In conversation with Elena Rubinova
“In contemporary art I am a missionary.” – Sarah Vinitz
Photo credit: Alexei Kostromin
A new art project, "Artifacts and Gadgets", by Elena Kovylina is being showcased at the All-Russian Museum of Decorative Art. The project is an artistic experiment in which the artist, using devices of contemporary art and some exhibits from the museum collection, addresses Russian legacy and re-examines traditional objects. The exhibition has been organized with the support of the Presidential Fund for Cultural Initiatives in partnership with the Sarah Vinitz Foundation. Founded in 2018, the foundation has an impressive track record of various international projects; however, "Artifacts and Gadgets" is the first large-scale museum show in Russia. After the Moscow display, Elena Kovylina's solo show will be on view at different venues from Chukotka to Kaliningrad. Prior to the exhibition opening, Sarah Vinitz, the philanthropist, collector and founder of Sarah Vinitz Foundation (SVF), met Elena Rubinova and spoke with her about how she got interested in art collecting, how her activity of an art-dealer and collector is geared to the operation of the foundation, whether Russian art market needs modern financial mechanisms such as options and futures, and why she sees no contradiction between religion and contemporary art.
How would you define the specificity of SVF in comparison with similar cultural institutions?
Sarah Vinitz: At the outset, I'd like to emphasize that we set up the foundation specifically to be able to initiate and implement cutting-edge art projects at the international scale. We would like to go truly global – there are no countries that we intentionally exclude. If some countries are not on our map, it is only because we haven't been invited or have been unable to reach out to them as yet. We have no prejudices against any country or any political movement. The foundation is very much involved with education and awareness activities, so we support most acute art projects. Besides visual arts we work in cross-disciplinary areas, music and publishing projects. The foundation is based on the principles of an “emerald structure”. We introduce this notion which is close to the widely known “turquoise” principles. The keystone is non-violence in a broad sense. The organization has no formal hierarchy or strict schedule. It is guided more by mutual understanding and love to what we are doing rather than other motives. But, yes, we evaluate our results according to something similar to KPI, as it is known in business terms.
Would it be fair to say that one of the goals of the foundation is to “Make Russian Art Great Again”?
Sarah Vinitz: Just as many people remember Donald Trump’s presidential slogan “Make America great again”, I would be most delighted to see Russian art playing a significant role on the world cultural map.
As far as I understand, you mean contemporary Russian art, don’t you? In artistry terms Russian art, and not only fine art, has been intertwined with the international cultural context for a long time and had a great impact on it, at least, during the past two centuries . . .
Sarah Vinitz: That's for sure. Our artists always come up with great, avant-garde ideas but production is a weaker spot. We lack quality here, primarily because of less funding. It puts certain constraints, especially for large-scale projects. One of the goals of our foundation is to serve as a platform for like-minded people and partners who are ready to find opportunities and solutions for implementation of such projects. Not only to implement, but to showcase them on the international scene.
SVF workshops against the backdrop of Elena Kovylina's artworks for the "Artifacts and Gadgets" show.
From left to right: Elena Kovylina, Sarah Vinitz and the founder of ILONA-K Artspace Ilona Kesaeva.
Where does your love for arts come from? How did you start your collection?
Sarah Vinitz: Initially, I would say my passion for arts originates in my upbringing – our parents paid much attention to my and my brother's aesthetical education. The main museums, theatres – all that were in abundance in our childhood. In the end, it's important how much exposure you get of visual perception along with many other factors. But my first encounter with contemporary art goes back to my adolescence, when I was 14 years old. In those days – in 1998 – my brother and I started living separately from our parents. I had two jobs at a time and it was back then that I started collecting art. Of course, it was amateurish and I did not regard it as collecting. Before that time, I did not know contemporary art existed - I had no idea whatsoever that in 1993 you could run around the streets of Moscow barking and biting people (reference here is to the famous performance “Mad Dog” by Oleg Kulik). I got to know about it only five years later. Those days were the heydays of contemporary art in Russia with such pioneers of gallery business as ‘Regina’, ‘Yakimanka’ and ‘Gelman Gallery’ and all the artists who were later to become famous. All of that coincided with the beginning of my adult life.
