The Covid-19 pandemic has badly shaken the art industry: with sales going down by almost 40%, many galleries and art businesses are downsizing or closing down altogether, the mid-range galleries being hit the worst. According to the recent Art Basel/UBS report, the art market has shrunk by almost a quarter and is currently undergoing a profound crisis – the biggest dip since the 2009 recession. The pressure, caused by the pandemic, was felt in all segments of the art world, and these shockwaves are going to reverberate for a long time. This challenging situation calls for entirely new business models and strategies. Pop-up galleries had already been on the ascendant before the pandemic, however, a London gallerist Marina Shtager found her own unconventional way of navigating her business through the Covid-19 storms.

It is not overnight that her business model grew and developed: the Shtager Gallery has been active in London for over five years. The choice of the artists it has been promoting all that time can be considered daring, if not risky: the gallery seeks to promote artistic dialogue between the Eastern European and international contemporary artists, highlighting collaboration, mutual understanding and crossover synergies as the core values of its practice. The gallery’s goal is that of “building creative bridges between contexts and concepts, within which frameworks the artists are operating, for this way, it becomes possible to register important aesthetic nuances and sensitivities, normally hidden from the viewer’s eye”. Clearly, this is not an easy task, for it is still believed (wrongly) that the whole of Eastern Europe remained an intellectual and artistic backwater between 1930s and 1990s, and only after the collapse of the Soviet regime, proper (if somewhat derivative) contemporary art began to emerge across the whole Eastern European block, including Russia. Well, nothing can be further away from the truth.

To prove this simple but challenging point, the gallery’s founder Marina Shtager continues to introduce cutting-edge Eastern European artists to the British public. This year, Shtager Gallery will present ceramic sculptures of Russian-born London-based British artist Katia Kesic (b. 1987). Her works stand out for their attention to detail, rich feminist symbolism and critical awareness of the continuous struggle for equality and visibility. As Shtager comments, “her works place traditional craft in the context of contemporary art. When seeing them for the first time, I instantly recognised that her works were special and deserved every kind of attention”. In October 2021, the Shtager Gallery participates in MIA Photo Milan, where it is planning to premier its new Russo-Japanese project Home with Yusuke Akamatsu’s iPhone-made artworks, Vita Buivid photosculptures, Gregory Maiofis’ and Valery Katsuba’s stage photography, and Marina Alexeeva’s video-installations. The project explores contemporary artists’ approach to digital media as the channel that connects them to the global world. This is not the first international exhibition project managed by this hybrid-format gallery that initially grew out of a mid-sized suitcase, filled with art. How? Let Marina Shtager share her story.

What are the advantages of your gallery format, especially in the current situation?

One of the biggest challenges any gallery business faces at the very start is forging new relationships with collectors and potential business partners. Upon my arrival in London, I decided that I would start a portable gallery, which meant that I had selected only small works (or miniatures, as I called them), which would fit into a medium-sized metallic suitcase. So, this suitcase became my curated exhibition space. As it turned out, it had an impressive capacity to house up to fifteen works at a time. To my delight, many collectors found this method original and engaging, especially as my selection of artists was quite strong.

Today, the Shtager Gallery shares its exhibition space with Morris Associates – a prominent museum exhibition design company, with its headquarters in the Elephant & Castle. They develop exhibition projects for the Metropolitan, the V&A, the British Museum, the State Hermitage and other major museums across the globe. Five years ago, it was unthinkable, if not totally insane, to hold exhibitions in such a complex space among the architectural and museum designs: special equipment was whizzing past, architects and designers were busy developing the upcoming museum projects. Gradually, we all adapted to each other. Perhaps, removable walls were the best solution in that situation, as they let me adjust the gallery and studio space quite flexibly, depending on the gallery’s needs. Quite soon, the gallery had all the necessary equipment installed, thus, helping us facilitate exhibitions, lectures and collectors’ visits. Now, many guests find it intriguing to visit a gallery within an operating exhibition design bureau space. It certainly adds some spice to their visit – they find themselves right in the midst of action. It is memorable. Even though I initially started a peripatetic gallery in a suitcase, it helps to have one’s space, where one can exchange ideas, carry out research and foster a community.

At this stage, I am interested in merging commercial and non-commercial aspects of my gallery business, i.e. in being able to maintain commercial exhibition projects, alongside the conferences and panel sessions that would help introduce contemporary Eastern European art to British audiences.

