Why Russian art has been left in the cold
Source:The Art Newspaper Author:Mikhail Kamensky Date: 2015-06-02 Size:
As a slimmed down Russian Art Week opens in London (auctions 1-3 June), Mikhail Kamensky, the managing director, CIS, of Sotheby’s Russia, writes about why Russian art……

Alexei Savrasov’s The Volga near Yurevets (1870) leads Sotheby’s 2 June auction in London. Last exhibited in 1871, the work was believed lost until it was rediscovered in France last year (est £1.4m-£1.8m)

As a slimmed down Russian Art Week opens in London (auctions 1-3 June), Mikhail Kamensky, the managing director, CIS, of Sotheby’s Russia, writes about why Russian art has been marginalised on the international stage. The below is an abridged translation of an article that appears in The Art Newspaper Russia’s June edition.

The auction results fr om November’s Russian Art Week sales were disappointing: when you don’t quite understand wh ere your country is heading you are unlikely to spend money on art. But while Russians are known to adapt quickly to negative news, the effect on the art market raises another question: why is Russian art so reliant on Russian buyers?

A hidden history

During the 70 years of the Soviet Union’s history, the art market was monopolised by the state. This meant that the majority of works by the then leading artists headed straight to museums, now almost all of them are stuck in storage. On the international stage, Russian and Soviet art served solely as propaganda. Western collectors and museums were not interested in buying art that was concentrated around politics and by artists sel ected for their ability to depict the Soviet ideological doctrine. Russia’s Old Masters weren’t shown that much abroad, and so the leading artists remained outside the reach of museum curators, on the outskirts of Western art history.

The market therefore chose to ignore Russian art as well—with the exception of avant-garde pioneers such as Kazimir Malevich and the descendants of Russia such as Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall—defining the majority of Russian artists as provincial.

Disapora’s taste for the international

Meanwhile, Russia’s elite, with its enormous financial clout, is dispersed all over the world, and—at least since the 1990s—has been trying to integrate locally. In this context, what can artists like Alexei Savrasov, Boris Kustodiev, Konstantin Korovin or even Valentin Serov say to a foreigner? These names are completely unknown and their works not easy to understand. There are no books written about them, neither are they included in course books or museum collections. The conclusion is obvious: it is preferable to buy works that help build a dialogue with your neighbour, in your expensive neighbourhood. If the Russian names don’t provoke a reaction, then Western Old Masters, Impressionists, Modernists, or—even better—heroes of contemporary art will. Hence Russia’s art has gradually lost its loyal collectors.

Impact of Ukraine crisis

Come the 2000s, the powerful taste for Russia’s contemporary art had become the main rival to the traditional art that was collected. Prices for both grew and led to a gallery boom in Moscow, thus the renaissance of the Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art, the Artplay Design and Architecture Center and various other spaces for art. But between 2008 and 2010, those who bought contemporary art began to leave the country, taking their fortunes and collections with them. Thus Russia’s contemporary artists lost a significant part of their audience. But the market for older art stayed solid until 2013, setting records at auction and within Moscow’s closed market.

Then came the Ukraine crisis. The people who had created the bulk of the demand for art inside the country sustained financial and moral losses and curtailed their activity. In addition, the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev—under which the contemporary art market had blossomed—was replaced by a more conservative influence once he became prime minister.


Russian art needs to be organically blended into the world’s art history, a task—both political and cultural—that should be a foreign policy priority. The visual Esperanto of Russia must incorporate art fr om Russia’s silver age (early 20th-century) and Modernism with that of its better-known avant-garde artists.

The recent opening in New York of the exhibition Russian Modernism: Cross-Currents of German and Russian Art, 1907-1917 is a milestone event (Neue Galerie, until 31 August). The side-by-side comparison of museum quality works by artists both known and unknown to visitors, in such a key institution, cannot go unnoticed.

Meanwhile, private museums and foundations, for Modern and contemporary art, are active in Russia, and also run projects outside of the country. They have purchasing power and the more ambitious their plans, the greater is their influence on the art market. My hopes for recovery and development are pinned on such institutions. Not only for the market for Russian artists, but for the entire cultural scene.

The activities of the key promoters of Russia’s Modern and contemporary art are of great importance. These include Igor Tsukanov, a London-based hedge fund manager who has a collection of Russian post-war art; Stella Kesaeva, the founder of Moscow’s Stella Art Foundation and the curator of the Russian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale and Teresa Iaricci Mavica, who helped to set up the Stella Art Foundation and is now the director of Russia’s V-A-C Foundation, dedicated to developing Russia’s contemporary art.

When it comes to the art market, the most important event in the history of Russian art of the second half of the 20th-century was the groundbreaking Sotheby’s auction in Moscow in 1988. Its success had an enormous influence on the destiny of several generations of artists and radically changed the state of affairs of the market. I believe that, should the political backdrop soften, a similar event could play an important role in promoting Russian art around the world. Like it or not, auction records influence mass consciousness much more than even the most significant exhibitions or projects.

What the state can do

For many decades, the Ministry of Culture has looked carefully at its purchasing policies and has been known to have a modest budget. Yet the state has huge financial resources that we cannot disregard. In 2014, president Vladimir Putin earmarked Rb1bn (then equivalent to nearly $30m)—a huge amount for the Russian market. The questions are how, when and on what was this record-breaking sum spent?

As well as money, the art world’s players—museums, collectors, dealers, experts and other intermediaries—want proper political, legal and administrative support. For example, for a long time, Russia’s society has sought a law to promote the development of arts patronage as an urgent replacement to its current laws on import and export of cultural property.

[Editor] 尹迎杰