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The art market in Moscow is sustained by the new breed of super-rich businessmen—while their wives have opened a string of commercial galleries

“Most contemporary art collectors today are intellectuals who own their own company”

Moscow

As Russian art continues to escalate in price on the international market (see p.58) a few enterprising individuals in Moscow and St Petersburg are banking on being able to sell Russian contemporary art, both Russian and international, to their fellow countrymen.

In the past 18 months, at least five contemporary galleries have opened in Moscow and sales, though still modest compared to London and New York, have so far exceeded many people’s expectations.

Russian gallery owners are mainly the wives of wealthy businessmen and what they lack in experience, they make up for in enthusiasm and cash.

“These Moscow galleries are large, very modern spaces, with climate control, security and lighting as good as any gallery in New York or London and the owners are serious and certainly ambitious”, says Nic Ilijne, director of corporate development for Europe and the Middle East at the Guggenheim Foundation.

As Europe’s second most populous city—and the one with the highest concentration of billionaires on the planet—Moscow offers a large pool of potential customers. The current torrent of petro-dollars has transformed the Russian capital into a boomtown and a lucrative centre for the sale of traditional art, however, a small and growing number of buyers has now graduated to contemporary art.

“Previously we only had buyers looking for gifts but recently a group of genuine collectors has appeared”, says Marat Guelman, a gallery owner and collector based in Moscow. “Most contemporary art collectors are intellectuals who own their own company.” Not everyone would agree with Mr Guelman’s description of the new breed of super-rich Russian businessmen, but he is certainly right to point out that the Russian art world which lacks any kind of infrastructure or depth, is very much in the hands of the rich and powerful.

Many believe that the first Moscow Biennale this January was a major boost to the contemporary scene because it attracted a new breed of young, international collectors to the city.

“The facts shows that the contemporary art market in Moscow is maturing”, says Mr Ilijne. “People like Katherine Burton of Christie’s held lectures and roundtable discussions in Moscow on how to build a collection. The Moscow Fine Arts Fair is planning its second enlarged edition this September, and Western galleries such as Marlborough are returning”, he explains.

Others, such as Victor Misiano, the Moscow biennale’s first curator who resigned following disagreements with the Russian authorities on how the Biennale should be organised, describe the event as a sham imposed by the authorities and designed to imitate Western models of biennales without offering any real opportunities to talented, local artists. It was also, according to Mr Misiano, an irresponsible waste of the very limited funds available to art and artists in Russia (see p.32). Despite these reservations, it is certainly true that the market in Russia is expanding rapidly.

In the past year, Russians have bought works by Robert Mapplethorpe, Alex Katz, Ilya Kabakov and Andy Warhol for prices between $30,000 and $500,000. Sources say that works by Anthony Gormley, Stephan Balkenhol, Vik Muniz, and Tony Oursler have already been reserved by the Russian buyers, in Moscow galleries.

While visiting RuArts, the youngest of the new Moscow contemporary art galleries, The Art Newspaper bumped into the photographer Spencer Tunick who had just arrived to install an exhibition of his photographs. The gallery’s owner, Marianna Sardanova, the wife of a businessman with interests in the natural gas sector, is a collector in her own right who owns around 70 works of contemporary art and around 50 by Soviet-era non-conformist artists. The contemporary Russian artists she collects include Afrika, Alexander Zakharov, Andrei Popov, and Igor Vyshnyakov.

“I started by buying traditional art but contemporary art is so much more interesting because it gives you the chance to discover artists”, says Mrs Sardarova, sitting in her luxurious four-storey gallery in downtown Moscow which is the envy of the Russian art world. “Collecting is like a game for me, and I become really involved.”

Another collector, Sergei Borisov, a veteran Moscow non-conformist artist and photographer, works as a consultant for RuArts and promotes young local artists. His latest discoveries include a 20-year-old artist known simply as Aglaya who has just completed a series of paintings parodying the traditional art tastes of Russia’s nouveaux riches. “Today there are a number of businessmen who collect contemporary art”, says Mr Borisov. “But,” he concedes, “it is difficult to find excellent work by Russian artists, and when you do, it comes with a price tag of anywhere up to $50,000”.

RuArts’ director Sabine Orudjeva says that building trust is a crucial first step in this fledgling market and is the reason that Russian galleries try to secure exclusive agreements with artists in order to guarantee authenticity. “The small group of Russians interested in contemporary art are still not sure what they want exactly but there is a lot of interest in mixed media and photography”, says Ms Orudjeva. “Work that is slick and highly finished tends to attract the most interest”, she says.

The art market in Russia is mostly based in Moscow but there are also a handful of galleries in St Petersburg. These include D-137, run by Olga Kudratsyeva and the Marina Gisich Gallery. Like their counterparts in the Russian capital, both women opened their galleries with funding from their businessmen husbands. “Thank God there are some wealthy Russian women who want to spend money on art and not opening a beauty salon”, says Teresa Mavrica, director of the Stella Art Gallery. “But having money is not enough; you have to be able to put together a professional team.”

Stella Art, named after its Russian owner Stella Kay, was the first Moscow gallery to bring Western artists to the city. Six months ago it opened a second space in Moscow to show work by Russian artists. “Russians tend to move slowly, but once they catch on, there’s no stopping them”, says Ms Mavrica. Last year the Guggenheim and Hermitage museums worked with Stella Art to organise the first major exhibition in Russia devoted to the work of the Kabakovs. The collaboration was good for business. The gallery brokered the sale of three Kabakov works for almost $1 million to a Western buyer. Its most expensive sale to a Russian collector was a work by Warhol for $400,000.

The Russians are coming

The growth of the art market in Russia has made it easier for Western dealers to find talented Russian artists by working with the increasing number of galleries specialising in contemporary art in both Moscow and St Petersburg. The result is a growing number of commercial shows in both London and New York devoted to Russian artists. This painting by Kerim Ragimov, Mercedes-Benz ML 430/Shishkin 2003, inspired by Ivan Shishkin’s Morning in the pine woods, was bought by the English collector Frank Cohen for £10,000 from Museum 52 in London. It is on display until 28 May as part of the artist’s first solo show in the UK

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘“Most contemporary art collectors today are intellectuals who own their own company”