Interview for Sleek magazine

How Young Galleries Survive in Moscow’s Traditional Art Scene
Alena Kurmasheva and Dmitriy Vetrov from OSNOVA
Alena Kurmasheva and Dmitriy Vetrov from OSNOVA gallery in Moscow

The Moscow International Biennale for Young Art has been pushing forward the young generation of international artists for 10 years. This year’s edition features 87 artists from 36 countries under the curation of Nadim Samman. The Biennale attracts an equally diverse audience of visitors and buyers to the Russian capital, but what does it mean for the local burgeoning art scene? Does it open up new opportunities or build up illusions?

SLEEK talked to Alena Kurmasheva and Dmitriy Vetrov, who founded Moscow’s OSNOVA gallery in 2014, which is also taking part in the parallel programme of the Biennale. The young gallery has managed to stay afloat in a competitive art market in its infancy. Here, we discuss their strategy and how they promote contemporary art in a conservative society.

SLEEK: What do you have to say about the art goers who travel to Moscow?
Dmitriy Vetrov: I would say that they are more keen to travel to the large-scale events like the opening of GARAGE Museum. When it comes to the Biennale, it’s more for us; for those who are based in Moscow and other cities of Russia. The Biennale works predominantly as an educational project. Yet at the same time I cannot get rid of the sensation that it’s all done for someone’s individual aspiration. I mean, there is no such ambition to increase the general level of culture in Russia, targeting the area of contemporary and emerging arts, but rather — some local, incoherent personal ambitions.

SLEEK: Whose ambitions?
Alena Kurmasheva: That of the local artists and curators, and also of the whole set of local institutions that wish to see themselves an integral part of the global art industry. At the same time projects like these allow us to mobilise individual forces. And the parallel programme of the Biennale is a great example. There are so many exciting exhibitions there, some of which I’m sure wouldn’t have been realised without the Biennale. Besides, this summer some of our colleagues have even chosen to launch several art-projects simultaneously — instead of leaving the city and enjoying their vacations till September.

“I don’t think one’s exposed Russianness is a good vehicle to ride towards the international art market. Our dancing bears and balalaikas do not work anymore”

Margo Trushina
Margo Trushina, When Air Becomes Breath, 2016, installation view

SLEEK: What is your experience of working with young Russian artists?
AK: I don’t think one’s exposed Russianness is a good vehicle to ride towards the international art market. Our dancing bears and balalaikas do not work anymore. I believe that if our artists keep on doing their own stuff, without self-exoticising, they will become truly interesting even if they might be misread in the west.

DV: But at the same time, if an emerging Russian artist attempts to integrate his practice directly to the context on the European art, his art will always feel weaker than that of his international colleagues. Say, if you relocate a relatively famous Russian artist into the global context, he or she is likely to have very average stature there. If you compare the work with the international art practices, it won’t stand out. That’s why for our gallery we are looking for those artists who are already integrated in the European context in one way or another. They might have studied there, or did some work. They understand the processes of the market, and know how to produce interesting, high-quality artworks. We bring them to Moscow and show them here while sharing their knowledge with the local artists.

SLEEK: But why would the artists, who are already doing well abroad, be interested in working with the Russian market? Not to forget the famous dark tales about Russian corruption, favouritism, economical uncertainty and legal insecurity why would they need that?
DV: That is actually a good question. Surely, some artists think that they can make some good money in Russia. As for the popularisation of their work, I also don’t understand why they come here.

AK: I guess they are interested in doing something new and refreshing for their artistic biographies. I mean, an exhibition in a new city such as Moscow always sounds like an unprecedented, exciting experience. I can’t recall a single artist who would decline our suggestion to come and set up a show with us at OSNOVA.

SLEEK: Your Margo Trushina show When Air Becomes Earth, which is also part of the Biennales parallel programme, contrasts with traditional Moscow galleries for its diversity in mediums and subject matter. Do you feel that your audiences appreciate the risks youre taking? Why do Muscovites actually go to galleries and Biennales?
AK: Some of them have heard that it’s becoming fashionable. At the same time, some other will never miss an opportunity to show disdain for contemporary art. I think the majority come to combine the two: to look trendy and to be sarcastic.

Margo Trushina
Margo Trushina, When Air Becomes Breath, 2016, installation view

SLEEK: How about the collectors?
AK: At OSNOVA we want to share and cultivate the interpersonal passion and seriousness about emerging arts. The collector should really care, know and understand his artist, follow his life and career development. I think it is ideal for a collector to be of the same age with his artist. For instance, in our gallery it is the generation of people born in the ‘80s and ‘90s, who grew up in the same social environment as the artists we represent. These people collect young art to support it — to live and change together with it. It is fascinating to see how after a couple of acquired artworks a person may realise that collecting art can become a part of his life. Then he will very soon arrange his whole schedule around the main events in the art world — acting sincerely. For passion, rather than fashion.

DV: As a young gallery we can do so many things that would look inappropriate for some established, conservative gallery, concerned with reputation. For example, last year we showed the collection of the youngest art collector, a 9-year-old girl who did a great job in bringing together the most important names of the contemporary art scene in Russia.

AK: We are interested in doing unconventional things like that. On one hand, the extremely serious artists-participants; on the other hand, the informal, naive and passionate vision of a child. By coinciding these two extremums in one space we wanted to comment on the sincerity, joy and inspiration that catalyses in the process of collecting art. Even children can do it — and enjoy it. Someone even joked that we intentionally nourish our future generation of art collectors: by attracting them to OSNOVA gallery with the candy floss.