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Financial crisis scuppers Moscow World Fine Art Fair

Exhibitors fear that collectors will no longer make high-price purchases

The Russian economy has claimed its biggest arts casualty with the cancellation of the Moscow World Fine Art Fair (MWFAF), due to run from 29 May to 4 June, by its Geneva-based organiser, Art Culture Studio, amid concerns that sales would falter. The same company also announced the cancellation of its Salzburg fair in August.

“The major issue was more the fact that collectors were being watched closely and that it was unlikely they would spend large amounts of money at the fair,” Sixtine Crutchfield, general manager of the fair, told The Art Newspaper following the 30 January announcement. “We have suspended our fair activities until further notice.”

In the past five years, MWFAF has become the most important event in the Russian market, bringing about 70 international galleries to Moscow each year, as well as major jewellery firms. In 2008, Art Culture Studio said the value of art and jewellery on sale was more than E1bn.

“As long as the price of oil stays low—and this looks to be the case for the next few years—then Russians won’t be able to spend large sums of money on art,” said Emelyan Zakharov, a collector and co-owner of Triumph Gallery.

However, despite Russia’s worsening economy, Art Culture Studio said overall interest among dealers remained strong. “Most of last year’s exhibitors were due to return, and we had more interest this year from American and European galleries,” Ms Crutchfield said. “Those who cancelled were mainly newcomers who got cold feet.” She said about six exhibitors had pulled out in January, including Spanish art galleries new to the fair and Russian contemporary galleries.

Igor Markin, a Russian contemporary art collector and owner of the private museum Art4.ru, said sales at MWFAF had not been strong even before the crisis. “Art events with high overheads such as MWFAF will certainly now be cancelled because there is no sense in spending money on a falling market,” he said.

In December, Mr Markin reduced Art4.ru’s operating hours to one day a week, but he is not throwing in the towel. “I consider it necessary to preserve the collection and museum,“ he said. “I will no longer consider selling the museum, which only made sense during the era of the bubble.” He now only acquires “very inexpensive” or artist-donated works.

In a separate development, Art Moskva, Russia’s main contemporary art fair, has been postponed from 13 May until late September to coincide with the Moscow Biennale. Vasily Bychkov, general director of Expo Park, which organises the fair, said international galleries were more likely to participate at a time when international curators and collectors were already in town for the biennale.

In early February, Expo Park was forced to lower rents to E150 per sq. metre because rebel galleries—angered by a rent increase—threatened to pull out and organise their own fair.

As recently as December 2008 the Moscow art scene was upbeat, but pessimism set in quickly after the New Year. “What happened with contemporary art was a bubble—prices have to fall about tenfold, and only then will there be a rebound,” said Mr Markin. Nevertheless, he sees a silver lining. “Low-budget exhibitions will continue to be successful, even though sales will be at a minimum,” he added.

Meanwhile, director Joseph Backstein dismissed as “nonsense” rumours that the Moscow Biennale might be cancelled. It is scheduled to run from 24 September to 24 October.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Financial crisis scuppers Moscow fair'