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The New Russian Money

50,000 ruble Russian banknote, 1995. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

50,000 ruble Russian banknote, 1995. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The unofficial art movement of the old Soviet Union was formed by an absence of market. Artists within the restricted circle of the vanguard produced artworks and showed them to each other; the work conformed to no external esthetic standards, since it wasn’t going to be sold, and it was made without much concern for an audience, since its only viewers would be personally acquainted with the artists and their circumstances. Glasnost changed all that. The international boom in Russian art meant that the artists of Moscow and Leningrad could exhibit their work across the West, and sell it to the numerous Western collectors who appeared on the scene. It also meant that they might try to make art with a Western audience in mind: if their production was to go to the Western museums, it had to speak in an essentially international language.

Yet although glasnost brought Western attention on a grand scale to Russian art, it did not waken a comparable enthusiasm at home. “You know, I can play at being a minor celebrity abroad,” Larisa Rezun-Zvezdochetova said to me as she stood beside her installation at the 1990 Venice Biennale, “but in my own country, only my friends and family know my name and my work.” The Russian intelligentsia, wildly excited by their new access to the West, were curious about contemporary American and European art and disdainful of art made at home. In this they extended a Russian pattern going back well before the Revolution.

These attitudes are now changing, for a number of reasons. First, though some Russian artists have devoted patrons in the West, and sometimes make their way into international exhibitions, the late ’80s’ slightly hysterical enthusiasm for Russian art has died down. The general decline of the art market has meant that the money Westerners once spent happily to export work from Russia (a complicated and expensive business), or to export Russian artists to make work in the West, has all but disappeared. At the same time, the Russian romance with things Western has been moderated. People who once thought that the answers to all Russia’s problems would come from the West now understand that Western principles can be applied in Russia only as redefined for their new context; Russians are putting less faith in imitating Western standards and becoming more focused on Russian ideas and solutions. Finally, there is now money in Russia. Despite the dwindling GNP and spiraling inflation, Russia now has a substantial wealthy class, and a natural body of collectors. If Western financing of Russian art is petering out, Russian money is on the increase. This has had a profound effect on the attitudes of Russian artists.

When I first began looking at Moscow art, in the late ’80s, I had to visit artists in their cramped studios to see their work. With the opening of Aydan Salakhova’s First Gallery, in 1989, the artists of Moscow discovered a home venue. Moscow now boasts an enormous range of galleries. Dozens of storefronts sell decorative landscapes and bad reinterpretations of Constructivism to tourists, and occasionally to Moscow housewives dressing up their new homes. But there are also the serious places: Salakhova’s new Aydan gallery, the Guelman gallery, the Yakut gallery, and several others all show accomplished work. They also function basically along the lines of Western galleries, though the matter of exclusive contracts is still unsettled, and the best Moscow artists tend to show at all of them: “And why shouldn’t everyone sell my work,” one artist asked me, “the same way every supermarket in the West sells Hellman’s mayonnaise? That’s capitalism.” The gallerists are frustrated by this, but there is little they can do. “You have to be able to offer an artist something in exchange for exclusivity, and no one yet understands what we have to offer,” complains Salakhova. “Everyone promotes everyone.”

These galleries sell to a handful of faithful Western collectors, and they often show artists who have proved themselves first with exhibitions abroad. But they are also selling increasingly not only to local private buyers, but to corporate collections–radically new entities in Russia, but flourishing ones. This year the collection of Russia’s Rinaco corporation was exhibited in its entirety in Paris, where the many Rinaco executives who accompanied it seemed thoroughly to be enjoying the role of patron of culture. They then entertained visitors from France when the exhibition was recreated in Moscow. Other corporate collectors turn to Moscow galleries for Western work, which they hang in their offices to impress Western visitors. In July, Salakhova sold four prints by Andy Warhol to a Moscow corporate collector, who received enormous media attention in Russia for the purchase.

Parallel to the commercial galleries are the noncommercial spaces. The El gallery, run by Lena Romashko and supported privately, shows installations by top Moscow artists. Josif Bahkshteyn’s Moscow ICA and Viktor Miziano’s center for contemporary arts are nonprofit spaces showing both Western and Russian work, often in combination. The audiences for these exhibitions are mostly people in the cultural sphere, though a smattering of the new rich follow developments in the nonprofit area to inform their purchases at the commercial galleries. And then there’s multimillionaire Vladimir Ovcherenko’s Regina Gallery, named for his wife, which puts on enormous, expensive exhibitions of extravagant and ridiculous art with the clear intention of creating scandal. This year at the Regina Gallery there have been animal sacrifices and men wrestling with lions, and artists and collectors attending a dinner under the gallery’s aegis were spurred into physical brawls with each other. The Russian tabloid press writes about the Regina Gallery the way the American tabloid press writes about Roseanne Arnold.

The American robber barons of the 19th century, having arrived simultaneously at great wealth and great vulgarity, turned to art as the mark of legitimacy that would integrate them into society. They became patrons of culture. The dream of Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie has risen in the territories of the old Soviet Union, and is at its highest pitch in Moscow. Of course, it’s all just beginning there; most of the new Moscow wealth is still spent at the vulgarity stage, on displays of ostentation that boggle the mind. In the countryside just outside Moscow this spring I saw the dachas of the dollar millionaires. One man was living in what appeared to be a wooden church: “I thought the church near my grandmother’s house was the prettiest building in the world,” he explained, “So I built an exact copy of it to live in.”

“I see myself as helping to educate this population,” Salakhova told me. “They have money, but often they have no idea what to do with it. They buy cars. They buy apartments. They have showy parties with gypsy music. And after that, they need someone to show them what is beautiful.” If the artists of Russia began by speaking in a secret language, then went on to speak in a Western language, they must now seek out a language that will be accessible to the new Russia. “Everything used to be mediated through government,” Rinaco curator Olga Swiblova said to me. “Not any more.” The artists and the consumers of art, kept at so rigorous a distance in the communist period, are now having to face each other. Everyone is accountable. The market is changing the artists, but, perhaps more visibly than in the West, the artists are also changing the market, and their values, their ideals, are being pressed on an opening territory of ignorant, eager consumers.