The Russian art market today: current situation, practices and perspectives

Anton Belov confides his perception of the art market, speaks about the Garage local engagement, and explains why private institutions are taking the lead and what makes Garage such a unique model.

Anton Belov, director of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow since 2010, shares his opinion about the current state of the market, and gives some valuable insights about the business model of the most progressive and successful private contemporary art institution in Russia.

Interview by Laure Debouttiere from February 14th, 2019 at the Garage Café, Moscow, reviewed on 12/03/2018 by Alexandra Serbina.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I would like to get your opinion about the current situation of the art market in Russia and Moscow, and also get your perspective about the current challenges and opportunities in the near future.

First of all, I think that most of the problems we are facing in Russia today are due to the lack of infrastructures. At the state/government level, there are no grants program or artist’s studio free of charge. We do not have many art galleries, and our galleries are not present at major art fairs. Most of our successful galleries (the ones that opened in the 90’s) tend to be rather ‘family businesses’ organized around 2 or 3 people only, and therefore, they don’t get big projects from large corporations.
Interestingly enough, at the same time most of the market is still in the gray zone. There are many dealers doing business that are not clearly ‘visible’. Even myself, for instance, I am a collector, I collect graphic art, and I can see how much you can buy from small auction houses and small dealers. As a collector, you should absolutely know them, as they sell a large range of items and works ranging from low prices to paintings for hundreds or millions of dollars. So, this phenomenon became a huge part of our market, but nobody knows about it. As far as the contemporary art market is concerned, more transparency and explanation concerning the value and pricing of works are required. And of course, we need more powerful galleries and auction houses. However, I would not say that everything is bad, because if you look at how many galleries are opening and how many initiatives are started, I think the development is positive. For instance, tonight we have the opening of the Cube. Have you heard about it?

Hmm… I am not sure. What is it?

It is a project taking place in the underground of the Ritz Carlton, at the -2 level. They are opening a 1500 square meters space. 12 galleries, or better said 12 booths, like at an art fair, are presenting works in white cube spaces. They have a small storage space and at the center of this cubic space there is a cafe. I am not sure exactly what the details of the concept are, but this is one example.
With art fair, too, we can see activity going on. Besides Cosmoscow, we will now have another art fair running parallelly each year: Da!Moscow. It is scheduled to start in May for instance.

What will be different at this art fair?

Hard to tell, I think this is competition for Cosmoscow art fair and this is not good for the market.

Do you think that the public, or the participating galleries may be different, more international?

Here, I think that the problems are different. I think that the market is obstructed by several obstacles. When you are bringing art temporarily from abroad and selling it here in Russia you have
to pay tax, I think this is a major problem. It deters foreign galleries to come to Moscow.
Another problem is the tax affecting collectors. Russian collectors are keeping their collections outside of the countries in London, Miami, places in Europe or in a free port in Geneva to avoid tax.
However now, a process to change the law was started, so in the future collectors won’t have to pay taxes on their collection.

So, they are some legal changes happening? 

Yes, changes are happening for private collections and private museums. Now private collectors can bring their collection without paying taxes. Leonid Mikhelson, owner of the V-A-C Foundation, has been very influential.

Are they any cooperation going on between Garage and the V-A-C Foundation?

We are borrowing some pieces of their collection for some projects, but no, we don’t have a particular cooperation. We are rather a little bit in artistic competition.

Okay, so, what is exactly the mission of this new Contemporary Culture Center project of the VAC Foundation?

This question should be addressed to a V-A-C Foundation representative. The concept is uncanny for Russia, it seems to be a ‘House of Culture’. They will have a bakery inside, they will have some exhibitions, they will have a ‘production center’, and they want people to enjoy and participate. It is a little bit like the Soviet Houses of Culture concept. A beautiful space where people are engaged.

Blick auf die Anlage des Center for Contemporary Culture der V-A-C Foundation, im ehemaligen Kernkraftwerk HPP-2. Zur Verfügung gestellt von Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW)
View of the complex of the Center for Contemporary Culture of the VAC Foundation in the former power plant HPP-2. Provided by Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW)

 

What is the model of the former ‘Soviet Houses of Culture’?

The Soviet Houses of Culture were popular institutions in the Soviet Union, created as public spaces to engage workers in various life-building programs. Their genealogy can be traced back to nineteenth-century Italy, when similar spaces formed out of workers’ desire for literacy. It was a very interesting and popular phenomena to socialize in the Soviet Union. On the country side in small and big cities, you found them, every big company also had its own center of culture. It is interesting because Russia is still a very socialistic place. In many different forms you can still feel it. Even when people are doing business, it is never 100% about business. People here still care a lot about each other and are very responsible in a way… it is quite strange. This is what a Culture Center is about.

