Building connection one heart at a time
Building connection one heart at a time

Marina Shtager, Founder of the London Art Club

Contemporary art as an integral part of our life
03.03.2021
Marina Shtager, Founder of the London Art Club

Contemporary art is an integral layer of culture that must be preserved and studied, believes Marina Shtager. She is the owner of the Shtager Gallery/Elephant&Castle Experimental Space in London. In her interview with the Global Women Media news agency, the expert shared her professional opinion on how to understand and love contemporary art and why it is so important to support artists.

Марина-Штагер_0T.jpg Marina Shtager
contemporary art expert, owner of the Shtager Gallery, founder of the London Art Club

Marina Shtager is an art expert with extensive and multi-faceted experience. She worked in the press service of the Mariinsky Theatre, was the manager of the Lazarev Gallery in St. Petersburg. Today, Mrs. Shtager lives and works in London. She promotes the works of contemporary Russian artists in the West. She created the gallery and educational club making it possible to ‘build a bridge’ between society and contemporary art.

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‘London Art Club. Mayfair Galleries’ art-walk. Houser&Wirth Gallery. Report about the ‘Windows’ exhibition by Isa Genzken. Photo by Valery Atamanyuk 

– Contemporary art is not always understandable for the average person. Why is it so? 

– Contemporary art and art in general is difficult to understand without a basic education in culture or art. When going to the philharmonic, people do not dare to judge the works of such renowned musicians as Leonid Desyatnikov without knowing anything about the timbres, tempos, rhythms, and works of composers who preceded him. At the same time, it often happens that gallery visitors loudly proclaim their lack of understanding of contemporary art. 

It is quite difficult for many people to find a key to understanding art. In reality, it works simply: the more a person knows and the more images he or she has in his mind, the more analogies he or she can draw from one work to another and the more interesting the world around them becomes. This also applies to going to a gallery.

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‘Storming’. Arranging the installation of 43 flat plywood sculptures by Aleksandr Shishkin-Hokusai. October 10, 2017, Elephant&Castle 

I deliver special guided walks and tell visitors about the values of this or that work, thus creating a bridge between people and contemporary art. 

First people listen to my stories and then they interpret works of contemporary art on their own. Over time, they develop a keen awareness and the necessary cultural code. 

Last year I accompanied two groups to the Venice Biennale. Together with experienced experts, we visited the most interesting pavilions. We thought a lot, asked questions, looked for answers, and simply exchanged our opinions. However, one or several excursions are not enough for a viewer poorly understanding art to get fascinated and become a connoisseur. As a rule, it takes years of regular interaction with art. Only then people start viewing artworks not as individual objects but relating them to their own visual experience.

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London Art Fair 2020: Shtager Gallery’s booth during the opening of the fair. In front of the works by Vitaly Pushnitsky. Photo of guests with the artist. Photo by Oleg Kangurov 

– How can one identify real pieces of contemporary art? 

– That’s quite challenging without additional education in the field of art. There are a number of specialists to whom society entrusts the right to make a choice. Creativity is undoubtedly important in all its manifestations. However, to preserve cultural heritage, it is necessary to clearly classify new artworks. 

A person who has seen a hundred paintings in his life will not be able to give an expert assessment of an artist’s work and determine his or her place in the cultural environment. The expert’s visual experience should be counted in millions of images seen to make his or her opinion authoritative. 

In some ways, we are very lucky. We live in a world, in which information is a powerful inexhaustible stream. We have the opportunity to observe works of visual art not only in galleries, but also in books, albums, on the net, on television, and even on the packaging of certain products. 

I believe that my visual experience is quite extensive now. When I see a work of art, I can analyze it more quickly by comparing it with the images and knowledge I already have in my mind. Thus, my expert opinion will be more valuable than that of an average person. Museum directors have an even greater amount of visual experience. They, more than anyone else, can determine the novelty and cultural value of this or that artwork.

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London Art Fair 2020. Viewers in front of Marina Alekseeva’s live-box titled ‘Laboratory’. Mixed-media, video. 2013 

– What does art mean for you personally? What role does it play in your life? 

– My family played a big role in my love of art. I was very inspired by my mother. At the age of 63, she decided to get a second higher education. My mother is a choreography teacher in Togliatti. She has been raising future ballet stars for over 40 years. Many of her students entered top schools worldwide. 

When I was a little girl, we lived in a small industrial town. My mother ‘hunted’ for rare art editions, traded them in, and brought them from Moscow. A half-meter-long catalogue of the Diaghilev Seasons appeared in the house almost in the year of its publication. Now it’s hard to imagine how much effort it cost her. My parents invested much in my music, painting, and choreography studies.

