D. Aksenov: “In Culture, New Business Models, Inevitable!”

by paradoxig

Arts and entertainment industries faced many changes in the last year, the crisis revealing many flaws in the ‘system’ of functioning.
Artists and entertainers asked for support, but what to do when the usual supporters (businesses or persons) need support themselves? Society seems to be in a shortage of life ring buoys, calling for innovators.
The signals are clear: something has to change! Including in arts and culture.
The only question is: how, when, in which direction? And, in such times, some people still bet on culture, being convinced that it is only a question of time till new worlds and visions will emerge in immaterial futures.

Dmitry Aksenov is the believer and dreamer that innovation in culture will come sooner, than later.
A patron of artists, Aksenov is chairman of the board of the International Art Fair, viennacontemporary; he has established the Aksenov Family Foundation and Immaterial Future association, and is chairman of the board of directors of RDI Group. He always had the impulse to innovate and push boundaries, by mixing culture and technology.
So, we discussed how technology will impact arts and culture; why the existing models from culture are not sustainable, he pitched the Vision of the Future.
And we did not miss the opportunity to talk about the IF Innovation Award that was launched. (Are you a CultTech Startup? We recommend you to apply!).

TechVangArt (TVA): You have a long history in supporting artists, but could you tell us a little bit more when you started supporting artists and what were the reasons?
Dmitry Aksenov: The whole thing started maybe over 15 years ago. I studied engineering and physics at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, but the humanitarian side of the world always interested me, so not just the rational side of the world. So, as soon as I got more free time and more financial resources, I started to tend to pay attention to meanings, to what is really important and meaningful. That’s why I started to look into culture and visual arts was one of the starting points, so it was around 2000. What drew me to the field was natural curiosity: why this abstract thing cost almost 100 million dollars – this was a simple question to start with.

TVA: We noticed that you support different forms of arts: classical music, fine art, fashion, experimental groups, films.
How do you choose which artists to support? Is it personal taste or you have experts from different fields – such as: look this artist is a real talent, we think it will be big, let’s give him/her some support- or both?
Dymitri Aksenov: We don’t have an advisory or experts board, but we have a big network, where we could get a professional opinion, practically on any cultural subject. In addition, we have a strong internal team. We act on consensus, if we think that project has a relevance to our strategy, then we support it.
Of course, I’m trying to do something which corresponds to my personal taste, but I would never do a project based only on my individual preference. That is for sure! We need to have a professional assessment of the project that fits into our strategy because we have limited resources in terms of human resources, time and finances. We have to choose where we could have the most efficiency and impact.

“It is the time when the business model of traditional art fairs has to be reinvented”

TVA: You took over Vienna Fair, transformed it into viennacontemporary. And soon there will be 10 years. During these years, it has grown a lot in terms of outreach, and last year it also went digital (vc_on platform).
How do you see its future? Considering the context of pandemic, travel restrictions, and art fairs are getting smaller, collectors taste changing, so on…
Dmitry Aksenov: The fair will continue to stay with the focus on Central Eastern European Visual Arts, because the subject is relevant, there is a power of culture in this region, which is still under-represented. So, the USP (nr: unique selling point) remains the same. The pandemic has changed a lot, and it is the time when the business model of traditional art fairs has to be reinvented.
The digital transformation which already took place in different segments of our life or signals from the economy, didn’t have so much effect on culture yet, and on visual arts, specifically. But the pandemic has pushed towards changes. And one element is transparency, because previously the whole idea of art market practice was based on non-transparency of the pricing. While now, galleries really have to put the price tag online to create momentum. That’s why the game rules are changing.
So we hope that our fair would adapt to the new realities.
We are a mid-size private fair, that’s why we have the luxury of making decisions quickly and adapting rapidly, compared to big players. Also being independent, we have a wide range of choices which to follow.
So we are really eager to see how this year’s edition will happen. Of course, we are preparing different scenarios, but the plan is to have it in September as planned, offline, but also on the online platform.