Why have you chosen to start your business in London? Is it the best place for contemporary art? Is it competitive? Challenging?

Oh, indeed, it is challenging and competitive and very demanding. As a gallerist, it is important to find one’s own niche and stick to it, at least at the initial stages, if one wishes to succeed. In 2014, having closed the gallery that I had managed for eight years in St. Petersburg, I decided to take a gap year and move to London: to rest, to study the UK gallery business, do some networking and see how some Eastern European and Russian artists will be received in the UK. Contrary to my plans and expectations, my first three years in London were very turbulent. Suddenly, I realised that in order to move forward, I had to start from scratch, stay intellectually challenged, get unstuck from my former rut and completely change my oh-so-familiar marketing strategies. It was stressful! And I suddenly found myself in a vacuum – that was the hardest experience of all!

And this is when my mini-gallery in a suitcase came into being: it became my consolation and inspiration at the same time. Luckily, all my efforts were not in vain. Three years later my life turned into pure delight: I remember waking up in the morning and anticipating with eager curiosity what was in store for me? What exhibitions, workshops, lectures, meetings would await me? London is extremely stimulating in terms of personal and professional development; it is the city that never stops. And as in the 18th century, if you are tired of London, you are tired of life itself! Twenty-four hours in a day aren't enough to read and see and visit all the exhibitions and events I find interesting and inspiring -- the windows of opportunity never close. Now, having spent over five years in London, I intend to work on projects which facilitate the dialogue between Eastern European, Russian and global art world. And from this angle, yes, London is the best place for contemporary art.

Why do you believe that Eastern European art will attract new buyers and collectors outside its native region?

This art has its own instantly identifiable artistic quality and refreshing, somewhat surprising, message. Russian artists know how to deliver the unexpected. It is quite remarkable that nobody ever commented on the “Russianness” or any kind of ethnicity of the works that I displayed. The people approaching my gallery stand primarily offered their comments on the quality of art, not the country of artists’ origin. What interested them was, whether it was good art or bad art, and whether they could read its context. Besides, I do not cater to the collectors who chose their artists on the basis of their ethnicity or race – this might be a valid criterion in some cases, but I find it boring.

Second, I believe that experienced art collectors know how to sense an opportunity: many Eastern European artists are extremely good. Some can compete with the leading contemporary British and European artists, if we start talking about their achievements, awards, degree of recognition, originality of concepts, etc., and yet they are still very undervalued. However, this is not going to last forever: the Russian art-market continues to develop and grow, and I believe that this segment can offer exciting opportunities for art collectors and investors alike. At this stage, it is a niche market, and there are very few competitors there, which may also be viewed as an advantage.

What attracts collectors to the art you offer (in other words, what are your selling points)?

Every art gallerist brings his or her visual experience, visual intelligence based on one’s own personal experience, education, emotional and social background to the process of selecting the artworks they represent. The same principle applies to the exchange between the gallery and its clients. Ultimately, the gallerist working in the field of contemporary art has to demonstrate that his/her choice and taste in contemporary art can be relied on. I am very passionate about the artists I represent, and this passion can be quite infectious. Perhaps, it is also the excitement of discovering the yet unknown that appeals to the pool of the Shtager Gallery’s collectors. It is like gambling, and every true collector has this gambling streak in them, which urges them to experiment and take risks. I will not say anything new by adding that over the past fifteen years the majority of Russian contemporary artists have not been a solid investment. And yet, the stakes might turn in the longer perspective.

If we discuss each individual artist, then Marina Alexeeva’s installations have their own signature style and original message; Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai’s works stand out through their conceptual theatricality – he turns theatre set designs into contemporary artworks by playing with our visual perception, perspective and volume. In fact, Shishkin-Hokusai also works as a set designer for the Bolshoi Theatre. He was the first artist represented by the Shtager Gallery in London in 2017. At that point, the artist arrived in London to mount his installation of forty-three plywood sculptures, commemorating the storming of the Winter Palace in 2017. Half a year later, his work was featured at the V&A Museum, owing to the Stager Gallery collaboration with the Friends of the Hermitage Foundation in London. A year later, Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai represented Russia at the 58th Venice Biennale. It was a vertiginous journey!

