Where women rule the art world

Female artists are thriving in Moscow of all places — a city not typically associated with feminist progress


When asked last fall whether the art world is biased against women, the American painter and photographer Marilyn Minter answered: is the Pope Catholic?

From Paris to Los Angeles — and many cultural hubs in between— contemporary art remains a notorious boys’ club. A 2014 report found a significant gender gap in museum leadership. Only five of the top 33 North American art museums with budgets over $20 million were run by women, and female directors made 79 cents for every dollar their male counterparts did. Women’s art commands lower auction prices and permanent collections at major institutions — as well as solo exhibitions — are still male-dominated. According to the crowd-sourced project “Gallery Tally,” out of nearly 4,000 artists represented by major galleries in L.A. and New York, only 32 percent are women (ditto in London).

But there is a place where women may rule the art world: Moscow — a city not typically associated with feminist progress. Yet despite years of Soviet isolation and economic strain, female artists are thriving in Russia’s capital, not by bringing traditional women’s techniques to their work (as some feminist artists have), but by leveraging old gender roles to forge a cutting-edge art scene. Thanks to women, Moscow is becoming an art destination, alongside cities like Berlin and Basel. And if a rising tide lifts all boats, female artists and dealers in Russia are surely capitalizing on an unprecedented art boom.

In June, the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art debuted its new, permanent 58,000 square-foot space — a Soviet-era building, redesigned by superstar architect Rem Koolhaas. Celebrities descended on Moscow’s Gorky Park for the opening. Model Karlie Kloss, Harvey Weinstein, and Woody Allen partied with art heavyweights, like Larry Gagosian, the “kingpin of dealers,” and former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Jeffrey Deitch. On the artist side, at Garage’s inaugural exhibition, Yayoi Kusama, known for obsessively covering her work in dots — and for holding the auction record for any living female artist — presented her first solo-show in Russia, “Infinity Theory,” currently on view at the museum.

So who has the clout to draw Hollywood and art dignitaries to Moscow? Garage’s founder, Dasha Zhukov, a Russian businesswoman, socialite, art collector and fashion editor, married to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, whose net worth Forbes estimates at around $9 billion. While there would be no museum without Zhukov, it is unlikely Garage would exist without Abramovich either (it appears his investment company has ploughed hundreds of millions into Zhukov’s art endeavors over the years). Both the Soviet aftermath and the relegation of art as “soft” and genteel have helped Moscow’s women succeed — in a way women haven’t in the U.S., where the art market has long been male driven.

“Our state was always brutal, patriarchal and militaristic,” said Masha Sumnina, half of the artist duo MishMash, who lives and works in Moscow with her husband, Misha Leykin. “Such things as art just count as something useless, light, and feminine,” Sumnina explained, “So art was just given to women to rule. It happened in Soviet time, and it continues now, with a new model added, now the wealthy husbands’ wives keep culture centers as their domain.” Though, as she points out, using family wealth to promote artists and to establish collections is well tread territory for women. (Look at Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney or Peggy Guggenheim). But now Russia has more opportunities for men and women, she believes, because the country is still in the early stages of establishing its art world.

Maria Baibakova is the founder of Baibakov Art Projects, an organization established in 2008 to support Russian contemporary art, both at home and abroad. As she describes it, before the collapse of communism, the art market was virtually non-existent. Then, in the 1990’s, men were largely disinterested in art— gravitating to higher-salary industries, where they could be better providers. At the same time, she said, men saw the art world as “safe space” for their wives and daughters in a period of corrupt bureaucracies and cutthroat business practices.

Today, Baibakova proudly lists her fellow female art leaders, including: Irina Antonova, former director of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts (the current director, Marina Loshak, is also female); Aiden Salakhova, artist and founder of Moscow’s first major, private contemporary art gallery; Olga Sviblova, head of the Moscow Multimedia Art Museum; Sonia Trotsenko, president of Center of Contemporary Art Winzavod; and Margarita Pushkina and Sandra Nedvetskaia, co-directors of the Cosmoscow International Contemporary Art Fair. But she stops short of describing women as “ruling” Moscow’s art world.

“Russia is still largely patriarchal,” Baibakova said. And because men still control government institutions, such as the Russian Cultural Ministry (the New Republic calls its minister, Vladimir Medinksy, “Putin’s culture cop”) and Moscow’s Department of Cultural Heritage, women have yet to realize their full potential.

That is another reason Garage is key to transforming Moscow into the next contemporary art hub. Unlike Moscow’s Museum of Modern Art or the National Centre for Contemporary Arts, Garage is privately funded— giving curators the chance to take conceptual risks and spark social dialogues, even though Russian women aren’t exactly forming the next feminist art wave.

Generally, feminist artists have created pieces that critique imagery of the female body or link their art more explicitly to the fight for gender equality. Mickalene Thomas’s A little Taste Outside of Love, for example, replaces an iconic European nude with a black woman in the same repose. Or there’s Judy Chicago, who literally reclaimed a woman’s “seat at the table.” Her work, The Dinner Party, is a large banquet with place settings for 39 notable women from history and mythology. And so far, Russian artists don’t seem to be embracing so direct a feminist approach.

“In New York, I hear many artists talk about women in art and the gender gap, but it never seems to happen in Moscow,” said Shura Chernozatonskaya, a painter who straddles both worlds as a Russian-born artist, now based in Red Hook, Brooklyn. In 2012, she had a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum,  titled Signals. “Here, being a female artist matters a lot more to curators and museums. I know I’ve been chosen for certain things or there’s been some kind of agenda for an institution.” But Moscow’s art world, she explained, is much more centralized than in New York, where particular neighborhoods form their own microcosms and a woman’s experience of “the art world” can vary greatly from Chelsea to Bushwick.

Since 1989, the United States has regularly showcased women at the Venice Biennale — the art world’s Olympics — held every two years in Italy from May to November. But this spring, for the first time since the Russian Pavilion opened in 1914, the country is represented by a woman: Irina Nakhova, a conceptual artist who lives between New Jersey and Moscow. In a state-sanctioned display of conscious — or unconscious — female power, Nakhova’s project, The Green Pavilion, was also commissioned and curated by a women, Stella Kesaeva of Stella Art Foundation, and Margarita Tupitsyn, respectively.

“I attribute the majority of appointments in the art world [excluding artists] to women who are seen by men as obedient executives of the demands of the state regarding culture,” said Nakhova, who was surprised she was chosen to represent Russia at the Biennale, for she still sees the country as deeply patriarchal and propaganda-driven. “If my participation is a sign of change, then I am very glad for it.”

Jacoba Urist is a contributing journalist for NBC News, who also writes about art and culture for The Atlantic. She lives in lower Manhattan. Follow her on Twitter @JacobaUrist.


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