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‘London Art Club. Mayfair Galleries’ art-walk. Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery. Hall with works by Joseph Beuys and Georg Baselitz 

After graduating from a music college, I entered the conservatory and was trained as a historian, a researcher of opera and ballet. Later I was lucky enough to work in the press service of the Mariinsky Theatre with Katerina Novikova. She has been the Bolshoi Theatre’s press officer for 20 years. 

During my studies and my work, I studied opera and ballet. I was involved in the documentary reconstructions of unknown ballets. My background in different kinds of art and my multifaceted development made it possible for me to draw more complex analogies between the works of artists and facts from history and cultural studies. Today, I can look at an exposition and find a layer of profound information. If the presented idea resonates with my experience, I can share it with others, thus helping them to enjoy their gallery trip. 

Art is an integral part of my life. It is always with me. Even when I travel, I experience new places through art. I go to many museums, exhibitions, and fairs. In any city, even in resort-oriented ones, I always look for ways to quench my cultural thirst.

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‘Office’ by Marina Alekseeva. Mixed-media, video. Interior view of the box. UK-series, 2019 

– Today, science art is one of the most popular trends in contemporary art. Why is it particularly interesting, in your opinion? 

– Scientists already discussed the need for interaction between art and science in the 1800s. The Humboldt Forum in Berlin, Germany’s answer to the British Museum, will take place this year. It will unite art and science at a huge venue. It is named after the Humboldt brothers who argued for the need to study art as well as science already 200 years ago. 

Science always touches upon those issues and topics that concern the minds of people. For artists, referring to the scientific agenda is a good way to analyze the ideas, needs, and challenges of our time. 

Four years ago, many projects of the Venice Biennale were dedicated to the acceleration of all life processes. Particular attention was paid to the increase in the speed of information transfer. At the last Biennale, artists pointed out the issues related to the collection of information and its use in their works. This topic is seemingly quite difficult to present through art. However, the Taiwan pavilion was one of the most popular and successful projects. The project by artist Shu Lea Cheang and curator Paul B. Preciado, among other things, warns about the dangers of data collection.

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Aleksandr Shishkin-Hokusai and viewers at the opening of the ‘Storming’ total installation. October 2017. Photo by Valery Atamanyuk 

Trevor Paglen’s recent exhibition at PACE Gallery is another bright example. Mr. Paglen is probably a scientist first and an artist second. He studied geography at university in Berkeley and even became the author of the term ‘experimental geography’. His new project is dedicated to data collection. When taking a quick glance at his works on the wall in traditional frames, one can think that there’s nothing special about them. But when one gets closer, one can notice that the images are made up of millions of tiny photographs collected by an insurance company. The pictures show drivers distracted from the road while driving: such situations could lead to claims being denied. The other work is made up of certain encryption codes used on Instagram. 

I would say that science art is not just a reflection of scientific topics in art. It presupposes profound projects that turn important questions for humanity into a visual form. 

Interestingly, the line between art and technology is becoming less and less visible. Programmes based on artificial intelligence can use code to create photographs. Just look at Paglen’s blossoming magnolia (Trevor Paglen, Bloom (#5f5554), 2020). The image was created by a computer and it doesn’t possess the full range of human knowledge, experience, and competence. If you look at the picture closely, you will realize that the branches of the plant are arranged quite unnaturally.

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Yusuke Akamatsu with his friends and colleagues at the Shtager Gallery’s booth at the Saatchi Gallery in front of the works by Katya Granova. 2020. Photo by Tatyana Naiden 

– A few years ago, you founded the London Art Club. What is this community and what are its goals? 

– Everything started with the opening of the gallery in 2014. I had just arrived in London at the time and it was important for me to see whether I could find my place in another country and under different conditions, whether I could continue doing what I love.

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At the entrance. Opening of the gallery in London, 2016 

I faced a lot of challenges. Opening a gallery with our prices for art in the centre of the city would have been suicide. That’s why we settled on Elephant&Castle. It was quite challenging to attract the public’s attention. Few people noticed us at first. In London, there are thousands of fashionable galleries with white walls and big windows. We chose a different format, which is unusual for this business. 

The Shtager Gallery is located in a warehouse of the Morris Associates architectural bureau. This location became our highlight. We show contemporary art in a close and friendly environment - around the museum exhibition’s models, surrounded by people who understand how to work with art at the highest level. 

