On 21 October Start Art Fair opens for preview and then for general public on the 23rd at the Saatchi Gallery. Amongst its exhibitors this year is Shtager Gallery – a space for contemporary Russian artists and beyond based in Elephant & Castle. Ksenia Kazintseva met with its founder, Marina Shtager to discuss the fate of new Russian art, the growth of the gallery and its commitment to representing meaningful work.

Phillip Salon, British famous designer. Saatchi Gallery 2019. Shtager Gallery booth.

Ksenia Kazintseva: So, how did the journey in art begin for you?

Marina Shtager: I have quite a rich cultural background, rooted in academic education and furthered in research around ballet. For seven years I partook in the search for the seven lost parts of “Marquese’s Heart” the production at which Léon Bakst and Marius Petipa, who represented two totally different directions in art, met.

Every gallerist is different, and as I lecture and listen to my colleagues do the same, I find out who represented each significant artist. What was their background? Through the recent warmer seasons I was lecturing about Warhol. Even in this case, an interesting art dealer originally built his business working with just five collectors. Inevitably, we imagine ourselves in their place, and it’s evident that every one of them came from a diverse background. Through my academic education I became versed in historical development of opera, ballet, music, fine art and costume. I also had the joy of working in the press department of Mariinsky Theatre learning the basics of PR from Ekaterina Novikova, who is currently the press secretary of Bolshoi. Her training was rooted in, if you will, the “Japanese school of PR”. I spent interesting several years at Mariinsky Theatre and saw the premiere of “Nutcracker” by Chemiakin in 2000. It was the first time that an artist made his way to the theatre.

While already working at the theatre I began to study law as I wanted to see what is out there beyond the art world. My diploma focused on copyright in choreography, but I gained broader knowledge of general problem-solving, government and commerce – accumulated a sort of a library in my head. Thus, I can pretty much be self-sufficient in resolving any issues that come up – from artist’s contracts to shipping and beyond.

Ksenia Kazintseva: And how did you brave the idea of moving to London? You were working at the Lazarev Gallery, which shut down, what happened afterwards? Where did your first artists come from – were they the people you already knew through previous work?

Marina Shtager: That’s right, after studying law I continued working in the theatre and lectured on ballet in the UK. Eight years in a Russian gallery came in very handy. When we first opened in St Petersburg, there were only a handful of us in the team, and we encountered plenty of challenges. However, with time we reached a respectable level working with the Russian Museum. As soon as we did though, we ran out of buyers because decorative art sells somewhat better in Russia. Collectable art, on the other hand, sees roughly ten regular customers that everyone knows, and they don’t really need galleries to buy anything. I respect everyone who continues to work in this sphere, of course, but ultimately contemporary Russian art sales are mainly altruistic both in Russia and abroad. It’s constant fundraising, budgeting and inertia. Toy-galleries can also be found everywhere, it’s enough just to look at the website, exhibitions and price levels.

Why did I move? Truly, 2014 was a year of change. Many left the country out of curiosity, others because of the news. I had my own story with the gallery closing and having to decide what to do next after dedicating so much time to it. Originally, I wanted to open another gallery in St Petersburg but didn’t see a viable business strategy. It was clear that there was no one to sell to, and the economic drop did not help. Suddenly, I decided to take a gap year, come to London and study. The goal was finding something new, because it felt as though all the roads were travelled in Russia already. I knew every dog that would come to the gallery and was missing something unexpected. If I knew what awaits me, I may have turned back, because the first three years in London were very turbulent. I was constantly tense despite having spent several years here. Here I was again with someone misunderstanding me or vice versa. The hardest part was that I’m so used to being at one show after another, intellectually being challenged all the time, and suddenly I found myself in a vacuum.

