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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bank Puts Art Collection on Tour

A corporate Tupolev-154 jet, owned by SBS-Agro bank, took off from Moscow on Saturday bound for Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East carrying an unusual cargo: 15 prints by Salvador Dali and 40 graphics by European expressionist artists.

An exhibit of the works opened in Khabarovsk's fine arts museum Monday and will then travel westward through several Russian cities ending up in Voronezh in October.

SBS-Agro bank has been organizing traveling exhibits from its art collection for the past three years. The bank used them to inaugurate its foreign branches in Amsterdam, Brussels and Madrid.

But since the Moscow-based Stolichny bank merged with the rural Agroprombank two years ago and acquired a network of about 1,300 branches around Russia, special art exhibitions have also been held in Russia's remote provinces to raise the new SBS-Agro bank's profile there.

Other large Russian companies including Inkombank, LUKoil and Unikombank have established large collections. But none has made its art so available to the public and used it so efficiently to raise its profile as SBS-Agro.

"To own treasures and sit on them as a caricature bourgeois on sacks with money is simply foolish," President Alexander Smolensky said in a recent interview.

SBS-Agro's art collection is Smolensky's brainchild and his tastes have largely determined its content. Started in 1988, the collection today includes more than 3,000 pieces and is recognized in Moscow art circles as a leader among corporate collections because of its size and quality.

"It has undoubtedly become a model for many new corporate and private collections," said Vladimir Dudakov, chairman of the Moscow Club of Art Collectors.

This year's traveling exhibition marks a daring departure for the bank. Organizers said at a closed showing last week that they are not sure what kind of response sophisticated German expressionists such as Ernst Barlach, Heinrich Zille and Max Lieberman -- who are not well known to the Russian general public -- will get in remote Siberian towns like Blagoveshchensk or Novosibirsk.

Marina Loshak, who holds the peculiar title of the banking group's cultural attache and plays a crucial role as consultant and curator, said she hoped the items by Dali would attract people to the exhibit.But whether or not the locals know who Dali, Zille, Siceiros or Nolde are, the bank insists that the one name they will recognize is SBS-Agro.

The exhibition signals increasing sophistication in Russian corporate PR. "We pursue certain selfish ends," Loshak said. "We try to make a favorable impression on people and win them as clients."

Sergei Meshcheryakov, the bank's spokesman on non-cultural matters, would not disclose the cost of the project but said it was "not very expensive."

Meshcheryakov said Thursday that more than a million people have seen all of the bank's exhibits combined. He also said that guest books with Russians' praise of SBS-Agro's art projects are later sent to Smolensky. "He reads them on cold winter evenings," Loshak said, smiling.

The development of the SBS-Agro collection is characteristic of how the big corporations see themselves. In the late 1980s, the bank started collecting the non-conformist anti-Soviet art of the 1960s.

But as the bank became more established, it looked for a more serious public relations image, even slapping the double-headed eagle on its trademark. The collection also changed and is now dominated by Russian works of 19th century classical realism and 20th century avant garde -- the sorts of paintings that are loved and understood by the wider Russian public.

Russian art is a good investment; with the emerging art market in Russia and large interest among Russia's status-seeking new rich, prices on Russian art are three to four times higher than they were a few years ago and have exceeded prices in the West.

To crown its cultural activities, SBS-Agro officials announced Thursday that by Sept. 5 they will open a permanent gallery in the bank's new representative building on Neglinnaya Ulitsa, next door to the Central Bank's headquarters.