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Sandra Nedvetskaya. Phото: Christie’s

Collector in Action 0

Mid-September saw the Cosmoscow Art Fair take place in Moscow. met the fair’s co-director, art collector Sandra Nedvetskaya

Anna Arutyunova

Sandra Nedvetskaya is the director of the Cosmoscow contemporary art fair that has made its return on the Moscow art scene after a four-year interval of silence. Sandra is not the sole head of the fair: she has been sharing the post on equal basis with the founder and the inspiration behind the art fair Margarita Pushkina, the Moscow collector and art patroness who came up with and realised the idea of Cosmoscow in 2010. There seems to be an unspoken agreement between them that Sandra is responsible for the image of the Russian enterprise abroad – a task benefited greatly by the ten years she spent working at Christie’s, establishing contacts with Russian collectors worldwide. In all respects, Nedvetskaya seems a classical example of ‘the global Russian’: educated in London, she is now permanently based in Zürich but often finds herself in different corners of the world thanks to her professional duties and her passionate love for art. Her Christie’s team was constantly commuting between New York, Moscow, London... She seems to have found some additional reasons for visiting Moscow lately – not only due to the fact that the last decade has seen Russians become active participants of international art auction sales but also because, thanks to the art fair, she has embraced the Russian art world and found new favourite artists here.

The Cosmoscow fair opened in somewhat ambiguous circumstances: ostensibly by chance, the dates coincided with those of the Art Moscow art fair. Ostensibly by chance, a couple of weeks prior to the opening of Cosmoscow, the Art Moscow camp announced that the project was cancelled after all. The fact was no secret to the local art circles; nevertheless, it prompted yet more talk of the eternal internal feud that seems to consume the Moscow art scene on a regular basis, with or without a reason. Be that as it may, there are great expectations from Cosmoscow, and both its co-directors have found themselves under intense media scrutiny. Weirdly enough, they are both art collectors. While Margarita Pushkina’s passion for collecting is a reasonably well-known fact in Moscow, Sandra’s collection is terra incognita for everybody. Sandra and I met to discuss it in one of the quiet side streets of the Moscow Golden Mile. Over a cup of coffee, she shows me pictures of pieces from her collection and tells me about the great difference between working at an auction house and organising an art fair, about what gallerists want anywhere in the world and things that need to be done to take Russian contemporary art to the international level at last.

Sandra Nedvetskaya and Margarita Pushkina. Publicity photo

You don’t seem to be making a great fuss about promoting your own collection; nevertheless, it includes quite a few very interesting pieces and even big names. And – not a single artist from Russia. How was your collection born and how has it evolved?

After ten years of working with art and constantly observing artists and the development of the art market, it was hard not to give in to the temptation of starting a collection of my own. What is more, my husband, who was my co-worker at Christie’s, has spent the last 20 years of his life surrounded by art. His parents own a gallery focusing on prints by the Old Masters, which means that works of this kind have always been present at our home and are also represented in the collection. However, our priority now is contemporary art, much better at capturing our way of life and rhythm of our existence. We could not afford to collect the kind of works sold at contemporary art sales at Christie’s and decided to focus on young artists. The absence of Russian artists in our collection can be explained by the fact that we live abroad and contemporary Russian artists are rarely represented by Western galleries. We certainly hope that at least a few works from Russia will now be added to our collection thanks to the Cosmoscow Art Fair. Admittedly, we have no idea where to place or hang them: while the collection is, of course, quite small – I’m not even sure if it can be described as a collection – we have practically run out of walls by now.

How do you choose the works? Do you follow your gut instinct?

There are a few people whose opinion we trust but the main thing for us is trusting our own eyes. We do not do massive research on an artist and then rush to buy his or her work. It is the other way round for us: first we go to an art fair, look around and try and figure out what we like best. It is only then that we start making inquiries and digging for additional information about the artist or the piece in question. Quite a few works by already well-known artists have ended up in our collection – a long time before the authors became really famous. There is a Christopher Williams, whose retrospective ran in New York recently, and a Matt Saunders, who is already showing at the Tate. Incidentally, they both work with photography – each in his own original way at that. For instance, Williams turns his camera into the subject of the work: he has shot a portrait series of cameras of various brands. As for Saunders, he does not even use a camera, only an old photographic film on which he draws mysterious abstract landscapes. Recently we discovered for ourselves and fell in love with the Greek artist Antonis Donef. What he does is comb bookstores in Athens for antique books in different languages and take them apart, using the pages in his giant collages. The pages become the foundation, the ‘canvas’ on which he creates his ink drawings by adding to a randomly chosen book illustration: the picture grows and expands, transforming into a complex graphic story. Many famous artists like Daniel Lefcourt are quite difficult to lay your hands on. Their shows at art galleries are often completely sold out so you have to wait for your turn to get a piece.

