Contested art in Russia: channels of state intervention in art sector

Today the discrepancy between the museums and galleries in Russia that have recognition of the state and the ones that lack it is striking. Once a visitor enters the state-endowed museum, s/he is astonished not only by the opulence of the interior, but by the masterpieces of the prominent artists that arrive for the temporary exhibitions, the amount of booklets, printed for the visitor’s convenience, and all the modern hyper-expensive technologies. The experience of visit to the private contemporary organization is opposite. Such galleries and museums can not exhibit works of artists they consider important, they lack resources for production of extra materials, the exhibition space requires maintenance.


Generally, the Russian current cultural policy, primarily in regard of art institution treatment, can be classified in terms of “architect” model, suggested by Hillman-Chartrand and McCaughey’s (Hillman-Chartrand, McCaughey 1989). Such a model, basically applied to authoritarian states, presupposes that the governance of culture and art is primarily controlled by the state, the decision-making process is centralized and successful survival of artistic “enterprises” depends exclusively on government legitimation. Private attempts of creativity (here by creativity I understand not only artistic production, but managing distribution as well) are mostly stifled. The dominance of “architect” model in a state, which proclaims the neo-liberal regime, seems absurd – obviously, the state is not supposed to support all the cultural initiatives, but it should not intervene and hinder autonomous functioning of art institutions as well.

By now the scholars were mostly focusing on deteriorating status of the art world participants in Russia: curators, artists, etc. (Bernstein 2014, Epstein, Vasiliev 2011), paying little attention to the hardships of the art institutions. In this blogpost I aim to give an overview of the channels of state intervention to the modern art institution sector and of general problems that such intervention causes. In the post I will focus on history of development of two art institutions, strongly affected by state intervention – “Tkachi” in St. Petersburg and “Sakharov center” in Moscow as representatives of the two very distinct trajectories of development of art institutions in Russia today. The selected cases are representative examples of the problems private galleries and museums face, in restraining conditions, created by the state.

Sakharov center and censorship in Russian art field

The art complex, established in 1996 in Moscow by a widow of a Nobel-prize winner Andrei Sakharov and a human rights activist Elena Bonner, consists of two parts. The first one – the “museum” part – is dedicated to the history of dissident movement in the USSR and to life and work of academic Sakharov. The second part, more interesting for us here, is an exhibition space. It occupies the former destroyed garage building, was slightly reconstructed, but still has a garage-style outlook. In contrast to the main state art museums, located in the heart of Moscow, Sakharov center is located outside the “Garden ring” – the beltway that delineates the city center.

In 2003 and 2006 two exhibitions, presenting the art pieces, focused on role of religion in modern Russia and worldwide – “Caution, Religion” and “Forbidden art” respectively – were held in Sakharov center. Due to the content of the exhibitions – among the artworks presented there were an image of Christ on a Coca-Cola advertisement along with the words “Coca-Cola. This is my blood”, a cloned sheep Dolly represented as the Lamb of God and a golden icon frame, filled with black caviar – Orthodox community protests were provoked. The art pieces of the “Caution, religion!” were vandalized 3 days after the launch of the event by a group of altar servers of one of the orthodox churches, but it is not the only outcome. The members of the Prosecutor’s office filed 2 cases – one against the vandals and the other against the curators. Soon the charge of the orthodox activists was quashed, while the curators of were prosecuted for “Incitement of National, Racial, or Religious Enmity” (Article 282 of the Criminal Code) and condemned to pay fines. Moreover, the organizers of “Caution, religion”, suffering moral pressure of the Russian Orthodox church, had to apologize “to those offended by the works. The outcome of a scandal of the “Forbidden art” exhibition was less harsh – only the closure of the event followed the protests. One of the curators of “Forbidden art”, Andrei Erofeev, who used to hold a position of a head on Contemporary art department in State Tretyakov gallery before the conflict, was dismissed.


These two are far not the only cases, and such “contradictory” culture bans happen in other cultural domains as well.

The story with two “scandal” exhibitions in Sakharov museum illustrates the power of censorship in Russian art field. Though ‘censorship is concerned with constructing normality’ (Rojek 1995:43), it is necessary to clarify what is regarded ‘normal’ by the Russian state (in many cases the ‘normality’ is legally recorded). The today’s normality elaborated by the Russian state strongly correlates with the normality, accepted by the Russian Orthodox church. Since the change of the regime the state engages in cooperation with the Orthodox church, and relates upon it is constructing normality (though constitutionally the two institutions are separated) (Bernstein 2014). Thus, the legal acts, which articulate and represent the perceptions of normality are based on traditional religious norms. Thus with the reinforcement of cooperation between the state and the church punishment for violation of two laws was strengthened: The Blasphemy law and the “gay propaganda” law. Hereby, any act, including artistic (production/distribution of a certain piece), that might “insult of believers’ feelings” or ‘propaganda of homosexuality’ is banned. The notorious case of conviction of Pussy Riot group participants is the brightest illustration. However, the ‘powerful ones’, acknowledging that the existence of censorship is improper and embarrassing for the state reputation on the international level (McGuigan 2012:154), deny being hostile towards the new art centers and propagating a certain ideology.

