Nizhny Novgorod: A Rising Beacon of Contemporary Art

Paulina Firstova
In recent years, contemporary art has actively extended beyond not only the Garden Ring but also beyond Moscow as a whole. Nizhny Novgorod is a vivid example of this trend.

The Arsenal, Packhaus, Futuro Gallery, and the "Tikhaya" studio captivate with their scale and character, blending Nizhny Novgorod's authenticity with metropolitan flair. This is just a small part of what is worth visiting in Nizhny Novgorod, but it already leaves a significant mark on Russia's cultural map.

Let's go step by step and find out why Nizhny Novgorod is a phenomenon in Russian contemporary art and why other regions should rely on such experience.

The starting point of our journey was the Arsenal, a center of contemporary art located in the arsenal warehouses of the Kremlin.
In 1841–1843, by decree of Nicholas I, the Arsenal was erected in the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, becoming part of a new ensemble along with the House of the Military Governor and the Transfiguration Cathedral. This element of classical Petersburg architecture was associated with the Powder Tower. In recent years, the Arsenal has become a key center for contemporary art exhibitions, transferred to the management of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in 2020.

The transformation of the Arsenal into an art space began in 1992 when Lyubov Saprykina and Anna Gor founded the Center for Contemporary Art "Karyatida." In 1994, the idea of ​​turning military warehouses into an art pavilion was born, but it materialized only in 2003 when the building was transferred to the Nizhny Novgorod branch of the State Center for Contemporary Art.

The museum inherited the building in poor condition, and from 2006 to 2015, it underwent reconstruction under the guidance of architect Evgeny Assa and restorer Alexander Epifanov. The Arsenal was transformed into an exhibition space of 7000 square meters, regularly hosting large-scale exhibitions of contemporary Russian and world art.
Currently, the Arsenal is a leading regional institution, showcasing art in a global cultural context.

"The Arsenal creates a space for artistic communication for the development of the individual, society, and territory," emphasizes the museum's management, and we cannot but agree with them.

In addition to the overview tour, we were fortunate to visit an exhibition titled "LIVING AND SEEING. ARTISTS AND POETS OF THE VSEVOLOD NEKRASOV CIRCLE."
We familiarized ourselves with the archive of Vsevolod Nekrasov, a poet, essayist, and member of the "Lianozovo Group," as well as an outstanding theorist of Moscow conceptualism. Today, his collection is part of the collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and unites works by artists with whom the poet maintained friendships, mutual sympathy, and active cooperation in creative terms. Nekrasov was particularly interested in the issue of the interaction between word and image. The exhibition focused on the graphic part of the collection, where the character and significance of creative experiments, spoken of by Vsevolod Nekrasov, were most expressively manifested.
The exhibition encompasses three main sections. The first one is dedicated to the work of artists from the "Lianozovo Group," presenting graphic works by Yevgeny and Valentina Kropivnitsky, the ink technique in the art of Oscar Rabin, abstract experiments by Lydia Masterkova, and compositions with playing cards by Vladimir Nemukhin. The second section focuses on the works of artists following the conceptual direction and being close friends of Nekrasov — Eric Bulatov and Oleg Vasiliev. The third block introduces visitors to the photographic works of Francisco Infante-Arana and the graphics of Mikhail Roginsky.

*Curator: Anna Chudetskaya — Ph.D. in Art History, Senior Researcher at the Department of Personal Collections of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.

The Arsenal stands out with the presence of outstanding artistic personalities, a highly professional exposition, extensive coverage, and qualified guides. These factors enable the museum to compare favorably with the best Moscow and global institutions and, in the future, to gain wide recognition, possibly even surpassing the fame of the eponymous football club.
FUTURO Gallery, the second stop on our route, has long attracted my attention. The gallery is a member of the Association of Galleries (AGA) and actively participates in major projects, including Cosmoscow, and generally occupies one of the leading positions among private galleries in Russia.

Established in 2016, FUTURO Gallery is the largest independent contemporary art gallery in Nizhny Novgorod. A prominent feature of the gallery is its original, dilapidated space, preserving elements of stucco and decor in the Art Nouveau style. This space is located in a building that formerly housed the City Society's revenue house, a monument of architecture and urban planning of the XIX century.
FUTURO Gallery functions as a cultural center, integrating exhibition and educational programs in the field of contemporary art, and actively supports local creative projects. Through collaboration with curators, the gallery successfully implements various projects, including joint initiatives with other cultural institutions.

Collaborating with outstanding curators, FUTURO successfully realizes numerous projects, including partnerships with other cultural institutions.

