A New State-Backed Art Fair Just Opened in St. Petersburg as Russian Collectors Draw Back From Art Basel

Art Basel is not the only contemporary art fair on view this week.

The 1703 Art Fair in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of the 1703 Art Fair.

As the world’s marquee art fair, Art Basel, returned to its traditional June dates this week for the first time in three years, a new competitor, the 1703 Art Fair, is hosting its inaugural edition in St. Petersburg, Russia, from June 16 to 19.

The new fair’s launch has coincided with a screeching halt to Western tourism in Russia, as the U.S., the U.K., France, and other countries have issued advisories warning citizens not to travel there. It also matches Russian collectors’ increasing reticence to travel to Western countries like Switzerland amid boiling tensions sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Named after the year in which the city was founded, 1703 is backed by Gazprom, the state-owned energy corporation, and the St. Petersburg Cultural Committee. The hope is to make the fair an annual cultural event.

The opening is timed to 350th anniversary of the birth of Peter the Great, St. Petersburg’s founder and namesake. It’s also part of the Festival of Culture at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, attended each year by President Vladimir Putin.

Featuring 17 Russian galleries (one from Nizhny Novgorod, and the rest from Moscow and St. Petersburg) and showcasing works from private collections, the fair is being held at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall.

But ahead of the opening, the fair was criticized as an attempt to distract from Russian aggression in the Ukraine, which has damaged hundreds of cultural and heritage sites. (At least one art collective, AES+F, refused to let Moscow’s Triumph Gallery display its video work at at the event in protest of war.)

“It is absolutely obvious that the… [fair serves as] ideological support for the ‘special military operation,’” St. Petersburg culture writer Pavel Gerasimenko wrote in April, as reported by the Art Newspaper. “It is necessary to demonstrate the activity of cultural life, create an impression of normality, and divert attention from the war waged by Russia in Ukraine.”

Statements from fair organizers and government officials do little to dispel this notion.

“[1703] confirms our status as a modern cultural capital,” Boris Piotrovsky, Vice-Governor of St. Petersburg, said in a statement. “I hope that 1703 is going to become an open space for regular meetings between artists, collectors, art critics, and young professionals.”

“When St. Petersburg was built, it was a point of progressive creative forces,” Vadim Navoenko, CEO of the Gazprom Cultural Initiatives Foundation, added. “Similarly, today the city is inviting everyone who speaks the language of art.”

“This is not just a fair, but a communication platform for communication between visitors, artists, art critics and everyone involved in art,” St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov told Russia Posts English. “St. Petersburg is truly a cultural capital, because collectors and artists from all over our country come here for such events.”

The 1703 Art Fair is on view at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall, 1 Isaakiyevskaya Ploshchad, St. Petersburg, Russia, June 16–19, 2022. 

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