Sarah Vinitz is the CEO of the SVF, a collector and philanthropist. She received her secular education in international business and business administration at MGIMO, then at the Diplomatic Academy (Moscow), specializing in world economy. She studied art history at the University of Valladolid in Spain, the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities (Facultadde Filosofia y Letras, Universidadde Valladolid). During the years of her studies, she became deeply involved in Judaism. Subsequently, she received a religious education at Neve Jerusalem (Jerusalem, Israel). She is married to Rabbi David Vinitz, who is a PhD in history.
Collectors usually come up with great stories about why and how their collection evolved. How did it start for you? I mean, whose work was the first one?
Sarah Vinitz: As in the case of many other art aficionados and the future collectors, I got my first artworks not for money. I was on friendly terms with many artists, so sometimes they would give me their works, sometimes I could just keep a napkin on which an artist drew a sketch over dinner at somebody’s place – by the way, our collection has a great archive of documentation from the authors with whom we work. True, the archive needs work and is still waiting for its systematization. So, to cut a long story short, my future collection started out that way. But as soon as I began earning money, I started buying art and thus supporting my artist friends. Of course, back then I was far from considering myself a collector. At this moment my collection comprises approximately 2000 pieces, and many valuable artworks have remained in it since that time.
To be honest, the collection is a big mix. In general, the concept of collection has changed a lot since the time I opened the foundation. Much of it is Russian contemporary art, but there are also works of the early 20th century and even engravings of the 17th century. What is important for me now is that everything in the collection is directly linked to my values in life. I know great artworks that I would love to see in a museum or in someone else's collection, but that would never end up in my home. Through this prism I can talk about each of the works in my collection.
Artworks by Kulik, Katsuba and Avdeev. From the SVF collection.
Which artists from your personal collection are in the Foundation's 'portfolio' as of today?
Sarah Vinitz: Sixty per cent of the collection is the work of the artists who are closely linked to the Foundation or work with us. We will present an expanded list of artists on the new website, but I can gladly name those with whom we are particularly active at the moment – artists such as Oleg Kulik, Dmitry Gutov, Elena Kovylina, Marusya Sevastyanova, Pyotr Bystrov, Rauf Mamedov, Valery Katsuba, AES+F art group are among them. It’s important to mention the young artists with whom we work, such as Anton Andrienko and Stasya Grishina. Moskovna is an important artist for me, I have great faith in her. Of course, the collection has many more items . . . Some artists, for instance Valery Chtak, are represented in the collection, but we are not working together yet. However, we are on friendly terms. There are also artists from other countries. My husband worked in Germany for a while; spending much time in this country, I had an opportunity to compile a diverse collection of contemporary German art. I even have a graphic piece by Joseph Beuys, i.e. his first sketches for the famous environmental artwork ‘7000 Oaks’ he did in Kassel.
Works by Piero Fornazetti, Rauf Mamedov, Ralph Caspers.
From the SVF collection.
I understand that you have a degree in economics, an impressive business experience, including work with the fashion industry, and at the same time you are the wife of a rabbi. In addition to the university degree, you have also received a religious education. How does contemporary art, with its often rebellious nature, reconcile with your personal religious views?
Sarah Vinitz: I think contemporary art and religion have much more in common than we think. They are often seen to be in a kind of conflict, especially when it comes to restrictions, censorship – religion always forbids something, and contemporary art is always trying to get away from it. At first glance, it may seem like they are two different worlds, but if you are interested in both, you may well relate it to what one has chosen. I am convinced that if religion and contemporary art are not familiar with each other, there will be no spiritual dialogue. Look how favourably the Italian public has received the installations of Anish Kapoor and James Turrell in church spaces.
The majority see Judaism as a very strict religion that puts serious bans on many things. Isn't it true?