The gallery represents both recognized masters, nominees, and finalists in the field of contemporary art, as well as promising young artists working in various artistic techniques: painting, sculpture, graphics, photography, video, and installations.
Currently, the gallery proudly presents an individual exhibition of the work of St. Petersburg artist Sergey Karev titled "Russian Transformation." The works, created over many months in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod, occupy the space of an old mansion.

The exhibition combines large-format paintings and graphic works. The main compositional technique is the use of a horizontal line dividing the surface into two parts. The color palette is predominantly warm earth tones, supplemented by splashes of red and blue tones. The surface of the canvases is saturated and uneven: smooth in some areas, crumpled or permeated with streaks and other imperfections elsewhere. The works attract attention, yet determining their character, whether abstract or figurative, seems challenging. The viewer recognizes elements of the landscape thanks to their familiar position in the context of classical painting; however, in fact, the canvases lack a specific image. Painting does not personify but exists on its own.
Karev conducts research on the importance of painting in understanding modernity, applying an innovative approach based on the principles of the academic school. In some of his works, the artist deconstructs his art: he creates snapshots of previous works, disassembles the image into fragments, translates them into black and white format, connects printed sheets, restoring the original work with many defects, and then applies a new saturated layer of paint.

In the exhibition "Russian Trans," self-quotation is observed not only in individual works but also in the overall style of the exposition. Such paintings form a complex space, allowing viewers to understand how frequent return to the same image gradually deprives it of its original meaning. A stable, seemingly landscape dissolves, turning into an idea, into the simplest motif. The material aspect gives way to emptiness, which can be perceived as affect or a trance state. The emotional impulse is emphasized and intensified by a multi-channel musical composition specially created for the exhibition by the young composer Ivan Shelobolin.
This dynamic between what is accessible and inaccessible, reality and fiction, material and abstract, evokes a sense of the elusive. Perhaps, it is a feeling of meaning that the observer tries to discover on a conditional horizontal line, spreading similarly to the horizon of Russian nature. In the pursuit of this meaning, the viewer has the opportunity to reconsider their experience, immersing not just beyond the canvas but deep into it, into a state of emotional trance and sensual perception.

*Curators: Ann Kubanova, Alexey Maslyaev
The next point was the "Tikhaya" studio — in this space founded by Artem Filatov in 2015, the attention of citizens and visitors has been attracted. The studio's principle of operation is based on the self-organization of resident artists and their supporters, who collectively strive to shape and develop the city's artistic environment.

"Tikhaya" has transformed into a new type of institution — the CENTER OF CONTEMPORARY ART, arising from the eponymous art workshop. Currently, eleven residents work here, and there is an archive and an open storage of artworks. The studio spaces are flexibly transformed for new artistic tasks, turning into a lecture hall, a café, or a performative laboratory.

— exhibition projects of resident artists and guest authors;

— support for talented young artists from Nizhny Novgorod;

— conducting art residencies;

— open storage with the possibility of demonstration for collectors and curators;

— maintaining an archive and a research program aimed at studying the local art scene jointly with the Garage Museum.

However, "Tikhaya" preserves its initial status as a working space for artists, where informal communication, collective creativity, and a cozy atmosphere are valued and supported.

The management of the "Tikhaya" studio is carried out in two buildings located in one courtyard. The first building, part of an old estate, has housed workshops since 2015. The second building, reconstructed into a studio from a former residential house, is adapted according to the principles of a passive house for work and public spaces. Both buildings are conveniently located near Minin Square, the main square of Nizhny Novgorod, just three minutes from the Kremlin. The inner courtyard of the studio preserves the unique atmosphere of the old city, with its characteristic low-rise buildings and picturesque ruins.
Artists of the "Tikhaya" Studio:

• Alexander Lavrov

His artistic journey encompasses strategies of contemporary art. In his workshop, traditional painting and graphic series find their place, complemented by ready-mades, objects, and details of large-scale installations.

Lavrov successfully addresses political events, the history of Soviet and post-Soviet culture, as well as everyday images. His passion for collecting items of Soviet life has led to the creation of the "Toy Museum" in Nizhny Novgorod, where the exhibition of a unique collection is constantly updated.

• Lena Lisitsa

An expert in street art, Lena Lisitsa interacts with urban environments and collective memory, turning abandoned corners of the historical center of Nizhny Novgorod into artistic canvases saturated with mythology and original plots.

Her creativity, including painting, calligraphy, and object creation, lends relevance to historical buildings, remaining in unity with their changing destiny. Lena's studio activities also include the preparation of public art works, interacting with public spaces.

