advisor to the director of the Modern Art Research Institute at the National Academy of Arts of Ukraine, art researcher, art dealer, one of the main representatives of Ukraine at all major auctions such as Sotheby’s and Phillips

Interview: Anastasia Gorbunova 

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What’s it like to be you?
What’s it like to be me? What really matters is how I set goals and achieve them.

Sociocultural and political problems, the loss of competent personnel – all of this hinders the development of the art market. We are worthy, without exaggeration, to be heard all over the world.

And if separated from your art and cultural activities, what’s it like?
I don’t think about that question. Many people want to get to know me, and then I ask myself: “But there is nothing special about me, why are you asking?” This is probably due to my sincere involvement and faith in art.

How did art become an important part of your life?
I had an interest in different fields, but art always fascinated me. I recall finding my childhood notebooks when I was recently going through my things. I’ve always liked the fonts and images in them. Deep down, I gravitated towards the beautiful, the extraordinary. And in the end, you have to express this feeling sooner or later.
Most recently, I was doing an interview thanks to the late Roitburd. And he remembered his first acquaintance with Sasha Roitburd, Oleg Tistol, Alexander Solovyov – that’s when he discovered his attraction to art. And thanks to the exhibition, I still remember it, “Farewell to Arms” in 2004, which was held in the Mystetsky Arsenal by Victor Mikhailovich Pinchuk. Until now, I consider this project indicative of Ukrainian art. So, not only do you get to see amazing pieces of works, you also want to obtain them. Back then the concept of “collection” was not yet popular yet it was clear that you own an entire fortune. Full awareness came in the 2010s. Thanks to these impulses and these first acquaintances, the craving for beauty continued.

Would you say that that craving for beauty was a feeling of perfection?
No, it wasn’t a perfect feeling, it was an inspiration: those impulses were a completely new and unexplainable source of energy. For me, it was a crazy thrill. Sometimes I feel that this sort of thing cannot last long. And all wise Jews say: “Everything will pass, and this will pass too.” But it doesn’t work for me that way. It’s like faith.

Did you experience a perfect feeling in other parts of your life?
An impeccable feeling … Only when my children were born. Such feelings arise when I am with family and friends. And of course, traveling is a real thrill and a memorable emotion.

What is your perception of happiness?
I find happiness in my children and it is the greatest feeling, the most significant feeling. And your family’s happiness is also something that you instill in your household. I remember that as a child, our relatives often visited our house. They never came empty-handed, and always brought bread. According to my grandmother’s stories, this has been our family tradition for a long time, thus uniting loved ones and demonstrating “wealth and respect.” Happiness is in your traditions. It’s quite simple.

What’s the craziest story that ever happened to you in your professional life? Which you can share, of course.
Haha oh, there were plenty. Let me think of an interesting one for you… So my goal was to curate three large-scale exhibitions. At Tate, at Saatchi Gallery, and MoMA. And so,

the preparation part of the project at the Saatchi Gallery became this significant event. I thought it was very important that I met both Charles Saatchi and Nigel Hirst, the director of the establishment. It seemed that these people were inaccessible, yet they are actually down-to-earth normal people, albeit being the largest art collectors and business sharks.

And thanks to your work, you get to meet extraordinary personalities. I also had a dream to meet Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas. And I met Salma Hayek through art. I don’t think any other business presents such opportunities. Well, perhaps the world of cinema. And these are cases of meeting people like Lord Baltimore (director of Sotheby’s), Simone de Pury (art dealer, collector), David Hockney (artist). I have always dreamed of meeting Gerhard Richter and visiting his workshop. It will be a milestone for me.

In the art world, everything is possible – art unites actors, musicians, politicians. The only thing you need is a strong character and sociability.  If you can communicate with everyone – it will greatly help you in most aspects of life. 

As if you knew what I’m about to ask next! What character traits should an art dealer have?
A project manager, an art dealer, must seek communication between artists, between curators, between people from businesses that provide money. It’s very important. Collective projects always involve a lot of nuances, and at times even conflicts. The curator sees the situation only the way he wants to see it, and the patron who finances the exhibition sees everything in his own way. I’m the one who should resolve it. And the artist at this moment normally thinks about something else: “You did not hang my art the right way!!” And the curator says: “I see it this way!” haha. So the most important thing is communication.

Under no circumstances should you feel as if there’s a crown on your head. Yes, the artist can be right or wrong, but you need to listen and always consider his opinion.

