the best that there is in this country." The gallery focuses on two directions: realism, generally created during the Soviet period -- by such artists as Grigory Kravchenko and Sofia Uranova -- and modern works of young artists, costing from $250 to $5,000.


In selecting works of realism, Bykova and her colleague Anna Eramzhyan, an art historian, travel to Kostroma, Krasnodar and Yaroslavl in search of known artists, occasionally discovering unknown gems in their peregrinations. Bykova sees that the time is ripe for collecting Russian realism. "These are the last years for acquiring good realist painting. It's a dying genre ... It's not likely that the quality of realism will be repeated with such sincerity."


In choosing works of younger, less established artists, Bykova said, "Our main criterion -- in addition to the requirements of professionalism -- is what we call a 'non-commercial direction.' When an artist is starting out, the market economy affects his work. Many spoil their work and create just what people are buying. It's inevitable that some principles go out the window -- after all, a person needs to eat ... But we try to support those who maintain within themselves a true relationship to painting."


Sopova expanded on the perils facing younger artists. "I observe with much interest these young artists, who need recognition now, today, who want to get where they're going by any means. They have mastered the technology of their craft; and they think that that in fact represents success. But it doesn't. They often sacrifice their own creative means, sacrifice their internal world, which is so necessary for creating."


Sipping tea and munching jelly-topped cookies in her office at Vmeste, Sopova actually saw a silver lining in this cloud. "A positive element, strange as it may seem, is that art is in an unbelievably tough situation ... that it needs to survive. It's great that in today's situation there are no superfluous people in art.


"In 1985, 1990, a lot was being bought, particularly by foreigners. Many galleries made their first money in that period. But there were a lot of so-called artists at the time -- it was a way to make money. Now there are no such people in art. Today you can see the steadiest, most tried and true, most valuable. Those who weren't meant to be artists were winnowed out."


That winnowing process may have sifted out a lot of chaff, but those that remain still need support. The salon attached to the Surikov Art Institute found itself floundering in the early 1990s and called on Vyacheslav Kutsenko to help transform the salon into a profitable venture that could support its students, the next generation of artists.


"The tendency in the art market frightens us," said Kutsenko, director since 1991 of what is now called Alma-Mater. "Artists have stopped being creative. They are more and more getting into the commercial aspect of art."


Perched on a couch in his office stuffed with realist paintings of masters past and present, Kutsenko said Alma-Mater chooses to sell works of realism based on "the school, mastery, works that show tradition." Like NB, Alma-Mater sells primarily to foreigners, who often prefer eye-soothing realism to boundary-testing avant-garde.


Of the clash between the impulse to create and the imperative to earn, Kutsenko said, "An artist must find a compromise between the commercial end of things and the creative. It's too bad when you see that an excellent artist, because he doesn't have enough to live on, starts to look at what's selling in the market -- say, flowers. So he sits and paints flowers."


But even if artists remain true to their muse, their profits from exhibiting with a gallery may be only a fraction of the price the buyer eventually pays. Nevrov, for example, said that his "Lovers of Poetry," listed with M'ARS at $7,000, will bring him just $3,000.


Across town from M'ARS, NB and Alma-Mater, the latest player -- Sopova's Vmeste -- presents art that combines elements of the classically beautiful with the modern. "I like art with a positive content, art that's human," said Sopova.


Sopova, who has organized exhibits since 1992, decided finally to open her own gallery. By beginning a venture at a time many are not receiving salaries, she said, "I might seem like a kamikaze."


Sopova has stocked Vmeste with works by Boris Markevich, Andrei Krasulin, Natalya Nesterova and Tatyana Chernova. Occasionally labeled as having conservative tastes, Sopova said, "I in no way share the opinion of the radical galleries ... not because I don't like those forms, but simply because I don't like their content. As a rule, they have a destructive character."


Though Vmeste has been open all of three weeks, it has already attracted a number of clients, both Russian and foreign. Sopova thinks that the fortunes of her gallery in particular and artists in general will depend on the political and economic developments in the country.


"I think the life of the artist depends on how many people will want art. And that's linked to the welfare of the entire nation ... We live practically in an epoch of civil war -- cold, undeclared -- but it's civil war. During war, the artist's is the worst lot, economically, materially."


Sitting in a small office off of his L-shaped, single-room gallery, Dar director Sergei Tarabarov largely echoed those sentiments.


"If now, in the near future, there will not be a strong destabilizing factor in the form, say, of the death of the president, the perspectives of those institutions based on private initiative have a future. If not, we'll divide up into Whites and Reds ..."


Dar, which exhibits and sells works of primitive artists -- the Russian Henri Rousseaus and Grandma Moseses -- is not unlike other businesses, Tarabarov said. "I think that our gallery, as a private business, has a good future. I look, if not with happiness, then with optimism, toward the future -- but on one condition, that the president doesn't die in the next six months to a year ... Culture cannot live in an atmosphere of constant elections."


Vitaly Kopachyov, an artist and the director of A-3, a municipal hall that presents up to 17 exhibits per year, sees that the fate and future of artists and the galleries that promote them depend not so much on political considerations, but on social phenomena, on the birth and growth of a class that can truly appreciate good art.


Sitting on a couch outside his office, Kopachyov took a deep drag on a cigarette, slowly exhaling smoke as he watched a cockroach saunter up the wall toward a painting. Suddenly Kopachyov dispatched this lowest common denominator of the animal kingdom to its eternal reward, smashing it with a deft jerk of his fist.


"You see on whom our fate depends."