How Do You Convince a Country to Start Collecting Art?

After centuries in which nomadic life was the norm and collecting art was not, Kazakhstan's curators and art world insiders are working to grow the nation's art scene.

People mill about in front of colorful paintings at what looks to be an art fair
Ala Art Fair attendees in 2023. Photo: Timur Epov, Almaty, 2023

For more than three decades, collecting art in Kazakhstan has meant one thing: big business. In the thirty-three years since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union, the contemporary art market has been dominated by just a few names: usually families or individuals who built their fortunes on the country’s copious natural resources.

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These mega-buyers buoyed Kazakhstan’s art scene through its infancy. But now the nation’s curators and gallerists want change. “We have an idea within our society that collecting art is just for the very rich,” Olya Vesselova, a curator based in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, tells Observer. “People think: it’s not for me. But every market has middle-class collectors, too. That’s what we’re trying to build.”

Kazakhstani gallerists, however, face unique challenges in creating a broader, more sustainable art market. Until the late 19th Century, Kazakhstan was a largely nomadic nation, with families packing their belongings to move with the seasons—a lifestyle incompatible with owning hefty oil paintings or delicate watercolors. With little tradition of collecting art in a Western sense, Kazakhstani artists and curators must build an industry from the ground up.

“Right now, we don’t have art managers and we don’t have galleries and we don’t have enough museums for people to familiarize themselves with local artists,” says Vesselova. “We lack the professionals that would connect artists with their audiences.”

Three people pose for a photo
Curator Olya Vesselova (l.) and Sanzhar Serikpayev (r.), director of Kazakhstan’s Occupy Steppe gallery. Photo: Timur Epov, Almaty, 2023

Kazakhstan has a deep artistic tradition

Ironically, Kazakhstan does have a rich artistic culture. Many of the everyday items traditionally used by nomadic Kazakhs, such as carpets, jewelry, or yurts, would be painstakingly crafted and finely decorated. The country’s south is also tied to the ancient Silk Road, absorbing artistic influences from China and the wider Islamic world.

Formal schools specializing in Western-style “fine arts” appeared in the early 20th Century. But their arrival was directly linked to Kazakhstan’s place under the Soviet Union, leading to a new set of challenges further down the road.

“During the Soviet era, there was no such thing as an art industry—we had art that was financed by the government,” Sanzhar Serikpayev, a curator and the director of Kazakhstan’s Occupy Steppe gallery, tells Observer. “But that meant artists never turned their mind to the commercial side of things. And obviously, after the collapse of the Soviet Union: there were so many different problems that culture wasn’t the country’s first priority. Unfortunately, you can say that Kazakhstan’s art market lost those thirty years.”

In Soviet Kazakhstan, the country’s greatest modern artworks were often quickly taken elsewhere—largely to Moscow. Three decades after independence, that trend has continued, with much of Kazakhstan’s contemporary art ultimately leaving the country.

Artist Yevgeniya Kazakova works in the city of Karaganda, located on the immense Kazakhstani steppe. Her surreal artworks draw inspiration from the great expanses of the landscape, populating cavernous backdrops of blue and ecru with fantastical, elongated figures.

For Kazakova, the idea of connection, communication and relationships lie at the heart of her paintings. But they are also deeply tied to her local landscapes. “I grew up in the steppe; steppe landscapes are at the forefront of my paintings,” she says.  They are an allegory for a certain freedom and creativity. There are no barriers for artists. You feel this vast opportunity.”

Kazakova has noticed an increase in interest in her work in recent years, both at home and abroad. She sees the sale of Kazakhstani art outside of the country as a good thing and hopes that the government will smooth some of the hurdles for foreign buyers wishing to purchase cultural works.

But like many artists, she worries that without strong domestic action to balance that trend, too many of the country’s future masterpieces will disappear abroad. One issue is that the country still lacks a central government collection for contemporary art that could ensure the best of the country’s modern art is saved for future generations.

“I would like museums to preserve the history of Kazakhstan’s contemporary art: how it has developed, and how it changed,” she explains. “But the best work does not remain in museums; it goes abroad. And that is very sad.”

