The 4th Ural Industrial Biennale will take place this autumn in Ekaterinburg and other cities of Sverdlovsk Region. It is organized by the State Modern Art Center (SMAC) that is part of ROSIZO, the State Museum and Exhibition Center. RBK Style spoke with its commissioner Alisa Prudnikova on issues regarding the development of culture policy in Russian provinces.

— Let’s start with the status of modern art in Russian provinces. How can you describe it?

— It is highly unstable. During the years in the State Modern Art Center, we many times tried to find the grounds for horizontal interaction of provinces with each other. For instance, people in Ekaterinburg don’t know what’s going on in Vladivostok, and Samara citizens don’t have any idea about the current events in Vladikavkaz, except for the names of people who represent these territories in the capital city. SMAC branches have carried out huge work to study the local culture situations and provide infrastructural and organizational support to provinces. Moreover, we have conducted analytical surveys, in order to identify our place in the global context.

— The State Modern Art Center has many branch offices. How are their operations organized?

— It’s worth mentioning that SMAC has no comparable counterparts in the world. This is not the museum with branches in the traditional sense of the word. It is true that many museums expand their activity and establish branches. For instance, the Hermitage or Russian Museum, but they are not the network entities. There’s a similar organization in France called FRAC. It is a modern art center with representative offices in 20 regions, but this is not a network entity either. They are linked with each other through popularisation of French modern art collections, but they don’t have any common missions, tasks or targets. By contrast to this, SMAC has the unique history: our membership comprises eight individual modern art centers. Each of them has its own program generated by the local context, and its own nature, identity and specific features. Our center is always aiming to develop the space where it is located, the artistic environment and the city in general. A particular SMAC feature is that it is kind of a pioneer institution. SMAC centers remain the monopolists of modern urban art. In some places our centers were integrated in a big system, which made them important players in the area of culture policy development. It is now exceptionally interesting for me to see the whole picture and try to formulate a project or format that could potentially unite all of them.   

— What about the interaction between the center and provinces? Are the latter autonomous?

— The decision-making body in SMAC has always been the Academic Board; after the merge with ROSIZO it transformed into Methodological Board. Regional Network Development was selected as one of the top priorities. It was important for us to experiment with the format of representative offices in Moscow. The things that we invented and implemented make a program for approximately two years ahead. Each branch will arrange its own exhibition, we’ll decide together about its content and highlights of the project that will be shown to Moscow audience. Our branches now have an opportunity to unlock their potential and exhibit something special to the metropolitan audience – the picture of what is now going on in Russia, something that stayed out of context before.  

SMAC is a network organization, but how can that be seen and felt? We have a branch in Samara. Probably, the main project that characterizes this territory is Shiryaevskaya biennale. I’ve been to Samara, but I’ve never been to biennale. I imagine a picture: people going somewhere in the field or swimming in boats down the river. And we made an exhibition called ‘Shiryaevskaya biennale. Middle-Russian zen’ that creates exactly that kind of an atmosphere and makes it possible for the visitors to seen the boundaries of their territory. The next exhibition starts on October 18. It is called ‘Taming the emptiness. 50 years of modern Ural art’. This project is the most comprehensive investigation of modern art in the Urals. The target is not only to archive the process, identify names and types of art, but also to carry out a deeply artistic investigation of the Urals specifics in the global context.  

I feel that there’s something special in the air now and a great many of people rushed to provinces all of a sudden, which means that the hypercentricity really changed. All of us are now searching for these ‘places of power’. There are no doubts that Shiryaevskaya biennale is an incredible ‘place of power’, the Middle-Russian zen, and it is worth being visited exactly this time. I’m sure that this is a very important mission on the regional agenda of our Moscow-based center. In addition to that, we are now working on a global transcontinental project together with BOZAR – one of the oldest and biggest cultural centers in Europe, with the support provided by Vladimir Potanin’s Charity Fund. The name of the project is ‘Ne Moskva’ (Not Moscow). This should be a teambuilding network project that is expected to last during five years, from 2017 to 2022.  

— To take all round, do you have a feeling that people in provinces need modern art? Traditionally they can go to a museum to see Serov’s or Shishkin’s works, or Russian avant-garde if nothing else, but all other things are not that attractive for them. Probably they do not think much of the events that now take place in the society, and don’t like anything new or modern. Or they are simply afraid, I don’t know.

— I have a feeling that we’ve seen a drastic change as compared with the situation 10 or even 15 year ago. I perfectly remember the gloomy conservatism that was underlying our existence and way of thinking about 10 years ago. And now modern art is part of our everyday life, which is especially true for young people. We are now living in the center of a new visual culture that requires involvement from our side. There’s a great need for modern art. Of course, it is difficult to introduce modern art in small towns. But it is an important tool that helps to adjust the living standards to the currently existing needs. There are some good examples showing the initial importance of open-minded attitude to modern art practices. One of such examples is Satka – our partner, a single-industry city based on Magnezit enterprise. It is an amazing story of love to modern art. We came here with a proposal to arrange an art residence at the factory, and started cooperating within the scope of Ural Industrial Biennale. Sometime later the enterprise made investments in the development of social and cultural concept of the area, which was a powerful driver of changes. In six years, the town got a totally new look – with wall art, new architectural forms, benches, artist-made street lamps and other elements. It is a town with the audience ready to perceive our projects. A lot of important things appear at the intersection of the traditional and modern. For instance, Magnezit is both a place to display Deineki’s works from Chelyabinsk Art Museum and an art residence of a modern artist.