Only then do we get projects, exhibitions, and catalogs.
Artists and creators are the main driving force in the modern world. They are the prophets and the main eyewitnesses of our time. They are the ones who will remain in history. And they may not even remember about us – managers and curators. Unless they write about us themselves. As Leo Castelli did, whose book we, by the way, are now in the process of translating. This is an amazing story of an Italian who developed the entire American art market and the direction of pop art. Among other things, Castelli was able to teach American audiences to respect artists and appreciate their work. He uncovered an approach to different people, including billionaires. He owns the famous expression: “I must create a myth from the material of the myth, the skillful handling of which and with the imagination is the work of the dealer.” Another good example is the book The Gallery of Scammers, and its author Philip Hook, an acquaintance of mine, the former director of the Impressionist and Contemporary Art Department at Sotheby’s. I’ll tell you one of the stories in his book about Frank Lloyd, director of the London Marlborough gallery. He tried to sell the work of Francis Bacon. The collector told Lloyd that he could not acquire the painting because his wife was against it. To which Lloyd replied: “Look, divorce your wife, build a new house, buy this work.” And yes, that man did just that and bought the art piece by Bacon. It’s tough, but it’s about other people who never have enough money. For example, when billionaires gather, everyone has money, but there is only one painting by Picasso. The same about Bacon. The happy one is the one who has this work of art because money is already there. And so the rivalry begins. It’s very interesting. And yes, the Ukrainian audience lacks respect for the noble work of an artist.


What’s the most appealing character trait of artists?
The eccentricity that distinguishes creative people from others. It’s very important for me that artists think differently, live differently. Their unique approach regarding any matter. It excites me and it brings out new emotions. They have a special charisma, intelligence, wisdom – each artist has something different about them. We recently completed a book about eight young sculptors. After the work was done, we discussed with the curator how different everyone is, and how Ukrainian contemporary art is developing through the prism of young creators.

You know, we often look for the continuation of our “self” in the world, and so I wonder did you ever seek your ‘self’?
No, I haven’t. I didn’t seek my secondary “I”, I didn’t even have time, I didn’t even think about it. I don’t want to invent it either.

Yes, honestly!

What does love mean to you?
Let’s put it this way – it’s what we do.

Many people say, or even complain that nothing ever happens to them, they are tired of the routine. I tell these people: “If you really love your job, you will always succeed.”

Get it? This is true love. Love is not only about giving money but about paying attention. True love is about children, about parents, about loved ones. Do you simply love them or do you need them for something? It’s very important. It’s not about time, and not about the quality that you spend together. You should always understand that you are together and you need to respect your family. This is where true love lies – in the manifestation of real feelings. True love is not in words or money but in a deep relationship with people. And in art itself – you love real work. I don’t work, I live with a love for work, which gives me strength and energy. And thanks to that all is good in my life. You truly love and it’s impossible to describe with words because you live by it. In spite of a large number of occurring problems. And you still get highs, because you love, no matter what. Love is not really dependent on who the rascal is. You love it because it is your own. And no matter how someone speaks, no matter how exaggerated, and let it sound corny: love triumphs over evil. It manifests itself because we are human beings. We are alive and we are genuine.

And how to evaluate fine art? How does one understand what is real and what is empty?
Young artists always contact me saying that they would like to work with me. It’s important for me to know what they have been doing for the last 5-10 years. What were they working on? That’s how I know what was of value to them. And whether it was of value to our country, for the progression of our art.
A good example is Roma Minin. We discussed this many times with him. Before we started working, I knew him for over 5 years. His art was close to me, it was a miner’s work. There’s a comprehension of such work, not only in Ukraine but in the whole world. It’s a whole layer that is disappearing and a lot of things are connected with it. And that’s what hooked me – the artist capturing reality in a special way. Tistola in one thing, Krivolap in another. Back in 1999, I saw the landscapes of Krivolap, I immediately exclaimed: “Wow! This artist has something real”. There are also many young authors: Aleksey Sai, Zhanna Kadyrova, Stepan Ryabchenko, Yegor Zigura and others, who don’t just create, but live by their art, create it in the context of our country. Ukraine is one of the best countries on Earth, and when you travel, you still want to come back home. This is relevant because we have changed over the course of thirty years of independence. And it’s evident as never before in local art. Through a certain prism, through a philosophy, yet you can still see it. Especially when you already comprehend it. It won’t be easy for everyone to accept it right away, yes. There’s an accompanying curatorial text and a biography of the author. Enjoying the scenery for more than a hundred years is irrelevant. And we live in a modern, developing world. And I want to repeat once again that there are a lot of changes in our country and artists feel these inner impulses like no one else. And you see this not only in their work but also in the creators themselves. In their way of thinking. What a thrill!