• Anton Morokov

The profile of the graphic artist is distinguished by conceptual series, where elements of repeated configurations, such as images of flags, birds, or sheets of paper with typewritten texts, form semantic integrity.

In his performative practices, Anton strives to remain unnoticed by the audience—whether it be serving guests at the "Innovation" award ceremony at the Sheraton Hotel in Nizhny Novgorod or working as a security guard and installer at the Garage Museum in Moscow.

• Andrey Olenev

Andrey Olenev, who gained fame in the mid-2010s thanks to grandiose paintings on wooden houses in the historical center of Nizhny Novgorod, integrates the actualization of disappearing nature with original plots inspired by Northern Renaissance art.

Currently, the author is developing a painting method both in studio practices and in public art projects and installations, where pictorial images acquire volume and material embodiment.

• Artem Filatov

Artem Filatov, an artist and curator, draws inspiration for his studio works from absurd scenes of real life. He focuses on everyday objects that either lose their function or begin to lead their own lives.

In addition to his individual creations, Filatov is actively involved in curatorial and cultural activities. His project "Garden of" (co-authored with Alexey Korsi) is an outstanding public memorial garden located on the grounds of a private crematorium in Nizhny Novgorod. The establishment of the "Tikhaya" studio (since 2015) and the exhibition "Back Home" at the former Museum of Nizhny Novgorod Intelligentsia (2017) are also notable milestones in his artistic practice.

• Yakov Khorev

Khorev skillfully combines the roles of guide, teacher, and psychologist in the artistic sphere. With him, the studio becomes a place where everyday life turns into an exciting game and an opportunity for deep immersion into oneself.

The studio's exposition reveals graphic works and sketchbooks, covering sketches of future installations, psychological texts, diaries with thoughts and observations, as well as random works of art.

• Vladimir Chernyshev

The artist combines creative activity with the creation of land art pieces, paying special attention to preserving the disappearing cultural landscape. His projects, being unique site-specific installations, do not have a final form, constantly evolving under the influence of the surrounding environment.

• Team "TOY"

The duo of street artists "TOY" (Egor and Seva) actively interacts with public spaces, creating projects covering street art on the streets and studio works related to social initiatives. From project to project, the artists introduce elements of contemporary popular culture, jokes, slang, concepts of social behavior, traditions, and folklore into art.
In addition to permanent residents, guest artists are regularly invited to the "Tikhaya" studio, providing them with all the necessary technical resources. However, important strategic decisions remain the responsibility of the main residents, with guests playing only a consultative role. Legally, the studio is registered as an autonomous non-commercial organization, emphasizing that financial matters are not paramount. The main financial flow comes in the form of grants, such as support from the Garage Museum for the compilation of the art archive and funding from the "Center 800," dedicated to celebrating the 800th anniversary of Nizhny Novgorod. Artem Filatov, the founder and director of the studio, annually provides the team with a financial report, emphasizing the importance of transparency in resource management.

Filatov notes that "Tikhaya" does not imply a commercial orientation of the gallery and is not a public space for exhibitions. Access to the studio is possible only by appointment, emphasizing the unique character of "Tikhaya" as a chamber professional community where art is created from concept to realization.In addition to permanent residents, guest artists are regularly invited to the "Tikhaya" studio, providing them with all the necessary technical resources. However, important strategic decisions remain the responsibility of the main residents, with guests playing only a consultative role. Legally, the studio is registered as an autonomous non-commercial organization, emphasizing that financial matters are not paramount. The main financial flow comes in the form of grants, such as support from the Garage Museum for the compilation of the art archive and funding from the "Center 800," dedicated to celebrating the 800th anniversary of Nizhny Novgorod. Artem Filatov, the founder and director of the studio, annually provides the team with a financial report, emphasizing the importance of transparency in resource management.

Filatov notes that "Tikhaya" does not imply a commercial orientation of the gallery and is not a public space for exhibitions. Access to the studio is possible only by appointment, emphasizing the unique character of "Tikhaya" as a chamber professional community where art is created from concept to realization.
Contemporary Art in Nizhny Novgorod is closely intertwined with the influence of street art. A vivid example is the "Region of the Year" stand of the Nizhny Novgorod Region at the blazar fair. All ten presented artists are either inspired by street practices or consistently adhere to this style. Studio works, whether Nikita Etogda's wooden panels depicting old houses or Lev Kays's windows, actively interact with street aesthetics, maintaining a lively dialogue with the urban environment.