TVA: And for 10 years’ edition do you prepare something special?
Dmitry Aksenov: Well, we’ll have a big birthday cake, which we guarantee :)) but the rest…
TVA: So not giving away any secrets….? 🙂
Dmitry Aksenov: We’ll be announcing the detailed plans in the beginning of June.
TVA: Okay. We are really looking forward to it!

“We stand for Eastern European Contemporary Culture

TVA: Russia has an indisputable contribution to the development of the arts. From Eisenstein, Diaghilev, Anna Pavlova, Kandinsky, Scriabin, Korsakov, Stanislavski, and …. Somehow these names represent the foundation of Russian school.
But time has changed and new forms, a new language, new concepts should appear. Art becomes a mix of concepts. And that is why we noticed IMPRINT IN MOTION (pyc:«Слепок») , a cross-media project fusing fine arts, contemporary dance, music and film making. And this will be presented at viennacontemporary.
We looked at the project page and we are impressed by the concept.
How was IMPRINT IN MOTION ( pyc: «Слепок») project born?

IMPRINT IN MOTION project focuses on a human body in great variety of plastic forms whereas the space of the museum of Classic Art serves as the venue for this artistic experiment. Unfettered by the Word, fixed in sculptures or moving in dance, a human body reinterprets stories rooted in the history of West European civilization.

Dmitry Aksenov: We stand for Eastern European Contemporary Culture. And especially Russia is under-represented now, on a national and international level. The pool of talents is immense based on the historical value of the culture, and based on the high level of education of the population and the ability to create new energy and new ideas.
That is why we created the project Russian music 2.0 (photo with program) with a highly established international jury, which has chosen eight composers of contemporary academic music.

Find Program of Russian music 2.0 Project

These composers already had a reputation internationally in niche areas of professionals, but were not widely known and represented neither in Russia nor in Europe or in the world.
That’s why we are pushing this phenomenon of high quality Russian Contemporary Academic Music, and we try to promote it globally.

Concert of Russian composers to showcase their new works as part of the “Russian Music 2.0″ programme initiated in 2020 by Aksenov Family Foundation. During lockdown eight Russian composers (Mark Buloshnikov, Dmitry Burtsev, Oleg Gudachev, Daria Zvezdina, Daniil Pilchen, Alexey Sysoev, Boris Filanovsky, and Alexander Khubeev) were awarded grants to create new music as part of “Russian Music 2.0“.

We involved DIANA VISHNEVA, the founder of Contemporary Dance Festival ‘Context’. And she also considers that there’s a lot of talent in contemporary dance in Russia, but it’s not properly represented. So, we started thinking about combining these two concepts together: contemporary Russian music and dance.
We learned that the Pushkin Museum is interested in doing something involving dance. So, we invited the filmmaker, Andrey Silvestrov, to create the story, which is very organic because it goes through the evolution of the culture – the context of traditional culture, where the sculptures are having a strong effect and representations of a specific time, and then continue with the contemporary storytelling through music, visuals and dance.
All this has a really huge impact. That’s how the whole project developed.
It really exceeded our expectations on the quality of the product! In the beginning it was just the idea to collaborate and see what happens and this worked perfectly.

In this creative quest the young Russian choreographers, finalists of Context Young Choreographers Competition, and contemporary composers immerse themselves into the epochs of Ancient Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and bring into being their own insight in each historic period. Movement and dance are inspired by the space of museum rooms and their exhibits. The position of a camera man is in contingent on a dance pattern. Movement is highlighted by camera optical. Zooms in and out give a new focus of perception.

