Despite the war of words, UK-Russia shows go ahead

But some exhibitions have been cancelled as political stand-off continues


The Moscow-based V-A-C Foundation is making its presence felt at Frieze London this week. Teresa Mavica, the director of the non-profit organisation created by the Russian natural-gas billionaire Leonid Mikhelson, attended the fair, buying two works for the foundation’s collection by the New York-based artist Reena Spaulings, including Later Seascapes 5, 2014, from Campoli Presti gallery (FL, B9).

At Frieze Masters, Mavica met Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, as the foundation is funding two positions at the Tate: an adjunct research curator and an assistant curator. The posts “offer the chance to play a leading role in building an extensive collection of Russian art”, the Tate’s website says.

Across town, sculptures drawn from the foundation’s collection, selected by the UK artist Mike Nelson, are on show at the Whitechapel Gallery (until 30 November). The artists represented include Pawel Althamer, Petr Galadzhev and Anatoly Osmolovsky.

The show at the Whitechapel is not the only Russia-led cultural event in the capital during Frieze week. There are numerous Anglo-Russian partnerships across the private and public sectors despite the tension between the Russian and UK governments.

“Burning News: Recent Art from Russia” (until 9 November), a group show featuring six emerging Russian artists at the Hayward Gallery’s project space, explores social and political issues “within a country where free expression has come under increasing restrictions”, the organisers say. The exhibition was co-organised by the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow.

Despite the political rift between the UK and Russia, the Russian ministry of culture has thrown its weight behind an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum of 150 designs for theatrical productions by celebrated figures of the Russian avant-garde. The show is due to open this weekend (18 October-25 January 2015).

European sanctions against Russia, targeting its state finances and energy and arms sectors, have been in place since President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March. Russia has reciprocated with its own bans.

“To my mind, political problems remain political problems… the more the situation shuts down politically, the more it opens up culturally,” Mavica says. Meanwhile, Nonna Materkova, the founder of London’s Calvert 22, which focuses on Russian and Eastern European contemporary art, says: “People see [Russia] in the news and would like to see it from different angles.”

“Russian institutions are particularly enthusiastic about collaborating with us, in spite of sanctions,” says Elena Sudakova, the director of London’s Gallery for Russian Arts and Design (Grad), which co-organised its current show, “A Game in Hell: the Great War in Russia” (until 27 November), with the Moscow Maya­kovsky Museum. “Culture is currently the only corridor of communication,” Sudakova says. But she adds that Russian sponsors are sometimes reluctant to publicise their support in the current climate.

Political fallout

Cultural channels remain open, but there is political fallout. A show on the Young British Artists planned for Moscow—one of the highlights of the British Council’s 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture—was cancelled earlier this year because of funding issues (Vladimir and Ekaterina Semenikhin of the Ekaterina Foundation decided not to sponsor the show because of Western criticism of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine).

The Russian artist Oleg Tselkov, who is showing work at Alon Zakaim Fine Art in London (17 October-28 November), asks: “How many other exhibitions were not conceived over the past six months and will never materialise because of the political tensions?”

A show on the Space Age that was due to open next month at London’s Science Museum appears to be another casualty. We revealed earlier this month that it has been postponed because the Moscow authorities have increased bureaucratic obstacles over loans.

In a major stroke of cultural diplomacy for the festival’s organisers, however, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich is going ahead with the loan of 13 paintings by Francis Bacon for a show that is due to open at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in December. Thierry Morel, the show’s curator, will juxtapose Bacon’s works with Old Masters such as Rembrandt, Titian and Velázquez.

Market immunity?

Whether the art market is immune from the current turmoil remains to be seen. Russian buyers were at Sotheby’s, London, in June, when Wassily Kandinsky’s Herbstlandschaft (Autumn Landscape), 1911, sold over the telephone for £5.6m via the auction house’s Russian art specialist Jo Vickery. Experts say that the top end of the market, in particular, remains unaffected.

Meanwhile, Russians are out in force at Frieze Masters. Alexander Platon at Marlborough Fine Art (FM, C8) says that numerous Russian collectors have admired ten works by Francis Bacon on show in his booth, including Study for Bullfight No.1, 1969. “They are no longer the new buyers; they are the establishment,” he says.