Sarah Vinitz: At some point I even gave a lecture to religious Jews on how to visit modern art museums without violating the Torah. It was at Limmud, a Jewish educational charity that holds yearly teachings and gatherings in Russia, and Dimitri Gutov was sitting in the front row. I remember telling the audience that with an expert like Gutov, I had to weigh every word. I am always trying to build a dialogue – it is not only necessary, but also very entertaining. Both rabbis and contemporary art theorists are keen to discuss these issues. In my view, artists are the priests of art. Questions of faith are always fascinating to discuss with them. The main thing is to listen to each other until the end. An artist seeks God no less than a religious person. We often talk about such matters with Pyotr Bystrov – he was going to become a priest and has remained true to strict Orthodoxy. At some stage he was a bit bothered by the fact that I strictly follow the laws of Judaism, but we came to a complete acceptance and understanding of each other's positions. I must say that in my family too, sixty per cent are Orthodox and forty are religious Jews. God is one, there is no one but Him.
Artist Oleg Kulik next to his work “Young Lady and Tower”, 2019.
Is your activity as a collector and art dealer closely linked to the work of the foundation? What is the link between business and the cultural process for you?
Sarah Vinitz: Part of the foundation is a non-profit wing with no commerce involved – the projects are mainly educational and deal with the art system as such. I have a lot of artists in my collection that have never been sold at auctions. But my experience in business, including knowledge of sales mechanisms, statistics and the stock market, tells me that everything related to art production is linked to the art market: here I am an art dealer, a collector, and a market analyst, if required.
Elena Kovylina. 'Snow White and UFO' oil on canvas, fractal antenna, AR
For instance, shortly before the opening of “Artifacts and Gadgets” show, we were the first to use mechanisms of the financial market applied to the art market, calling them art options and art futures. Ten leading art collectors got the priority right to acquire works from this exhibition. A day after another 75 business persons got this opportunity –some of them are experienced collectors, others are just the beginners. Futures guarantee that a buyer will get a prepaid artwork after the show while an option gives the right to refuse a final deal – if a buyer takes a different decision until a certain deadline, his advanced payment is “gone”. Such mechanisms will help us to raise additional funds to pay for production and in general, I would say, will rejuvenate the art market. The newer practices of art investment are what the Russian art market terribly lacks. It is absolutely necessary to launch what can be labelled as “financialization” of Russian art knitting together the art market and financial services.
In what way does the foundation support artists?
Sarah Vinitz: The foundation has taken on the function of those professionals who are either absent or insufficient in Russia. For example, there are only a few artist's agents, whereas in the international format, it is a common practice. Agents deal with sales, contracts, and sometimes also take on PR functions. One of the best examples is Petya Ivanov. As an agent, he deals with several artists, but for much of his time he invests in the young artist Anna Samoilova. She has quite a few projects under her belt, much to the agent's credit. This function for artists is undertaken by the foundation. We have our own lawyers, accountants and managers who analyse production prices and deal with the purchase of materials for artists. In this way, we greatly optimize the costs of production and relieve the artist of this burden. All the artists make good use of this and are grateful for it.
Anna Samoilova. 'Russia is my unhappy love'
Linocut on canvas, embroidery. Issues 10 pieces. 14,8х21 cm, SVF collection
Vasily Beylin, Brain', 2021, Mixed media, SVF collection
I visited the workshops of Robert Longo, Jeff Koons, David Lachapelle to see how they work, talked to them, to their agents and assistants. I analysed not only the European and American experience in the industry but also the experience of South Korea, Japan and China. Selecting an assistant is also one of the functions of our production centre – we announce an open call, invite a candidate for an interview, and negotiate the terms of work for an artist. Of course, an artist and assistant have to find common language. We also provide our artists with technical equipment so that the artists can implement their most ambitious projects.
What are the pivotal projects for the foundation in visual arts?
Sarah Vinitz: One of the major projects of this autumn is Elena Kovylina’s solo show “Artifacts and Gadgets” at the All-Russian Museum of Decorative Art. This exhibition is to mark a milestone in the biography of the artist, who celebrates her 50th birthday. Shortly after – in a month's time – her exhibition will be on the display at ILONA-K gallery which is our partner and represents the artist in Russia. We have been working on this exhibition for a year and a half and after the Moscow display it will be on view in four different regions of Russia, from Chukotka to Kaliningrad. We are targetting the museum venues including the branch of the State Pushkin Fine Arts Museum in Kalinigrad. Going forward, “Artifacts and Gadgets” will be a nomadic exhibition that travel to many destinations, but on each occasion it will be localized. We have thought out the life of this exhibition for several years but it will be the artist’s choice and how she will saturate her ideas in a particular cultural context.