“We try to help to overcome this ‘Death Valley’,
where universes are talking to each other in completely different languages:
Culture, Business and Tech”

TVA: Already in 2017, you showed interest in mixing Art/Culture with Tech, and if we are not wrong, with a joint event with Pioneers. Since then, you organised different CultTech Labs both in Vienna and Saint Petersburg. Can you tell us about the results? Some startups that came out? What were the ‘good and the bad’ and lessons learned?
Dmitry Aksenov: We strongly believe that the relationship between art and technology will make a difference for culture and for society. And that’s the change which still needs to happen.
So, first batches, first experiments – we tried to connect startups and cultural institutions in the form of contact labs. It showed that the concept is right, there is an interest, a demand, but still a long way to go. Our first idea was to introduce startups to institutions, hoping this will grow organically, which didn’t happen.
So now, our understanding is that the need for managing digital transformation is very high. That’s why our role is to get engaged in specific projects where we could put not only financial resources, but also management skills. And try to help to overcome this ‘Death Valley’, where two universes are talking to each other in completely different languages: culture, business and tech. We are an intermediary, translating from one language to the other.
That’s why now we sometimes tend to manage the projects.
For example, we did a project for Russian state Tretyakov Gallery, an online fundraising platform, which helps to engage new audiences into digital transformation of the stock.
We invest in specific startups, where we see potential solutions for impact in the specific areas of cultural production or distribution. That’s why we initiated this open call – IF Innovation Award.
So, we believe in the continuity of this process, which was started, the relationship of culture and technology will have a huge impact. It takes more resources than just an event, or just a little bit of money, it’s more about a systematic change, but has huge potential on the whole civilization.

“The material world doesn’t fit Strategic Sustainability. What fits Strategic Sustainability is the production and consumption of ideas”

TVA: As you mentioned the open call for the IF Innovation Award, my attention was attracted by the fact that you are looking for new business models. And going back in time to another revolution, the industrial revolution had many pluses and minuses. But, one thing came out positive: cutting the working hours and advancement in technology, give people more time. More time meant need for entertainment, art, culture. So, a new entertainment industry was born. Film industry emerged, after that TV, on the retail side of cinema, an entertainment park for kids and adults.
Now, we are in the AI Revolution. People will work less; some won’t work at all.
Do you think it is possible for a new-kind of entertainment/ art/culture to be born?
Dmitry Aksenov: Now I’ll give you a clue of the Future or How we see the Future, because this is a critical point you are touching here! But, firstly, a disclaimer about the Technology Revolution.
Industrialization created a situation where people became more efficient. They could produce more wealth in a shorter time, and then culture was created by Russian Revolution. Because before that the weekly working hours would be around 100 hours/week, so there was no place for culture whatsoever.
The Russian Revolution created the necessity to adopt, and to create more free time for people and then to reload them. You have options, alcohol, or a little bit of entertainment. So that’s where the mass culture comes in.
TVA: Exactly.
Dmitry Aksenov: But, that’s not the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution itself would kill the people because it says: “produce more, work harder, you can become rich, you can have more material things”.
But, now we’re in that position and we have a situation, that I call it: “Digital Renaissance”, where civilization comes to a point when again it becomes anthropocentric.
So the human being is the main resource now, the person is in the center of everything, not the institution, not the countries, not the political parties, not the cultural institutions.
If you have energy, if your abilities and ideas are strong enough, you can really gain the momentum, you can have direct access to consumers, not through the traditional institutions, which used to dominate and control everything.
Now anybody who has a new idea, can come to the market and say: “Listen, there is a much better idea, which is stronger, and has a better future. Let’s do it!”. The game changer is this individual person, due to technology. And the outcome of this would be an increase of productivity, and again technology would create much more free time, as you were mentioning.

“Culture would become much more relevant, much more important and will become the main factor for the development of civilization”

TVA: But the question remains: how will this free time be consumed?

