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Moscow Biennale opening marred by 2017 controversy

Event’s president Julia Muzikantskaya accused of allegedly threatening artists and withholding payments

A group of artists is calling on participants to boycott the eighth Moscow Biennale © Michael Parulava

The eighth Moscow Biennale opened its doors on 28 October but the memory of the scandal-hit 2017 edition refuses to fade.

An open letter signed by a group of 16 artists and two technicians who participated in the last show has dominated the build-up to this year’s event. They accuse Julia Muzikantskaya, the president of the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, of allegedly violating financial obligations and abusive behaviour, and call on artists to boycott the event.

“The preparation for the exhibition was a disaster,” the letter reads. “Several of the works were severely compromised (in one case, an artist pulled their work from the opening), staff and technicians were subject to bullying and abuse, and artists struggled to deal with the extreme lack of organisation ... Any exchange with Julia continues to be very distressing. Numerous excuses, threats (on at least one occasion to sue), and confrontational statements were made by Julia.”

George Arzamasov, who signed the letter after working as a technical supplier during the 2017 Moscow Biennale, has sued Muzikantskaya, arguing that she owes him $23,500. “She reacted to my lawsuit by reporting me to the police and suing me for $50,000, alleging that I falsified documents and overcharged for my services,” he says. “Before I filed the lawsuit, I received numerous threats from her. She claims that she knows many siloviki [securocrats] in high places who would take her side.” Arzamasov’s case is ongoing.

Muzikantskaya declined to comment to The Art Newspaper but, during a press conference earlier this month, she said that bringing up the controversy from 2017 was “unethical”. She wrote a post on Facebook stating that “all debts were paid long before the publication of the letter [on 6 June]”. However, Bahar Behbahani—an artist who signed the letter—says that she was only paid on 7 October “after more than two years and hundreds of emails. Part of my work is still somewhere in Moscow; they never sent it back to me.”

Among those who argue they are out of pocket is the Dutch artist Wieki Somers; she says that her work was returned damaged from the 2017 biennial and that she has still not been compensated, while the Russian artist Valentin Fetisov publicly appealed on 5 October to Zelfira Tregulova, the director of the Tretyakov Gallery (which helps to organise the biennale), to show bank statements proving he had been paid for his participation in 2017. “I was paid two weeks ago (16 October) after the scandal, my Facebook posts and personal email to the head of the Tretyakov…they [Muzikantskaya] still claim in private emails that they paid me at the end of 2017, but they can’t provide evidence,” he says.

Tregulova responded that all financial documents will be examined, and said that the museum’s association with the scandal would not affect its reputation.

The 2019 Moscow Biennale runs until 22 January and features 34 artists from 11 countries.