There’s no Russian expression for “contemporary art”—the closest is “modern”—but that hasn’t stopped Moscow’s bold campaign to become the world’s next contemporary-art hub.
Despite decades of Soviet-era isolation and today’s economic and political tensions, Moscow is positioning itself as a center for cutting-edge art, with a high-profile, contemporary art museum opening its new home in Gorky Park next week and a series of buzzy events around the city. These include the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art—known for discovering Eastern European stars—and the Cosmoscow art fair, both opening in September.
New directors are shaking up the fusty Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and the Tretyakov State Gallery by organizing shows of international artists like U.S. sculptor Alexander Calder. Artist-run spaces are popping up around the city—from a converted winery called the Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art to art studios in a former Elektrozavod power plant. These shows typically draw young collectors, not masterpiece-buying oligarchs.
Moscow has flirted with art-world prominence before, notably in the mid-’80s when glasnost attracted international curators. The wave peaked in 1988, when Sotheby’s held a $3.6 million Russian art auction in the city. But a host of factors—from the dearth of English-speaking local artists to the tempting expatriate community already thriving in London—kept the scene from taking off. The recent recession and volatile ruble didn’t help, either.
Moscow’s market is still lagging behind New York, London and Hong Kong—hampered by fighting in Ukraine and international sanctions that discourage some major dealers from shopping million-dollar works there.
Yet new tastemakers are doubling down on Moscow, determined to make Russia a must-see instead of a flyover state on the way to China and other countries in the East that have blossomed in recent years.
Vasili Tsereteli, director of the 15-year-old Moscow Museum of Modern Art, said local collectors and artists are steering the current revival, not curious outsiders. Annual attendance at the museum has doubled to 400,000 people in the past four years, he said, and most are Russian speakers. “We’re witnessing a tremendous shift in interest for contemporary art,” Mr. Tsereteli said.
Local dealers and collectors say their efforts will be judged primarily by the fate of a single museum, the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Next Friday , Dasha Zhukova, the philanthropist wife of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, will reopen her museum—named after its original bus-garage location—in a 58,000-square-foot space in Gorky Park, a 300-acre public park near the city center. Ms. Zhukova hired Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to transform a former 1960s pavilion and restaurant called the Seasons of the Year into a space dominated by a pair of 33-foot-wide, translucent panels that can slide several stories up, exposing a vast atrium.
Behind Mr. Koolhaas’s polycarbonate plastic sheath, traces of the space’s former life abound—from a mural of a redheaded woman portraying the season of autumn to brick walls that were covered in graffiti after the abandoned pavilion fell into post-Soviet disrepair. The effect is intended to be a cozy departure from the pristine, white-cube atmosphere popularized by many other galleries and museums.
Ms. Zhukova said she was pleased Mr. Koolhaas wanted to preserve some of the pavilion’s Soviet past because the core of her museum is an historical archive. Born in Moscow and educated in California, Ms. Zhukova said she has focused recently on rediscovering her home city’s story, artistically. Since most state museums stopped collecting avant-garde art during the Soviet era, she has spent the past few years “on a scavenger hunt,” namely buying documents that chronicle Russia’s underground art scene from the 1950s to glasnost and beyond. Under the Soviets, artists who painted in a photorealistic style were revered but other art movements—from pop to conceptualism to performance—were deemed inferior. Wry, conceptual painters like Ilya Kabakov had no choice but to exhibit in friends’ apartments or move abroad.
Archivists from the Garage are rounding up essays, fliers and photographs from those underground art events. “After so many years of isolation, we’re still working out our Russian identities,” Ms. Zhukova said. Amassing an archive of Russian art “helps connect a few more dots.”
Many of the findings will go on view during the inaugural show, including artist Anton Vidokle’s research into cosmism, a utopian philosophy that inspired Mr. Kabakov and others. (Cosmonaut is a spinoff term.) The museum is also hanging a vast, family-tree-style graphic that will chart the rise and influence of several generations of overlooked Russian artists from the 1950s on.
Documents can make for dry viewing, so chief curator Kate Fowle said the Garage also is rolling out a colorful array of exhibits by international artists to underscore the museum’s broader perspective. Rirkrit Tiravanija, an artist from Argentina and Thailand who is known for serving meals to his audiences, plans to set up dozens of black ping-pong tables on a purple carpet in the museum’s main gallery. (Visitors will be invited to play and even organize tournaments.) Russian conceptualist painter Erik Bulatov is hanging a pair of 30-foot-high murals in the atrium that include the phrase “Come to Garage!” within the rays of a rising sun. In a nearby, temporary pavilion for Garage shows during the new museum’s construction, German sculptor and installation artist Katharina Grosse is covering a room in a rainbow of dyed fabrics she has strung from the ceiling or clumped into mounds.
