Crystal Ball. Contemporary Russian Art as a Window into the Future

You want to look into the future and work out the trends for society’s development? Then deal with contemporary art.

Text: Olga Ippolitova
Translation: Tobin Auber
Posted on: September 11, 2020

As early as 2005-2006, as director of the Regina[1] gallery, and along with the gallery’s entire team, I seriously thought about where to look for new contemporary Russian artists. We looked at the works of graduates from Russian higher education establishments, but all we found were repetitions of the experiments of Soviet realism. There was no real contemporary art to be found. For my contemporaries from the art history faculty where I studied, “contemporary” meant Monet and Matisse. 

The reality changed within just a few years. In 2007-2008, new museums and exhibition spaces were already appearing, along with educational institutions such as ICAM (the Institute of Contemporary Art Moscow), the Rodchenko Art School, the Kandinsky and Innovation prizes and much more. Young artists gained the opportunity to express themselves, collectors could expand their collections in which, previously, there would have been just 5-7 artists. The Russian public learned of contemporary art, and increasingly I would hear that I was working in one of the most fashionable and interesting professions. 

It’s widely believed that the world was introduced to contemporary Russian art following Sotheby’s sales in Moscow on July 7, 1988. These were the first sales to be held by an auction house in Russia, then Soviet Union. They put “unofficial” Russian art on the international market. Western collectors, curators and gallerists discovered Russian artists. The auction was also a commercial success: almost all of the lots were sold, and their prices significantly surpassed the estimates.  “Unofficial” Russian art had existed long before that, of course. Surprisingly, even in conditions of total isolation behind the iron curtain, Russian art developed along the same lines as modern western art. Striking examples of this can be found in the works from the 1960s of the Russian artist Mikhail Roginsky, a representative of non-conformism in the Soviet era. They were created in the mold of the international neo-avantgarde, with that, primarily, meaning pop art.

Some see the cause of this commonality in a unified informational field or context, while others claim that it lies in a collective unconscious. Either way, the ideas creating the new reality are hanging in the air, and borders can’t block them. I note here that, along with our European colleagues, we often choose the same circle of works by Russian artists for major western collections and exhibitions. This is not a matter of our personal tastes coinciding. It is down to the fact that we work in the same environment and our professional intuition tells us that there are no borders in art, and that Russian artists can be understood by the western world and they raise its interest. Our job as experts is to bring order and structure for the general public to this flow of thousands of new works in varied genres. 

Unfortunately, contemporary Russian art is represented by rare group exhibitions that are staged on the principle of a provocative title and “a pair of each kind” approach. It’s preferable that these “foreign creatures” be recognizable in the West and that they shouldn’t put the public off too much. Lenin, the hammer and sickle, communal apartments and other attributes of the Soviet world are perfectly suited to this task, but their relationship to Russian art is akin to that between the horse and cart and the modern car. It seems that European curators can’t keep up with the vast world of contemporary Russian art, and their Russian colleagues are afraid of putting on solo exhibitions for our artists. And that is entirely understandable. Difficulties arise at every step: issues with financing, artists becoming bigheaded after personal exhibitions in Europe, or, on the contrary, the risk that the artist won’t prove popular. Group exhibitions, on the other hand, avoid all those problems. For that reason, curators continue to use Soviet artefacts instead of works of art.  

The Russian public has been luckier. It is being introduced to the finest works of European and American artists, including those from private collections. It’s no secret that every national art develops, first and foremost, through the support of local collectors and patrons: Germans buy works by German artists, the French buy French works, and Spaniards buy Spanish. One of the factors in the success of Chinese art is the large number of Chinese collectors. Russian collectors, however, don’t buy much in the way of Russian art. The problem here isn’t down to its quality – it lies in the inexplicable piety in which Russians hold everything from abroad. Perhaps Peter the Great cultivated this attitude among us? Whatever it stems from, until recently major collectors in Russia preferred to buy the works of European and American artists and to invite in western designers and curators. It’s enough to take a look at the collection of Roman Abramovich and Garage’s exhibition program, particularly in the first years of the museum’s existence. Russian collectors want to find a place within the western community and gain acceptance there, so they buy western artists. Nevertheless, a two-way street where western audiences learned about Russian art and Russian patrons supported their country’s artists would be preferable. It is art that is the bridge between cultures and countries, and I believe that it will help to establish our dialogue with one another. It is art that demonstrates that we have far more views that are shared than differences.

The contemporary art market in Russia was, of course, severely influenced by the global crisis of 2008. Sales were almost entirely halted for a year. Inexperienced Russian collectors – the experience of the bulk of them amounts to just 3-7 years – believe that art doesn’t just provide an aesthetic joy, it also always rises in price. Confronted by the crisis on the art market, many collectors became reluctant to make purchases for a couple of years. It should be understood, however, that a growth in the prices for the art in a collection is always little more than an additional, pleasant bonus. The main rule when buying is that you should like the work. Then you will always be in the plus column. 

