Marat Guelman: When the Last Become First

Anna Iltnere



Marat Guelman (1960) is a name that needs no introduction in Russia's art world, nor even beyond its borders. An art historian, gallery owner, collector and political analyst, he also used to work at Russia's TV 1, Channel OPT – from 2002-2004 he was assistant to the channel's general director and head of the analytical department. In 1990, Guelman established one of the first private art galleries in Russia, exactly one year before the fall of the USSR. The gallery is still actively working and participated at the art fair, ART MOSCOW 2011. Guelman's name was also among those heard at the 4th Moscow Contemporary Art Biennial: in a satellite program of the biennial, he curated the exhibition, “Art vs. Geography”, featuring works from Russia's regional artists. Finding interesting and, as yet, unknown and regional artists and then making them famous is Guelman's trademark. Dmitry Gutov, Oleg Kulik, Valery Koshlyakov, AES Group, Aleksander Vinogradov and Vladimir Dubosarsky are just some of the artists whose first solo shows were held at Marat Guelman's gallery.

How did you come to the decision, more than 20 years ago, to move to Moscow and soon after, to establish one of the first private galleries in post-soviet Russia? Did you foresee that this would be a successful plan?

I moved to Moscow because I was too trusting of other people. At the beginning, it did seem as if I had made a huge mistake. In 1987, in Kishinev, where I lived at the time, I organized an exhibition for a Moscow artist. It was successful because Kishinev is a boring place and, all of a sudden, we're the center of attention, the press is interested, and pieces of art are being bought. Accordingly, the said artist becomes inspired and tells me to come to Moscow – I can work as his producer. Those were soviet times, and he was the president of the USSR Artists' Union. I was also captivated by art, so I accepted and moved from Kishinev to Moscow. But in a month's time, my artist unexpectedly left for the USA. I was all alone in Moscow; I didn't know anybody at that time. And I couldn't go back to Kishinev, because all of my friends had viewed my moving away quite sceptically. Going back would be demeaning. So I slowly started a small business and with the profits, I started collecting art. After three years, I opened a gallery. During the first years of my collecting, I made a bunch of unprofessional mistakes. That's why I had to sell the first collection, only keeping two pieces as a “remembrance” of my bad luck. When I decided to sell the collection, my goal wasn't to become an art dealer. I just wanted to get rid of the collection. But it's not easy selling art, and the year I spent trying to get rid of the unwanted pieces brought me direct experience and contacts, even in Europe. Since there was no one else in Moscow at the time who had experience in art trading and art management, soon enough, I became “the best”, “the oldest” and who knows what else (laughs).

You have distinguished yourself by daring to actively exhibit unknown artists; consequently, most of them are now recognized names. But it still is quite a risk.

When I started to understand something about art in Moscow, and could make the collections more professional, it was somewhere around 1988. Moscow's most well-known artists had become extremely expensive because of the prestigious auction, Sotheby's 1988. And even those artists who didn't participate in the auction became crazy about money. I couldn't afford their works; I was running a small business by selling my “mind”, not oil or computers. That's why I turned towards lesser-known artists and went on expeditions to the South of Russia, Kiev, etc.; I discovered that this region has a powerful, new generation of artists. Before I opened the gallery, I organized a large exhibition in Moscow titled “Russia's Southern Wave”. The exhibition was a success – 70 % of the displayed works were sold. Today, the artists are widely known. The exhibition also began a rivalry, because at the time, Moscow Conceptualism reigned in Moscow, which, among other things, claimed that there is nothing else interesting or worthwhile in Russian art at the moment – just conceptualism. But the rivalry helped to bring attention to me and to the artists I represented.

In the end – that is the mission of the gallery – to find a virtually unknown, talented artist and to allow for his potential to develop. Galleries that work with already famous artists belong to the so-called “secondary art market”.  I can safely say that if you see a well-known Russian artist that rose to the stage in the 90's, then his first exhibition was definitely held at my gallery. I guarantee it.

Is it possible to put into words that feeling or intuition when you just know that, “yes – this artist or piece of work definitely has potential”?