Photographer Gregory Maiofis takes set cultural clichés and deconstructs them, which results in humorous and eccentric visual narratives. My heart missed a beat when Grayson Perry, who curated the Summer Exhibition 2018 at the Royal Academy, selected two works by Gregory Maiofis to be displayed there. Maiofis’ works were instantly bought at the RA Exhibition preview and postcard images of his artworks have been featured among the RA merchandise ever since. Maiofis also participated in the RA Winter Exhibition in 2020.

In early 2020, the footfall at the London Art Fair, where we exhibited, was 10,000, which left me with 32 pages, full of new contacts. Most of them are the friends of the fair who visit annually, always on the lookout for fresh artworks for their collections. Almost everyone who passed our stand commented: “You stand out from the rest”. In any case, when the artworks, represented by the Shtager Gallery, find their way into an art exhibition, a museum, or a private collection in the UK or overseas, I feel immense satisfaction. After all, my efforts were not in vain and the relatively unknown works of contemporary art have caught someone’s eye, captured one’s imagination and resonated with them.

How was the gallery able to survive in the times of Covid-19?

The pandemic was and still is the major challenge the art world continues to face. First, most of our plans for 2020 collapsed or came to a temporary halt – I found it very difficult to accept. However, the gallery business cannot stand still and inert – it has to unfold in a spiral-like fashion. In early March 2020, I addressed the participants of the Economic Forum held by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in London. I spoke about the contemporary art market and the factors that influence the pricing of contemporary art. Over 100 people came to the gallery to preview of Masha Arendt’s exhibition following my talk. This seemed to be an important milestone for the gallery, as it was gathering momentum, and then... it all came to an abrupt halt.

It took me some time to adjust to the “new normal” and move my projects online. I was not ready for this. Upon deliberation, I decided to focus on giving online art lectures on Zoom, for I also run a second company called London Art Club. I believe, it was the right decision, for I invested time and effort in educating those who love contemporary art. It helped me to attract new audiences (some even became the Shtager Gallery friends) and set up a community of like-minded people. Perhaps, it was a good year for rethinking one’s strategy, conserving one’s energy and getting ready for 2021. In October 2020, before the third lockdown, the gallery participated in the STARTnet Fair at the Saatchi Gallery. I was extremely pleased with the result, for the works of Shishkin-Hokusai, Marina Alekseeva and Yusuke Akamatsu found their collectors.

What are your prognoses and plans for the post-pandemic phase?

We are entering a new phase when the art-market is becoming more transparent and diverse. For a time being the role played by the art fairs and other off-line art events dropped from 50% to 13%, with many exhibitions and sales happening online. This is not going to continue like that – after all the art world is about personal encounters with art and artists, which is part of its allure. However, I believe more initiatives will be taking place online. I also believe that with the current decline in gallery attendance traditional gallery model will also undergo transformations, with smaller independent art galleries taking over. I expect that partnerships and collaborations will play a more prominent role than ever before – this is the way to survive in the current situation, as isolation may prove dangerous, if not fatal.

I have also previously mentioned that I would like to run some non-profit initiatives. This March, I have announced an open call among the London art graduates and post-graduates for FIVEx3,5 competition project. Many of them had their graduation shows cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic. The winners of the competition will have their work(s) displayed against the 5 x 3,5 metres wall at the Saatchi Gallery during the next STARTnet fair. I keep on receiving applications (and the deadline has been extended to 1 July) and have already chosen the artists I would like to collaborate with in the future. At the moment, I am busy making plans for 2022-2023 exhibitions, focusing on the dialogue between the Eastern European and Western artistic traditions.

As we are still in the Covid-19 lockdown, the art fairs previously scheduled for April, 2021, have been cancelled and moved to October 2021. So, I am looking very much forward to mid-May when the lockdown restrictions will be partially lifted, and the gallery will have the opportunity to resume its operations. 2020 was a test year, now it is the time to show what lessons we have learned.

In any case, I anticipate a very busy autumn 2021. For the first six years of our existence, we concentrated solely on the British art market and on building solid working relationships with the leading British art institutions. Now we are ready to expand and collaborate with major European platforms. This October, we are going back to the new edition of the STARTnet Fair. In June, we are exhibiting in Brussels, in July we have our scheduled collaboration in Athens, and in October we are taking part in the Milanese MIA Photo. I also keep dreaming of taking part in the Art Basel Miami but we’ll see how it goes.