You can’t predict the development of events in the world in the modern era: they are influenced by too many variables. But when traditional analytical methods are powerless, contemporary art comes to our aid. If you want to look into the future and predict trends, study the works of contemporary artists. As highly sensitive people, they are time’s mediators, sensing the slightest changes in society and the world and reflecting them in their works as if in a crystal ball. Studying modern art, you begin to understand the issues that will concern humanity in the very near future, which new trends will appear in design and then in fashion. 

The works of the most famous, recognized Russian artists are now in the 20,000-100,000 euro price range, and for a relatively small amount one can create a first-class collection. That’s not possible if you’re buying American or European art. Another advantage for collectors of Russian art is the relatively small (in comparison with the USA and Europe) number of contemporary Russian artists and works. New Russian artists of the early 21stcentury will no longer appear, and those names that we already know have gone down in history. And, as we know, the smaller the quantity of works, the higher their prices in the future. There was a similar situation in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century: pictures by Malevich or Kandinsky now cost several million. 

The fashion for Russia comes and goes. We live, in fact, in an age of change and are highly dependent on politics and the economy. Everything that is linked to our country has now gone out of fashion for obvious reasons, and people try to avoid it. Unfortunately, that has had a major influence on the life of the artistic community: many international projects have been halted; Europeans have lost interest in buying artworks in Russia. The pandemic has further heightened the isolation of Russian art. But it hasn’t gotten any worse for that. 

On the other hand, it seems that for Russian collectors the situation has changed for the better since the beginning of 2020. As has often been the case before in periods of crisis, a qualitative leap has been made on the contemporary art market. We have already witnessed a growth in the number of galleries, artists, exhibition venues and institutions. In Russia and beyond its borders, there are many people – artists, curators, gallerists, collectors – who have continued to work with Russian art over the course of 20-30 years. For example, Yelena Selina founded the XL Gallery, which became one of the leading Russian galleries as early as 1993. Vladimir Cardon, a Belgian collector and descendant of the Gagarin aristocratic family, has been collecting Russian art exclusively for 30 years, continuing the traditions of his forebears. Yelena Belonogova and Nadezhda Zinovskaya in 2018 created a new space, Cube.Moscow – a cluster of modern art galleries and exhibition halls for independent projects. Cube.Moscow’s concept was recognized by NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance) as one of the key innovative and promising business models for the exhibition of modern art[2]. International modern art biennials are held in Russia: in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Shiryayev and Rostov-on-Don. If in the 1990s and 2000s there were just a dozen or so functioning galleries in Moscow and St. Petersburg, now there are dozens right across the whole of Russia. 

Now it is the turn of the collectors. It is the collectors who can allow modern art to continue to develop. Isolation and the impossibility of visiting exhibitions have led to an astonishing growth in the purchase of works of art online, at galleries and at auctions. It seems that collectors have turned their attentions to Russian artists. 

For now, we don’t fully understand who these new buyers are. Are they people who simply find it more convenient to buy online, rather than in galleries and from artists? Or are they modern collectors who see the enormous potential of Russian art? Whatever the case, online sales are ploughing ahead: the Vladey auction house now holds sales every week, instead of four times a year, Shar i Krest (Ball and Cross) successfully sells works using Facebook’s tools, and the Sample auction house has turned from the works of artists who are starting out to more established names. Many galleries are noting a growth in sales, although the last round of exhibition openings was held as far back as the beginning of March. It seems that Russian art has entered a new age and, bearing in mind that historical time is becoming squashed up and condensed, events will develop rapidly. 

While the entire world is arguing about whether or not art finds itself in the same circumstances as the beginning of the 20th century, you’ll have time to jump on to the train that is speeding towards the future, and you can take a collection of works by “the Kandinsky and Malevich of the 21st century” with you. The current century has shown that the risks aren’t great: prices for Russian art in the long-term perspective will grow and it is very possible that the works of artists are the only thing that’s worth taking with you into the future. 

[1] The Regina Gallery was one of the first private galleries in Russia. Founded by Vladimir Ovcharenko in 1990, in 2018 it changed its name to the Ovcharenko. In the 2000s, the gallery worked both with leading Russian artists, such as Sergei Bratkov, Viktor Alimpiev, Pavel Pepperstein and Semyon Faibisovich, and with renowned European artists, such as Jonathan Meese, Erwin Wurm and Daniel Richter. It collaborated with Russian, Ukrainian and European museums. The gallery’s artists were regular participants in biennials in Venice, Moscow and San Paolo.