Dmitry Aksenov: And now comes the interesting part: civilization has a turning point where we have to choose which way we will go. One way is to continue to associate happiness with material production – with the receipt of “more goods, more happiness”. But this already has very strong side effects, such as the negative impact on ecology or inequality of spreading all the wealth, and so on. This idea doesn’t work anymore.
Young generations think that:Hey guys, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you are telling us that you create new worlds, super successful, super rich, but we know that you kill people, you steal, harass, and it doesn’t look like you know what you are doing”.
So, it means the material world doesn’t fit Strategic Sustainability. What fits Strategic Sustainability is the production and consumption of ideas.
The underlying chemistry is the same: consumption of the new information, new impressions creates the same impact in the brain, like consumption of sugar, or alcohol. That is how we are built biologically, to be curious, to be able to learn, and basically that’s our purpose in life, to learn about the world, our place in it and what we could do for the world to make it better, to go further.
And that’s what culture is dealing with and always has this as a focus of its purpose. When I’m talking about culture I mean, knowledge in general, it’s also science, education. So, in the situation when there will be more free time, civilization has to switch to producing and consuming cultural products. And that would be an endless journey of learning, which substitutes the increase of consumption of material goods. And in this sense, culture would become much more relevant, much more important and will become the main factor for the development of civilization.
In this sense, there is a need for new business models, new models of distribution, new models of sustainability. Because right now culture is either on the burden of society – everybody pays for rich people to go to Opera, which is not sustainable, sorry, doesn’t work anymore – or it’s the mass culture which is kind of primitive short-term substitute and which is trying to help you spend your free time and reload your brain. But high-end culture has to become more widely spread.
And this can be made possible because of the technology, accessibility of knowledge and education, and free time. And it will raise the knowledge of the consumers, and they will have more sophisticated experience, which they will gain through spending more time on culture and more sophisticated subjects, and being able to consume and produce more and more in this direction.
That’s why I think creating new business models it’s inevitable, and NFTs are a perfect example of how this would work.

TVA: So, do you believe in the NFT and its potential to really change? Some say it is speculation, others consider it a bubble….
Dmitry Aksenov: For sure, for now, it is a bubble, it has this dimension and scale. But as a business model that includes transparency, technology, accessibility, accountability, and connection, no intermediator, it’s the perfect case.
Auction houses charge 20 – 25% on the sales, but already we have projects which are coming on the market, saying they will charge 10%, and they can do it on blockchain, buyers can see everything, can track the provenance. To mint NFTs used to cost thousands of Euros, but now it costs hundreds, and there are some offers which cost you less than a Euro, because there are new protocols appearing and new platforms are coming, which really decrease the cost of the intermediator. Blockchain and open ledger approach has a strong potential for the future.

“Society becomes more and more fragmented in terms of needs, and more and more interest groups appear who demand their part of the pie”

TVA: I also think that definitely business models that are cutting the middleman like in all other industries happened, might be happening in culture as well.
But, coming back a little bit at what you say that an entire society pays for supporting culture, your example with the Opera. Do you think it’s really possible to shift this model?
Because, on the other side artists are so used with grants, fundings, sponsorship…that honestly, why the would you deal with setting up a startup – cash flow problems, giving away equity for investment, term-sheets, delivery on sales – when you can just apply for a grant or write an EU funding and get the same amount of money and spend it?
So, really society has a way of functioning which is really hard to change it…
Dmitry Aksenov: We have two main dominated models about how cultural production is supported – either by state or by bourgeois – through philanthropy, or buying production for relevant money. All, non-sustainable, even in the short term.
Look what happened in the US with cultural philanthropy during the pandemic. Lots of institutions had to disappear, because all of a sudden business being short term motivated, they just switched off the funding, saying: “sorry guys, we don’t have, we’re in trouble, we cannot support you any longer”. So, The Metropolitan Opera had to close.
While in Europe, it’s the other way around, society was supporting this, so they continue supporting it.
But weren’t the cultural institutions struggling before the pandemic, because of the decrease of the funding which comes from the state or even from corporates? I’m telling you that they are.
The reason is that society becomes more and more fragmented in terms of needs, and more and more interest groups appear who demand their part of the pie. There will be other demands from society about how to spend public wealth.
So, the state will not be able to guarantee the funding forever because times will change, finding other sources of revenues will be critical.
That’s why you have to become relevant, tactically relevant, of what you produce now, it has to have resonance with the society, with the consumers right away. That’s why new business models are inevitable.

