Moscow’s first contemporary art biennale in January 2005, a small gathering of mostly artists, students and gallery owners, was ridiculed by the public and ignored by wealthy Russians, whose tastes were primarily for the nation’s 19th-century art. The Second Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, which opened on March 1, shows how things are changing.

Attendance was greater than expected, press coverage more positive, and a small group of young wealthy Russian collectors is emerging as sponsors and buyers of contemporary works. Janna Bullock, a Russian-born real estate developer, is one of them. Previously little known to the Russian public, she has become one of the leaders in the country’s contemporary art scene with her support of artists such as American Matthew Barney and Russia’s Andrei Molodkin.

„She’s courageous because not many wealthy people in Russia want to understand contemporary art,” said Nicolas V. Iljine, director of corporate development for Europe and the Middle East at the Guggenheim Museum. „She’s got some hot works in her own collection.” As Russia enters its ninth year of economic growth, bloated by a surge in oil, gas and metals prices, a growing number of wealthy Russians, most in their late 30s, are building world-class collections of recent works. There are about 200 „serious” contemporary-art collectors in Moscow and St. Petersburg, said Moscow-based art analyst, Mikhail Kamensky.

 

„Russia has a tremendous intellectual potential, like a haystack waiting for someone to light a match to set the whole thing on fire,” Bullock said in an interview at Moscow’s House of Writers. „If we continue to promote contemporary art at this pace Russia will compete with Chinese and Indian art in five years.”

Bullock was at the venue for a March 3 question-and-answer session with Barney, sitting next to the artist on stage. The 500-seat auditorium in the Oak Room was overflowing and people sat in the aisles. The average age looked to be about 25. Bullock owns two works by Barney, who she hopes will inspire young Russian artists. She began collecting contemporary art in 2002 and now has about 400 works.

In December, when organizers of Russia’s Modus R exhibition at the Art Basel Miami Fair had last-minute financial troubles, Bullock stepped in to cover the costs. Among her recent purchases are five works by Molodkin, a young Russian artist who was part of Modus R at Miami. Bullock feels he’s one of Russia’s most promising young artists because he continues the Russian tradition of political ideas in art.

 

One of the five works is a sculpture of a dollar sign half filled with oil, a commentary on the Russian economy’s dependence on the US dollar and oil exports. She plans to display it in one of her office buildings. „I collect works to which I feel a deep connection, and I don’t plan to sell any of them,” said Bullock. „I like to collect art works that are totally different from each other, from totally different artists.” Her collection has about 30 works by the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, best known for his naive and childlike heroes.

She has five photos and two oil paintings by American Richard Prince, and 10 works by David Salle. In November, she bought British artist Leon Kossoff’s „Portrait of a Woman” for $225,000. Other recent acquisitions include works by Britain’s Gary Hume, Cuban-American artist Christian Curiel, and American Jennifer Steinkamp. Bullock graduated from Leningrad State University in 1989 with a degree in languages. Later that year, she moved to New York. In 1992, she founded RIGroup, a New York real estate company that restores historic properties on the Upper East Side.

 

RIGroup now owns about $100 million of Manhattan property, including the former New York Observer Building at 54 East 64th Street, and 9 East 67th Street, she said. In 2002, the company began working with office, retail and residential properties in Russia, where its assets now total about $100 million. „Developers have always supported contemporary art because both like to create something new,” said Bullock.

„I live with the desire to discover something new and original. Contemporary art fits this bill, forcing you to look at things differently.” Bullock’s next major art project will be as lead sponsor of „All in the Present Must be Transformed: Barney and Beuys,” an exhibit of works by Barney and Joseph Beuys that opens at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice on June 6 as part of the Venice Biennale. (Bloomberg)