But despite aiming mainly to study, I did not really stop being a gallerist. I brought my gallery in a suitcase, having asked every artist I knew in St Petersburg, many of whom we worked with through Lazarev Gallery, to make a small work. And so, moving from corner to corner, I could still hold the conversation in the right key. When you speak to someone about your artists, you sometimes find your resonance right away and end up creating a comfortable environment for conversation and creative exchange. But the first few years, I couldn’t find people that felt like my own, we couldn’t understand each other’s humour. In their desire to raise awareness of Russian contemporary art abroad Russian gallerist are like loyal dogs who carry a wounded soldier through mine field refusing to let go, while they believe the victory is somewhere near.

After 3 years of being in London, my life turned into pure pleasure, where I woke up and I was curious and had to run somewhere. While I have energy, I am excited, constantly on this wheel of personal and professional development. There aren’t enough hours in the day to read and see everything I’d like to see, and that really drives me. But also, it teaches you not to spend time on conversation that isn’t inspiring.

I wrote a business plan in an effort to find people with whom my experience might resonate. And I focused at first on finding partnerships and collaborations, but the first few experiences were rather strange. For example, I was supposed to run a gallery in Mayfair, and the deal was drawing to a close, but I wanted to have autonomy with the exhibitions. Everything seemed to be going well but as we were signing, I was asked to go to Madrid and bring a Modigliani in a tube to London. Of course, I refused. It would’ve been nice to get some experience there, but our gallery displays really interesting art, which doesn’t fall into the same price range of work sold in Mayfair. And if the space doesn’t belong to you, no sale will cover the rent. If it was a foundation, that would be a whole different realm. But we are not one because being a gallery allows us to participate in international fairs, which are not only exciting, but also provide ample opportunities for networking. For example, the footfall at the London Art Fair, where we exhibited last year, is 10,000, which left me with 32 double sided pages of contact details. These are people who go there regularly and are interested in buying work. And it’s noteworthy that everyone who passed our stand said, “you stand out from everyone else”.

Shtager gallery at London Art Fair

I’m interested in supporting these contemporaries, from our St Petersburg “swamp”, if you will. They have this conceptual theatricality to them. Shishkin Hokusai’s first work in my collection was a jar with a paper sculpture inside – arguably, quite strange. He turns set design into fine art using the traditional play on perspective through dimension and skewing it to be flat or otherwise distorted. Who knew that seven years later, we would make a huge installation focusing on the invasion of Winter Palace. It featured partially nude sculptures which solicited an unexpected response. A lady pointed out that her feminist feelings were offended by the fact that male sculptures were dressed and the female – not. In Russia, the artist was accused of pornography, here, people think in completely different terms.

Our exhibition at the V&A, shipping sculptures from Russia and then transporting them to the venue also proved eventful. From me travelling with an almost life-sized centaur under the arm by London underground to walking into the grand hall and imagining the Trojan horse. This project was highly popular with the audience. These experiences enrich what it is to be a gallerist, and reaffirm that we are on the right path.

Prior to this, another win for us was Greyson Perry picking Grigory Miofis’s works to show at the Summer Exhibition in 2018. Thousands of applications go through the hands of the board, and so we were incredibly grateful. I was worried that they wouldn’t sell, but it worked out that they did and his postcards with bears are now part of the RA’s souvenir collection as well.

Ksenia Kazintseva: Shtager Gallery feels in some ways accessible, reachable unlike many other bigger organisations. Is that the goal, or does being distant and unattainable come with the territory of growing for any organisation?

Marina Shtager:  We first got the space at Elephant & Castle, which we were lucky to be offered by Morris Associates. Despite great location, the space was totally unequipped. I didn’t know how we could possibly show art there. But simultaneously, having storage and a space for artist display is worth a lot in London. In the same building, there is a museography studio – they prepare exhibitions for places like the Metropolitan, the British Museum or the Hermitage. They have a space with equipment and models, clearing that out was nearly impossible. So, we integrated ourselves into it. I realised that we can attract attention by being different, hanging work on wire amongst these architectural pieces. And so, step by step, like rock climbers, we reached a certain height of our own. But then the pandemic struck, and just as we caught our breath, the dive down happened again. Some investors and collectors left, and a fair got cancelled. Luckily, we found another relatively soon.