Which piece would you call the founding stone of your collection? Perhaps it’s the first work of art you have ever bought or a specially sought-after one?

It’s a difficult question but for us a very important acquisition was a Joana Vasconcelos – her bull’s head. It is the kind of head that you can easily imagine hanging above a butcher’s shop but the artist has covered it in old Portuguese lace, turning this – basically – vintage curio into a contemporary object. The way it played out, there were a number of factors that influenced our decision to buy. Firstly, Vasconcelos is simply a brilliant artist and, as it turned out, also a lovely person. Her pieces were frequently sold at Christie’s, and I liked them a lot. Later, during the exhibition of François Pinault’s collection at the Moscow Garage, I met Joana in person. After that, I just fell in love with her work and waited ages for a financial and physical opportunity to buy something of hers. Secondly, our first-born is a Taurus. Soon after his birth, our gallerist friends, aware of our fondness for Vasoncelos, told us that they had exactly what we needed – and offered this piece. In other words, when the bull was finally given its proper place above the fireplace, it was a very significant moment for us.

Joana Vasconcelos. Photо:

You also collect 20th-century design. Please tell us about this part of your collection.

It’s European furniture of the 1950s and1960s from Scandinavia, Italy, Germany and France. We have chairs by Gerrit Rietveld, a chair by Charles and Ray Eames, chairs by Le Corbusier – the same leather ones with metal profiles, the ones that it’s impossible to find today. In Russia, this trend of collecting has not taken root at all: for some reason, people associate furniture with mass production although a chair manufactured in 100 copies can hardly be considered mass-produced. There is also a prejudice against second-hand objects, and yet it is definitely part of their appeal: they are somewhat untidy, slightly worn in places: people have actually used these things and should go on using them. For instance, we own a lot of children’s chairs. My husband wanted to hang them on the wall, make an installation, but our children are currently actively using them and the chairs, of course, have lost their previous condition.

Is it hard to find original designer objects of good quality in the market today?

It is definitely hard to find them for a reasonable price but we have established personal contact with the owners of some small design stores in Munich and Zürich; knowing our taste, they can sometimes offer an interesting thing or two. The role of a gallerist, an art dealer, is quite an important one in the West: they can adjust the market correctly by maintaining a good relationship with the customers and the artists – which is hopefully the thing we will arrive at some day in Russia: the market of contemporary art or design, or any art for that matter, will not evolve without the gallerist.

And yet you currently seem to be completely focused on contemporary art. In your opinion, what is the advantage of collecting contemporary art?

Many contemporary artists are open to communication. Whenever it’s possible to meet and speak with the artists, it is much easier to understand and feel their work. Personal contact is a great motivator to carry on buying and collecting art.

Today we often hear about purchasers – no-one would even go as far as call them collectors – who buy art as a profitable  investment. Many expected the number of this kind of speculative deals to diminish in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. But has anything really changed at all?

There are plenty of people who buy art because they are tempted by the possibility of making a profitable investment. There certainly is speculation going on in the art market, and growth comes in waves. Thanks to these waves, many artists have made it to the very top – but it’s not many who manage to hold on and stay there. My advice to an art market beginner would be: before you buy a work of art, consider how you would look at it 10 or 15 years later. Is the piece likely to prove untouched by time or will it turn out to be just a reflection of a transitory situation? Perhaps your wish to own it was born from the fact that you saw it as a reference to certain moments in the current life. Contemporary art – although it is, of course, contemporary – can and should also be supertemporal. And it’s not about the technique or the medium: in this sense, an oil-on-canvas painting is no more and no less valuable than an installation. What matters is the subject, the idea behind the piece. Sadly, many prefer to buy whatever is in fashion at the time. And then there are some who still think of works of art as an element of the décor.

AES+F. Sacred Allegory. 2013. Photo: AES+F / Triumph Gallery

And despite all that, the response to any reference to the art market as an area of commercial activity – to the mere fact that art is actually sold and bought for money – is generally quite ambiguous. Many collectors avoid like the plague any mention of the financial element of art collecting, distancing themselves from any kind of commercial plans.

Well, if they are scared then they are clearly interested in the commercial aspect. Whenever a piece by an artist represented in our collection is auctioned for a nice sum of money, it’s very pleasant – I’m not going to deny that. If you are guided purely by investment considerations, it is very difficult, almost impossible to take everything into account. And that is why there are so few successful investment funds in the art market. Businessmen are used to getting a 100 % return – and fast. Sometimes people consult me, saying that they want to create an art investment fund, and ask about the profit they could expect. I tell them the truth: a maximum of 10 %. Many find my answer shocking; they are very surprised and cite specific cases when a piece was bought for 50 thousand dollars and sold for a million a year later. But that’s just one artist. Of all the money you will spend, only one or two artists will bring you a profit. Art takes time to become more expensive. Young British Artists are an excellent example: ten years ago, works by some members of the group were sold at incredible prices; today they have fallen in value quite a lot. And vice versa, some names were not so strongly promoted at the time – like Sarah Lucas, for instance. Today everybody understands that she was a key figure in the whole movement.

