It’s possible, I have learned, to travel thousands of miles to be introduced to a burgeoning art scene only to return unsure if you’ve learned anything at all. I flew to Moscow recently to speak at Art and Reality, a conference that this year focused on curation. The Petr Konchalovsky Foundation runs the event, and as long as that’s the case, I don’t recommend anyone make the trip.
My reasons aren’t more complex than poor conference organization, but you have to marvel at just how many things the foundation got wrong. Let’s forget about the fact that the keynote speakers with whom I was told I would present never showed up. Such a thing can change easily, and maybe it was a little ambitious to think I’d be speaking alongside superstars Hans Ulrich Obrist (codirector of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery) and Nicholas Serota (director of the Tate).
Still, that these speakers were even invited suggests a level of awareness of the professional art world that seemed incongruous with what I experienced. That the city’s scene is brand new—its first commercial gallery was founded in 1989—doesn’t explain all the problems.
To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, the conference, which was about curating, took place in the middle of a street fair. It began with an opening gala for an uncurated amateur art show, and ended with a fashion show. Somewhere in between, the foundation’s founder, famed Tango & Cash director Andrei Konchalovsky, delivered a speech disputing the merits of abstraction. That was just the first night.
On their own, none of these decisions or positions should necessarily be an issue, but they don’t have much relationship with the fine art world in which the invited speakers participate. For that reason, it’s not too surprising that none of the six invited guests, myself included, spoke to an audience of more than 30 people. None of the city’s critics showed up, and though the city’s top dealer, Dmitry Khankin of Triumph Gallery, spoke briefly, he simply took the microphone for 20 minutes and then promptly left. Somehow, before he did so, he managed to tell me that his gallery turns over six new shows a month. If that weren't already an obvious lie, the gallery’s website documents a standard monthly turnover.
Given that so few of the city’s professionals attended the conference, it’s difficult to identify where the level of discourse in Moscow is, let alone participate in it. And that's a shame, because the invited keynote speakers provided a wealth of knowledge, squandered on an audience that was content to talk about how the role of the curator is to make sure that artists have good showcards and wall labels.
Zheng Shentian spoke at length about how Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siquerios have been extremely influential to the Chinese Mural movement that began in 1979. It was a fascinating lecture filled with historical facts and connections I never would have made. Donald Thompson, famed author of The $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark, talked about how gallerists who paid for the production and shipping of salable work to museums were taking on the role of the curator. Nothing new there, but Thompson had a way of making these deals seem like lurid gossip. He has a new book coming out this winter that’s entirely art-world gossip. It'll be a hit.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with the Russian art world, whose largest problem seems to be its unwillingness to invest in itself. That was evidenced less in the Petr Konchalovsky Foundation’s choice of speakers—David Elliott, curator of the Kiev Biennial, and Manu Park, director of the Nam June Paik Center, had both worked on projects based in Russia—and more in the fact that there’s so little financial support available to artists. Aside from asking the conference organizers to, um, actually organize, the feedback from the speakers was that Russian collectors need to collect more work by Russian artists. Of course, no Russian collectors attended the conference, so that call went unheard.