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From Russia with art: meeting London's newest gallerists

Are these women the real deal?

“My ambition is to one day show work at Frieze Art Fair,” says Nonna Materkova, founder of the commercial contemporary art gallery Calvert 22, which opened in London’s Shoreditch last month. Ms Materkova is one of many Russian women making inroads into the London art scene. She is in talks, for instance, to establish a contemporary art fund for Russian contemporary art with a major UK institution. “There is very little art of this kind in UK museums,” she says.

Raised in St Petersburg, Ms Materkova has run Roslink, her London-based corporate finance consultancy, for the past nine years but only began collecting contemporary art last year. Her collection consists mainly of works by contemporary Russian artists including Dmitri Gutov and the AES+F collective, though she owns two prints by Damien Hirst.

“I bought the Calvert 22 building earlier this year and own the controlling stake in the company. Outset, the contemporary art fund, supported the opening show of work by 18 emerging international artists, ‘Fresh Air Machine’ (until 31 October, prices range from £300-£18,000),” she adds. Other stakeholders include John Gordon, co-owner of Intelligence Squared, a company that organises debates and discussions.

A show of Russian contemporary art is set to open at the venue next March. Ms Materkova is also planning to collaborate with Triumph gallery in Moscow and aims to establish the space as a forum for business and art professionals. “We are right next to the City, after all,” she adds.

Calvert 22 is not the only Russian venture looking to major business corporations. ARTiculate, a London-based contemporary art fund founded last year, has pulled off a coup by securing sponsorship from the German arm of the Russian natural gas giant Gazprom for its forthcoming exhibition “The Mushrooms of the Russian Avant-Garde” at Club Row, Rochelle School in London’s East End (5-22 November). The show will include recent works by the conceptual artists Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina.“Gazprom, like other Russian corporations, is now keen to be associated with contemporary art,” said Nadim Samman, curator of the forthcoming ARTiculate show, a non-commercial project. The collection of Gazprom Germania consists of around 150 paintings and works on paper, the majority by Russian artists. Gazprom Germania representatives are set to attend the Frieze Art Fair this week.

The ARTiculate co-founders—Lyuba Galkina, a marketing consultant for UK and Russian multinational companies; Nana Zhvitiashvili, curator in the department of contemporary art at the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg; and Lada Komarova, who previously managed a Russian contemporary art gallery in Chelsea, London—say they will be looking for “younger German artists [at Frieze]…and for art that refers to the idea of the Russian avant-garde”. Last year, they purchased a work on paper by Richard Prince and a Jonathan Meese painting. Other artists represented in the fund collection include Louise Bourgeois, Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi and Yuri Avvakumov of Russia. “We do not plan to sell works in the short-term,” says Ms Galkina.

Dealer Anya Stonelake was the first to break ground. She set up her White Space gallery in a church off Oxford Street in 2001 and has introduced work by leading Russian artists, including Oleg Kulik and Antanas Sutkus, to the capital. White Space’s latest show, in its new home near White Cube (F13) in central London, is “Object Salon” (until 22 November), a survey of small-scale sculpture with work by the Nepokorennie Group, a collective of emerging artists from St Petersburg.

Ms Stonelake told The Art Newspaper in 2003 that “the market [for Russian contemporary art] in London is very, very small”. This week, however, she is set to escort “loads and loads” of mainly Moscow-based Russian collectors around Frieze Art Fair and Zoo.

This flood of Russian buyers has prompted the Paris-based, Volgograd-born dealer Ilona Orel to open a new gallery at Howick Place near Phillips de Pury in London early next year. “We’ll show mainly Russian artists, such as Andrei Molodkin and Yuri Shabelnikov, alongside international practitioners, such as Ivan Messac of France,” she said. “We want to seduce the international public…we think the UK market is very dynamic.”

So will these women be able to make a mark on the London art scene? The UK-based Russian oligarchs who have dominated the art market in recent months, such as Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich and steel billionaire Alisher Usmanov, have reportedly lost $20.3bn and $11.7bn respectively during the recent economic crisis.

“Russia may not be so disrupted by a world slump. Contemporary art is so fashionable in Russia now. Russian art is the new Chinese art, so to speak,” said Ms Materkova. This rapidly expanding market is reflected in the recent decision by London-based auction house Phillips de Pury to sell a controlling stake to the Moscow-based Mercury group, a luxury brands conglomerate that owns the TSUM department store in the Russian capital. “The move puts us in a better position to intensify our efforts with Russian collectors both in Russia and internationally,” said Simon de Pury, chairman of Phillips de Pury. But international buyers are also fuelling the surge for Russian art. Ms Orel says that most of her clients come from the US, Korea, Israel, Italy and Germany.

However, the market for Russian modern and contemporary art has recently lost momentum. Four London auction houses made £68.9m ($135.3m) in their Russian works of art sales in June. The estimate for the sales was £68.5m-£98.6m ($134.6m-$193.7m), excluding premiums. Dealers and collectors blamed the disappointing results on “exorbitant estimates” but all eyes will be on next month’s Russian art auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

So where does this leave Calvert 22, ARTiculate and Orel Art? Matthew Bown, a private dealer who writes the Izo.com Russian art blog, says: “The ghettoisation of the Russian art scene seems to be coming to an end.

The collection strategy of ARTiculate, who have assembled a mix of Russian and non-Russian artists, is representative of the new outlook. Calvert 22 represents [the] next step: a Russian-run gallery with a stable of British artists. However, it’s a small-scale operation. It may be that Russian money, one way or another, will help to sustain the contemporary market through the credit crunch.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'From Russia with art'