Actually, that’s very interesting: in your opinion, what is the impact of commercialisation of art and this kind of fervent growth of the art market on artists?

Sadly, many of them have realised the advantages of fast commercial success, and it is reflected in their work. As soon as an artist finds himself in the grasp of the market, particularly in the circulation of speculative deals, the quality of his work goes downhill in 90 cases out of a hundred. There are other examples; for instance, Gerhardt Richter hates discussing the price of his works. You could suspect him of being somewhat coy, of course, but he does make a point of emphasising that he is not interested in price-forming, that it does not make any sense to him – nor does he have the slightest wish to understand it. In any case, you just cannot ignore the financial side of art: there is no getting away from it. And by no means does this imply that art should be compared to investment or that art should be gambled with like you would do with shares on the stock market. You can get badly burnt.

And yet there are plenty of stories from Western galleries about collectors queuing for works by some particularly sought-after artists. Surely that is additional pressure on the artist who is basically expected to turn out more and more new works.

This is where an important role is played by the gallerist who will set the artist’s mind at peace. Also, these queues often are created by the fact that a museum is showing interest in the particular artist’s work. Any gallerist would give preference to a museum collection over a private one, but the process of a museum purchase is quite a lengthy one: there is a committee that has to approve the choice, price and a hundred other things. While all that is happening, the work is stuck: the gallerist is holding on to it awaiting the final answer from the museum. Potential buyers, meanwhile, are waiting, everyone expecting to be the first in the list if the museum decides not to buy. If everything is sold out, the gallerist, of course, cannot ask the artist to make a new piece as soon as possible. The queue is simply transferred to the next exhibition. Everybody prefers first-hand purchases: the prices are much more real; and yet many collectors may decide not to wait for the next exhibition and buy at an auction, even though that means paying through the nose. Obviously, the prices will grow if there is a constant interest in the artist’s works.

What is an ideal gallerist like for you?

I have a great respect for gallerists who work on developing an artist from the very beginning, investing their own money, time and energy in their growth. Often a little-known artist reaches a certain level thanks to a gallerist of this kind, and then he or she is lured away by a better-known one. A good gallerist is a gallerist who knows how to hold on to their artists; it can be done by building correct relationships with collectors, museum-type institutions and curators. And that is the kind of gallerists that we expected to see at the new edition of the Cosmoscow art fairs – and at the ones still to come.

Quite a few foreign galleries were present at the art fair, some of them showing a number of artists at once. And yet the Russian participants were limited to presenting no more than two artists in their booths. What was the reason behind that and why did the rule apply to Russian galleries only?

What matters is quality not quantity. If a stand features just one or two works by each of a number of artists, a collector will never understand the gist of their art. Our artists are not that well-known abroad but we want Western professionals to give them their due. Furthermore, solo exhibitions at art fairs are one of the latest trends, and there is an absolutely logical explanation to that. There are so many contemporary art fairs in the world today that collectors have no time to visit gallery shows anymore. And that is why an art fair is the gallerist’s chance to mount a museum-style exhibition for his artist, guaranteed to be viewed by a huge number of people.

Antonis Donef. Untitled. 2010–2012. Fragment. Phоtо:

Why did you decide to leave the auction world and devote yourself to an art fair? While both jobs are connected with the art market, they are essentially two completely different areas.

The difference is very big indeed. I spent 9.5 years at Christie’s, and that was an exciting journey for me: the Russian and CIS market was actively growing in my time at the auction; there were plenty of new tasks to deal with. But I have now realised that the time has come for me to create something for myself; besides, it is contemporary art that I really want to work with. Previously, I was more concerned with the business side of the market; now I want to spend more time working with artists and collectors of contemporary art in Russia while also working on clearing the way for Russian art abroad. It would seem that I have seen and done so much already, and yet – I have learnt so much during the year I have been working on the art fair.

What was new for you in comparison with your work at the auction house?

The auction world is a quite isolated and small one, although it may seem that it’s huge when looking from the inside. The reality is that there exists a whole world that is so much bigger and that auction houses are just a small part of it. During this year, I visited all the largest art fairs; I met and spoke with a huge number of gallerists; I felt their problems and became a part of their world – to some extent. I realised what were their worries – what they needed and what they wanted to change in art fairs. It was this close contact with the gallerists that was a completely new experience for me.

What is it then that contemporary gallerists need?