Elena Kovylina's Sketch for the work "Mirror" for the exhibition "Artifacts and Gadgets" by Elena Kovylina
In the current issue Elena addresses Russian fairy tales and re-examines traditional folk objects, while in an Arab country it could easily turn into “A Thousand and One Nights” or “Fairy Tales” by Brothers Grimm in Germany. The artist has to have the final word here. We know for sure that in 2023 a capsule edition of this show will open in Miami where the foundation will unveil its branch.
We are also in negotiations with Dmitry Khankin of the Triumph Gallery – we want to show RECYCLE GROUP in Israel. The edition previously shown in Moscow Manege and Vinzavod will be expanded.
The foundation can boast of a number of successful international projects, that is, a number of Valery Katsuba's exhibitions in Mexica and China. Could you tell me a bit more about them?
Sarah Vinitz: As a matter of fact, the SVF started from his projects. The exhibition was showcased at a Mexican national art museum (The Museo Nacional de San Carlos) with a rich collection of European art of the 15th-19th centuries. The exhibition shown in the rooms of the permanent collection was an intervention of a modern photographer and artist to the territory of a classical art institution establishing a dialogue with the collection of this museum. When Valery was shooting a series of photos, Mexican sportsmen and dance artists posed as models in the venue, standing among antique sculptures. It was a breakthrough for Latin America. The artist lived in Mexico for two months while working on the project that turned out to be a continuation of his academic series started
in St Petersburg.
"Russian Romantic Realism" at the Shanghai Center for Photography (SCoP)
in collaboration with the Anna Nova Gallery
Later, in 2021, during the pandemic, we organized Valery’s photo show “Russian Romantic Realism” at the Shanghai Center of Photography (SCoP). This project was in partnership with Anna Nova Gallery. Due to the restrictions, no one, including the artist himself, was able to fly to China for the opening, but 38 pieces safely made it there and it was a huge success. This is the first time that Chinese audiences had a chance to enjoy Katsuba’s elegant exploration of the human body. The public received Valery's show very warmly, perhaps because he follows and supports the classical tradition in Russian art, which originated in the Soviet period and has adopted the tradition of Classicism. Our next project with Katsuba will take place in Cuba and will also be a continuation of the academic series.
Works from the fund's collection: Valery Katsuba's from the series "Physical Education",
"Composition No. 1" by Pavel Zeldovich, Oleg Kulik's sculpture "Pavlensky"
What institutions do you work with – the museums and beyond?
Sarah Vinitz: Our partnerships are really diverse. Gallerists are important. With many of them I started the relationship as a client building a collection, and after the foundation was established, we switched to partnership. Currently, we work with the Triumph Gallery, JART, ILONA-K Artspace, ASKERI Gallery and ANNA NOVA to name a few. Speaking about museums, I'd like to mention the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, the Russian Museum and the Hermitage, the Garage and V-A-C (GES-2) of Moscow. Reflecting upon our main interest in such cooperation, I would say that we aim to implement the project and have it attended by as many viewers as possible.
The specific involvement of the foundation always varies, but I personally favour equal participation of the partners. Why? It gives the feeling that it is not only you, who needs it.
For instance, we participated in the exhibition of Zhang Huan. While in Venice we -- the artist himself, his gallerist Pearl Lam (Pearl Lam Galleries) and myself conceived this project discussing it over the table. I was involved at the beginning and gave some financial input.
Zhang Huan's My Winter Palace, 2020
Photo: Pearl Lam Galleries
We often take part in charity auctions by other organizations. For example, I donated works to an auction held by the Life as a Miracle Foundation by Juliane Winner. Most of the money raised went to the organizers, but some also went to our foundation, which is very valuable to us. In addition to fundraising, the resident artists of the foundation are brought to the attention of new audiences. The educational aims are equally important here. I often laugh that Judaism does not necessarily mean missionary ideas, but in contemporary art I am a missionary. "Perspektiva", a regional NGO for people with disabilities, is our other partner. Denis Rosa, an American who has lived in Russia for almost 30 years, advises our current project at the Museum of Decorative Arts on the inclusive programme. Another no less important partner is the Indigo Hotel in St Petersburg, which hosts our artists and gives us exclusive facilities.