(Is silent for a while.) I started working during the so-called Enthusiasm Period. The history of contemporary art in Russia is composed of several stages. The first was the Hero Period, which occurred before I entered this field: non-conformism and other artistic directions that were active in the soviet years, before perestroika. My time was the Enthusiasm Period, when no one was really knowledgeable, but everyone was passionately in love with what they were doing. During this period, my best advisers were the artists themselves. When I looked upon a work of art, of primary importance to me was the artist himself – what is he made of, his personality. At the time, all of the artists I met weren't really ready for the market; growth and improvement were just a work in process – they were still very young. And now, a great many of these artists work completely differently. That's why I can say – I chose people, not just works of art. And we continued to develop these personalities together.

In your opinion, do you think art collectors should communicate with the artists?

I believe that that is one of the main motivations! My first stimulus was to be part of the artistic set. To live with artists, speak with artists – what could be better? The life of a businessman is terribly boring, so it didn't take long for art to become an important part of my life.

So the first stage was the Enthusiasm Period, when you look for and assemble artists around yourself like a team, not just as artists. The next level that followed was already more professional: I became interested in contextual art. And I can distinguish four differing contexts. The first context is art history. 

When creating a work of art, the artist must realize that thousands of works have been already created. And he has to be able to answer to himself – why should I make another? The second context is language. The work of art must communicate with those of other artists, country of origin notwithstanding. A joint discussion must be initiated, which comes about if similar methods of expression have been used or if there is a unified main theme. The third is the social context: art that embodies its time can be alive even in the future. My father [Aleksander Guelman] was a notable soviet playwright. Many reproached him for creating works that were too “timely”, excessively tied to the current day – they will not endure into the future. My father answered: “That, which is of the moment, will be eternal”, meaning that a work that describes the times will never be lost. That is why I as well, when looking at a work of art, always note if I can guess when the piece was made – does the piece show it? That is important to me. The fourth context is the artist's calling – why has he become an artist; is it only because his parents sent him to art school, or does he do it because he has a message to tell? In this regard, I can say that it is widely believed that a person with an education in art has better prospects than one without. I certainly don't agree. Because precisely these artists – the ones who didn't have the chance to study art, but who have a desire to become good artists – are the strongest. It is their conscious choice to be artists; it is not an attempt to please their parents or done in the interests of somebody else. And in Russia, there are many very talented artists who may have educations in architecture or design, but not in art. So, these are the four important contexts necessary for a work of art to speak to me.

Why didn't you become a playwright yourself?

I tried to! But I didn't have the talent. (Laughs loudly.)

But doesn't it seem to you that this birthright helps you predict the “story's ending” – to think strategically, to play out scenarios? Because according to your biography, it looks as if you're pretty good at foreseeing the future.

Yes, I use this talent, but only in my second field of work – politics; there, I've had to come up with scenarios more than once. But never in art. It wasn't easy being a regular boy to a father who was a very famous playwright. I really tried: I wrote poems, I drew. But I was lucky in that I didn't have a real passion for writing, because I had a very good critic – my father, who tended to say: “Bad, very bad...” (laughs). Who knows, maybe I wasn't even that bad, perhaps my father just wanted to protect me and didn't want me entering that career...  But I have to say, I think that's one of the secrets to my success. I was really diligent: I wrote stories, rewrote them several times, took notes. And when you've really tried so very hard, and then see somebody talented right next to you do it with such ease... And that's how I came to be able to recognize talent in others.

Are art collectors who firstly look upon a work of art as an investment worthy of their profession? – if cash comes before love of art?

First of all, it's not important how one becomes an art collector. Maybe you've decided to redecorate your apartment and you head to an art fair; or you've decided to invest; or you want to help an artist friend by buying his works. You see, collectors become collectors in all sorts of ways. But, if art doesn't excite them, they will never become successful in the field. Every day we meet with people who buy art works, but only a few of them are collectors. Second of all, there are corporate collections. 

Europe, and even Moscow, has a slew of banks that buy art works. And a bank isn't a person, so you can't call love of art the motivation in this case. But bought pieces eventually become collections anyway, and behind them is an effective curator that brings them up to level with those of museums. So, there can be good art collections that don't involve an individual love of art. But that's not easy. Because love is the element that helps you get those unique, special pieces that make a collection successful and distinctive.

Simona Makseliene, the director of the first auction house in Vilnius, once said that in her opinion, it is very important in a private collection that the mistakes of the collector are visible – that that is what makes a signature unique. Do you agree?

