Russsian Art Gets a Boost from Women Promoters

When Dasha Zhukova, the glamorous girlfriend of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, opened her Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in a converted bus depot in Moscow last autumn, art connoisseurs scoffed. What did a 27-year-old socialite, born in Russia but raised mostly in Los Angeles, know about the international contemporary-art scene? As it turns out, quite a bit; Zhukova quickly won over critics with the quality of her exhibitions. The opening show featured the rarely displayed works of expat Russian conceptual artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, including the large-scale installation The Red Wagon (1992), which is made up of a series of platforms and ladders decorated with various socialist-realist murals and ramps that lead to nowhere. Next month, Zhukova will exhibit the English artist Antony Gormley's striking Domain Field, an installation of 287 sculptures made from body molds. Zhukova, who is also the editor of the British fashion magazine Pop, and her boyfriend are clearly determined to bring international contemporary art to Russian audiences; last year Abramovich spent more than £60 million on paintings by Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. But the purpose of Garage is also to expose the world to Russian contemporary art. "I think there is a perception in Russia that if something is Russian it is generally not as good as something that is from America or Europe," says Zhukova. "That is a complete misconception."

Zhukova is at the forefront of a group of Russian-born women fighting hard to change that perception. These women, mostly wealthy, well-educated art lovers who are as interested in promoting their homeland as in exploiting economic opportunity, have opened a rash of new Russian-art galleries—many in London, where two thirds of all Russian contemporary art is sold. Last month, St. Petersburg–born financier Nonna Materkova opened Calvert 22, a nonprofit gallery dedicated to Russian and Eastern European art, in London's Shoreditch neighborhood. The first show, entitled PastFuturePerfect, exhibited pieces by five up-and-coming Russian artists, including Pavel Pepperstein. One piece from his Swastika and Pentagon ink series (2006) shows a Nazi soldier in a compromising position with an elderly, austere Orthodox priest; another features a grotesque elderly woman—her face half skeleton, half human—dangling a swastika pendant in front of a seated elderly man.

Ilona Orel, who since 2001 has run a successful gallery in Paris selling Russian contemporary works, inaugurated her London branch in April with a show featuring Andrei Molodkin, a former soldier whose intricate ink drawings have turned him into one of the country's most sought-after stars. Orel, 38, says that women have seized on the art-market opportunities partly out of traditional attitudes at home. "Maybe it's a part of Russian culture that men [are seen] to do the hard work and women do more cultural things," she says. "Art is not seen as a business but as pleasure."

There are signs that their efforts are paying off. At its second annual sale of the genre last year in London, Sotheby's saw profits rise to £4.1 million from £2.6 million in 2007. Among the works on sale: Alexander Kosolapov's takeoff on the red Marlboro box, Malevich-Black Square, and Ivan Cguikov's Self-Portrait With Sokov, which sold for £49,250. The auction house estimates that 30 percent of last year's buyers were non-Russian. "Looking back even three or four years ago, there was little interest in Russian contemporary art," says Jo Vickery, who heads Sotheby's Russian-art department. "We have seen in a space of a very few years real growth. It took a long time for that art to become not only accepted but seen to be valuable."

Not surprisingly, much of the art has a political slant, examining everything from the decadence of new Russian wealth to terrorism and the country's communist past. Molodkin—who is currently representing Russia at the Venice Biennale with The Red and the Black, which contains human blood—has depicted such provocative images as George W. Bush at the pulpit and an American soldier intimately embracing a Taliban fighter with the caption "God Is Great." The Sotheby's auction included Overlooking Moscow, by frequent collaborators Vladimir Dubossarky and Alexander Vinogradov, an oil-on-canvas painting done in Soviet-realist style that features two young women looming over the Moscow skyline, wearing expressions of intense foreboding; the piece sold for £31,250.

Russian art has been hot before, of course. From medieval Orthodox icons to 20th-century avant-garde paintings by Kandinsky and Chagall, Russian works have traditionally featured prominently in the pantheon of global treasures. Classical Russian works still draw crowds; a new multimillion-euro Hermitage outpost will open in Amsterdam this month, featuring the Romanov throne, court paintings and Fabergé jewelry. But the revolution crushed artistic freedom for decades in the Soviet Union. Artists either painted what the state told them to—Soviet realism—or were branded dissidents and treated accordingly. The collapse of the U.S.S.R. meant that Russian artists could again engage in open dialogue with other artists across the globe. Ironically, those discussions proved inhibiting because Russian artists had lost so much time, experience and self-confidence, says Maria Baibakova, who runs the Baibakova Art Projects, a gallery that opened last year in Moscow. "Russian artists and curators would sit on these panels in places like Berlin and always be negative about the state of Russian contemporary art, so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, stagnating their development," she says. "Artists needed time to stand on their own against a lot of influence from the West."

Now they've had the time. Emboldened by increased travel and free-market opportunities, Russia's young artists are experimenting with new media and techniques, as well as subject matter. Over the past decade, the vast wealth coming out of Russia—combined with Russians' growing interest in collecting—has completely invigorated the market for such works. "There was a lot of skepticism when I opened my gallery in the beginning," says Orel. "People were like, 'Who knows and cares about Russian contemporary art?' But when I put on a show in a Parisian exhibition space, I had so much demand afterward that I knew there was a niche in the market." People are fascinated by how Russian artists have interpreted not only the fall of communism but everything that's happened since. And thanks to women like Orel, Zhukova and their colleagues, the public will have plentiful access to their work.