Meesha Chang, global director at Erarta Galleries, talks about the rising appeal of Russian contemporary art in Asia.

Erarta built on its reputation in Russia to find success in Europe, the US and now Hong Kong. What has set it apart?

It stands out for several reasons. On the surface, it’s the unique combination of a museum and commercial galleries under one roof (all proceeds derived from sales of works are reinvested back into the overall project and go towards supporting Russian contemporary art) but what truly makes Erarta stand out is our desire to build a new relationship system between people and art. Erarta’s overall goal is to grow the number of people who understand and love contemporary art and make it a natural and important part of their overall life. With this ethos, the most important person within Erarta’s system of values is the viewer and by focusing on the individual, we’re able to provide them with an emotional and interactive experience that builds a deep and personal connection with the art. We’re able to say with pride that Erarta museum in St. Petersburg has become Russia’s most important cultural landmark in contemporary art within a very short time.

What is the appeal of Russian contemporary art?

The world has always valued and appreciated Russia in the broader spectrum of arts – the classic literature of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, music of Tchaikovsky, the unrivalled ballet schools just to name a few. The appeal of Russian contemporary art stems from the ever-present curiosity and marvel of the mysterious Russian soul. Russian artists possess spectacularly elegant and beautiful ways of expressing thoughts and feelings regarding eternal themes in life that transcend all national borders. The names of Malevich and Kandinsky will always remain in the annals of history and Erarta’s goal is to show the world that there are still bright and talented artists living in the country today.

What does Erarta look for in artists and pieces?

Because Erarta’s ethos lies in creating personal connections between people and art, weÅ have different approaches in selecting works for the museum and for the galleries. In addition to that, we make very different selections for each of our cities as we consider what impact the artist and the work would have with the local crowd and whether their message will resonate with the viewers. In order to achieve this, we have our curators constantly searching for new talents visiting artist studios and most importantly, travelling to even some of the harder-to-reach areas of Russia in order to discover the best and brightest from all over the country. This separates Erarta from other institutions in Russia, as we don’t only work with artists from the two traditional ‘powerhouses’ of Moscow and St. Petersburg but also showcase artists from Siberia, the Urals and the Far East. All in all, we now work with over 220 artists in Russia from over 30 regions of the country and that number continues to grow.

For you, who are the biggest names in Russian contemporary art now? And why?

When asked to name “the biggest”, people normally think of Ilya Kabakov, who is probably the most well known contemporary Russian artist and certainly, in terms of name recognition on the international market, no one else can lay the same level of claim. Beyond that it becomes very subjective and I believe that with emerging art, it’s almost more exciting to pick names who are destined for great impact. In that category, I’d highlight Ilya Gaponov and Pavel Brat, young artists who are making all the right steps towards success and are being noticed, the former for his monumental striking works, the latter for fantastic aesthetics in his collages. On a personal note, I’m captivated by AES+F for their provocative and seductive superworlds and Alexandr Fyodorov for his versatility and vision.

Why set up in Hong Kong? And why now?

We see Hong Kong as the final step in Erarta’s international expansion. It’s always been our goal to have a foothold in Asia and to give Russian artists a platform to access the Asian market and we see Hong Kong as the best place for it. The city is undoubtedly becoming an important hub on the map of the contemporary art world with Art Basel and various big-name galleries making it their regional base.

How significant is the Mainland Chinese market?

It’s undoubtedly significant in the overall contemporary art world. We have had demand for Russian contemporary art from Mainland China visitors to our St. Petersburg gallery and it’s partly that demand which has fuelled our conviction that we needed to complete our international expansion and get a foothold in Asia. However, we believe that in Hong Kong we’ll have the best of both worlds as Mainland residents with a passion for art and desire to discover new artists and works will still undoubtedly regularly visit the city as more and more internationally important events serve as stimuli.

Demand for Chinese contemporary art has soared over the last 20 years. What similarities and differences do you see when comparing Russia’s art future with China’s recent past?

The spectacular rise of Chinese contemporary art can be attributed to a simultaneous occurrence of important catalysts, such as overall economic growth that in turn brought substantial wealth creation. Secondly, China is home to a fiercely patriotic population who chose to support their countrymen artists by buying their works rather than looking abroad. The government has also been proactive in taking steps to fund museums and exhibitions, thus promoting the education of the public in the importance of contemporary art and finally, the existence of required market mechanisms, such as galleries and auction houses, in order to satisfy the growing demand. In this aspect, it’s arguable that today, Russian contemporary art stands at a point that trails its Chinese counterpart by 15-odd years. The current economic climate is difficult and in such circumstances, the art market growth also becomes stunted. However, there are reasons to be optimistic – the quality of art schools is still superb, tougher times lead to emergence of the brightest talents as it’s easier to separate them from the rest of the pack and with just a couple of sparks in the aforementioned catalysts, it’s very possible for Russian art to experience the same kind of phenomenal growth that happened in China.

Have you noticed any trends for particular pieces or styles from buyers?

Our experience in St. Petersburg shows that buyers from Hong Kong and Mainland China appreciate photo-realism but it’s too early to say so definitively. We only opened Erarta Galleries Hong Kong in October 2014 so we are still learning about the tastes – for that purpose we provided a wide array of artists and styles for the locals to discover in our first exhibition entitled “Game Changers”. Judging from our experiences in other important art hubs it will take us a while, probably about a year, to really understand what the preferences are.

What are the price points for Russian Contemporary Art?

From a market perspective, despite recently spectacular growth in contemporary art segments, Russia still lags behind and it’s still possible to find stunning, authentic, original art for a very attractive price. The cost of Russian contemporary is significantly less than Chinese contemporary. The price point starts at HK$30,000 for some really great pieces of up and coming artists through to approximately HK$250,000. The reason for this of course is the relative lack of understanding of Russian contemporary outside of Russia, and this is why it is such a great investment at this time.


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