In the book "A Brief Chronicle of Nizhny Novgorod Street Art," published by the Garage Publishing House, Artem Filatov and Alisa Savitskaya note that the second half of the 1990s in Nizhny Novgorod saw the emergence of street art, the influence of which permeated hip-hop culture. In a later period, closer to the 2000s, street art acquired unique features: with the decrease in available surfaces, artists began to create on the facades of dilapidated wooden buildings. Instead of loud and provocative inscriptions, they created poetic images, integrating with the texture of semi-ruined historical structures. Maintaining a connection with street aesthetics, artists continue to create, preserving in their works the same approach to working with wood, the use of natural symbols, and mysterious themes inherited from street practices.
In 2017, Artem Filatov's art was highlighted at the Cosmoscow exhibition, which initiated interest in studying Nizhny Novgorod street art. Major gallery owners and curators began to pay attention to the work of street artists, who in turn began to experiment with new artistic methods, including mass printing, which required special premises and equipment.
The final stage of our journey was the "Horizon" exhibition, dedicated to the 90th anniversary of Erik Bulatov, held at Packhaus — a relatively new, but with historical roots, exhibition space at the confluence of the Oka and Volga rivers. The project curator was Marina Loshak, and the architect was Yuri Avvakumov.

"In state museums, we have almost no works by Bulatov, and without collectors, it's simply impossible to show them," says Marina Loshak. "We decided: let it be a concentrated extract from his large concept of space, paintings as a special reality. And we also try to meaningfully follow the path of decentralization. Nizhny Novgorod is a place where such an exhibition is needed. Here is a wonderful, professional museum, here is a wonderful space that suits Bulatov very well (there is no such thing in Moscow, by the way)."

Erik Bulatov, an outstanding artist of unofficial Russian art, embodies in his creations the theme of boundless perspective and alluring blue sky. Words, like poster slogans, arise both in the background, emphasizing perspective forms, and as barriers that stand in the way of the gaze. In both cases, they cease to be just text, becoming guides into boundless space, overcoming the limitations of the "here and now" of everyday life.
The exhibition covers various stages of Bulatov's creative path, from his first experiments in the field of space in the 1960s to works from the Paris period.

To date, most of Bulatov's works are in foreign private collections, including the Pompidou Center, the Louvre, and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Russian museums have only a few works. The Russian Museum owns one painting donated by German collector Peter Ludwig, and several sheets of graphics.

Bulatov's paintings in the Tretyakov Gallery are the result of the artist's donations and the Potanin charitable foundation. This is partly why it is so important that this exhibition presents works from ten private collections of Russian collectors, which are rarely shown to a wide audience, and the names of most collectors have finally stopped being hidden on the labels next to the works. This is a big step. Among them are Petr Aven, Igor Markevich, Ekaterina and Vladimir Semenikhin, Irina and Anatoly Sedykh, and others.
This artist's works need to be appreciated directly — primarily for two significant reasons. Firstly, "size matters": large-format canvases are designed for visual impact that cannot be fully conveyed in reduced form. Secondly, Bulatov's artistic style itself possesses a certain cunning. In reproductions, visible artistic techniques are emphasized, which in reality represent delicate manual painting. Upon closer examination, it is far from photorealism. "I have never used photographic prints, airbrushing, projectors, or similar techniques," Bulatov emphasized twenty years ago, insisting on not being confused with another artist.

The horizon line, though physically nonexistent, is always present in the landscape, creating visual relationships. Bulatov's works also play with proportions, presenting speculative spaces that reinterpret and distort illusory reality. It once seemed that he reinterpreted purely Soviet reality, entirely regulated and clichéd. However, words and phrases from the poetry of Vsevolod Nekrasov, integrated by the artist into his paintings, lend an additional criticality to this authorial position.

Over time, Bulatov's works have acquired a new interpretation. They have ceased to be seen as a nostalgic hymn to a bygone era and are now perceived from a more global and universal perspective, which has always been present in his work. Previously, less attention was paid to this aspect, preferring more localized themes. Bulatov emphasizes that at a certain point, he began to view the issue of freedom purely spatially. This idea may not be immediately obvious, but it is beautifully reflected in his works.
Since 2022, the exhibition pavilion, symmetrical to the concert hall, has become a residency venue for the Nizhny Novgorod State Art Museum. Natalya Starikova, a researcher at the NGSAM and coordinator of the "Horizon" exhibition, notes that this is the newest and largest venue of the museum: "We have a permanent partnership with Packhaus; our exhibitions are always a priority here. We have held several of them here already, and each time it is a challenge: the space is very attractive but not easy."