Thank you for clarifying. So, to summarize again what you just said, you mentioned that the legal system is evolving, and that the situation is improving for both collectors and private museums. But what about private people who want to travel to and from Russia? The need for visa to come to and leave Russia does not stimulate people to come and visit. Correct?

Yes, correct. But, here again, there are some changes going on. At governmental level, a new department has been created and they want to change ‘visa laws’ and make it simpler. Everything will be electronical, and you will be able to get it in 3 days. Russia is very much trying to digitize everything.

Yes, yes… it’s true, compared to many other European countries, it seems that you are ahead in the digitizing process. Also, here at Garage, you have reduced your paper consumption by over 70% I read.

Yes, we are a little crazy about these things. We, at Garage, started to do this program ‘friendlier to the environment’. We also started other ‘pioneers’ programs’: for instance, a program for the inclusion of people with disabilities, and now the government follows our example and wants to implement it in all other Russian institutions.

You are talking about your inclusion projects?

Yes, and what it takes is not only one project, it is a day by day work with the staff. We need to train them and change the habits. This is an on-going process.
Another interesting fact about the market is that, now, the private non-for-profit institutions are getting much more ‘powerful’ than the market.

Are you opposing commercial galleries versus institutions?

Yes! Institutions are becoming much more powerful and they try to support the market. And it is interesting to see that in Russia, since the 1990’s, the art galleries were doing all this work, but now since 2006/2007 the situation is reversed. The institutions are the one supporting the artists and the art market. They are overtaking the work that commercial galleries used to do at the beginning. The institutions are the ones promoting artists and organizing the shows.

Interesting… and what happened in 2006/2007? What changed?

At that time, new institutions started like the Stella Foundation, the Winzavod Center (even if it started like a for profit gallery center and later transformed), VAC Foundation, Garage…it is like the Jewish Museum, the Center of Tolerance which also started to support and be active with contemporary art. A lot of museums started to presenting exhibitions of contemporary art, what was previously done by commercial galleries.

Another interesting fact to me, is the structure of all these institutions. It seems that there is always one person behind each institution. It brings the question of perennity. What may happen if the owner, the founder, the person behind the institution suddenly disappears.

Yes, it’s true. Each institution is the initiative of a person and it’s normal. If you look at all private museums around the globe, they always correspond to the initiative of one important person. It takes like 30 to 40 years to build the support system necessary, to create memberships, stable sponsorship, endowments. We, for example, at Garage, are also building this system support. We are 10 years old and we are now generating over 30% of our funding ourselves. Our idea is to pursue endowment and with the board of trustees to establish a model based on selffunding.
Also catching attention is the opposition between private and public institutions. The public institutions are more dependent on local authorities. If you look at Hungary, or Cuba, or here, governments can close exhibitions. Private institutions and private museums are therefore growing in power and somehow going more ‘public’ than the public institutions themselves as they don’t depend on ‘public’ decisions.

Okay I see… and would you say that it is a global phenomenon or more a Russian specific one?

Maybe it is more a Russian phenomenon because we have 70 years to catch up!

What is your plan?

My goal is to have at least 50% of self- funding.

Do you have a time line for this plan?

No, I don’t because I don’t believe in this type of planning, especially in our economic and political context, but my plan is to increase the % year by year. We had 5% self-funding when I arrived, now we are at over 30-35% and want to reach over 50 % within 5 years.

I would like to come back to the place and role of the commercial galleries. What do you think is happening

It is interesting because artist seem to rather look for residencies with institutions than to look for a gallery representation. Galleries seem to be doing most of their business at the global art fairs and the Chelsea galleries seem to look and work like museum space with huge exhibitions on 2000 to 3000 square meters, but with free entrances…

Yes, you are right. I agree, but where are the ‘brick and mortar’ galleries, the one that visit art fairs.

The thing is that many people have not understood yet, that the future of sales is online. The future generation must buy online and don’t need to go to galleries. You need to have offspace exhibitions at museums, but galleries are no longer needed. Do you know Sample?

No, what is it? It is an App?

No, Sample is an Instagram platform created by 3 young ladies. They are using the Instagram platform to exhibit art and sale without having a gallery. They display online works that are sold in other locations. You can check how much it costs and buy it. They take a little commission, and this form of gallery business is the future.
They are also some ‘online apps for auctions’. I use them to buy art myself. Many people ask me if I do not need to see the work off line, to decide, but for me, I think for me, 80% of the time I am doing the right choice. I buy drawing for hundreds of rubles or maybe up to 5’000 rubles and I can do it online. I save time. I don’t need to go. I just need 30 minutes before going to bed.

