Moscow, 2014: Art for the People?

Quinn Ziegler ’14

Ziegler will spend the 2014-2015 year in Volgograd (the former Stalingrad), where he will be teaching English.

It’s a cold, sunny Sunday afternoon in Moscow.  The last week or so has been freezing, topping out around negative ten.  You can tell that everyone on the street is planning the quickest route from where they are to where they are going.  I do the same as I head to a few of Moscow’s many art galleries, a cluster housed in an old Soviet wine factory outside the city center.

I am spending Colby’s JanPlan 2014 on an internship through the Moscow State University Faculty of Journalism, an opportunity generously funded by the Goldfarb Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement.  The internship consists of three prongs: learning about Russian media; editing scholarly work written in English by MSU faculty on various angles of journalistic practice for the publication World of Media; and embarking on our own small journalistic project. As a double major in Russian and Economics, and a minor in Art, my choice of a topic was easy. What is happening today in the commercial world of Russian art galleries?

The further I walk from the metro station, the more the crowd encountered on the underground escalator disappears.  No one is around.  I arrive at the restored factory—still called Vinzavod (or, literally, the “wine works”)—happy to finally be inside.  Soon after I step into the first gallery, I realize I’m the only person there.  Plugged into her headphones,, the receptionist likely didn’t even notice my entry.  To my left is a wall of paintings satirizing the Olympic Games.  A two-headed Lenin snowboards down a mountainside with a nuclear power symbol on his chest. On another canvas, a ball stuck in the mouth of one of the Olympic mascots serves as a gag.   All read, “Welcome! Sochi 2014!”  Art focused on ironic political commentary was often produced by dissident artists in the Soviet period.

Viewers are sparse on this particular Sunday, but I can’t say I’m very surprised. The story has been the same for almost every gallery that I’ve visited this month. At best, some galleries have boasted a modest crowd.  Having now spent weeks in Moscow and a semester abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia’s two largest cities, I’ve had occasion to note that the production of contemporary art seems alive and well… but the audience for it does not. Visitors still flock in droves to Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery and St. Petersburg’s Russian Museum, both of which house strictly Russian art through the early 20th century. There is good attendance, as well, at the branch of the Tretyakov devoted to 20th and 21stcentury art.  And yet commercial galleries are a ghost town.  The only passers-by are an occasional affluent family or a college-aged couple.  Even in the Luminerov Brothers’ Photo Gallery, housed in the old Red October Chocolate Factory in the city center, the modest crowd is comprised of young, well-off Muscovites.  So what’s the story? Where are the buyers?

Some Russians suggest that the public is simply priced out of galleries, citing the entry fee charged at most galleries as a possible deterrent.  Even so, significant discounts make tickets affordable for children, students, and pensioners, and in some cases  galleries charge nothing at all.   More likely reasons seem to be the lack of personal savings and  a lack of interest.  The contemporary art scene doesn’t stretch far beyond Russia’s major cities, and therefore Moscow is flooded with art works. An artist by the name of Irina explained, “they all [artists] come here [to Moscow].  They can’t sell their art outside of the big cities.”  Denis, a fellowship researcher at the Faculty of Journalism, took a similar line;  that only young and fashionable people go to the galleries.  He cites this as a “life style” choice.  A life style, it seems, that is beyond the budget and tastes of most Russians.

Professor Ekaterina Sivyakova recounts the government’s attempt to create a regional cultural center in Perm, a city of about a million people just west of the Ural Mountains.  The attempt was ultimately a flop, because “the public just wasn’t ready for it.” She describes what she calls the “four Russia’s.”  First, there are the big cities, home to a more liberal, educated Russian, where “people don’t have to fight for food, so they fight for their rights.”  Second, there are the blue-collar cities, which still boast significant populations, but tend to be working class and more conservative.  Third are the villages and small cities, in which the inhabitants often live off the land and are just trying to get by.  And finally, the southern republics, she avers, are a country in their own right.

All in all, this leaves a very small demographic for the contemporary art scene to attract. Essentially, the potential customer pool for art works consists of  young, middle- to upper-class residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg.  At times, of course, this has been a very vocal crowd.  Recall Putin’s re-election in 2012, when masses filled the streets to protest what they deemed a fraudulent election.  Having read that some Russian galleries had been shut down for displaying anti-government art work (he organizers sometimes faced jail time), I was curious where exactly censorship comes into play.  Here I return to Professor Sivyakova’s point that this slice of society “doesn’t have to fight for food, so they fight for their rights.”

Questions concerning censorship turned out to be more complicated than I had anticipated.  (I’d been studying in Russia when MSU’s Professor Mikhail Makeenko gave a lecture at Colby on the contours of censorship in Russia in March of 2013).  I queried numerous Russians about their thoughts on censorship in post-Soviet Russia.  To what extent does it exist? Might it affect the commercial appeal of art? Answers varied interestingly between older and younger respondents. While the older generation often suggested that censorship plays little or no role in contemporary art, the younger generation was quick to suggest otherwise.  In fact, I may have posed the wrong question for Russia. Perhaps it is not so much a matter of whether there is censorship, but rather how it is defined.  Katya, a young gallery attendant at the Luminerov Brother’s Photo Gallery, decried a new entrance policy whereby the government rates art for age-appropriateness, deeming galleries 16-plus or 18-plus for entry without a parent, ratings similar to those that we associate with movies or TV programs.  But while she considers this censorship, many of her elders do not.

I ask Irina the same question: Who is responsible for censorship? She quickly answers that it is actually a matter of self-censorship.  “I know what I can and can’t create.  For example, I know I can’t produce pornography,” she tells me.  She doesn’t ask where the line is between pornography and art, and who decides.  Stepping into the realm of political art, the answer is even murkier.  The government may close one gallery for displaying art overly critical of the government, yet let a similar gallery remain open.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what is censored and what is not—although one involuntarily wonders about the power of family and friendship ties in Russia as a source of privilege.  But many Russians aren’t against this, or don’t see it as censorship.  Lena, a sophomore at MSU, explains this compliant attitude. When considering the older generation, she suggested, one has to remember that many of them still have a Soviet mentality.  “To them, this level of government control is normal, it’s not a problem.”

But while what Westerners construe as passive acceptance has been evident in Russian history for ages, times may be changing.  As a new generation with little or no memory of the Soviet Union comes of age, calls for greater creative freedom seem to be gaining force.  If this political momentum grows, the next step for the contemporary art scene will be getting people to care.  First you need consumers with greater buying power. Then you need to wean middle class tastes from affordable and sometimes talented street art, which abounds, to something more aesthetically sophisticated.  It may be years before a healthy audience of Russian consumers finds that art in their homes brings personal pleasure and adds to their social and cultural capital.

Russian young people born after 1991 may just have what it takes to up the stakes for the popular marketplace in Russian art.