Definitely not. The field of art is very wide, and a professional consultant, such as a gallery manager, can narrow down the field by pointing to, say, 100 artists that have the potential to create art history. And a collector can fully realize himself within this selection and still show his individual taste. That's commonplace. If he goes outside of this professionally chosen group, he will make a mistake 100% of the time. Of course, you have to take into consideration that collectors learn very quickly, because it is an expensive pastime.

This summer, you opened a contemporary art space in Tver and plan to open similar places in Samara and Kazan; you are the creator and head of the contemporary art museum in Perm; and an exhibition on the regional art of Russia that you organized was on display at the biennial. Could you comment on this interest of yours?

In relation to Perm – at first, my friend, who was the governor of Perm, asked me to organize some creative activities. Eventually, he wanted something more permanent – a museum. Now, Perm is a very large part of my life; shortly before I started work there, I found myself in a rather unpleasant period of my life – I had a typical midlife crisis. I didn't know what I wanted to do, things at the gallery were going on well without me – I was more of a nuisance there, because I kept coming up with ideas that required funds. In many instances, people were more after my name than my abilities. But at the same time, I didn't feel so old that I should just stop, so I slid into a crisis; and Perm pulled me out of it. At first, the situation was difficult and rather altruistic, but the work gave me the adrenaline I craved. Now, there is a unique situation in Russia, because suddenly there is an intense artistic scene in a provincial city. Russia's young artists, musicians and creative personalities have begun to envy the people of Perm. We've also formed a cultural alliance that helps initiatives in other regional cities. In Russia, it's characteristic for people to not believe in technologies, but to believe in people. That's why now, everyone wants only Guelman. Since I can't be everywhere, we've formed an organization that represents Marat Guelman. We sign contracts with Russian cities that we've agreed to help. The alliance already contains nine cities.

How would you describe the current situation in the Russian contemporary art market?

Most of the collectors who emerged around the year 2000, which was a very optimistic time, have emigrated. The political situation in Russia is such that the richest people in the country are officials. But officials don't spend their money openly. That creates a peculiar market. There are initiatives in which wealthy people, in an organized manner, buy works of art and donate them to museums. So, they don't support them financially, but through gifts of art. In time, some of these people will also become collectors.

Do you agree with the curator of the Moscow Biennial, Peter Weibel, who said that: in today's art world, there is no dominating country or region; there is no dominating art medium; globalization rules and everything is mixed up with one another? If so, what will it all “end” with?

As a trend, yes. I agree that there is such a trend. Although, notwithstanding the fact that art is a very dynamic sphere, unchanging and conservative values remain throughout. Every trend is still just a trend; it's not as if a new world model has arrived. Go to New York, and you'll ascertain that here is the center of art. Go to Berlin, and although different, it is also a center. Actually, I'd use a different metaphor. Globalization doesn't discredit everything and make it universal, but it is rather more like a unified organism – with a heart, hands, legs, a bottom, limbs... In the same way, in the world, there is Moscow, New York, etc. – every center has its individual function, but they are connected into one organism. This is globalization, in my opinion.

In terms of mediums, conservative values are even more prominent. Yes, video art and painting are almost of equal value. However, each new medium must get in line. There are mediums that have taken a certain place and don't loose it. But there are also those that allow new forms of expression to take their place. For instance, oil painting and bronze sculpture have both at times been fetishes. However, if oil painting has kept its position, you can't say the same about bronze sculptures.

If the art world is like one unified organism, which body part is Russia?

In thinking about Russia's role, I have a theory, and there are several indications that it works. As you know, the art market is based on a fundamental division between the original and a copy. An original is very expensive, its place is in a museum, etc., while copies can be found in magazines – they cost nothing. At the same time, new art is ever more distancing itself from a unique and unrepeatable original. There's a saying: We have examples of Pushkin's handwriting, but not of Pelevin's. Because Pelevin was already writing on a computer. Namely, art is becoming ever more copyable, but the market stubbornly holds on to originals. But sooner or later, a market model of this type will collapse, it won't work anymore. And it's clear that as soon as this market dies, another one will automatically take its place. Europe and elsewhere will be hit very hard, because billions have been invested in this system that is based on originals. But in Russia, the situation will not be as bad because the old-model market isn't as developed here. That's why it will be easy for Russia to change over to the new market. You could say: the last will become first.