Sasha, director of the Bogorodskoe Gallery
“Coffee, community and contemporary art”
Heading from the city centre North to the end of the red line, you arrive at Bulvar Rokossovskovo, in the Bogorodskoe region. Chances are you haven’t been there - even Sasha Kremenets, who is now director of the region’s only contemporary arts space, Gallery Bogorodskoe (Галерея Богородское), hadn’t been there before she was headhunted for the job. But now she’s making ripples in the local community, known for significant levels of crime and social problems.
Sasha’s perspective on contemporary art is something unique - she joined the sector as what she describes as a ‘дилетант’, someone who knows nothing about the topic, having had a successful early career in PR and management. It made her actively build up her network to find her feet in the art world and now puts her in a position to support other emerging professionals and artists. It also gives her a valuable perspective with which to engage the local community around her - the majority of which do not engage with contemporary art regularly, if at all.
Exhibitions in the Moscow region-funded Bogorodskoe gallery change roughly every month, and each features a young artist from somewhere in Russia. March’s exhibition ‘Exercises in a white room’ featured striking black and white paintings and posters by Anton Gudkov, a 31 year old artist and musician from Omsk who only moved to Moscow three months ago to work at the Bolshoi Theatre. April’s exhibition Дочь Мира (daughter of the world, opening 6 April 2019) features Moscow artist Miriam Duduchava. These artists are part of the wide network Sasha has actively been curating around the gallery. ‘When travelling somewhere, I always try to visit and make new friendships and relationships in museums and galleries; I go to special events, like conferences; and I use Facebook and social media. It’s about network. When you have a network, you can invite people to opportunities or get new people involved in your work. Likewise, others can use your network and invite your artists to their places’.
What, then, is her advice for young or emerging artists? ‘I think that the best way to achieve success is to be open minded, and not to be lazy to write emails or to make connections on Facebook. Because, you know, everybody has a situation when we need new or young artists for something. When this happens, I can open Facebook, make a post and see what happens’.
In this vein, Sasha mentioned the open call of the residency programme she leads in Nickel, a small town of 8,000 in Russia’s Arctic North. The Second School, a new cultural centre in the town, hosts the twice yearly residency, scheduled to coincide with polar day and polar night. Sasha was brought into the project in Nickel a few years ago because of her track record with community-orientated work. The first two editions of the residency programme have provided alternative lenses to let the local community see their town from new perspectives. It is already showing how contemporary art can be embedded in the community, in the development of the town and in the progression of opportunities for locals.
Under Sasha’s lead, the Bogorodskoe gallery is both place-centred and outward-looking. More generally, however, she suggests that an audience-focussed approach is still very much in development in Moscow. While there is some progress (see our interview with Anna Mikhaylova), there is a reluctance - or often no need - to really consider your audiences if you’re firmly in the city centre with regular footfall from Muscovites and tourists alike. ‘Most of my colleagues are not ready for this type of challenge. It’s changing, but not as fast as I want’. Laughing, Sasha tells me that visits by tourists are rare and memorable events for Bogorodskoe Gallery. They don’t have hotels, guesthouses or other reasons to visit the area.
Similarly, Sasha’s upbringing, education and career kept her firmly in the city centre until the opportunity at Bogorodskoe arrived seven years ago. ‘I would drive by car to work, park the car, and use the lift to get to my office. Eat a cosy lunch with colleagues. All the time I wore summer clothes - all this Moscow weather was not for me’. Working in Bogorodskoe Gallery has changed her perspective on Russia, Moscow and the sector.
‘I now know what is tolerance. Before, I thought I knew, but now I know for sure. We have the word “snob” in Russian. I was like this. But now I’m ready, I’m ready for anything. First of all, I’m ready for visitors and people who don’t need our culture or anything that we do. Everything is OK with them, without us. Now I know how to work with this. Sometimes teenagers come during lesson times. I think that’s much better than staying on the street. Here, they can have a free coffee and some cookies and see the art for free. I’m sure that galleries in the city centre don’t have these special visitors in the school time, because this is a very local trend. Kids in the city centre are also not interested in free tea or coffee, but it works in Bogorodskoe’.
This is not the place for ‘snobbery’. Having come to contemporary art as a beginner she also knows how to have conversations with people on a real and personal level when they’re out of their comfort zone. These conversations, she advises, should use language they relate to.
‘You need to put yourself on the same step as your visitors. This is the only way it works. When they see that you are talking with easy words, and that you can describe something in the easiest way...nobody likes the ‘smart guy’ using special or difficult words’
They don’t get many guests during the day - the locals are working. ‘Every small step is a small victory. Most of the time they are thinking about earning money for their children’. But when these conversations do happen, it’s valuable and it’s usually over coffee. This is not the type of interaction that most museums or galleries in the city centre have with their audience.
‘It’s the reason for us to have that first conversation. Maybe five, ten, one hundred times after that first coffee, they’ll ask ‘What’s happening here?’. Then it’s ‘звёздный час’ or a lucky day, the time for the gallery to explain what we do and to involve this person in our art’.