The art of economics

The art of economics

European Capital of Culture status has certainly raised the profile of Riga and boosted tourism in the city, but is the prestigious accolade enough to lift its art market to the European big league? Florian Maass reports

Riga has been basking in its high summer as the 2014 European Capital of Culture.

With a daily menu of lively and colourful events attracting record numbers of visitors,
it looks like the Latvian capital is all about the arts now. Of course all this cultural activity is good for the city’s prestige as a visitor destination, but is it doing anything more generally for local business and the economy?

BQ Baltic has taken a close look at the local art market, with a special focus on the visual arts.  We met with some of the big players in the field: the corporate and private collectors, the gallery owners, and the artists themselves.

Globally, the art market has been among the fastest growing markets since the financial crisis, but how well is Latvia placed to take advantage? One of the leading lights of the city’s arts scene is Ilze Žeivate, owner of Maksla XO gallery in Riga’s gracious, park-side Elizabetes Street.

She won’t forget a particular quiet summer Sunday in August last year. Running a commercial gallery has never been easy in Latvia, a country with a low average income and a small middle class. Just when it became fashionable to buy art, the financial crisis hit.
These days the dozen or so galleries are happy if sales cover their fixed costs in the course of several months.

That day a friendly, elderly Italian gentleman entered her gallery with his wife and friends. They were intrigued by painter’s Kristaps Gelzis show whose extravagant plastic paintings that fascinated them. The gentleman was none other than the fashion business mogul-turned art collector Luciano Benetton. The great man bought five paintings on the spot.
“In my travels in Latvia I have experienced first-hand how the country’s dynamism
and optimism is reflected in its diverse and vibrant art scene,” Signor Benetton told
BQ Baltic. He included Latvia in his Imago Mundi international contemporary art exhibition project.

According to the painter turned art professor Kaspars Zarinš, Latvia suffers from “too many artists and a too small a market.” He sees it as a clear buyer’s market. BQ estimates that about 300 artists in Riga produce for a market of not many more serious buyers. Important paintings by established contemporary artists can be bought for as little as €3,000.

The highest prices, about €100,000, are reserved for the turn-of-the-century pioneers of Latvian modernism such as Janis Rozentals (1866-1916), Vilhelms Purvitis (1874-1945) and Johann Walther-Kurau (1869-1932)

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The collectors
The domestic market has been largely dominated by four big collectors. Guntis Belevics became a collector thanks to the advice and inspiration of the painters Kaspars Zarinš and Aija Zarina. His first purchase, by classical modernist Janis Valters, was a real steal. He paid LVL 135 ( €192) and sold it later for LVL 50,000 ( €71,163).

Belevics made his money as the founder of a leading pharmacy chain in Latvia. Now he owns about 3,000 solely Latvian art works, including some of the biggest names. The Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga recently showed his collection in the first ever exhibition dedicated to a single private collector. Belevics sold a lot in the crisis, but is now buying again to improve rather than to enlarge the collection. Some of the paintings he bought 10 years ago he doesn’t even like any more.

“A piece of art educates you. You just can’t hang a poor painting beside a fabulous one,” says Belevics. His dream is to open a museum in his home town of Koknese southeast of
the capital.

Janis Zuzans is another big collector. He exhibits selected pieces at his Mukusala Art Salons. His father was already a collector. He was inspired to collect by a painting of Indulis Zariuš, Kaspar’s father. Now he shares Benetton’s liking for Kristaps Gelzis’ art. He buys only art that is instantly “speaking” to him. Conceptual art isn’t his cup of tea.

In the past the main corporate collector was Swedbank for a while, where Ilze Žeivate acts as curator. But they have gone rather quiet.

It does not help the market that the country still lacks the long-proposed Contemporary Art Museum of Latvia. There have been advanced plans to build it, with the Dutch architect
Rem Koolhaas enlisted to produce a suitably iconic building.

The financial crisis put the project on ice, but did not kill it. Ernests Bernis and Olegs Fils, owners of the ABLV Bank, the largest private bank in Latvia, have been collecting for the emerging museum, as well as for themselves.

Donating a total sum of  €1.5m, they hired art experts to choose the pieces. Like everybody interested in art in Latvia, the ABLV Charitable Foundation, which curates the collection, hopes that the museum will be opened by at least 2018, the centenary of Latvia’s “first independence”. In the meantime, the Foundation is focusing on raising interest in and understanding of contemporary art.

“We want to form the audience before we form the museum,” says Zanda Zilgalve, Chairman of the Board. “If you don’t know about art, you don’t miss it and you won’t buy it. Last year the Foundation invited thousands of school kids to the first showing of the collection. Together with art teachers, they could experience and learn about the selected pieces of art.”

By indoctrinating the young into the benefits of exposure to art, her aim is to build a bigger audience for contemporary work, as the basis not only for the museum but for the Latvian art market more generally. She and assistant project manager Ksenia Pegasheva,  estimate the number of those interested in contemporary art at only several thousand people in Riga. But they agree that the city’s artistic offer has already achieved a higher level than it gets credit for internationally.

The artists
Unlike other countries, the Latvian capital’s art scene is still fixated with figurative painting, with clear influences from contemporary Scandinavian, German and Belgian schools of painting. Learning how to draw and paint is still obligatory at the Art Academy, and the market reflects this traditionalism by being relatively conservative by the standards of Western Europe.  

Some contemporary artists are well-tuned to the more avant-garde international scene however. Zane Culkstena is founder of KIM (standing for “Kas Ir Maksla?”, “what is art?”). This hotbed of innovation and ideas is trendily housed in a renovated 19th century industrial building in Riga Central Market, hosting “exhibitions, lectures, discussions, a library, publications and other events”.

