What Should Moscow Be Aiming For?

Elīna Zuzāne


“You should understand that I’m not like most typical galleries from Moscow. I came here at the end of 2007 and opened the gallery in 2008. I have lived a long time in France and I’ve not been present all those years, when the art market was developing in Russia. I cannot talk for something that I have not seen. I can only talk about my own subjective experience. It’s not a universal opinion,” Ekatherina Iragui, the owner of Galerie Iragui, tells me just before our interview. It is true, Ekatherina was not part of the “birth” of Russian gallery scene in the 1990s, but her experience within the contemporary art world has given her an outlook and knowledge that many established Russian galleries are just starting to seek.

Ekatherina Iragui was born in St. Petersburg. She has studied Philology at the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia (St. Petersburg), Art History at the Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris), Museology, Administration and Management of Museums at the Ecole du Louvre (Paris) and Multimedia studies at the École des Beaux-Arts (Paris). Somehow, however, she started to feel suffocated by the old masters presence so she turned her interest to contemporary arts and opened a showroom for emerging artists in the historical Marais district of Paris. Today Galerie Iragui is located in Moscow, at the same exhibition space where Russia’s notorious Marat Guelman Gallery once stood. Since it’s existence Galerie Iragui has already participated in such Western art fairs as Berliner Liste, Drawing Now, Art Forum Berlin and Milan Image Fair, which, as Ekatherina puts it “has integrated the gallery within the art community of the West.” This year Ekatherina also became a member of Art Moscow’s Expert Council. 

What is your viewpoint on Art Moscow art fair and the contemporary art scene in Russia.

What I noticed at the fair this year is that the communication between the galleries has started to grow, same as the communication with the organizers. When in 2005 Galerie Iragui started to participate in Art Moscow, I was still living in France. Back then I could hardly talk to anyone at the fair. People were not friendly at all. But it was not just them; it was the Russian society in general. That was the mentality of people, who had become wealthy. They were convinced that you had the intentions to fool them so the communication only took place through their people of confidence. You had to address them all. It also wasn’t just the buyers, but the journalists too. They were not interested. I was shocked. Thankfully the mass media has slowly educated the public.

And how do you see the Russian contemporary art scene?

I think it’s an interesting situation to analyze. Contemporary art in Moscow is definitely becoming ­more popular and since the Russian intellectual community have started to become attracted to contemporary art, many people travel and attend the well-known art events abroad. In addition Garage is continuously bringing quality Western shows to Russia… so people know what is a good exposition and what is a good fair. It’s very easy to criticize Art Moscow. Anyone can do that. Many people have attended FIAC, Frieze, Art Basel and it’s easy to say “here we have some shit but over there are some beautiful things”. I, however, think that people should look at this situation from a more global perspective. They should remember that art and culture are related to the country’s economical and political situation. Today you cannot talk about the development of contemporary art without the government’s support and recognition, but the politicians have yet to recognize contemporary art in Russia. There is no official support but the market itself cannot hold the information. There must be a wider acceptance of contemporary art by the government for the market to heat up. It’s a complex problem. Even the art professionals in Moscow are just people. They are autodidacts. Most of the art galleries are autodidacts. They are professionals in terms of their own experience, but they have not started their careers as assistants of the large galleries abroad. There is still a big gap between the situation in Europe and here. It needs more time. There should also be more philanthropy in arts and people should really start to identify themselves with contemporary culture and not with the classical culture, which is not alive. It’s a great heritage, but you cannot eternally identify Russian culture with Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, etc. It’s just a foundation for everything else. Once people start to identify with the contemporaries, things will happen.

Did the discussion forum at Art Moscow help to bring some of these issues forward?

Absolutely. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t have done it. I think it’s the right moment for collaborations.

During the discussion panel “Making art market transparent” you mentioned that Russian art collectors are not supporting Russian contemporary artists and art galleries. Why do you think that is? 

We have yet to find solution to such issues as – how to educate our collectors? How to involve more people into supporting galleries and artists? It’s a common work. I alone cannot give answers. It’s difficult. We need to invent new initiatives regarding the communication with the art collectors. Moscow is such a busy city. For a collector to come to two openings in one evening is almost impossible. It’s a big effort. I think the local art society has to be inventive in trying to find ways of easing this situation. Maybe galleries need to unite forces. Each of us has our database of clients. Maybe we could put it all in a common pot and mix it up. 

Would you be willing to share?

Absolutely. Most of my collectors are foreigners, but, whenever I have time, it’s my pleasure to go to other people’s event with them. You cannot monopolize. Everyone is free to choose whatever speaks to them and I think it’s very important to mix people up. In Paris and in other European cities people walk the streets and enter the galleries freely, but no one walks here in Moscow. People only do it in the centre and only at certain period of the year, the rest of the time you travel by car. It’s a different logistic of the city. 