Taryn Simon, a New York artist who explores hidden political and social structures, spent three years readying her piece for the Garage, but it will be a millennium before any museum-goer will be allowed to see it firsthand. Inspired by Russia’s Kazimir Malevich—who helped invent abstract art in the early 1900s with a painting he made of a black square—Ms. Simon has arranged for nuclear waste to be vitrified into a black-glass cube matching the dimensions of Malevich’s square. Her cube of radioactive waste was cast a few weeks ago and will stored for the next 1,000 years at a nuclear facility in Russia. Afterward, it will be safe to put the cube on view at the Garage, she said. (A museum wall containing a cube-size niche has been prepared for it.)
Ms. Simon said she figured her proposal would be “nearly impossible,” but Garage director Anton Belov and others spent months petitioning generals and nuclear plants and eventually gained approval. Mr. Belov said the work conjures provocative questions about ownership and value: Will the museum exist that far in the future and will it follow through on its promise to exhibit Ms. Simon’s cube? He hopes so.
Ms. Simon said she’s equally intrigued.“The investment of time and energy being put into the museum makes me feel like it’s an institution that will be around for a long time,” Ms. Simon said. “It’s allowing art to be labored and thoughtful.”
The museum’s decision to combine credibility-building shows about local artists with exhibits of international stars appears to be paying off. Around 500 members of the art-world elite are set to attend Wednesday’s launch party, including Ukrainian-born billionaire Len Blavatnik (now a U.S. citizen), Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, fashion designer Miuccia Prada and Tom Campbell, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sandy Rower, Alexander Calder’s grandson, said Moscow’s homegrown momentum since the recession persuaded him to attend the Garage party next week. His Calder foundation is also lending 52 works by his grandfather to the Pushkin for a show that opens Monday, “Alexander Calder: Retrospective.” The first museum survey in Russia of the artist’s work, it was organized by Marina Loshak, the museum’s director. Ms. Loshak, who previously curated an exhibition hall called the Moscow Manège, was hired two years ago to succeed Irina Antonova, who had run the museum since 1961.
The Tretyakov is also tweaking its programming to include more contemporary art under its new director, Zelfira Tregulova, a former deputy director at the Kremlin Museum, who took over in February. Ms. Tregulova is hailed for championing contemporary art. Her credits include helping organize the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s landmark exhibit, “Russia!,” in New York a decade ago.
Mr. Rower said Moscow’s collectors still have a reputation for chasing auction-worthy masterpieces from the U.S. and Europe, but the local scene needs their on-the-ground, organic support for contemporary art to thrive. “People went to Moscow years ago to see if billionaires would buy their Jeff Koonses, and the oligarchs bought them because they were showing off,” Mr. Rower said. “But eventually the Russians stopped because it doesn’t prove anything. Russia needs this new generation to support its own artists.”
Sandra Nedvetskaia, co-director of Cosmoscow, said nearly 8,000 people attended the fair last year, many of them businesswomen under the age of 40 who were willing to spend between $20,000 and $50,000 apiece on new art. Such buyers are more likely to take home work by artists who live in the region, she said. The trend is already giving a boost to the careers of Arseny Zhilyaev, a 30-year-old conceptual artist who is known for filling star-shape vitrines with “proletariat weapons” like pitchforks, and 32-year-old video artist Taus Makhacheva, who once filmed people throwing their weight against a boulder dangling off a cliff in Dagestan.
At auction, a handful of modern Russian artists such as Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky and Natalia Goncharova can sell for tens of millions. But few collectors can name more than one or two major living artists from the region. Mr. Kabakov, now living in the U.S., is one; Ukrainian performance artist Oleg Kulik is another.
Collector Margarita Pushkina, who founded Cosmoscow five years ago, said she relates to artists working in Ukraine and across Russia and feels compelled to champion them alongside artists from the U.S. and Europe. She said these artists deserve to be measured against their global peers, not in isolation.“Garage will do this, and that’s why it’s invaluable to all of us,” she added.
Garage also is pushing other art institutions to step up their game, said Mr. Tsereteli of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. To coincide with Garage’s relaunch, he arranged for his museum to show photographs by Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, or “Russia’s Cindy Sherman,” he said. The artist, who died two years ago, spent decades taking self-portraits in a gamut of disguises. Across town, the Multimedia Art Museum is exhibiting U.S. conceptual great Joseph Kosuth, who famously set a lamp beside a photograph of a lamp. Many of the city’s dozen private art foundations are hosting viewings and cocktail parties to coincide with the Garage events.
Ms. Fowle, the Garage’s curator, said the relative quiet of Moscow’s scene allows artists to take their time and create without too much market pressure. Compared with other markets where obsessed collectors must turn over every proverbial rock to make art discoveries, she said Moscow “has boulders to overturn, huge mountains to climb.”
Write to Kelly Crow at firstname.lastname@example.org