Natasha Butterwick has over 20 years of experience in the art world in Russia and the UK and is the owner and director of Russian Art+Culture. After receiving degrees from the Moscow State Institute of Economics and Statistics and the Christie’s Education Fine and Decorative Art Department, London, Natasha established a fine art business, dealing in Applied Arts and Russian Art of 19th and 20th centuries. She is an avid art collector and is passionate about music, dance and literature.
In an interview with RA+C contributor Olya Voronetskaya, Natasha talks about the successes and challenges of running the company, as well as her recent initiatives and plans.
Listen to the full interview on our podcast In Conversation with Art & Culture.
OV: I’m really looking forward to getting a behind the scenes look at how it is to run Russian Art and Culture (RA+C). I think it would make sense for everyone to know a bit more about your background. Where did your appreciation for the arts come from, were you always drawn to Russian art?
NB: I was always interested in art because of my parents – they took me, when I was a young kid, to various museums in Moscow. So, I had enough of Russian art since I was a child. When the 90s came, and the art market opened up, I had the chance to see more commercial art and had new possibilities dealing in Russian art.
OV: Your actual academic background is quite different from art: you studied applied mathematics and engineering at university. How do those fit together?
NB: Maths and art will always go together. I think there are great examples, in the works of Renaissance artists and early art, like, Leonardo da Vinci – he was a polymath; Paolo Uccello – he used perspective in his early paintings; Albrecht Durer and Piero della Francesca, and many, many others. Also, quite a lot of contemporary artists, like Man Ray, used maths and geometry in their art. For architecture or sculpture, it is important to know the maths side.
OV: You started with the art market in Moscow, but how did you become involved in the London-based world of Russian art?
NB: I left Moscow 20 years ago. I was already dealing in Russian art then, my husband and I were working in Moscow in the 90s, and then decided to go and live in London, which was an art hub. Changing the city where we lived didn’t really change what we were doing, and, actually, allowed me to expand my knowledge, perspective and to meet many other interesting, inspiring people. I decided to study a fine arts programme at Christie’s Education in London, where I had incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic teachers.
OV: How did you decide to acquire RA+C?
NB: RA+C was acquired later, in 2016, by chance, and it became an additional step in my life. It was actually a present from my husband for my birthday! The RA+C project expanded the knowledge, which I already had, amongst other things: I also had a family, I had children – I have two daughters with my husband – so I was a mother, and also I was involved in art, and was studying. So, it was actually an occasion, at the right time in the right place!
OV: That’s a wonderful present! What were your original intentions for how RA+C would develop, and how have those ideas evolved?
NB: RA+C gave me a new wave of possibilities. I had to learn many skills, and, initially, I wanted to reshape the visual side of the online platform and to transform the outlook. At first, because I haven’t done these things before, it was a little bit uncomfortable, but on the other hand, it also pushed me into finding my own self in something else at that time of my life, which I’m very grateful for.
OV: There are a lot of websites and informational platforms, which are in Russian about Russian art and culture, but RA+C is in English. I think there are many benefits that come with this, especially in the audience base that you can attract.
NB: Yes! RA+C was intentionally founded in English and the idea was to spread the love and interest of Russian culture internationally. Theodore Clark, who was the founder in 2011, had the great thought of presenting Russian art to a wider audience. We have continued doing that since 2016, just sticking to English, because there are, as you mentioned, so many Russian platforms, especially about art. It makes us a unique company, which gives us a special niche in this world of art.
OV: Within that niche is also the RA+C Russian Art Week, which happens two times a year around the Russian art auctions. The event has become quite a staple on the calendar for collectors, clients and people interested in Russian art. Could you tell us a little bit more about the event and some of the highlights that you have personally experienced as you have grown this event?
NB: Initially, I was keen to do everything. When you start, you think you can juggle it all. It was 2017, the centennial of the Russian Revolution, which gave a lot of opportunities for the leading art organisations, museums and galleries to do their part and to exhibit Russian art. We, as a company, created partnerships with the Tate Modern, Royal Trust Collection, Royal Academy and many others, abroad as well. Our aim was to bring a special touch to our audience who were mostly English speaking because we are based in London. It created the possibility to see exhibitions privately, to do the tours privately, to have private chats with curators of these exhibitions. It was something special, and it was a very busy time.
Russian Art Week, as you mentioned, is a bi-annual event, which, now, due to the pandemic, has been put on hold. We can’t have an actual opening, which we have always done in collaboration with art dealers or galleries. So, it’s happening, but online. When everything is open again, we are very keen to continue Russian Art Week – it’s very popular, it brings in so many people who are interested in Russian art, either collectors, dealers or just enthusiasts: they come to London, and they want to see as many events connected to Russian culture – we bring it together.