A busy art fair
Ala Art Fair in 2023 was the nation’s first contemporary fair. Photo: Timur Epov, Almaty, 2023

A path forward for the Kazakhstan art scene

With no state collection to fall back on, domestic, Kazakhstani collectors are even more vital to preserving the country’s contemporary art history.

In one bid to encourage more local buyers, curators Olya Vesselova and Sanzhar Serikpayev have teamed up to run dedicated clubs for would-be collectors. These events are both social and educational gatherings: art lovers can share their interests with others, while curators, gallerists, and artists can share their knowledge of the country’s contemporary culture. There is also a chance to learn about the practicalities of buying, selling, and owning art in a friendly, judgment-free space—but this isn’t the club’s main drive, says Serikpayev.

“We want to create a small community of people who want to bring art into their lives. We visit studios and artists; we have educational talks about Kazakhstani art and art history from different perspectives,” he says. “We do not have the goal of selling anything at all.”

There has also been a fresh drive to strengthen Kazakhstan’s art market and empower professionals working in the cultural scene on a wider scale. Kazakhstan held its first contemporary art fair, the Ala Art Fair, at the end of 2023. A special conference alongside the main fair was dedicated to sharing knowledge and best practices, from contemporary art trends to law and taxation.

In particular, special emphasis was put on building connections across Central Asia and the Middle East, as Kazakhstan looks for more regional solutions that can serve the country’s unique position more authentically than templates stamped by either Moscow or the West.

“We have this wild market at the very beginning of its life. But that means there’s an opportunity for us,” Vesselova says. “During the Soviet period, we always looked at Moscow, and after that, we looked at Europe and the West. But there are so many different trends in the world today and so many different regions developing their own points of view. We have the chance to make our own rules — perhaps, for example, rules that protect artists a little better.”

It is this need for Kazakhstan to find a path forward that is perhaps driving the most change in the country’s art scene. The start of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the specter of Russian imperialism that it has conjured, has caused Kazakhstanis to look inwards. Many are reconsidering their relationship with Kazakhstani culture and language, which was often marginalized during the Soviet era in favor of Russian influences.

One of the greatest trends in Kazakhstani contemporary art is the search for identity, says Vesselova. “During the Soviet era, everybody was supposed to be building a new future, with no nations apart from the Soviet nation, she says. “But in the process, they were destroying and warping traditional culture. Artists today are first and foremost trying to find our identity, our DNA, who we are,” she says.

This journey has the potential to capture the attention of more domestic collectors. Aliya Sandybaeva, a communications specialist based in the Kazakhstani capital of Astana, is part of a generation of young, middle-class collectors that the country hopes to cultivate. She sees gathering contemporary artworks as akin to gathering scraps of Kazakhstan’s modern history. The first pieces in her collection were activist art. “For me, they’re about the awakening of our people,” she says. “They’re documenting the history of our country and the development of Kazakhstan as a society.”

She is drawn to the fearlessness and experimentation embedded in the work of the country’s emerging artists, and their willingness to blend topics, mediums, and techniques. She sees “many young artists coming to the scene: people who were born and grew up when Kazakhstan was already an independent country. They have a courage, a freedom to create. It’s always interesting to see how they speak out about problems in Kazakhstan.”

Most of all, says Sandybaeva, this generation of young creatives recognizes the value of their contemporaries’ work. It is that mindset that Kazakhstan’s art professionals hope will spread.

Many collectors still prefer to collect international artists—European or American artists—instead of looking at Kazakhstani artists, according to Vesselova. Exhibitions of foreign artists are still seen as much more interesting to domestic audiences than Kazakhstani artists. But as appreciation grows for Kazakhstani art, more people will see the wider art scene as something worthy of investment—something that will ensure contemporary Kazakhstani artists get the recognition they deserve both at home and abroad.

“I love to see how our emerging artists are growing,” says Sandybaeva. “They say that, for the art world, Central Asia is the next great terra incognita. I hope that someday these emerging artists will be celebrated and well-known: both in our region or maybe even across the world.”

How Do You Convince a Country to Start Collecting Art?