Shtager gallery storage

Ksenia Kazintseva: I’d argue for the contemporary public, it’s interesting to get into these new and different spaces, even if speaking from my own experience. Places we want to go to and exhibit in feel much more welcoming and in tune with art that matters, whether they replicate the standard white wall stereotype or not.

Marina Shtager:  The main idea for us was definitely merging the commercial aspect to be able to maintain the project and also some non-commercial ideas like conferences and panels. I want the gallery to have a centre for knowledge exchange and to be a place of research, to foster a community.

Three years ago, when I started running tours and finding my circle of people, I realised that London offers an open-mindedness and is a grateful listener. If you speak about something important, no one will interrupt you. And so, London Art Club was born. This project helps support the gallery as well and brings people to us through the word of mouth. This idea of intellectual debate, which is arguably impossible in the typical sterile gallery, is really valuable. People of differing cultural backgrounds pass through our gallery on a monthly basis, making me think about how to answer queries from “my child can do that” to philosophical considerations behind every artist’s story.

Marina Shtager and London Art Club

In St Petersburg, I didn’t have the opportunity to communicate with people who visited the gallery, there wasn’t enough time, but also it wasn’t clear that it’s vital. Of course, in a bigger organisation, there isn’t always an opportunity to do that, and there are levels of staff who can. In this case, I was afraid of the controversial questions because art can evoke any emotion, including aggression. But over time, I grew to enjoy answering them because it always forces me to think and educate myself even further.

For example, we were speaking about an artwork during one of the tours and a woman said: “I will buy it, and turn it upside down”. Of course, the immediate human reaction is aggravation, how can someone think this way? But finally, I said that if she did that, she would destroy what the artist created. Not only would she nullify her investment, but she would also empty it of meaning.

Ksenia Kazintseva: What’s the faith of Russian contemporary art, do you think?

Marina Shtager:  It’s not a secret that Russian contemporaries over the past fifteen years have not been a liquid investment. You either trust your gallerist or not. People see me working and being passionate about the artists I represent, and that’s what matters. There’s no guarantee of growth – you buy it because it’s interesting and resonates with you. I also have a rigid approach to pricing, it must be justified. We see how undervalued some artists are. Pushnitsky, represented in international galleries, should already cost £100,000. Thus far, his work can go for £20-40k only. But because there are so few that altruistically promote the work in the West, it doesn’t compete to the same extent with artists supported by a host of cultural institutions. At the same time, if I rented a space in Mayfair, I wouldn’t quadruple the prices to make up for extortionate rent – that’s a crime. It’s important to keep a benchmark, and to price fairly.

Shtager Gallery

Ksenia Kazintseva: What kind of partnerships do you foster? Are they specifically Russian or those interested in Russian art?

Marina Shtager:  We’ve got collectors of all nationalities and with each, our own kind of conversation. They all come from a variety of backgrounds and are interested not specifically in art from a set context, but in quality art as a whole. I understand that many people can’t necessarily afford art, it’s not a priority. And those who can, often buy something more traditional and set in its market value, or rather upwardly fluid. I used to always underline the Russian-ness of it all, but understood that it’s unnecessary because when we speak about the work, the person decides whether it has value to them or not, whether it’s art or not, and it’s not so important where it came from. They’re interested in its resonance and the emotion it evokes. And from that comes what the gallery is, with a space or without, it’s in the mind. Anything can happen, but no matter where I am, I have my little suitcase with what I care about and, wherever I go, there are people who will care for that too.

Ksenia Kazintseva: What’s next for the gallery? What are your aspirations?

Marina Shtager:  I’m truly passionate about displaying Russian contemporaries of the last twenty years in conversation with Western artists. I’d love to run an exhibition where Shishkin-Hokusai would show with Baselitz because I see the connection between them. Even now, Baselitz has a project with golden objects, and we’ve got the fountain that’s going up for Start Art, it’s almost faith.