Yes, online is definitely the biggest trend! Do you think your behavior is representative of Russian behavior’s pattern? Are they maybe differences between Western and Russian buyers?

I think they are not many difference between Westerners and Russians. Everywhere it is the same: same difference between a capital and the periphery, between real art lovers and not interested in art.

What is your point?

If you go to Kazan where they have only some centers, but they have hundreds of young people coming to exhibitions or in any city of the world you find the same percentage of collectors and art lovers is the same everywhere. A lot of art lovers here are more discrete, they are still in a ‘Soviet type of thinking’, afraid that people could steal your art. Therefore, it is very difficult to access private collections. It is a treasure shown only to a few friends.

What differences do you make between collectors and art lovers?

For me, art lovers are more like the ‘интеллигентный’ the intellectual people, there are a lot of them in Russia, they love art and understand it, but they do not have enough money to buy art.
They just collect art from friends’ present. They are often professor, writers… The collectors are another type of course. They run around the world to collect art and build their collection. This ‘addiction’ is powerful motor in their life and they follow their passion. It is still ‘romantic because it is only two years ago that I started to visit these collections. They started to invite me because the system is quite closed, but now people understand that I am also a member of the system, also collecting. The system is based on reciprocity, you invite each other, you support each other museums, and you show your collection. You invite people who share the same passion: designers, other collectors, patrons…

To close this interview, I would like to discuss two last points.

Sure!

Is there, in your opinion, one or several aspects or specificities of the current Russian art market that would need further investigation, that would be particularly interesting or useful to understand for non-Russian art lovers?
And last, but not least, you have, within less than 10 years, the name of Garage was placed on the list of the top leading institutions for contemporary art. As the manager of this progressive and successful art institution, what do you want to share with other interested in following your lead, what do you want to pass along, what is your ‘recipe’? Where does your inspiration come from?

Well, I am inventing all the departments myself. I have a concept in my head. I am building an entire eco-system

Oh!... would you mind sharing it with me?

Of course not!... Laughs... I am planning this concept for the 20 to 30 years ahead. I don’t believe in following the model of institutions like MOMA or the Tate, that are growing like shopping malls.

Do you have this plan from the beginning?

At the very beginning, I didn’t have the final idea, but I knew I wanted to reshape the style of how to work with people and the structures around it. I wanted to experiment how it is working and not adopt the system of other museums. Garage had two offices, one in London, and the second in Moscow. And I proved the efficiency of keeping just one here in Moscow as the core of the activity and its essence happened in Moscow.

So, how did it all start?

Friends introduced me to Dasha (One of the two founders of Garage: Darya Zhukova) and later on, I gave her a handwritten list on A4 paper with ideas of what should be done. And then, she asked me what I thought about becoming the director. I answered that it was an amazing idea, but that I would need freedom of actions to implement changes.

And when was this?

It was after the Garage activities already started. Dasha was in charge of the activities. She was quite pleased about my suggestions. I joined in 2010. To come back to your question about interesting points to grasp for non-Russian art lovers about Garage, I think, it is important to notice, that the Garage model is complex because we are quite different from other institutions.

So, what are the influences that have impacted your vision? 

In all the museums and institution I visit, I always look around me and try to see the plus and minuses. In my opinion, the most important is to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve.
For me, from the early beginning, I knew that the first department we had to create was education. We started by education and then department by department, we made changes. So, essential is to have a vision, to believe in it, and to work for it.

What does the structure of Garage look like today?

I can’t tell you. Laughs… It is impossible to define. I am very much trying to go away from the traditional pyramidal way of working. I, myself, for instance, I don’t have a fixed office. I just go from place to place, to various meeting points with my lab top. We have a horizontal structure. I am a little ‘Frederic Laloux’ going around with my computer. Do you know the book?

No.

It is a book called Reinventing Organizations. It means that companies’ structures are going away from the pyramidal system towards lighter horizontal structures. In this model, everybody is empowered, can propose, and take decisions. It means a self-questioning organization that self-reassesses and corrects itself. No more complaining options from employees. This form is more demanding as each employee and manager needs to rethink the way they interact with others and motivate teams. On the other hand, the pleasure to work creatively re-appear. The form of control resides in the structure itself, and there is no longer need for pyramidal control. Those are autocritical systems. The notion of strategic planning becomes obsolete. Experience proves that all structures that made this choice are booming. The companies that switched model arrived at the conclusion themselves and were self-convinced. The pyramidal model has no longer reason to be.
Therefore, now, we are not trying to open new departments at Garage for instance, we are trying to implement various projects, and we have for this purpose a project bureau. We work more like in a campus system. We have different buildings with different types of activities going on. It is more like a science city. This means that you can find an education and science center, art center and often technology. Technology is part of the majority of our projects. Any way, you should come to our central office and have a look.