It is not easy to sell paintings. That’s why we constantly have to win our audience. The opening of the exhibition in the first year of the gallery’s work was attended by 15 people. I wanted to personally hug each of them. Now, six years later, the number of visitors of the gallery often exceeds one hundred people. I sometimes realize that not everyone wishing to visit us can fit into our space. The popularity of the gallery is growing largely thanks to the club we have created. 

The London Art Club is an educational project, in which I organise guided tours and trips to the Biennale, thus attracting new guests. One of the missions of the London Art Club was to help me adapt to a new country through its culture, joint walks through the galleries and museums, meetings, and lectures. Thanks to the work of the club, I get incredible emotional support. No money can buy the energy that constantly pushes you forward, inspires you, and motivates you to reach new heights. The income from the club sometimes helps with the costs of organising the gallery’s exhibitions.

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Marina Alekseeva, ‘Laboratory’. Mixed-media, video. 2013

– Statistically, British people spend ‘as much as 1%’ of their income on the purchase of art. Is that a lot?

– Indeed, there was a study published by the Sotheby’s auction house. It stated that an average British spends 1% of his or her annual income on art.

Buying an artwork is the best way to support the artist. In England, this habit has been formed in people for centuries.

The Royal Academy of Arts was opened in London 252 years ago. When receiving the beautiful building on Piccadilly Street in lease for 1000 years from Queen Victoria for £1, artists were warned that they acquired space for creativity but they had to support themselves on their own. Of course, today, the academy receives a portion of the maintenance budget. However, the main funding comes from funds raised by patrons. The academy has done a great job over the years. It has brought up the need to buy art and the desire to support artists and cultural institutions in its citizens. The academy has a strong management team that raises funds for projects. It can host up to eight exhibitions a year at the same time.

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‘London Art Club. Mayfair Galleries’ art-walk. Houser&Wirth Gallery. Report about the ‘Windows’ exhibition by Isa Genzken. Photo by Valery Atamanyuk

All these tools developed over 250 years have led to the fact that modern English society understands and appreciates the work of artists. In Russia, the management and economy of the art industries are still very young. I believe that the situation will improve in a few generations.

People in Britain are sincerely pleased when buying a piece of art and have the opportunity to support their favourite author or museum. I would even say that a unique cultural consciousness has been developed in that country over the years. In Russia, there are also people who support artists but there are very few of them so far. We need to work seriously on solving that problem.

Speaking about buying paintings, I would like to advise everyone not to be afraid of making such an investment. The main thing is that the work should echo in your soul and evoke positive emotions. A picture can fail to meet your expectations or be useless. However, throughout our lives, we acquire a lot of things ‘just for fun’. So why can’t we do the same with paintings?

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London Art Club at the 58th Venice Biennale. Main project, Giardini, 2019

– What should education be like to bring up a caring attitude towards art in people?

– First of all, it is important to learn about the history of art from real-life examples, from authentic works of authors. To do that, you need to go to museums and galleries regularly. Unfortunately, not all cities have a decent cultural environment.

I believe, one of the strategic tasks necessary to be addressed is the purchase of works by contemporary artists by Russian museums. At a certain period of time, the avant-garde was considered to be degenerate art. Artists of that movement were not valued and their works were not bought by museums. Only years later, the avant-garde began to be perceived differently. However, many of the works have faded into oblivion. Unfortunately, history is repeating itself. Several generations of contemporary artists may disappear if we don’t support them now. I know that last year my colleagues wrote an open letter to the Ministry of Culture of Russia about this issue.

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Shtager Gallery’s booth at the Start Art Fair 2019. Works by Marina Alekseeva, Grigory Maiofis, Maria Arendt, Vlad Kulkov

Contemporary art may seem incomprehensible to many people today. Anyway, it is an important and integral part of a culture that needs to be studied and preserved.

There are over 2000 museums in Russia. To make the comparison clear, there are only about 500 of them in China. However, Chinese art has enormous popularity in the international market. First of all, this was due to the growth of the economy. The government began to invest in the development of museums. Investors, noticing the growth of such investments, joined the initiative. Thus, step by step, not only domestic but also international financial flows were invested in China’s art.

This is why it is so important for the state to allocate a budget for museum purchases not only in the capital but also in regional museums. This is the starting point, contributing to a comprehensive approach to supporting art. That is about education and culture rather than about developing business and the art market.

It is very important to pay attention to the ethical education of the rising generation in the family, schools, and universities. We need to teach children respect for works of art and the creative expression of the authors. They should understand that the artist’s creative product is inviolable even if it seems strange to the viewers.