— Speaking of the regional centers, are there any attendance figures? What are the places that are most visited by people eager to see pieces of art?

— Nizhny Novgorod is the pioneer in terms of attendance, with local Kremlin being the coolest professional environment in Russia outside Moscow. It’s not just the center of modern art, it is the center of modern culture, highly diverse and open. The attendance rate is approximately 120 thousand visitors per year. The focus is made on consistent daily work that results in visitors becoming regular ‘customers’ and consumers of everything offered here.

In Ekaterinburg the situation is different. This city is characterized by well-developed competitive environment. During the last 10 years, a lot of institutions were established here, including Eltsin-Center, several commercial galleries, independent art spaces, so it’s quite difficult to maintain regular attendance figures. People are more willing to see the events, and we act as the activities generator. An exhibition for us is a good reason to organize something else: walking tours, lecturers, concerts and performances.  

There are some more problematic territories, such as Vladikavkaz. It is not open to modern art practices due to specific features of the local mind-set. But the team of the branch office constantly searches for proper curatorial and marketing involvement strategies. There are some incredible artists here, and my colleagues from Vladikavkaz use their best efforts to show these young guys to the general public. Let’s mention the annual Art Kavkaz Next contest. It gives support to young artists, so that they continue implementing their projects. It’s a very important investment, even though in a restricted professional area. It will definitely result in something bigger in the course of time.

What’s interesting about such regional institutions? The fact is, these are the worlds that are totally different from each other. You come to Ekaterinburg or Vladikavkaz to see that they are like different planets. Modern art is the territory where you ask the questions, so it is important to leapfrog over some ‘beauty’ requirement that is often imposed upon art and to convince people that ‘beauty’ belong to design, while art is about questions and one’s inner world. This is a very important turning point, and everything that comes next depends on whether a person is ready for it. As compared with classic museum art, modern art has been considered of secondary importance for a very long time. But if we raise the bar and say that we are proud of modern art, then ... 

— But nobody does it so far…

— Yes, nobody is willing to do that.

— On the other hand, I’ve noticed that Pushkin museum has been recently active in showing not exactly the supermodern art, but things that were not compatible with the museum’s image before. I’m speaking about the postwar art dated back to the sixties.  

— This is a very smart policy that points to the link of times. It shows that modern art is not just some kind of personal expression that comes out of nowhere; it is the process that perfectly fits to the course of history and therefore should be viewed in the context of time. This is a very important mission of the museum. Generally speaking, it’s a common practice everywhere. I remember I’ve been to a very interesting Northern Renaissance exhibition and there was a small corridor with a red room called ‘break out’. It hosted a full-fledged independent project of a young artist that gained importance in connection with the main exhibition hall. This practice becomes more and more usual for museums globally.  

Of course, it’s a great privilege to be a big museum and hold a great collection, but we have certain advantages in terms of flexibility, creation of special projects and new pieces of art. Speaking of the provinces, local artists are highly competitive to work on serious projects. But a very small number of regional artists get the required financial support. One of SMAC’s missions is to develop a system of grants for regional authors. You may be extraordinarily talented, but if you don’t have an opportunity to do what you want, you’ll always stay in the background. I engage a lot of different funds to support foreign artists, but I can’t do the same for Ural artists participating in the biennale. This year we have for the first time ever developed a program to support local artists together with Sinara Fund, and this is an important breakthrough.  

— Speaking of the Russian modern art market, how important are personal connections here?

— We are pretty much a mafia-style industry, with personal connections being of great importance. But I’m still convinced that the personality, and not personal connections, is on top of everything.

Some time ago, when I just started dealing with biennale, I joined the World Biennale Organization. This broadened my horizons and gave me a detached view of the whole international biennale system. There are some good and bad examples. I remember we met with Annet Kulenkampf, the executive director of Documents, and she provided some figures that left me speechless. Documents’ budget makes €17 mln, and this is the federal budget. In addition to that, there’s €5 mln, one million per year from the municipality. They’ve calculated that a million of people who come to Documents in a period of 100 days, bring €200 mln to the city and leave this money here. The key finding for me was that Germans learned how to calculate this KPI, and I’m eager to understand how they do that. I’d like to learn about the methodology and see the results of Ural Biennale in figures. There’s a ready system for that and I’m happy that I can adapt it for our own purposes.

— Speaking of Ural Biennale’s budget, it consists of three parts provided by the state, region and city. In figures it makes 14, 10 and 5 mln respectively. What are this money enough for?  

— It’s difficult to say what exactly is covered with this money. But we realized some time ago that no project can start with the budget less than RUR 30 mln. This is the budget to cover some basic things, such as creation of the project and the team involved, that’s all. This is followed by various fund-raising strategies. My personal goal is to fund-raise the additional 15 mln, i.e. half of the existing budget. Unfortunately, I haven’t fulfilled it so far. Even though the biennale expands day after day, I can’t say that finding money for it becomes easier.