Riga biennial cancelled after outcry over organisers’ Russian links

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The organisers of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (Riboca) have pulled the plug on their third edition following an outcry in Latvia about their links to Russia.

Riboca was founded by Agniya Mirgorodskaya, the daughter of a Russian fishing mogul, Gennady Mirgorodsky, along with Anastasia Blokhina, previously director of external communications at Erarta Museum in St Petersburg. Inese Dabola, who worked for the Latvian foundation of Petr Aven, a Russian oligarch with Latvian roots who is now under European Union sanctions due to the invasion, is Riboca’s executive director.

A statement posted on Riboca’s site last week reads: “Despite our engagement with the local cultural community over the past seven years and efforts to revise our funding structure after the war commenced, it appears that the heritage of our executive members, which includes Russian among Lithuanian and Latvian nationalities, is something too significant to overcome as the Russian attack on Ukraine rekindles tensions of an occupied past.”

The statement continues: “We’ve been forced to confront the difficult reality that what we are providing may simply be inappropriate or unwanted in these challenging times, no matter how benevolent our intentions may be. Furthermore, in the best interests of our team and artists’ wellbeing, we have decided to pause our efforts.”

Zanete Liekite, a Latvian writer and curator who campaigned against the biennial told The Art Newspaper: “This discussion isn’t about ethnicity, despite Riboca’s attempts to conveniently shift the focus. It centres on the crucial matters of ethical funding, transparent organisational practices, and the necessity for a respectful attitude towards post-colonised nations, that the institution in question fell short in fulfilling.”

Collecteurs website recently published Liekite’s discussion with Maija Rudovska, another curator critical of Riboca, and Maija Kurševa, a Riga-based artist who pulled out of the biennial, describing how the Latvian art scene had become dependent on Russian-linked money. Liekite, who has spent time in New York, compared it to the funding of art there by the Sackler family as the opioid crisis raged and by Warren Kanders, former Whitney Museum vice chairman, while he was in the tear gas business.

Riboca was initially postponed until 2023 following the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and was scheduled to open in August, with There is An Elephant in the Room as the main project, curated by Danish collective Superflex. Germany’s René Block was charge of the overall biennial concept and curating other exhibitions, including “Intermezzo,” now showing at Kunsthal 44Møen in Denmark under the Riboca banner.

An earlier statement by Riboca before the latest postponement said that biennial financing had been restructured to come via Just A Moment, a new US charity registered by Mirgorodskaya and her husband, William Pokora, an American real estate investor. It also stressed that biennial organisers, who “include Russian, Lithuanian and Latvian nationalities,” had switched their focus in 2022 to helping Ukrainian refugees by opening Common Ground, “a social initiative centre” to assist them in Riga’s City Hall. Mirgorodskaya noted in a May interview with Arterritory, a Latvian publication: “After the war had started, we refused any funding from Russia despite my father’s business not being under sanctions.”

In comments to The Art Newspaper via a publicist, Mirgorodskaya said that “I am as much Lithuanian as I am Russian and have had a close relationship with the Baltics throughout my life.” She said the goal of Riboca was to offer “international and Baltic artists the opportunity to engage with the city and its history.” Further disassociating herself from Russia, she said: “I spent nearly a decade living in London and New York, so I’ve been living outside of Russia for around 15 years now.”

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