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Russia's Artists Try Courting Capitalists

With state support drying up, they seek patrons among the nouveaux riches. Nakedly commercial bids that would have been heresy a few years ago now are commonplace.

February 09, 1998|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Downstairs, scruffy musicians are picking up violins to start their daily rehearsal.

Upstairs, the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra's general manager, Alexander Krauter, is picking up the phone to start his daily battle--to extract money from unwilling government officials to keep the orchestra going.

"If we don't get financing, the orchestra will have to close in three months," he says sadly. "State officials don't understand that if they let Russia's culture die, all they'll be left with is a nation of bandits."

But six years after lavish Soviet state funding dried up--and amid drastic cutbacks by the cash-strapped Russian government--Krauter has found a way of winning the battle in the free-for-all of capitalism: sponsorship by the new aristocrats of Russia, the bosses of big corporations. With this new help, the arts are even beginning to flourish again.

The dramatic economic changes here in the last 10 years make it impossible to say exactly how far state funding has dropped. The old distortions of the Soviet command economy of the 1980s, followed by a period of hyper-inflation immediately after the Soviet collapse in 1991, make comparisons of budgets and balance sheets meaningless. Many in the arts, however, are grieving for a lost time of certainty, when their salaries, homes, workplaces, instruments, exhibits and even tuxedos were all provided by the state, and when there was no sense that they could not afford to buy what they needed.

Now, when Krauter calls the state--the Culture Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the offices of various deputy prime ministers--Krauter says sadly, the answer is usually the same: no money.

Miserly pay--a soloist in the orchestra gets $150 a month--is two months late. Instruments and tuxedos are wearing out.

Krauter has started calling the corporations instead--and with them, he's getting results. Nakedly commercial efforts like these, which a few years back would have been considered heresy in the purist Moscow arts establishment, have become more and more common among musicians, actors and painters trying to work out new ground rules for survival in a changing environment.

The marriage of convenience between wealthy patrons and artistic proteges suits both parties. As arts administrators such as Krauter learn to court the rich, Russia's rough-diamond newcomers to wealth are settling down in their new life, and many want a highbrow cultural cause to patronize. In their search for a more sophisticated image, these donors are not even discouraged by the Russian government's failure to give tax breaks for their gifts.

Among Krauter's sponsors is one of Russia's top millionaires, Vladimir Gusinsky of the Most banking and media group, whose empire is paying for a series of concerts for the disabled this spring. Germany's Dresdner Bank has also given money for performances of works by Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.

Krauter might resent the time he now must spend at official receptions and dinners, worming his way into the good graces of potential donors in both public and private spheres. But, he admits, with all the new private help, "we may just pull through, after all."

'Auction Us Off to Highest Private Bidder'

The unaccustomed thought brings a wicked twinkle to his eye.

"If the state can't pay, they should just auction us off to the highest private bidder," he adds with a grin. "Even if we had to change our name from the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra to, say, the Mostbank Orchestra, it would still be OK. At least then we'd be sure of our funding."

Others in the arts establishment are also starting to accept the state's retreat.

"Of course, the Culture Ministry can't do much for us anymore. It's the same all over Russia--less money from the state. But our festival is doing well and funded by sponsors, like all festivals nowadays," says Inna Pruss, who runs Moscow's 17-year-old winter classical music festival, December Nights.

"Sponsors are the only way, and we're very grateful to ours," she adds.

Pruss honors her Russian and foreign patrons by naming them all on a prominently displayed billboard at the door of her concert venue, an elegant, columned hall at the side of the Pushkin Museum here.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia's old imperial capital, as well as in the provinces, a privately sponsored cultural renaissance is underway.

According to Valery Podgorodinsky, head of the theatrical department at the Culture Ministry, there were 500 Soviet state theaters in 1991. Yet there are now many more--about 1,000--professional theaters operating.

"They all find sponsors or grants from somewhere," he says, adding that much of the best Russian theater is coming from the provinces rather than the urban centers. He says some Moscow theater directors have become too eager to sell their artistic souls for bigger grants--and too ready to put on lowbrow entertainment just to draw high-paying crowds.

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