So do you think that the logistics of a city influence its art scene?

I think that the professionals should consider the logistics of Moscow. We cannot just copy the situation from elsewhere and bring it here. It’s impossible. That’s why I think Joseph Backstein wanted to hold the biennale [the Third Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art] at the same time as Art Moscow – for the viewer to see maximum in a short period of time. Otherwise it’s rather difficult to visit Moscow.

Is art considered an asset class in Russia? 

I think it’s considered to be an asset class by those who are really wealthy, but by now many of them have turned to the international art market. People want to see the financial gain in art but with Russian artists the situation is not that exciting. Only a few Russian artists are convertible for the international market. New collectors, however, should appear very soon. I think there is a possibility for a market, but it’s not flourishing yet. There are only a handful of local Russians, who realize that they are collectors. People are still buying “just pieces” or “just objects”. They are not looking at their purchases as a collection. Slowly but inevitably this will change.

Many contemporary art galleries in the West have named Russia as one of the art markets to keep an eye on, yet none of them has moved into this region. 

Some Western galleries have tried opening their branches here. What’s stopping them is that they don’t know, who their potential clients in Moscow or St. Petersburg would be. It’s very difficult to go abroad and open a gallery, hoping that people will just come by. The big galleries such as Gagosian Gallery and The Pace Gallery have considered it, but to be honest Russian buyers often feel more relaxed to spend their money abroad than in Russia. Instead of moving into Russia, Western galleries employ Russian-speaking girls. Working with Russian collectors doesn’t demand a gallery space in Moscow.

But why isn’t there an export of Russian contemporary art?

There is not an easy answer. It seems that recently more and more Russian artists have started their studies abroad and, when you study abroad, it connects you to the international institutions. But for others, however, there is still a problem with language – they haven’t learned English or other languages. Still, they should remember that, if you sit in Moscow waiting for international curators to come and notice you, it’s going to be quite a long and difficult wait. People also shouldn’t say “oh, poor Russian artists; they don’t have grants, they don’t have collectors.” The artists should move. There are international grants. Look at Poland – they were once in the Soviet Block, but they took initiative. Many Polish artists left the county in the 1990s and went to foreign schools, and then they integrated in those countries, in the international community, or they came back to Poland and created a great situation there.

Couldn’t it be because of patriotic reasons, why Russian artists are deciding against the move abroad?

I don’t think so. I think it’s a mentality, but the situation is changing. I have met some young Russian artists in London and other cities. We just don’t know about them yet. 

What is in the future of Russian contemporary art?

I know that the situation will improve. How quickly? I don’t know. It depends on the circumstances and how many people will get involved with this process. But if contemporary art is going to be welcomed just as greatly as the classical culture is, things will move forward much faster. Inevitably it will change, because you cannot stop the progress. It’s impossible. We live in the time of globalization and the Internet. People travel and read, and this new information sinks into their minds. For a while contemporary art culture in Russia didn’t exist, then it was an underground movement, but now it’s not underground any more. Everyone is waiting for a new level or change to come. Now we are at the level zero, but inevitably it will lead to the rethinking and the creation of a new setting.

And the future of Art Moscow? Now that Art Moscow is taking place at the same weekend as VIENNAFAIR, how does it distinguish itself?

I think VIENNAFAIR opened a window for contemporary Russian art and that’s great. My only concern is that I don’t know if the people, who bough VIENNAFAIR, are doing it for the right reasons. I hope they are not putting their money into the fair just to resell it a year later. If the owners’ true intention, however, is to promote Russian contemporary art in the West, helping it become part of the European market, then it’s great. Still, you have to recognize that in Moscow we have 15 million people and this city also needs a good fair. Definitely! I think that Art Moscow will not stop existing. It just needs a change of logistics and approach, and to develop a certain strategy. What I noticed while arranging the discussion forum, is that Expo-Park, the organizers of Art Moscow, does not overlook this fair alone but twelve other shows during the year. Art Moscow needs a distinct team the whole year working just for them. Additional financing is also needed but it could be resolved if one of the Russian national banks became the partner of the fair. There are certain things that cannot be done only with a great initiative; you need an investment. I think if Art Moscow had the money, they would have to consider employing two vitally needed professionals – someone from the local art context and a foreign art director with an experience. The results would be great. I believe it. The city could also help with the status of the fair. If Moscow understood that this art fair could become a link in a chain of international contemporary art events, it could become a very attractive publicity mechanism for this city. If all of these ingredients could be united, we would have a fantastic result.