Volume 15 Number 3
Painting a Brighter Future
01 June 2002

What has political freedom meant for the arts in Russia? Natalia Pankova, Chair of the Russian Arts Foundation of Nizhny Novgorod, talks to Anastasia Stepanova.

'We have a beautiful but very hard task - to create goodness by means of the language of art,' says Natalia Pankova, the Chair of the Russian Art Foundation, a non-governmental non-profit organization, which promotes artists and culture in Nizhny Novgorod.

The Foundation stands for art which brings light and positive emotions to its audience. Pankova believes that art has an impact not only on the psychological but also on the energy level as well. 'We absorb what is given to us despite our will, subconsciously,' she says. 'Children are more vulnerable.' She is against any form of aggression or destruction - especially the current trend for 'dark art', full of negative and depressing messages. 'It pours down on us like a bucket of waste, full of stuff the artist wants to get rid of.' The work of the Foundation is to counteract this negativism.

For most of the 20th Century, art in the USSR was strongly controlled by the Soviet government. 'Sociorealism was the only artistic expression accepted by the state - a deeply ideological movement, that didn't carry any aesthetic function,' says Pankova. 'When I was an art student, artists couldn't even think of experimenting artistically.' The irony was that this period of artistic repression followed the flowering of the Russian avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century.

The end of the Eighties was a time of great changes in Russia - the period of perestroika (rebuilding). It not only changed political and foreign relations, but also the government's attitude towards the fine arts.

Nizhny Novgorod, then known as Gor'ky, was still a closed city due to its military industry. 'Local artists kept painting portraits of our leaders and praising the labour heroism of the Soviet people,' says Pankova.

What Pankova and her friends were doing then, in the 'Black Pond' group, was considered quite bold and daring. They were free thematically and versatile in their expression and style. 'Artistic values came first for us,' says Pankova. 'We didn't think of money. We were saturated with art.'

Natalia Pankova and Aleksey Sannikov, the general director of the regional power company, opening the High Voltage exhibition.

In 1991 the collapse of the former USSR and the transition to a free-market economy marked a new beginning. 'It seemed as if people were waking up after a long, long sleep,' says Pankova. The Russian Art Foundation was set up in 1993 to unite talented local artists, some from the 'Black Pond', who shared the same values and ideas.

It was a boom time for active entrepreneurs as well as NGOs and charities. On the other hand, science and art, which had always been supported by the government, were going through hard times. 'The Foundation was born out of a growing need to support each other,' says Pankova. 'Although artists usually prefer their own studios to beau monde gatherings.'

In its first years the Foundation was funded by a commercial bank (NBD-bank) and other commercial organizations. 'Together with them we were building our future, where art would take its proper place and people's lives would become much brighter.'

They arrange several exhibitions a year, in large exhibition halls in the city and around the country, which have drawn the attention of the mass media and the city's elite. The exhibition openings have been gala occasions, with performers and musicians invited to set the scene. It could be a medieval chamber orchestra or a mime performance to contemporary music. 'We wanted our artists to be well-known and appreciated,' says Pankova. 'We felt that we were responsible for creating a special atmosphere in the city, for building bridges between artists and the public.'

They have also mounted a series of international projects. The biggest one - a Russian-British project called Konversia (conversion) - was run in collaboration with the St Andrew Foundation of Edinburgh. The main concept of the project was the artistic conversion of military, aggressive objects into civic, peace-loving art installations. For this reason the project was partly financed by the British Ministry of Defence and the Garantia Bank of Nizhny Novgorod.

Supported by Boris Nemtsov, a former Governor of Nizhny Novgorod, who was then Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, from the Russian side and by Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill, a member of the House of Lords, from the British side, the project aimed at a joint workshop for Russian and British artists followed by exhibitions in Russia and the UK. Due to the crisis in the Russian economy in August 1998, the project was only partly realized. Two major exhibitions of several Russian, Scottish and English artists were held in the

Russian Embassy in London on the invitation of a former Russian Ambassador to the UK, Yuriy Fokin.

The most recent project, Vusokoe Napryazhenie, (High Voltage), which took place from December 2001 to January 2002, involved 42 artists of different media, genres and professions, aged from 23 to 70 years old. 'The range of exhibited works - from classical paintings to video art - gave a representative picture of what is happening in the Nizhny art scene at present,' says Pankova. It was the second largest exhibition in 10 years at the Nizhny Novgorod State Museum of Fine Arts.

The group which developed the exhibition was chaired, strange as it might seem, neither by an artist nor by an art-critic, but by Aleksey Sannikov, the general director of a power company. 'I believe that this unexpected combination is very much up to date and is a mark of the time we are lucky to witness,' says Pankova.

The slogan of this event, 'Switch ON!', was a cry to stimulate people's free artistic imagination. Many of the participants were not connected with art professionally. 'It was a unique platform for all who desired to express their artistic ideas,' says Irina Marsheva, a leading art-critic.

'The association of High Voltage with High Art has charged us up with some positive energy that will allow us to carry on,' says Pankova. This will include a good range of activities to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Foundation in 2003.
Anastasia Stepanova

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