As the market has grown, the demographics of collectors have also shifted. Today Russian clients increasingly dominate the market for Soviet Realism.
Frontier-style capitalism in the new Russia spun off billionaire ‘oligarchs’ who moved aggressively to acquire their homeland art. Nine out of 10 purchases at auction these days are being taken back to Russia, says Swanson, the Utah museum director and consultant. Last summer, the Wurdemans sold two Yuri Kugach paintings to the art foundation created by Russian port and transportation oligarch Andrey Filatov.
Even in the heart of the recession, the market for Russian Realism has endured. The secluded Lazare gallery does not rely on foot traffic or impulse spending. It takes a long-term, slow-paced approach to its relationship with clients.
The Wurdemans’ goal is to connect with a few new serious collectors every year, earn their trust, and bring them back.
Chances are you haven’t heard of Vern Swanson. In the recent history of Soviet Realism, however, he is a towering figure. Swanson was recently awarded the Plastov International Prize, for his contributions to the awareness and understanding of Soviet Realism. The Plastov Prize is currently the world’s largest art prize, with a cash award of $833,000 (25 million rubles) divided into 21 different categories. It is funded and awarded by the government of the Ulyanovsk region to support artists, scholars, schools, and museums dedicated preserving and exploring, “the diversity of forms of realist art,” in honor of Russia’s preeminent 20th century Realist, Arkady Plastov.
Beginning in the mid 19th century when the Wanderers split from the restrictive Imperial Academy, Russia has had a unique tradition of figurative art. Through the 20th century, the tradition of Russian Realism was preserved, largely through the enforced official style of Socialist Realism. In the 1990’s, however, as the USSR disintegrated so did state support for Realism. The future of this tradition, still largely invisible to the west, has been uncertain. The Plastov International Prize was established to ensure a vibrant future for the Russian Realist tradition.
Vern Swanson received the prize for his published works on Soviet Realism, and for his work assembling one of the United States’ largest collections of Russian Art. Swanson studied art history at the University of Utah and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London before becoming the head of the Springville Museum of Art in Utah. Beginning in 1991, just as the Iron Curtain fell, Swanson began travelling to the former USSR to investigate Soviet Realism. Initially skeptical, Swanson was overwhelmed by the beauty, technical virtuosity and diversity of Soviet art, and he began putting together a world-class museum collection. At that time, Swanson worked not only for himself, but also on behalf of Ray Johnson, another collector who went on to found the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis.
If you’re in the Greater Boston Area, stop by the Swampscott Historical Society tomorrow, Thursday, April 26th at 7PM, for a lecture on Russian/Soviet art and an exhibit of Soviet poster art.
Jenia Zhilina, an art historian and architectural archivist will be giving an overview of Russian/Soviet art history with an emphasis on it’s influence on American art. Accompanying the lecture will be a show of Soviet Posters, 1917-1967, from the collection of journalist and illustrator Christopher Burrell.