OV: I think all of the people who used to attend or who love Russian art will be that much more eager once Russian Art Week is back in person. What have been some other interesting, whether satisfying or challenging, experiences of owning the RA+C business over the last few years?
NB: There were some new things we wanted to introduce which were challenging to start with, because, as I said, if you haven’t done things before, it makes your brain freak out a little bit. We introduced an online shop, which is a gift and bookshop. The switch from being an informational platform to getting into the commercial side required marketing, which was a bit challenging, but also fun.
We are very accessible and open to suggestions and ideas. We love collaborating with people! We love bringing new projects together and listening to what our audience wants to hear from us. We also have a project for original development for RA+C. You are one of our new people who bring a lot to our platform. It’s been part of our new development to introduce new light or new insights into the Russian cultural world.
OV: I love being a part of it! What are some of the initiatives that you have taken to expand the business during the pandemic?
NB: We started a YouTube channel, which was dedicated a lot to music because people still had concerts at home. We have our lovely contributors, musicians and critics, who kept us updated with what was happening during the lockdown. The newest thing we have done and which we are going to bring forward is a podcast – another easy way to reach our audience because it’s accessible. It’s called In Conversation with Art & Culture, and our interview will be available to listen to on it. There are so many other options we can do; we just have to be open to possibilities coming up in technology nowadays.
OV: What were some of the obstacles that you have had to overcome?
NB: We were planning to do an exhibition and opening of the Russian Art Week in June. Obviously, when we were in lockdown, we had to switch everything online immediately. We understand that we need to compete with other events online because there are 24 hours in a day, only a certain amount of hours can be spent in front of a screen; otherwise, you’ll need glasses, as I do.
The visual model has other challenges because you need to keep people occupied in a different way. Before, we were able to display the events, which were happening here, there, everywhere in the world, but since the events are not happening, what do you do? You have to find other ways to attract your audience.
OV: Pandemic aside, what are some of the new projects and developments that your audience can expect to see coming up?
NB: Of course, we depend on what’s happening in the world, but we are very flexible to switch to any kind of news. If we stay online, we will definitely do an open call to invite new enthusiasts, who would like to bring in something interesting to our platform. RA+C is not just a personal platform – we invite contributors from all around the world to write articles or bring live events on social media. We did this in the past, and we will do it again!
What actually also makes us unique is that we have so many contributing writers of any age and any interest from music, art, film, photography – anything! Any person who is keen to be part of a project with us will be looked after and invited with open arms. Also, as I said, we will look into possibilities of doing exhibitions, once the situation improves because we already had them planned and they are waiting to happen.
OV: Hopefully, there will be people listening to the podcast or reading the interview who will want to contribute! Besides running RA+C, you are an ambassador for the Russian Rome International Culture Festival. How did you get involved in this?
NB: I was invited to be an ambassador a couple of years ago. The festival happens every year in November, and it’s a new, big-scale project. I was planning to go this year, but it didn’t happen. I was honoured to be invited to the platform with many other people who support Russian culture. It has given me other opportunities to look at myself at what I am doing. I love being able to share my views or what I’ve done with other people, so it has helped me a lot.
OV: You have also recently become a life coach. How does this change your approach to managing and running RA+C?
I have been interested in personal development for over four years. I started with a self-coaching program, which helped me in business and relationships, including with myself, so I decided to help other people, to give them the tools I know and to become a life coach. It’s very important to be able to know what you can do, how can you act and be with yourself, and then be able to create a great atmosphere of teamwork with other people.
I have to mention my team; the work would not be possible without them. Our wonderful, enthusiastic efficient editor – Elena, she’s always there, so professional and an easy person to get along with. We have a lot of contributors who bring their energy and enthusiasm. Recently, we have also had an addition to our team – Ksenia, who is in charge of social media development. She does it with such ease, interest and enthusiasm – it’s just a gift!
OV: You get a sense of that energy, the teamwork and the wide variety of content from various collaborators by looking at the RA+C website and its multiple new outlets (podcast, YouTube, etc.). Are there any other sides of the business that we have not mentioned?
NB: Yes, we also have an art consultancy on our website. We get lots of people who have Russian art in their collection, or they saw it somewhere, or have a question. They can email us with the images or any question, and we’ll get experts to answer. If the art needs to be sold, we can always lead a person to the right place.
OV: I am looking forward to seeing what the new developments will be next year and would like to wish you the best of luck. It has been a pleasure talking to you!
NB: Thank you for asking! It was a really fun time!