15 Mar Yevhen Karas: “The life of a gallery owner today is a constant fight for favorite work”
One of the most respected gallery owners in Kyiv told us with his usual humor and wisdom about the joy and sorrow of living among art.
Yevhen, you are one of those who have been working on Ukraine’s art market for a long time, i.e. you a very experienced gallery owner. Has it been easy for you all these years?
You see, a lot of people imagine work in a gallery as an endless chain of paintings, exhibitions and champagne, as a pure joy. That is why they often decide to quit their job, e.g. in a bank, to spend days walking among paintings. But everything is not that easy. Work in a gallery is hard. Of course, it’s not the hardest job on earth, but it’s very difficult and requires special aesthetic taste and knowledge. If you make such intellectual efforts in any other field, its profitability seriously increases, but with art the situation is different, and this is what makes our job so special. Though working with art brings you incomparable emotions.
Does it mean that I can safely assert that after all these years you still enjoy your work?
Yes! You know, all this time we’ve managed to keep balance between what we call good art and what else we can do to remain profitable. I mean that we like new media, video/audio art, installations, performances, but we can’t afford to work actively with them, because it requires additional expenses. But in most cases we are completely satisfied with our exhibitions. A class of a gallery, as of any other project, is not defined by its best artist or exhibition, but by its worst exposition. I.e. it’s easier to display a cool project than avoid displaying a bad one. It’s a so-called “level of the bottom bar”, which is lowering at bad galleries. We’ve already put on over 300 exhibitions both in our gallery and at international festivals; we’ve implemented great projects in huge spaces such as Ukrainian House and Mystetskyi Arsenal. So neither our gallery nor us can allow a luxury of bad standards. High quality of art is our principle. I am a not a typical gallery owner since I’m of the third generation of artists and have a decent academic education. My teachers were Mykhailo Vainshtein, Vilen Barskyi, Yuri Skandakov and Oleksandr Shkaraputa (who is still practicing art). In general, I can call myself a happy person, as I manage to do what I truly enjoy. And it’s a rare luck.
What is the most exciting thing about exhibition for you?
I feel happy when I put on an exhibition and understand that it’s an extremely interesting environment and I will be a part of it for a while. Exhibitions in our gallery are the place where our team and I spend most of our time. It’s a great pleasure to watch the change of your own perception of artworks during the whole period of exposition. You start looking at them from another point of view. Any good exhibition intends multilayered insight.
Artists are people that are pushy enough to materialize their own feelings and emotions. Moreover, they are paid to do so (a joke). It’s almost the same with gallery owners. Of course, I’m being profane. It’s a difficult road to become an artist. It’s an everyday discussion with yourself, with your audience and the history of culture, with your knowledge and stereotypes, with social and your inner requirements. It’s a beautiful intellectual job. The hard thing is that the life of an artist and, partly, of a gallery owner, is a constant fight for favorite work, own position, values, ideology. Actually it’s very hard not to make bigger and bigger compromises with your conscience in the real material world. That is why good galleries in Kyiv often close their doors.
Tell us about the building of “Karas Gallery”. It’s truly fantastic!
It’s one of the first brick houses built in Andriyivskyy Descent in the middle of the XIX century, so it’s rather troublesome: we’ve had problems with electricity, running water, the roof etc. But our ceiling is a real masterpiece with its great Kyiv Secession and national embroidery motives. Kyiv used to be a bourgeois city, and its facades weren’t plastered, but painted. On the other hand, there’s nothing extra. Our gallery is actually an apartment of a bourgeois family, but without furniture. We even used to keep here a white rabbit to accentuate this bourgeois ancestry, until it began gnawing paintings and cables. From the One Street Museum we got a certificate saying that our building had been the home to the prototypes of the Serkovy (the Sirky) family from the legendary play “After Two Hares” written by Starytsky.
For how long is planned your exhibition schedule?
It varies. Now it’s planned for a year ahead. By the way, our gallery in 1997 was the first in history of gallery business to issue an exhibition program for the following year with representatives of opposing art ideologies exhibiting next to each other. Those artists hadn’t been displayed in one space before: Tistol, Silvashi, Roitburd, Zhyvotkov, Holosii (first personal and posthumous exhibition in Ukraine), Bazhai etc. At that time it was a breakthrough. This year due to the New York trip I fell out of gallery life. And then I was engaged in a couple of big projects at the same time. For example, publishing and presenting Stas Voliazlovskyi’s catalogue, preparing anniversary exhibition of our yearly project “A4, Ballpoint Pen” and its thick catalogue, and later I was busy trying to help art historian Halyna Skliarenko (raised funds for medical treatment of her daughter in Germany – ArtInUkraine), so I had no time for planning.
Her latest book, published recently, is wonderful…
But you probably understand that it’s a drop in a bucket, considering our current situation with contemporary art. That is just not enough! There should be special institutions, museums of contemporary art, national art centers, national program – i.e. a complex approach, not a sporadic one.
You helped a famous collector Igor Voronov to compose his collection. Was it hard to work as a consultant?
It depends on whom you work with. Igor Voronov and I understand and trust each other. There were situations when we had consulted and agreed on the phone, but when I attended an auction to buy particular pieces, I was disappointed in a couple of them and purchased something else instead. It’s a very convenient way to work. But trust doesn’t mean identical taste. A collector may rely on consultant’s advice and buy an artwork that he/she doesn’t even like, but makes his/her collection complete. That is why a collector shouldn’t fully trust his/her own current taste in art. It’s a great pleasure and responsibility to consult someone on art. Unfortunately, there are collections that are full of garbage. But I feel confident about my work in this field, since I account for every single recommendation I give, for every piece of art that I advise collectors to purchase. Now I can’t even imagine the growth in value of collections that we composed for their happy owners many years ago.
“Karas Gallery” has been working for over 20 years. You haven’t closed your doors regardless economic crises, inflation and the change of government… How did you survive? What did help you to resist?
It has never been easy for galleries to survive. In 1990s we had some specific problems. When in the rest of the world audience grew along with culture, in Ukraine contemporary art literally dropped out of the blue. After social realism, that was everywhere, people could understand neither the form, nor the idea of contemporary art. This is the reason why only 5-10% of Ukrainian cultural community can appreciate it. Speaking generally, these people are the most advanced ones that are lucky to have access to information and to be capable of comprehending it. They are the elite of our society.
Since 2006 we have been trying to protect our colleagues in cultural field – bookstores, theaters, museums, studios – and ourselves from corporate raid. And that was the time when the market grew extremely quickly. Lots of new galleries were opened. While our rivals were making big money, we were into public activity. So later we had to catch up with them and outrun them. Up till 2009 our gallery was the only one that issued a catalogue for every exhibition. At that time we even sold pieces on the phone – clients just told us their requirements (for example, character of the birthday person or the place in the room), we chose an artwork for them and wrote its brief description. Now we try to survive, expecting difficult period to be over in just two-three years. I believe that the best is yet to come. Our political and business elite has started looking in another direction – now it’s not Russia, but Europe and USA, and these countries can teach Ukraine to love and appreciate contemporary art, to live next to it. It will all work out for our country. We learn fast, so when people will get used to having money the art market will revive again. It’s already reviving and growing. I believe the dawn will come.