Coming back to our case, what was an outcome of censorship for Sakharov center? After the two cases the curators of this “brave” organization gave up. Several days after the last trials, on 30 June 2008, they officially claimed a shift towards more neutral exhibitions. Sakharov center is not the only example. The stuff of many cultural organizations, suffering from overwhelming state control and the public discourse that was created, have to switch the ideology and distribute a more neutral product in order to survive.

Tkachi and lack of resources in Russian art field

Tkachi, opened in 2010 in St. Petersburg, was initiated as an art space. Primarily it was serving a large exhibition zone, but the small left space was given for rent to a handful of cafés and small design shops. Just as the Sakharov center, it is located far from the city center, still after the premiere of the exhibition venue as an exhibition space the audience managed to arrive there. During the first 3 years several local exhibitions took place in Tkachi, including a sound event named “Icons” in March – April 2013 (the controversial exhibition, opposite to Sakharov case, was not vandalized, no one was prosecuted). However, Tkachi faced another problem, spread in the Russian art field not less than censorship. It is lack of resources. Trying to create a space of decent quality, distributing modern art product in the city, the organizers of Tkachi faced a wave of denials in attempts to find sources of funding. But Tkachi is not the only institution with this problem in Russia.

The experience of several post-socialist countries demonstrates the emerging access to the European Union structural funds on the one hand, and the increased state funding of the diverse cultural organizations due to authorities’ acknowledgement of instrumental value of cultural policy on the other (Rindzeviciute et al. 2015, Raitu 2007). This enables the boost of development of new art institutions in the countries pursuing such a cultural policy.

However, the Russian case is different. The state, pursuing a homogenous policy in all its fields of influence, finances only ‘proper’ organizations, whose product falls within the ‘frames of normality’. Meanwhile, it is currently assumed that with the transition to “neoliberal system” in Russia the art institutions would be drawing the resources from (1) private foundations and from (2) expanded spectrum of types of activities; by redirection of organizational model to the system of autonomous self-sufficiency and self-sustainability (Toepler 2006). The second solution presents a threat to the organization in a way that the idea of ‘making money’ by the art institution may lead its managers to a ‘distraction from their pursuit of the mission, and the organization’s original goals may get displaced’ (Toepler 2006:100). Thus the functions of museums and galleries transform from distribution of art to translation of certain lifestyle and participation of the organizations in driving the rise of consumption among citizens.

Private philanthropy historically (during the 20th century the Soviet state was the only legitimate contributor to cultural, as well as all the other social domains) did not compensate the loses in state support in Russia, especially in sector of fine arts. The few private foundations are either not interested in patronage of art organizations, sponsoring reconstruction of urban public spaces instead, or aim to demonstrate legitimacy to the state (most of the philanthropists are those enriched in the 1990s, a lot with the support of the authorities), funding the art venues, already subsidized by the state.

A handful of private non-governmental organizations, supporting smaller organizations and projects in Russia, that received resources from abroad, were, according to the new ‘foreign agent’ legislation, issued by the Russian ministry of Justice in November 2012 and gaining power till current moment, banned in Russia, affecting the cultural field as well as field of independent academic research and others. Thus a plenty new art institutions lack financial resources now.

In case of Tkachi, the outcome of such a state policy was the transformation of the art space into a shopping mall. Artistic functions, which used to be prior, are not almost completely demolished.

The two examples – Sakharov center and Tkachi – demonstrate two extremely different development trajectories of modern non-governmental art institutions in Russia. These two models can be found in biographies of most of organizations that try to distribute art now.


Bernstein, Anya. “Caution, religion! Iconoclasm, secularism, and ways of seeing in post-Soviet art wars.” Public Culture 26, no. 3 74 (2014): 419-448.

Epstein, Alec D., and Oleg Vasil’ev. “Vlast’, tserkov’ i problema svobody tvorchestva v sovremennoi Rossii” (“Power, the Church, and the Problem of Artistic Freedom in Contemporary Russia”). Neprikosnovennyi zapas (Reserve Fund) 1, no. 75 (2011).

Hillman-Chartrand, Harry and McCaughey, Claire. “The arm’s length principle and the arts: an international perspective – past, present and future”. In: M.C. Cummings and J.M. Davidson Schuster, eds. Who’s to pay for the arts? The international search for models of support. New York, NY: American Council for the Arts. (1989): pp. 43-80.

McGuigan, Jim, and Jim Mcguigan. Culture and the public sphere. Routledge, 2012.

Ratiu, Dan-Eugen. “The arts support system in a transitional society: Romania 1990-2006.” The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society 37, no. 3 (2007): 201-224.

Rindzevičiūtė, Eglė, Jenny Svensson, and Klara Tomson. “The international transfer of creative industries as a policy idea.” International Journal of Cultural Policy (2015): 1-17.

Rojek, Chris. Decentring leisure: Rethinking leisure theory. Vol. 35. Sage, 1995.

Toepler, Stefan. “Caveat venditor? Museum merchandising, nonprofit commercialization, and the case of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 17, no. 2 (2006): 95-109.


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