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Major Russian Gallery Forced to Close After Supporting Political Prisoners

A view of Bolotnaya Square with the Kremlin in the distance Here, protesters were arrested the night before Vladimir Putin reassumed office in 2012. (Image via Wikimedia)
A view of Bolotnaya Square with the Kremlin in the distance. Here, protesters were arrested the night before Vladimir Putin reassumed office in 2012. (image via Wikimedia)

A legendary Russian gallery is being evicted after holding a charity event supporting political prisoners, The Moscow Times reports. The Moscow-based Marat Guelman Gallery was served an eviction notice on October 20 from the company that manages the Winzavod art center, where the gallery is located. The letter came just two days after the gallery held an auction to benefit 12 people who had been imprisoned for participating in a Moscow protest the night before Vladimir Putin resumed office in 2012. Those dissidents are not alone behind bars: Russian prisons currently hold at least 50 political prisoners.

The eviction notice claimed that the gallery was a month behind on rent, yet gallery owner Marat Guelman told the newspaper that’s not true. “There weren’t any [debts], and my accountant informed them of that,” he said.

Marat Gelman (Image via Wikimedia)
Marat Guelman (Image via Wikimedia)

After receiving the letter, Guelman negotiated with the landlords and agreed to a contract stipulating that, in the future, he only use the premises for exhibitions. But the owners quickly reneged on that agreement. “I wrote it and signed it,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “An hour later they replied: ‘Vacate the premises by Nov. 5.'” 

The Marat Guelman Gallery has been a staple in the Moscow art scene since it opened in 1990, just a year before the Soviet Union’s collapse. Guelman has held many exhibitions of work by local Russian artists, as well as international figures like Joseph Bueys and Andy Warhol. In 2012 the commercial gallery closed and then reopened as a nonprofit space funded through sponsors — some of which have made those in charge at Winzavod uncomfortable in the past.

According to The Moscow Times, Winzavod director Sofia Trotsenko told pro-government newspaper Izvestia that the company evicted Guelman because his rental contract prohibits the use of the space for anything but exhibitions, and that, she said, he was planning to open a “Montenegrin emigration center” there. Guelman told the Moscow Times that he had no plans of that nature, but added that that the gallery’s main program this year has focused on introducing Balkan art.

It’s not the first time Winzavod and Guelman have butted heads. “When Arkhnadzor [Moscow’s architecture conservation movement] was being thrown out of everywhere with their exhibit about the destruction of Moscow, I took them in. [After that] we received a letter about voiding our rental contract, too. I wrote about it. The information appeared in the media, and Winzavod backed down. Now it’s [happening] all over again, but more frenziedly,” he wrote on Facebook. 

This time Guelman believes Winzavod won’t back down. “[Attention from] the media will not influence them,” he wrote. “Apparently, some kind of line has been crossed, after which people have stopped caring about their reputations.”

Russian culture and politics have long been at odds with each other, but since Vladimir Putin came to power, cultural groups who support the opposition have found themselves in an increasingly antagonistic relationship with their government. The theater group Teatr.doc has been pushed out of at least two spaces in the past year for its politically touchy performances — one of which scrutinized the relationship between Putin and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, while another considered the murder of whistleblower lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. And in 2013, the Gogol Center was also forced by Moscow’s city culture department to cancel a screening of a documentary about Pussy Riot. 

While Guelman has claimed to not identify with the opposition, he has long been known for his dissident views. In 2006, a group of unidentified men visited his gallery and attacked him after he showed work by an ethnic Georgian artist. In 2012, he vehemently criticized the jailing of the punk rock band, and he has also speculated that the Russian art market’s recent decline is the consequence of “the present environment in Russia.”

His case shows that political repression of cultural groups is indeed bad for the art world. He told The Moscow Times that he won’t reopen his gallery elsewhere and has decided not to pursue any new projects in Moscow right now. “It’s not a good time to start anything new in Moscow,” he said.

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