In 1962, the Moscow artist union celebrated the post-Stalin thaw with an exhibit of “unofficial” art that had been banned by the previous regime. The cautious reformer Khrushchev was aghast by what he saw. The incident became the stuff of history when the Soviet Premier declared the artwork to be “dog shit” and engaged in a high-profile argument with the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny.
Nearly 50 years later, Moscow is unrecognizable. The Russian capital is a hotbed of creative energy, as artists are enjoying unprecedented freedoms. Neizvestny has been awarded a Medal of Honour for Artistic Achievement and his sculpture is on display in the city centre. Khrushchev is rolling in his grave.
Rediscovery of Russian art
The Russian avant-garde painter Natalia Goncharova became the most expensive female artist ever sold at auction, when her painting Picking Apples was purchased for $9.8 million in 2007. In the following years, she would break her own record - not once but twice - with The Flowers in 2008 and L'Espagnole in 2010.
The eyebrow-raising sales figures are testament not only to Goncharova's appeal, but also to the skyrocketing value of Russian art in general. ABA Gallery estimates that auction results for this niche market have quadrupled in the past decade.
It is mostly private collectors who are blowing up the ballooning market - so-called "New Russians" with deep pockets and patriotic tastes. Indeed, the free-spending habits of the newly-rich are stimulating a cultural revolution in Russia. While the greatest demand is reserved for 20th-Century avant-garde artists, contemporary creatives are also benefitting. According to Moscow artist Stas Shuripa, "the record growth in the art scene means an increase in institutions, media, up-and-coming artists and young curators... Ten years ago nobody would have imagined that this would be happening."
From industry to artistry
Back in the day, art often promoted industry, as Socialist Realist paintings and sculpture celebrated the achievements of socialism. Now, the canvas has been turned upside down. Idle factories and vacant warehouses are being converted into art studios and gallery space, so industry (or the remains thereof) is promoting art.
The Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture (GCCC) is an old bus depot that has been converted into Moscow's largest exhibit hall. Originally designed in 1927 by architect Konstantin Melnikov, the garage sat vacant for years until it was purchased and repurposed by supermodel and trophy-wife Dasha Zhukova. Now Dasha's Garage is a stunning constructivist setting to showcase artists like Ilya Kabakov and Mark Rothko who once fought or fled the Soviet regime.
The GCCC has received a huge amount of international intention, thanks to its pretty patron and her billionaire boyfriend Roman Abramovich. But it is only one of many venues that have fuelled Moscow's art explosion.
In the gritty streets behind Kursk Station, Winzavod is a former wine-bottling factory "now transformed into the city's most active art scene", according to Shuripa. The post-industrial complex is home to five of the capital's most prestigious art galleries.
On the banks of the Moscow River, the warehouses at the old Red October chocolate factory now serve more than 100 up-and-coming artists, in an organization known as Art Strelka.
The Red October provided inspiration and space for another gorgeous young heir and artistic patron, Maria Baibakova, who launched the Baibakov Art Projects there. The first show featured works by 15 artists, created especially for Masha and the chocolate factory. This artistic operation has since moved to the former House of Culture at Paveletskaya.
Unfortunately, the average Ivan is uninterested in the goings-on of the artistic intelligentsia. After all, this is not Socialist Realism.
In 2009, one goal of the Third Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art was to reach out to the wider Russian public. The venue was the GCCC, so the star power of Zhukova and Abromovich exerted its gravitational pull. The international theme Against Exclusion further broadened the appeal. In the end, the Third Biennale attracted as many as 100,000 visitors, crushing previous attendance records and forcing organizers to extend the exhibit.
The Moscow Biennale has drawn another potential adversary into its artistic fray: the event is sponsored by the oft-maligned Ministry of Culture.
In the west we hear a lot about increasing authoritarianism in Russia, but the fact is that artists are freer than ever before, and the government even takes concrete steps to support the arts. "On a practical level it's not an oppressive environment," Shuripa contends. "Artists are more or less able to express whatever they want."
"The critical discussion is between art and society, not between art and state," says Shuripa. "All three players are trying to find a common language."
The article 'Contemporary creative Moscow' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.