Oleg Kulik's The Girl and the Tower, Polymer clay, metal 450cm x 234 cm x 185 cm, 2019
Do you work with cross-disciplinary projects and if yes, which ones?
We have had such projects over time as we expanded the circle of artists who use more than just visual means of expression - sound artists, musicians, film makers. We very much welcome collaborations with other foundations in such projects. For instance, the Shortparis group. Who are they? To me, they are artists. Incidentally, they are currently on an international tour in Europe, despite what everyone says about the cancelling of Russian culture. In this project we do it together with the Aksenov Foundation.
For more than a year you have supported the Art Magazine, which is a flagship of professional art criticism in Russia. Why was it important to continue this publication in economically difficult conditions? What's in store for this publication?
Sarah Vinitz: It is the only Russian-language contemporary art theory publication in the world, and I have been its reader for many years. And, as a reader, it was important to me to keep this opportunity. Victor Misiano, the magazine's founder and editor-in-chief, wanted not only to keep it at fou issues a year, but to increase the number of issues. This year we are finally getting closer to it. Five issues will be published for sure; maybe we will have time for six. The print version will remain unchanged. But in addition we will develop the online version by expanding the target audience via new formats. There is already an exclusive lecture by Dmitry Gutov, and another one is being prepared. More videos are planned and we have been in the shooting period for three months.
The educational mission of the foundation does not stop there. What other publishing projects are in progress?
Sarah Vinitz: We publish artists' albums, artists' books. Valery Katsuba's short stories that he writes for his works, and Victor Misiano's new book are in progress. Besides that, the book "The ABCs of Contemporary Art from A to Z" which I wrote with my co-author Rysya Peredolskaya is being edited.
The time of unprecedented social change is not the easiest period for international projects. Are you planning any projects outside Russia in the near future?
Sarah Vinitz: If you want to achieve something, you try, if you don't want, you look for excuses why now is not the time, or refer to the cancel culture. The best remedy against this is to apply to all the prestigious fairs, to develop previously underrepresented regions, including Arab countries, South Korea, China, Latin America.
We are opening the Miami headquarters of our foundation in 2023in Iggy Pop's former mansion. The musician used to live there and we will definitely put a plaque up there. We have a representative there and a partner, who, in fact, is the current owner of the mansion. It will be a joint project of the foundation and the Israeli Art & Torah Foundation. The mansion will function as a permanent art residency, an exhibition space and a space for charity dinners. Another art residency that we are currently opening is in St Petersburg at Pushkinskaya 10. Following Peter Bely, we want to give a bit more space for young artists to express themselves, and then hopefully early next year we will open a residency and exhibition space in the Exarchia district, Athens. But we are not abandoning the so-called pop-up art residencies strategy either – there is a Biennale in Venice, for example, and we are renting a house for the Foundation's artists. In October, we are opening the SVF Lounge in the Marais for the duration of Art Basel in Paris, which will feature the international artist group, Instigators.
Are there any ongoing programmes or grants? Is it possible to apply for any?
Sarah Vinitz: We are happy to announce an international open call for artists who find it necessary to speak out in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine and thus contribute to a peaceful solution. I sincerely hope such an exhibition will be unveiled as soon as possible. Artists are welcome to send their applications to email@example.com
What do you personally gain being so deeply involved in the art process? Sarah Vinitz: I feel absolutely happy. Every day.
Title photo credit: Alexei Kostromin, SVF resident.
(All photos and videos are courtesy of SVF Foundation and ART PR agency unless mentioned otherwise.)
Link to the original article in Russian on the website artandyou.ru
Elena Rubinova is a Moscow-based art journalist working across media, professional philologist, teacher, and translator. She started her career as an English language teacher before joining ABC News as a translator and producer. She has produced documentaries for BBC, National Geographic, Arte, Discovery Channel to name a few, including the three-part series The Art of Russia (BBC2, 2009). She has been a regular contributing writer for Russian magazines and on-line media such as ArtandYou, Artguide, Dialogue of Arts, International Life, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Russia Profile, Passport Moscow.