The Royal Academy of Arts in London has cancelled a show by Russian art group AES+F, making it the latest exhibition to fall victim to funding constraints and political tensions between the UK and Russia, The Calvert Journal can reveal. AES+F member Lev Evzovi said the group was not offered an explanation for the cancellation of the show, which was due to be held this autumn as part of the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture. He said: “Maybe it was an internal problem, or maybe it was a result of something in the political atmosphere. We just got an email that for some reason the exhibition was cancelled. The political atmosphere is very, very hard at the moment and it’s unpredictable, so we never know what will happen.”
In a statement given to The Calvert Journal, the Royal Academy of Arts said the decision “to withdraw the AES+F exhibition from the schedule [was] in response to a lack of suitable funding for the project”. The decision adds to the growing fears that cultural events are getting caught in the crossfire of strained relations between the UK and Russia following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March.
"The political atmosphere is very, very hard at the moment and it’s unpredictable, so we never know what will happen"
The cancellation follows the announcement by Moscow’s Ekaterina Foundation in June that it would be postponing a retrospective exhibition of Young British Artists (the so-called "YBAs"), a highlight of the UK-Russia Year of Culture, after also failing to raise the required sponsorship. While The Art Newspaper pointed to the after effects of the Ukraine crisis as the reason behind the failure to find sponsorship and the resultant postponement, both the foundation and the British Council, which helped organise the exhibition, have denied these claims. David Thorpe, the London-based curator of the YBA show, said: “It’s very difficult to explain why it was cancelled. The Ekaterina Foundation couldn’t afford the event so planned to move it to the Pushkin Museum, but all of that happened too late in the day. I think it’s largely to do with funding.”
The news was followed by a vaguely-worded statement from Moscow Manege exhibition hall that it would be cancelling September’s Banksy retrospective, the graffiti artist’s biggest Russian show to date. According to the statement, the British owners of the artworks had “abandoned their participation in the project, making it impossible to continue working”.
Ursula Woolley, director of Pushkin House, a Russian culture institution in London, told The Calvert Journal that a breakdown of cultural events was an inevitable consequence of the situation in Ukraine. She said: “The Ukraine crisis has affected the year of culture, which you’d expect because it was an official diplomatic initiative. The trouble with that is that when diplomatic relations are going well, official cultural events thrive, but when they aren’t these events are often the first casualty.”
"When diplomatic relations are going well, official cultural events thrive, but when they aren’t these events are often the first casualty"
But talking to The Calvert Journal, Ilaria Parogni, editor of The Kompass, a website dedicated to Russian culture run by state-sponsored media initiative Russia Beyond the Headlines, warned against the media’s typical habit of always seeing these events through a political prism.“I suspect in some cases the western media expects to see political implications because that seems like the easy answer," she said. "The reality, however, is often not as straightforward. Over time we have seen various events failing to obtain funding and support for non-political reasons, as well as bureaucracy getting in the way.”
Nevertheless, despite a palpable sense of caution among art institutions to associate with projects, a great number of events associated with the year of culture have gone ahead without hindrance, fuelling hope that a cultural events programme will remain in place throughout the rest of the year. Parogni is cautiously optimistic: “Mutual distrust and the desire to get a political message across might endanger individual projects, but I wouldn’t say that we will ever witness a complete breakdown. Both Russia and the UK appear to have a strong appreciation of each other’s cultural heritage, and I don’t think the political situation could ever get in the way of that.”