What is the most challenging thing about being an art dealer? And what’s the best part?
It’s always difficult to refuse people because they write with some sense of hope and you understand that the human factor is at play here. Well, it’s just the most difficult matter – to communicate with those who write to you. The best part is that you just get to live in this world. At least for me.  You know all the artists, you have more than 22 years of experience, and you really enjoy it. And you even publish books …

It’s very vital for me to create an intellectual product in order to always have at hand the things that we have created many years ago. The exhibition ends and is left in the archives, it becomes forgotten in the face of current events. But books remain.

There was this hype that we live in a digital era, yet even in the era of the coronavirus, many people still prefer actual books. And some like the smell of paint coming from the book. Add a lamp and the rustling sound and that’s all you need to be drawn into a story.  

And how to produce a text that resonates with the audience? And overall, does art need words?
Art needs words, I think it’s very important. Curators who understand both the global and Ukrainian art world and who stood at the origins, or even young ones who periodically get information from somewhere are very good at what they do. Curators communicate with artists, exchange experiences and knowledge, share a certain understanding of all these processes. There is a place for the transfer of energy. That’s where the words are born.  

What are you most proud of in terms of your professional career?
I never thought about it. But I’m proud of creating books. That’s something that resonates with me and is dear to me. I’m proud that I have genuine friendships with most of the artists. I’m proud that we are a big family.

What does success depend on in the art world?
Oh, there are a lot of factors. But first and foremost – it’s communication. And naturally, you need to be able to be at the right time in the right place. And every person has the laziness factor. “I’ll postpone it for tomorrow”. This factor gets in the way.

You need to try and not be afraid, you need to dive in and experiment.

You need to attend all the important events that take place. Then you will be savvier and more knowledgeable. Because you can’t be stuck in a tight circle. Meeting people is a necessity – in galleries, institutions, private foundations. That’s where you can gain new experience.

How to not fear responsibility?

In any business, you must take responsibility.

It’s the most vital thing. Do you work with an artist or a project? Did you take on a project? Go all the way. Despite it being difficult or less difficult, you should get right to it. It’s my main rule. Responsibility is required everywhere. Loving people is also a responsibility, just like working with people.

The past, present, and future. What interests you in these time periods?
I’m most interested in the future. I live five, ten, twenty years ahead and always think in advance in terms of everything. The future is important to me. Sometimes you recall some of your mistakes, omissions, but you shouldn’t get stuck in that. It’s really not worth looking into the past. It won’t provide you with anything worthwhile. Yet it will grant you the possibility to work on yourself. In terms of the present …

It’s crucial to remind yourself every morning who you are and why you live, what role you play in life.

But, without the traversed path, nothing will work, there will be no present and there won’t be any future.

Did your dream come true?
They are in process of coming true, thank God, yes. I am satisfied. So far, everything is going according to plan. I have one cherished dream – to build a strong, powerful country. Over the years, you begin to consciously come to the conclusion that everything in life begins from a foundation. We want a museum of contemporary art that will reflect the national idea. But first of all, you need to declare yourself as a powerful, competing country with people who are capable. You need to believe in yourself and in your strengths. And yes, in the next ten to twenty years everything will change.  The younger generation thinks differently.

The main thing is that in the modern world that is filled with fierce competition, we still remain that nation of Ukrainians who have a special identity and soulfulness.

In the West, everything is different. And for many years society wanted to follow their example. But everyone’s personal success also depends on the entire development of society. Especially when it comes to art and culture.

That is, your dream is about global unity.
For some reason, it is right now. Especially if looking at the past few years. Particularly in the era of coronavirus, I started to think on a more global scale. You don’t think about the level of life in the capital, but you follow the level of development of other large cities, entire countries. And we are unique with our hospitality, cuisine, culture, and in all areas in general! Foreigners come and say: “Wow, it’s so great here!”

What question would you like to be asked in an interview and what would you answer?
When should we expect the Museum of Contemporary Art?

I hope your answer is going to be a positive one.
Wherever you go, be it London, New York, Paris – they all have a National gallery. I would like to show people our history with pride. Everyone is talking about the Museum of Modern Art, but I say that there is no need to rush events. First of all, it’s necessary to present the National Museum with dignity. I think it will become a reality in the next five years. Talks about it have already begun at the highest level and people begin to understand that without culture, Ukraine will…  This should be a priority of the authorities and society.

 Translation: Elena Savlokhova