There are several hundreds of art fairs in the world and just not enough time for the galleries to take part in all of them: it is quite expensive, and sometimes there is simply just not enough material. They complain that there is the same set of people touring the world’s art fairs, from Frieze to Art Basel – from Art Basel in Switzerland to Art Basel in Miami, then moving on to Hong Kong and then back to Frieze: going round and round in circles. Lots of getting together but no new faces. Besides, there are fewer and fewer collectors among the art fair visitors, since attending an art fair has now become a form of art tourism. I have met young people from affluent families who mark the best-known art fairs in their planners well in advance: they go to Miami to visit Art Basel and relax on the beach; to Paris – to see FIAC and go for a walk in the city. Art tourism is a separate industry, and we for one would benefit from its development – but gallerists are not happy about it. They want something completely new, a differently structured art fair: they are sick and tired of spaces divided into booths and stands – they want something more like a biennial. For instance, while the Venice Biennale positions itself as a non-commercial show, it is actually quite commercial: as soon as the first collectors hit the venue, they immediately contact their gallerists to tell which works by which artists they would like to buy. In New York, there is a small art fair under the name of Independent, and that is exactly what it is trying to do – disguise itself as a biennial. Only 40 galleries take part in the Independent, mostly new and alternative ones. There are no separate stands as such: everything takes place in an open and very interesting space. In our situation, it is, of course, a bit premature to start experimenting. Some new elements could be introduced but it would be nice to create a classic art fair with a strong international presence and the traditional contemporary art fair ‘kitchen’ to begin with.

And yet this is a somewhat complicated moment for an undertaking like a commercial art fair. How do you deal with adverse external conditions?

On the one hand, 2014 has still been a significant year for contemporary art in Russia. The Manifesta Biennale was held in St Petersburg; the Kabakovs were represented at Monumenta in Paris. We wouldn’t like to slow down. After consulting the map of international art fairs, we realised that there is nothing truly and genuinely international going on in Moscow. Based on my experience of working with collectors at Christie’s, I can say that the market and the potential are definitely there; it’s just that they need to be worked on. There was a high point in 2008: yes, Gagosian came; yes, there was the Pinault show.  But that was no more than a ‘tusovka’, a get-together – a boom. What we see today is some real interest. There is a new generation of young people growing up who have an affinity with contemporary art. There is another reason why the prospects for contemporary art are not that bad: it is relatively inexpensive, so there is a real chance of starting a good collection. I am often asked by my more youthful friends: when can I start collecting contemporary art? You can start at any time at all, as soon as you have some disposable pocket money and interest. That is exactly the way all good collections start: with interest. Clearly, no more than 10 out of 100 artists will ever become really famous; and yet the process in itself is incredibly exciting. And your collection – well, that’s just your collection that reflects your unique personality; the source of inspiration behind it may well be a small and ostensibly insignificant piece.

On the other hand, what helped us not give up was being aware of how many talented Russian artists there were with a fresh and often quite positive outlook on the future – despite all the foreign policy problems. They want to be part of the international art scene, and what we want is help them. In the West, practically nothing is known about contemporary artists living in Russia. They know Kabakov and have heard of Komar and Melamid, the Moscow  Conceptualists – but that’s not even quite contemporary any more. Besides, the circle of people collecting them is still very small. A charity art auction [was] also planned prior to the opening of the Cosmoscow fair, and some of the lots were pieces by recent art school graduates. Many of the artists were almost completely unknown abroad, and yet there were lots of interest and positive comments from my friends in the West while I was working on the catalogue. Even my husband said that he liked some of the works.

Besides being a commercial venture, practically every successful contemporary art fair – think Frieze or FIAC – is also an important cultural event for the respective city. It is hardly a secret that many art fairs receive public subsidies. What is your relationship with the city?

We started as an independent art fair and we are remaining one; however, the event is taking place at the Moscow Manege, one of the most important exhibition venues in the city. The city is informed about us and you could say that we do enjoy certain indirect support from the local authorities – although we would like it to be a more significant one: after all, the fair is making an important contribution to commerce and the tourist industry alike. A synergy is needed: not just an individual event but a programme of events that would transform Moscow into a hub of contemporary culture, if only for a limited time. We start as a small project but we intend to grow – slowly and organically.

Pavel Pepperstein. Andy Warhol and Black Square, 2012. Photo: Regina Gallery

What is the main infrastructural problem of the Russian art market today?

The artists are short of means; not all galleries adhere to standards accepted in the West. Collectors often approach the artist directly when they should have contacted the gallery. The ethics of the market need to be developed. Contacts between local and international gallerists are very important: there is a lack of synergy, elementary attention and curiosity regarding the way in which galleries operate in different places, different countries or in a different context. There is always something you can learn, and yet our people tend to put up all sorts of barriers: ‘I know my collectors, I know my territory and have no intention of leaving it’ – that sort of thing. And we should all make a joint effort to pull down this barrier.