s e p t e m b e r  1,  2012

Most of us doubtless remember the much-talked-about “closure” of three leading Moscow galleries of contemporary art. The event was in the focus of numerous press stories and vibrant discussions in the social networks. The debate was quite heated, and the point was even not the fact that some people like contemporary art while others do not understand or approve it, not to speak of downright rejection. Personal likes or dislikes for the key figures in those developments were even less relevant: those guys had been active in the emergent Russian art business for years, and now said they could not carry on as usual in the given circumstances.

I closely followed the developments and the various statements, views and suppositions that came from the participants in those debates. Only once did I put a question to the debaters: why do all of their endless discussions center only on contemporary art galleries, as if the problems raised by the gallerists were not typical of our so-called art market as a whole? Do the gallerists dealing in modern art enjoy any special privileges? Or are they living in another country and selling art to some different people? There was no answer, nor did I expect any. I would agree with the opinion voiced by some that all theballyhoo looked like a well-thought-out PR stunt. Even if that is true, I think that the need to attract public attention to the prevalent situation justifies resort to PR actions.

It’s a pity that in the heat of debates about collectors who had left the country, the need for a government contribution to national cultural development and other issues few of the debaters gave any thought to the deep-seated causes of what was going on. Indeed, what made the people who had invested twenty or thirty years of their lives into running galleries drop everything just like that? Just imagine how serious the reasons must be behind such decisions.

Now there has come the news that two more galleries are leaving Winzavod. Of course, the press reports developments involving only more or less familiar players, while those of lesser status or fewer media connections, leave the scene inconspicuously. So while XL, Aidan, Guelman, Meglinskaya and Paperworks get transformed into other institutions or relocated to new sites, other, less known galleries simply wither away. Citing a popular old song, now well forgotten, “…the troop has not noticed the loss of a fighter…” Many people say today that new galleries take the place of those that close down – the holy place is never empty. But, from the vantage point of my 25-year experience in gallery management, I will dare ask: are you so sure that the place is still “holy”? The emphasis is on STILL.

 

Васильев Олег Look Back as You Go Down the Alley

Олег Васильев. Из стихов Всеволода Некрасова. 1991

 

Once started, I will carry on, but this is my personal opinion. A while ago, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the very notions of gallery and gallerist were something new and even innovative for our country and our life. No one actually knew how they should function or collaborate with artists, inheritors and museums. Financial relations between artists and gallerists and the art market as such were terra incognita. I would add, in parentheses, that I don’t think that any art market has taken shape in Russia, but this is a very different subject. So, at that time the gallerists, in addition to organizing exhibitions and trying to establish relations with artists, visitors, sponsors and eventually collectors, carried out a noble educational mission, as the public saw it.They served as a sort of bridge, they were guides for all those who wished to enter the little-known world of present-day relations with art in general and contemporary art in particular. They did so mostly by intuition, making lots of mistakes and getting bruised in the process, but it was real. Galleries offered many artists opportunities to exhibit without waiting for a major “anniversary” as a chance for a solo show in one of the official halls of the Moscow Artists’ Union.  Galleries paid their own way, occasionally getting as remuneration some of the exhibiting artists’ works that nobody wanted at the time. For the most part the galleries were a sort of clubs for art lovers rather than commercial entities and active art market players.

Then there came a short period of interest on the part of the emergent class of wealthy people, the result being not just a marked growth of prices for art, but also opposition between contemporary and modern art, scuffling for clients, and so on. Our gallerists had to demonstrate in every way that they were interested in pure art and sold artworks against their will, just out of the need to keep afloat without making any fuss. In my view, this is a difference of principle between our and Western galleries: over there no one denies that they do business while we hold out the fig leaf of innocence and “virginity”. But it is crassness rather than virginity.

Nothing good could have come out of that at a time of the virtually anarchic market. Frictions with artists, inheritors and collectors ensued. The public revised its attitude to galleries and their owners as well: once viewed as trailblazers and devotees, they were now “capitalist sharks”, battering on artists and their inheritors and seeking to dupe collectors by palming off fakes onto them. My conclusion from the above is that absolutely all the participants in the failed Russian art market are to blame for this situation, including gallerists, independent curators, dealers, artists, art critics, journalists, experts, museum custodians and collectors – in short, all of us related to art in one way or another. We found neither strength nor opportunity to try and build our “common home” with civilized relations among “neighbors”. We failed to find a language that would be understood by all players or to structure their legal relations and liabilities. Today we are reaping the fruit of our failure. What a shame!

The point is not only the few Russian collectors who have left the country, or government’s absolute indifference to what is going on in culture (people there are busy carving up budgets, and doing so with gusto). Nor the desire of all Russian artists to live in luxury, just like their (very few, mind you!) western colleagues. Nor the disappearance of art criticism in Russia; I mean not reporting, but wise, well-argumented and respectful criticism. Nor the absence of the institution of expert evaluation or experts who would take moral, financial, legal and simply personal responsibility for their work.Nor the lack of any legal support or even a semblance of legal clarity in matters of inheritance and copyright. All this put together has brought about today’s pitiful situation, a sort of man-made catastrophe in the cultural sphere. The old mechanisms are too worn down. What we have, of course, is a crisis: Russians are not used to buying art, and successful businessmen are absolutely unaware of their role in history and refuse to take any responsibility for it. Government officials are absolutely indifferent and would not contribute in any way to supporting and developing culture. We just chase away any thought about that, we don’t care about what the future generations will remember us with. Indeed, why bother? We don’t have that much time to take every opportunity that comes our way, we don’t know what happens tomorrow.

Recently I started thinking about ideal exhibition grounds for my new projects, went through all the known sites in Moscow and realized that none suited my purpose. Some are too cramped, in othersexhibition space and equipment does not meet today’s standards, to still others people just won’t go because it is practically impossible to get there, and still others are off-limits irrespective of the quality of their ideas or their contributors. And this is yet another of the multitude of the existing problems.

If not thanks to but in spite of all that, seasoned gallerists and novices will still engage in art and enlightenment efforts. Time has come to look for new formats and new forms of exhibition activity. New institutions will come to replace the old ones. Viewers today are no longer satisfied with an ordinary exposition of a good artist in a small gallery; they want more, they want shows.Just look at today’s art: in fact, it boils down to endless attempts to organize a show with the very artwork. And those who deal in modern art will indeed have to rack their brains to find a new way of showing art to viewers and communicating with them.

It is time we try and find some new ways of using our strength, knowledge and experience. We are yet to see whether it’ll be a Foundation, a creative studio or some heretofore unknown and yet to be invented form of a cultural initiative, but it is bound to come along.

This is how a wish to inform the public of the far from easy decision to close the Moscow-based 2.36 Gallery has resulted in the appearance of another text that is not entirely of an Internet format.