The scoop on Russia: Interview with Milena Orlova

Milena Orlova, the editor of The Art Newspaper Russia, discusses the market, collectors and why Russia needs an art newspaper


The Art Newspaper Russia was launched in late March at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow as part of the network that includes Il Giornale dell’Arte, The Art Newspaper, Le Journal des Arts and Ta Nea Tis Technes. The publisher, Inna Bazhenova, does things in style, so the Roederer flowed while the ultra-hip band 4’33 played beneath the eyes of a cast of Michelangelo’s David. Among the guests were Mikhail Kamensky of Sotheby’s Russia, Alexis de Tiesenhausen of Christie’s, Mikhail Mindlin, the general director of the National Centre for Contemporary Art, Irina Korobina, the director of the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, Andrey Tolstoy, the deputy director of the Pushkin, Olga Sviblova, the director of the Multimedia Art Museum, Nicolas Iljine, the vice-president for international development at GCAM Group, Christina Steinbrecher, the art director of the Central House of Artists and of Art Moscow, and the ambassador of Italy, Antonio Zanardi Landi, and his wife, Sabina Cornaggia Medici. The editor is Milena Orlova, a seasoned art journalist who has been deputy culture editor of Kommersant, the respected business newspaper, then editor of Artchronika, a glossy art monthly.

How does The Art Newspaper Russia differ from other art publications in the country?

Milena Orlova: We aim to unite all the various aspects of the art world. Russia has a number of wonderful publications, each with its own specialisation. For example, Khudozhestvenny Zhurnal is mainly about art theory; Artchronika is mostly about contemporary art; Iskusstvo magazine has thematic issues and does not really cover news. But there hasn’t been a newspaper about the whole range of art, museums, heritage, conservation and the market until now. The fact that the paper is in Russian will also bring a lot of foreign news to readers here, because, while the younger generation knows English, many people will only read an article if it’s in Russian. It’s not that our country is as closed as in Soviet times, but people are very focused on themselves.

I gather you are planning to take about 50% of your news from the network. What coverage of theirs do you expect to interest the Russian reader?

News can be interesting if things are similar here—for example, the article about charity auctions in the current English edition. Here, charity auctions have just started and no one really understands how much they’re supposed to offer and whether they help artists. Copyright is another hot topic, and then there are the analytical overviews of the market, which are new to us. A lot of material in the Giornale dell’Arte interests us because Italy is very dear to our heart—the huge majority of Russians would choose the art of the past rather than the present. We also want to publish interviews with international stars of the art world. This time we took Anna Somers Cocks’s interview with the British artist Grayson Perry because he may be exhibited at the State Hermitage Museum.

How are you planning to cover Russia and the former Soviet Union?

Cultural life exists not only in Moscow and St Petersburg, but in Rostov-on-Don, Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Saratov, Kaliningrad and Krasnodar. It often depends on just a couple of people around whom things start to develop. I’ve even been contacted by people from Vladivostok, at the other end of Russia, who want to write for us. We’re going to do a story on Perm [a thriving industrial city in the Urals], where a lot is being done in a concerted way to improve public space, rather than with monuments just going up. We’ll be writing about Yekaterinburg, where they have something called the Ural Industrial Biennale that incorporates the Soviet heritage of great factories. We are also finding correspondents in the former Soviet republics. We used to have one, common, Soviet culture, and when the Soviet Union fell apart, a common cultural space remained. We have just investigated the museum in Nukus, in Uzbekistan, where there are a lot of works by Russian artists of the early 20th-century Central Asian avant-garde. A sensationalist film aired suspicions that the museum’s collection was being sold off, but our correspondent there discovered that, while there are problems, the collections are actually safe. We’ve had a small story from Tallinn, and we’ll be writing about Ukraine, where the first biennial is coming up [24 May-31 July, see p10, p79]. Ukraine is our closest neighbour, and there are a lot of ties between artists and curators. Azerbaijan is also interesting because it has quite strong funding for art right now, rather as in the United Arab Emirates. And then, of course, there is the Russian diaspora in New York, London, Berlin, from which we will be getting stories.

You mentioned that people in Russia don’t really understand how the art market works. Can you explain what you mean?

When I worked at Kommersant, if I said at an editorial meeting that there was an exhibition opening at the Tretyakov, they would decline politely—but if I said there was an auction record, it would go on the front page. That’s understandable, but I’m more interested in how the market works than in mere auction results. Many people here don’t know how prices at auction are determined. I’ve also heard people say that “curators of an auction house aren’t doing a good job; they’re offering bad art”, as though it were possible to organise an auction like an exhibition. I explain that people sell what they want to sell. When I want to shock people, I tell them that Old Masters sell for much less than contemporary artists. People who are not part of this world are amazed.

We have a rather sad article in our first edition about the Winzavod contemporary art centre, where two of our leading galleries, Aidan and Guelman, which have existed since the early 1990s, are closing. It seems that the crisis has hit our gallery business, which was flourishing at one time; or maybe they’re just tired, or moving on to another form of existence. But as always, things are more complicated. A lot of new galleries are opening in Moscow and St Petersburg. Here, it’s real enthusiasts who are in the business, as the money is not as good as abroad. The galleries have often played the role of museums, but now a number of big foundations have appeared, so this “missionary” work is no longer so important.

In our art market, we have major collectors and then we have people who can only afford small things, but there are very few who buy in the middle range, who are willing to buy art for their interiors, for example. So it’s not a very stable market. Contemporary art has become fashionable, so quite a few new players have appeared.

New spaces are constantly opening. Sometimes they’re temporary, in new housing complexes that want to draw attention to themselves by having exhibitions. Or they are in artists’ studios; the artist Gosha Ostretsov has a jour fixe every week in his studio for small exhibitions, a bit like the old Soviet apartment exhibitions. In Soviet times, collecting was viewed with suspicion, and to this day people are reluctant to show their works in public, so it’s hard to judge the number of people who collect art. That’s why I think these new private museums are a very important new step by which people are ready to show their works and care for them in exchange for status and space.

What are some of the new interests among Russian collectors?

Quite a few have become interested in Western art lately. At first, the typical Russian collector buys what he knows from childhood; then, when he begins to understand more, he goes in new directions. Ten years ago, the main focus was on Russian art; now there are people who specifically collect Western art.

What is the role of the state?

Our museums directors don’t like to talk about policy or money; very important decisions are often made behind the scenes. For example, I know that many state museums are suffering right now from a law that requires state-funded organisations to put all work out for tender. They used to be able to order their catalogues from any publisher they knew and trusted, but now they have to go with the one who offers the lowest price but perhaps poorer quality.

We have an article in the first issue about the 2014 Winter Olympic Park in Sochi, near the Black Sea. It’s similar to the British model, with all kinds of art programmes, but information is extremely restricted. It’s amazing that a competition has been held but nothing announced yet. We have discovered the names of the some of the 60 artists, including Nikolai Polissky, who is famous for his big land art projects, and some artists who do small sculptures more of the museum type.

Another area we shall be looking at is state prizes, such as the recently awarded Innovation prize [for contemporary art]. Prizes follow a well-trodden path; we have a circle of artists whom everyone knows and who always get nominated. The Innovation prize is supposed to encompass all of Russia, but it’s very rare that people from the regions get a look-in.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The scoop on Russia'