Russia’s Emerging Art Market, According to the Director of Moscow’s Contemporary Art Fair

“There is a new generation of collectors in the region, ready to absorb young contemporary art and build up new collections. This is where Cosmoscow comes in,” says Sandra Nedvetskaia, the Moscow-based entrepreneur who has followed her position as the International Head of Christie’s Russia and CIS to become the director of a contemporary art fair in Moscow, still in its infancy. As the market shifts from traditional Russian art and Fabergé to contemporary work, Nedvetskaia is well aware of the potential for growth; and with Cosmoscow, she is tasked with introducing underexposed, emerging Russian artists to collectors. In a chat with Artsy, Nedvetskaia shares her insights on Moscow’s buzzing contemporary art scene, the steady increase in Russian collecting, and most notably, the fair’s strategy to bring international awareness to young artists on its home soil.

Artsy: You’ve held powerful positions within the Russian art world, notably as the former International Head of Christie’s Russia and CIS. What was the impetus to move on from Christie’s to join as director of Cosmoscow?

Sandra Nedvetskaia: Having had a successful career with Christie’s for nearly 10 years, building up the Russian and CIS Business Development department from scratch and growing these markets for the company exponentially, I had felt it was time to use the accumulated experience and do something on my own in an entrepreneurial sense within the arts. I got together with Margarita Pushkina (the founder of Cosmoscow), and decided it was time to relaunch the fair. The Russian market for contemporary art is still quite virginal but with huge potential for growth, which is why this project is particularly exciting.

Artsy: Cosmoscow returns for its second year after a four-year intermission. Why the hiatus? In addition to moving to new location, what other changes should we expect with the relaunch of the fair?

SN: In 2010, Russia was not quite ready for the international level of contemporary art Cosmoscow offered, however till this day there was still not one top quality international art fair in Russia or any neighboring country. Margarita and I felt that 2014 was the perfect time to bring Cosmoscow back—a year of contemporary art in Russia with Monumenta and Manifesta 10, the Garage [Museum of Contemporary Art] moving to a Koolhaas-designed permanent home, the Udarnik cinema becoming a contemporary center, and numerous other initiatives. We did extensive research of the important established and emerging international art fairs in order to understand where Cosmoscow should be heading. Cosmoscow ’14 will stay compact, with around 30 booths focusing on the quality of the art. Our Russian participants have been tasked with presenting mono- or dual-artist booths, and we also have a new “Discovery” section where young galleries—or those showing a very young artist—will be present. Additionally, we are launching the Cosmoscow artist-patron program, aimed at supporting young Russian artists in their budding careers.

Artsy: The 2010 fair was held in the Red October Factory, a Soviet chocolate factory reimagined as a gallery space. Generally, Russia has seen many of these types of transformed spaces—such as the Smolinsky Bread Factory-turned-artist space in St Petersburg; Winzavod, the brewery and wine bottling factory reborn as an exhibition space in Moscow; and the aptly named Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, once housed in a 1920s bus depot. This year, the fair takes place in the Moscow Manege, a former horse guard. How might this architectural repurposing speak to the growth of the contemporary art scene in Russia?

SN: There is an abundance of architectural treasures in Moscow, some of them sadly in a deep state of disrepair, so we looked long and hard to find the right space. The Manege, with its new status as an official exhibition space, has the infrastructure for a complex event like ours. Above all, the 1830s architecture provides a stunning backdrop for contemporary works of art; the central location is perfect for our international visitors as it is walking distance from all the main museums, hotels, and sights. I feel there is a growing acceptance for transforming historical buildings as spaces for exhibitions and installations. There is a real buzz around the city when it comes to contemporary culture.

Artsy: A June article in Business Insider claims the “Russian Art Market is On Fire.” As the former director of Christie’s Russia and CIS, you’ve been watching the market for a while. What might you see as the cause of this momentum—and what will make it last?

SN: Collecting in Russia experienced explosive growth between 2005 and 2008, and has seen a steady increase ever since. The market used to focus primarily on traditional Russian Art and Fabergé, with this pattern changing to reflect interest in Impressionist and modern, and increasingly  contemporary, art. Thanks to the latter being a very broad market with many more prolific artists, still creating today, there is a great potential for continued growth. Russia and CIS are yet to experience the full extent of this international boom as there is still very little information about contemporary artists, and too few exhibitions and comparatives in local museums. What’s interesting is that there is a new generation of collectors in the region, ready to absorb young contemporary art and build up new collections. This is where Cosmoscow comes in.

Artsy: On a related note, the article reports that a large percentage of the recent buyers have been Russian collectors. Cosmoscow brings major international galleries—and collectors—to Russian soil. Is a goal to introduce Russian artists to an international audience, and vice versa?

SN: This is precisely our mission. Good young Russian artists have been underexposed and very few are known internationally. This is why we have a strong contingency of Russian galleries to compliment international heavyweights; we feel there is enough interesting contemporary art in Russia that deserves the attention of international collectors and professionals. As Cosmoscow is a small fair, this allows us to develop a strong non-commercial angle, with many projects such as Laboratoria Art and Science Space, YARAT, Cosmoscow Education, and the artist-patron program, which allow us to create a discourse between the local and international audiences.

Artsy: As the fair is invitation-only, and carefully curated, how did you decide what galleries to bring together?

SN: We aimed to select galleries with strong conceptual programs, whose artists are represented in important institutions—artists both long established and those completely unknown in Russia. We likewise worked closely with Russian galleries and our expert committee on their selection of artists, of which they each will show a maximum of two. We want to grow slowly and organically, gradually introducing more conceptual projects and original ideas. The quality of the art is our main unifying constant. 

Artsy: What is exciting about the emerging contemporary art scene in Moscow?

SN: One just has to go to see the graduate exhibitions of the Russian art schools, the young Contemporary Biennale and numerous projects at Winzavod [Moscow Contemporary Art Center Winzavod] and Strelka [Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design] to see how much energy and talent there is around. Young artists are emerging on the scene with new conceptual ideas, performances, and theories. There is also a growing support among collectors and patrons, helping these artists get the international recognition they deserve. The Garage, V-A-C Foundation, Ekaterina Foundation, and Kandinsky Prize, among others, are creating a buzz in the art world. In the next five years, I am positive that Russian contemporary art will get institutional representation internationally.

Artsy: Specifically, are there emerging Russian artists that we should keep our eyes on at the fair? And do you find any commonalities within the work being made by this generation of young artists?

SN: There was a more sinister time for contemporary art in Russia, reflected in many works by the likes of Kabakov and the Moscow Conceptualists. What we see today is a generation of hope for a more inclusive and promising future, channeled by the likes of Sasha Paperno, Sergei Sapozhnikov, Olya Kroytor, and countless others. None the less, there is a persistent sense of irony and self-criticism, prone to the Russian soul, which is why the art spurting from the region will always be original and exciting for the outside world.

Molly Gottschalk

Explore Cosmoscow 2014 on Artsy.