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Maria Arendt’s exhibition in the workshop at the Morris Associates architectural bureau. Photo by Lina Kivaka

– What artists do you work with? How does their art inspire you?

– Maria Arendt is talented at working with meanings and projecting her ideas onto textiles. She recently presented a series of works on architecture in the Bauhaus style. She depicted buildings that did not exist in reality on fabric. The work was based on the school’s style and Maria’s own ideas about their aesthetics. The project received a good professional response. I am proud to have works from this series in my collection. Her retrospective was held in October at the MMOMA museum in Moscow. Maria Arendt’s family comprised 33 dynasties. Her grandparents studied at the VKHUTEMAS. One of the projects of the artist is a letter to her ancestors. Some of them are now in my gallery. Many of Maria’s ideas are really moving.

An installation of 43 flat plywood sculptures by Aleksandr Shishkin-Hokusai was one of the first major projects at Elephant&Castle. The author himself came to London and installed the composition on October 10, 2017. It was dedicated to the storming of... the Winter Palace! You can imagine the reaction of the locals... Six months later we were able to show one of the sculptures of this installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the country’s main museum. That was possible thanks to our collaboration with the Friends of the Hermitage Foundation in London. A year later, Aleksandr Shishkin-Hokusai represented Russia at the 58th Venice Biennale. I am very close to this artist’s creative methods. I understand his theatrical background (being a set designer at the Bolshoi Theatre) and it resonates with my experience.

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Shtager Gallery’s booth at the Start Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery. Discussing works by Katya Granova and Aleksandr Shishkin-Hokusai with the fair guests. Photo by Tatyana Naiden

I also represent Marina Alekseeva in Great Britain. Her sound video installations in boxes were purchased by Sir Elton John himself during a visit to Marina Gisich Gallery in St. Petersburg. Marina Alekseeva created a special UK-series for us. The characters of it include Boris Johnson and even Harvey Weinstein.

We have been continuing dialogues between Russian and Western artists for several years already. This is a very interesting visual game about looking for meaning. In May, I will show a ceramic sculpture by Katya Kesich, a British artist of Russian origin, for the first time at the Start Art Fair. Her creative activities engaging ceramics and actualizing such a traditional craft art form inspired me very much. I immediately realized that her works are something special that I shouldn’t miss. Last year, we met a unique author from Japan named Yusuke Akamatsu who came to the field of contemporary art from art-house cinema. A week ago, I announced an open call for graduates of London universities whose graduation exhibitions were cancelled because of the pandemic. The works of graduates will occupy a part of our booth at the fair. For many students, exhibiting at Saatchi is a dream that will come true.

I haven’t listed everyone but we will soon finish a new website where you can get to know the artists better and purchase their works immediately.

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Shtager Gallery’s booth at the Start Art Fair 2020 at the Saatchi Gallery in front of the Live-Boxes by Marina Alekseeva. Photo by Tatyana Naiden

– What social mission do you set today? 

– I would not like to declare great goals. Of course, all gallerists who work with Russian art in the West think about how to make our artists recognized abroad. We do our part as much as we can. However, the gallery is not limited to the walls of the building. My gallery is about establishing communication, supporting creative talent, and looking for meaning. It will be a totally altruistic project in the coming years. However, the feedback from this activity is much more valuable than any money. 

– Can peace be preserved through cultural diplomacy?

– This is a question that I have had in my head for a long time. As someone with a fair amount of knowledge and competence, I understand that I have a significant responsibility. I would very much like the luggage of experience that I have to be useful not only for individuals but also for global projects.

Of course, peace can and must be preserved through cultural diplomacy. Strong bridges among countries are built through cultural interaction. It is important to transmit the right values by forming an image of Russia abroad through art. Only small players like myself are doing this today. However, if this approach becomes a principle of a step-by-step programme for showing Russian culture to the Western world without propaganda, a much bigger effect will be achieved. At each of my lecture-walks through the galleries in London, I repeat: we have a wonderful opportunity to experience, the works of Western artists whose art has never been brought to Russia. And now I see the opposite picture from here. In London, people can know Malevich and Kandinsky but they do not know what happened after them in Russian art history. Ilya Kabakov and Abramovich’s five-million ‘Beetle’ come to the minds of average art amateurs after they recall Kandinsky’s name.  There is a need for a dialogue between large institutions and major exhibition projects. This would not only promote the work of Russian authors but also change attitudes towards our country and our people.

This publication uses materials by photographers Tatyana Naiden, Lina Kivaka, Valery Atamanyuk, Oleg Kangurov

Viktoria Yezhova, Global Women Media news agency

Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov


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