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"Financial Times", May 26, 2007

FT REPORT - ARTS COLLECTING: From cold storage to cool new gallery

By Nora Fitzgerald, Financial Times

Vladimir Yankilevsky's "Door" series offers a poignant odeto urban existence and the idiosyncrasies of communal apartment living during the Soviet Union. Half-a-dozen doorbells are lacquered to the doorframes and notesare taped to the door ("Ivanov Family - ring twice"). At first this appearsornamental, but then it becomes clear that five families once lived behind these doors.

A break-out Russian artist who left Moscow in 1990, Yankilevsky's ongoing retrospective, entitled "Moment of Eternity," shows incredible range, from mutant female nudes to brightly painted totemic triptychs constructed from paint, found objects and corrugated tin. The works are on loan from far and wide: private collections, Rutgers University in New Jersey and a number of museums, including the Pompidou Centre in Paris. But notable, too, is its venue and organiser: the Ekaterina Cultural Foundation, the first private museum to open in Moscow in more than 60 years.

The Ekaterina Cultural Foundation is a 1,000 sq metre showcase of contemporary art developed by Russian construction tycoon Alexander Seminikhin and his wife Ekaterina. Pioneers of Russian collecting, they are the unofficial patron saints of Russia's contemporary arts scene. For, after decades of hiding paintings in attics and cellars, Russian collectors are coming out of the closet and preparing to showcase their impressive collections - only to discover that there is very little exhibition space in Moscow. So, today, several collectors are opening their own private museums.

"This trend shows the seriousness of these collectors," says Jo Vickery, vice-president and head of the Russian department at Sotheby's in London. "Seminikhin was extremely clever. He started buying Russian contemporary art early on and put together a fantastic collection. He is now leading the field and setting the trend for other collectors to follow, which is all very encouraging for the market."

The Seminikhins have acquired about 500 pieces of Russian art. However, their collection is meaningful not just because of its size, but because of its signature openness; it is one of the first Russian collections to "go public" since the Shchusev Architecture Museum opened in 1946. The renowned Russian architect Alexey Shchusev established the museum, now state-owned, to preserve remnants of demolished medieval churches and monasteries.

"Those mysterious private collections that were treated with suspicion by both the state and the society during the Soviet times are now gradually stepping out of the shadows and starting to play an important role in cultural life, just as they did in pre-Revolutionary Russia," the Seminikhins wrote in their catalogue, entitled Movement, Evolution, Art. Their own collection includes Yankilevsky, Erik Bulatov, Leonid Sokov and Aidan Salakhova, among many others.

"There are not very many exhibition spaces for contemporary art in Moscow," says Ekaterina Seminikhin, "so we are trying to change that. We decided to create a foundation, and found it much easier to work withbig museums."

Working with museums helps the collectors gain access to vital documents and materials. The Seminikhins are working with the Victoria & Albert museum in London on a large-scale exhibit covering the Diaghilev era, which they plan to show in Moscow as well as London.

Moscow collector and plastics manufacturer Igor Markin is also opening his own private museum, the Contemporary Art Museum (subtitled on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street, not far from the Kremlin. He has posted the stand-out works from his collection of 700 works on the internet at the address, as well as interviews and discussions.

"I need a museum for my own collecting," says Markin. "When I buy and store the art, I cannot monitor my own mistakes." His offices have been chock-a-bloc with paintings, from George Guryanov's monumental "Gymnast" to Bulatov's church steeple emanating red rays in "Russia 20th Century."

Vickery is encouraged by the new wave of Russian collectors, some of whom, like the Seminikhins, now buy western artists, from Wesselman to Calder. In response, Sotheby's is opening a Moscow office (see article below). In February, the auction house also held a hugely successful sale of contemporary Russian art which took in L2.6m. Two hundred Russian collectors registered to buy art, a huge increase in collectors from a few years ago, and most of the top bidders were Russian.

Contemporary painter Maxim Kantor, whose work can be found in the British Museum as well as many museums and galleries in Germany, was pleased with the sales of his work in the auction, particularly his Ten Stray Dogs, snapped up by an anonymous collector for L66,000. "This auction in general shows one important thing: never try to follow fashion or you are going to produce a second-rate product," says Kantor, referring to the fact that paintings, as opposed to mixed-media installations, stole the show.

Both artists and collectors agree that the Russian contemporary arts scene has seen a steep learning curve. "Westerners took a curious interest in the market and dipped their toe in it," says Vickery. "I would hope we could build on that in future."

More private museums are slated to open. Alexander Smuzikov, a 35-year-old Moscow banker, will open what has been called a pinakothek. Smuzikov co-owns an important Russian avant-garde collection, which includes a number of works by abstract pioneer Kazimir Malevich, with gallery owner and collector Gary Tatintsian. The latter recently showed his own collection, from icons to provocative contemporary works, in his Gary Tatintsian Gallery. It was the first exhibit in Moscow that was aimed at the neophyte collector, and designed to show how to build an impressive collection.

"It was perceptive of him to do that," says Vickery. "People need guidance on how to put collections together. For those new to the market, it isn't straightforward; they do need advice and it's better for them to get it at the beginning than five years later.

"It's wonderful to be able to see the works in these private collections," she adds. "I hope these spaces inspire new collectors to follow in their paths."

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