Culkstena says that the best contemporary work in Latvia is a mix of media and techniques: video, installations “ready-mades” (combinations of “found objects” or everyday things), graphics and animations all feature in shifting combinations.

She holds up Krišs Salmanis who helped produce the Latvian Pavilion at the latest Venice Biennale, as a good example, applauding his ambition to put Riga on the international art map. The installation “North by Northeast” combined photos of rural population by Kaspars Podnieks with a swinging tree hanging upside down from the ceiling, intended as a “comment on the relocation of Latvia between East and West but as well for the individual uncertainty and the search for Europe’s new geographical centre somewhere in the Baltics”.

For all his international reputation Krišs, like many local artists, doesn’t expect to earn a living from art. “Most artists here make art because they are compelled to, not because it’s good business,” he says.

Such motivations mean that they stick to their own style rather than adapt to market demand. Teaching at the art academy, jobs at advertising agencies and magazinene illustration work are popular ways to supplement the day jobs.

Kristaps Gelzis’ work can be found at private and public collections worldwide. In 2009 he took part at the Venice Biennale. His paintings using plastic bags and rubber bands are an international success. Both ironic and sophisticated, he tries to play with his country’s sentiments. It’s about “personality and humanity, despite aggressive change of circumstances, both for individuals and the state I live in.” To him contemporary means
“a reflection of the core of time we live rather than high technology and artistic, brainy formal innovations. “The artist’s clear message” matters to him. He likes his day job at the art academy  as it gives him a lot of inspiration.  

Kaspars Zarins and his wife Vija Zarina are also well-established names in contemporary Latvian art. With the help of a Danish agent they sold about 100 paintings alone in the Scandinavian market between 1993 and 2003. They miss good art agents in Riga.
But even without them their works can be found not only in the main Latvian collections, but also abroad.

According to the book “Women in Art” Vija is one of the most important female painters worldwide. 

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Latvian art abroad
Both Kaspars and Vija are represented as well in Berlin by the TVD Art Galerie. The owner Valerij Tarasenko has lived in Riga and appreciates the quality of Latvian painting, especially since he prefers figurative painting.  His favourite is Vija Zarina, to him she is simply “the best Latvian painter.” Tarasenko represents 20 Latvian artists exclusively in the German market, but says that the nationality doesn’t matter in Berlin, only quality. The painters Eriks Apalais and Janis Avotins, both among the most promising Latvian painters, are among the few that the established gallery owner Vera Munro chose to represent in her Hamburg gallery.

Norberts Sarmulis, director at the classic art auction house and gallery Antonijas has set
an example in the local market by being the first to publish all the prices realised. He complains that parts of the Latvian art market still lack proper cataloguing procedures practiced by the main international auction houses and salerooms. This is a problem, as it means buyers will lack documentation about the provenance of the artwork.

Sarmulis admits that the financial crisis had an impact on his business. His steady clientele shrank to a handful, but two new steady Russian customers jumped in. Paintings and porcelain of the modern era are good sellers. But he also sells and puts to auction works
by young artists on the cutting edge.

Kristaps Gelzis decided to work exclusively with one gallery, Maksla XO, for a decade already and in the long term it has paid off as he imagined.  

Ilze Žeivate is Maksala XO’s curator has an idealistic approach to promoting Latvian art.
She is sure, that if she displays good art in a central location every day, passers by will eventually start to be interested. someone with as good an eye as Luciano Benetton is passing by, they only need to pass by once. Riga galleries would clearly appreciate more artists following Gelzis’ route to making a name for himself.

That would make it easier for the galleries
to invest in them. Given the limited domestic market, both artists and galleries have to
get a name overseas, which means going to international art fairs. This can be expensive, and requires patience. Astrida Rinke has just attended the Start fair at the famous Saatchi Gallery London, representing Salmani’s work. Previously she has attended ArtBrussels and ViennArt. She has a higher percentage of real contemporary art than other galleries, but is happy now to host the next one-man exhibition of Kaspars Zarins.

To those contemporary artists, getting noticed by the non-commercial art centres is even more important, as they bring prestige that translates into value. These include the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art (LCCA) a not-for-profit organisation describing itself as “an internationally active non-governmental culture organisation” and which works to promote and support contemporary art.

That other beacon of the Riga art scene, KIM is preparing to participate in an exhibition in New York.

The future of Latvian art, as a tradable asset as well as a cultural adornment, depends on the country filling in the missing links of the art market chain: a critical mass of professional art agents and those adept at finding the right grants for artists. More sophisticated marketing would also help. According to one estimate, the number of serious collectors (buying over a longer period and for a serious amount of money) of Latvian art do not exceed 50, only a handful of them with very deep pockets.

For a young country, it’s not such a bad basis from which further interest will grow, and the streams of art-minded visitors visiting Riga this year can only have helped.

For all its fascination and attraction for the keen-eyed contemporary art cognoscenti, overall the Latvian art scene is still underrated,  offering obvious advantages to those who appreciate the importance of spotting the hot markets of the future.

In this respect weak domestic demand is a positive advantage to foreign collectors interested in buying.

It’s worth concluding with what Luciano Benetton told BQ about his impressions in Riga: “In the works of the Latvian artists I found the new – even critical – reading of tradition to be particularly interesting. And also the common thread of a new attitude – with personalities, styles, themes, different techniques – that is both realistic and imaginative.”

High praise indeed from a man who knows, better than almost anyone how visual impact, and commercial appeal are intricately intertwined.