Sure, I’d love that.
Do you know other institutions following your model?

No. I think it is impossible to be like us. We have a very special position because in Moscow, there are no other local infrastructures. We have a special ground, we can translate and publish 50 to 56 books a year, we can open studios for residencies, and I don’t know other institutions that can do something similar because they already have the infrastructures around them, they have publishers. Here, at the Garage ground floor, we welcome everybody for free in our café, or shop, or library. Only if you want to visit exhibitions, we will charge a fee. This is different in other institutions.
Unlike other museums or institutions, who mainly works with tourists, we also work with locals. We want to work with them and become their ‘third place’; after home and work: a place of learning, interaction, and entertainment. Art is just an instrument, but it is not our focus. Our mission is more about social changes and experiences to open people’s minds.

How interesting! This is indeed a unique positioning. To finish this interview, I’d like to know if you fear any threats: political or legal challenges that may slow down your activities

No, I don’t. We are an autonomous private institution. Also, we benefit from a great support from the community: founders, patrons, corporate sponsors, the mayor of Moscow, and government structures (not in form of money, but as facilitators in specific situations), and from visitors. I really think that the entire society is supporting us. Maybe we are in a very unique situation: a kind of ‘bubble’, and this bubble is growing at a fast pace, building bridges with other institutions and also encouraging them to change.

It sounds like you are very optimistic for the future?

Yes, I am very optimistic for the future, otherwise, it would impossible to develop an institution.

Thank you very much for your time and all the valuable insights and information. It was a pleasure meeting with you.

You are welcome.

 

CONCLUSION

Anton Belov’s optimistic perspective on the state of the contemporary art market comes as a breath of fresh air. Economic and political doldrums seem counterbalanced by a positive wind from the art world…. Utopia or reality…. Future will tell!
Fact is that today, “Garage” has become one of the most important cultural places in Moscow: it is not only a platform for contemporary art and scientific exhibition projects, but also a place for modern forms of education, a publishing house, and a convivial cafe. In an article about the Rise of the Private Museum, Jonhathan Bastable confirmed the leading position of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Among spectacular other institutions such as the MOCCA in Cape Town, The Broad in Los Angeles, or the South Korean Leeum, Garage appears at the top of the list of the rising influential private institutions impacting the contemporary art scene worldwide.

Garage just celebrated its 10th anniversary last year but has already gained global and local recognition among art institutions, art professionals and general public. Despite the political and economic challenges affecting Russia, Garage is growing, performing an impressive development in terms of global recognition, local impact and self-support. Garage representatives are not only present at the most influential art contemporary events such as the Venice Biennale or the Kassel Documenta but have also started long term cooperation with US and German Universities and Institutes to share archives.

Locally, the successful and progressive approach of the institution towards inclusion programs, educational programs, and interaction with the community has already impacted and ‘positively contaminated’ other institutions, which are now following the steps of Garage.
Despite the troubled conjuncture, the predicted legal simplifications announced by Belov regarding visa, tax system for collectors, museums and art professionals also seem to contribute and reinforce the hope of a further positive development of the Russian art market.
Let’s hope that such efforts and initiatives from Russian art scene professionals will continue and contribute to create and foster the dialogue at global level.

About Anton Belov
Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art "Garage" Anton Belov (Moscow, 1983). He studied at the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys to become a physicist and chemist. As a student, Belov became interested in art, creative people, gallery owners, and the activities of the Art Chronicle Foundation.
In 2010, he created a website and application for smartphones Artguide - a guide to galleries and exhibitions in Moscow and founded the non-commercial project Gallery White, aimed at working with young artists.
Around the same time, Anton Belov met Darya Zhukova, Garage Museum founder. Shortly after, he was offered the position of managing director at the Museum where he works since then. Thanks to the charism and determination of Belov, masters-curators such as Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Kate Fowl also came to work at Garage in Moscow, the city he is so dearly attached to and in which he believes.

About Laure Debouttiere
Born in France in 1973, Laure Debouttiere lives in Moscow since 08/2017. She currently works on the redaction of a dissertation at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. She is a student of the educational master program "History of Artistic Culture and the Art Market". Debouttiere is also an art professional who worked as an independent art consultant with artists, curators, museums and collectors. She studied, lived and worked in France, Germany, Switzerland, the UK, Spain and the USA before moving to Moscow in 2017. Her objectives is to investigate the current state of the art market by interviewing local experts.

 

Additional reading material about Garage

 Garage 2nd International Conference. The Reflexive Museum: Responsive Spaces for Publics, Ideas and Art

 

 The Rise of the Private Museum

 

Official website of Garage 

 

Cover picture: L. Debouttiere 11/03/2019



 
 
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