The hall is indeed unusual. The white space is not confined to a typical cube but resembles an elongated parallelepiped. The architectural solution for Bulatov's exhibition was described by author Yuri Avvakumov, who shared his vision with the Art Newspaper: "I recalled the American minimalists of the 1960s. It was interesting to combine their approach with Bulatov's art, which was beginning its experiments at that time. I arranged the walls not parallel to each other but slightly converging or diverging. The first ones, like a funnel, draw the viewer in, the second ones push them out. This slight non-parallel arrangement creates some tension. More perceptive viewers will feel it, less perceptive ones will just stroll. In any case, the correct distances for viewing the works of art are preserved. The chronology is preserved, but inside the hall, there are visual, sometimes even semantic pairs."

This chronology begins from the late 1960s. At the entrance to the exhibition, a brief museum selection is presented, akin to an epigraph. "Cuts" and "Diagonals" are taken from the collections of the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum—small canvases and graphic sheets, evidence of non-objective experiments that subsequently helped Bulatov develop his art by interacting with natural reality. Then, along the entire length of the hall, a series of non-parallel walls with large canvases is arranged. The visual anthology opens with the late 1960s work "Artist at the Plein Air" and concludes with the painting "Autumn. Sevastopol Boulevard," created in the early 2000s.
Nonconformism and conceptualism have always been close to my heart. Perhaps partly for this reason, Bulatov's work resonated with me.

From childhood, my family and I traveled extensively around the world. I visited practically every museum, both famous and less so. I observed, listened, admired, and delved into art. Then I spent a long time studying artists and art history: first at Moscow State University, and then at the Sotheby's Institute of Art in London.

By nature, I am not particularly impressionable, and I approach everything around me with a healthy dose of skepticism. But speaking about many things has always been easy for me, and speaking beautifully — so that everyone around listens intently. Imagine my surprise when after visiting an exhibition, I couldn't utter a word. My thoughts didn't form into clear, elegant curatorial phrases. They were too significant and close to the heart. It seemed to me that whatever I said wouldn't be able to convey the feelings I experienced. I literally froze in space and time, and I froze right here, not in the Albertina in Vienna, not in the Fondazione Prada in Milan, not in the Art Museum in Singapore, but here — in Packhaus in Nizhny Novgorod.

Stendhal Syndrome is a psychogenic reaction characterized by frequent heart palpitations, dizziness, and hallucinations caused by stress from aesthetic experiences; this seems to be exactly what I experienced at that moment. In short, the horizon is conditional, but the artist is real.
So why has Nizhny Novgorod become a fully-fledged center of contemporary art in recent years?

In Nizhny Novgorod, like in almost any large Russian city, there is a large volume of unused space left after the closure of industrial enterprises," says art historian, curator, and chief editor of Art Electronics magazine Jennet Shuleshko. "Using them as creative zones, art spaces, and even just lofts is the best and least costly application for the city. Remember, by investing in the construction of a Museum of Modern Art in the small, unknown town of Bilbao, Spanish authorities made it a must-visit, one of the country's main attractions. The government helped with site approvals, obtaining permits from the Emergencies Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and other government agencies. Regional authorities now use them for their own purposes, effectively communicating with the public and enhancing the region's tourist attractiveness. Everyone wins."

The history of Nizhny Novgorod is revealed through the prism of freedom from constraints, giving special importance to people. Here are favorable conditions for those who seek innovative solutions, unafraid to go beyond the horizon. Gleb Nikitin, governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, emphasizes the need to provide talents with "space for implementing ideas and creative endeavors":

"Creative industries make the region more attractive for living. The city authorities are interested in uniting the best cultural institutions of the city into an ecosystem that will become the locomotive of creative industries and allow for the realization of new creative ideas."

"In most cases, creative industries are not monetized, but they require high costs," says director and general producer of the Gorky Fest festival Oksana Mikheeva. "Usually, creative people cannot find investors, so without the ability of the authorities to support their initiatives, nothing will happen. The governor of the region, Gleb Nikitin, and the team of the Ministry of Culture are very active. It's great that the government's ambitions coincide with the ambitions of our creative intelligentsia—people can express themselves and make the city the creative capital of the country."

According to the results of the previous year, Nizhny Novgorod entered the list of the best millionaires in Russia with the most favorable living conditions. The quality of the urban environment index, developed by the Russian Ministry of Construction based on 36 indicators, confirmed this achievement. Despite a slight lag behind Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kazan, the transformation of urban space on the eve of the 800th anniversary undoubtedly will help Nizhny Novgorod consolidate itself among the leaders.

Article Author: Paulina Firstova — Curator, CEO & Founder FRSTV ART GROUP

Editor: Maria Glotova — Philologist/Linguist, Publishing Editor FRSTV Magazine