TVA: Let’s hope! And I guess, these are all the reasons behind launching the IF Innovation Award?
Dmitry Aksenov: That’s our thinking in general. It is an inevitable change which we have to sustain and support. And we’re happy to support impact driven scalable solutions not only with the money but with, you know, investment with a network, with management, with resources.

TVA: And the criterias for judging?
Dmitry Aksenov: Impact and scalability!

Immaterial Future Association invites CultTech (Culture + Technology) startups and projects from anywhere in the world to apply for IF Innovation Award. The Open call is looking to discover and support innovative solutions that contribute to unleash the full power of culture.
The winner will receive €50,000 non-equity funding to be awarded during the ceremony at viennacontemporary art fair in September, 2021 in Vienna, Austria.
The IF Innovation Award was established by the Immaterial Future association that aims to explore and develop a new approach to humanity’s growth. This approach is to shift growth into the plane of immateriality, with culture as the main vector of change
The open call welcomes projects that leverage technology to develop:

  • new business models that enable self-sustainable cultural production and distribution;
  • distribution models that allow wide access to cultural experiences without losing authenticity.

TVA: Just because like speeding, you mentioned SpeedInvest and they are one of the leading VCs from Austria, will this collaboration be a “one-time-thing” or do you think to work together and constantly and have a CultTech vertical?
Dmitry Aksenov: That depends if the pipeline would be enough to create a sustainable model. But, Oliver Holle, the founder of SpeedInvest has been supporting this idea for quite a while so it would not be a one-off case, it has a strategic alliance power.

Deadline: 1 June 2021

Applying projects can be run by a startup company, academic entity, for-profit or non-profit organization. For more information on eligibility criteria and application guidelines, visit https://immaterialfuture.org/award/

And as you already are used to, we come with our regular Shot Questions:

1.TVA: As you have graduated Physics and Technology. What is your favorite Science book/author?
Dmitry Aksenov: Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene

2.TVA: As an adolescent, what cultural product influenced you the most? (you can name a specific film or animation, theater play, music, painting, ballet, etc.)
Dmitry Aksenov: As a student…you know there were Soviet Times, the Iron Curtain, so on…So we had ”Jesus Christ Superstar”. That was hilarious. I could even sing it…

TVA: Really? :))) And something from the Soviet Era…?
Dmitry Aksenov: That would be…. ,,One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And the other would be ,,Seventeen Moments of Spring”, a story about a Soviet spy inside the Hitler’s headquarters that really had a strong impact.

3.TVA: Name a trait/quality that Austrians have it and Russians will never have it. And the other way around? (Something that Russians have, and Austrians will never have it).
Dmitry Aksenov: We are all the same biological systems, so we don’t have big differences, never. But practically Austrians have been taught to find a consensus, establish democracy, they learned how to adopt general interest. While in Russia we don’t have a history of democracy we always had someone who’s telling us what to do – the Tsar or General Secretary or President. So, as a young democracy we have to learn that we have to create rules and relationships which are based on consensus, society, state, and individual, which still will take some time, but there’s no dramatic differences.

4.TVA: If we will talk about cost efficiency. What was the art project in which you’re investing, not so much math had a huge impact?
Dmitry Aksenov: IMPRINT IN MOTION. The synergy was so strong, coming from different segments of culture, visual art, dance, music, museum. The impact was really unexpected – we didn’t plan this success. Initially, we thought we put it online. And now it’s all over the country, showing in the cinemas.

5.TVA: Creativity is not only specific to art/cultural people, we all have it. If we could find ways to maintain and/or develop our Creativity, we would be better in other domains, too… Do you agree or not?
Dmitry Aksenov: : I believe that creativity has a biological definition, it is embedded in us. It is just that industrialization created a situation where people are disconnected from the results of their efforts – they don’t create the whole product, they just do a little part.
People are able to create a new reality, be it art or growing vegetables or building a house or growing up a child. These are all creative acts.
While, when you go to your job, your daily routine has nothing to do with creativity. It is just a waste in performance, and a missed opportunity for a person to express one’s internal power. That’s why pensioners tend to go and grow gardens and travel, to learn more about the world to get more impressions.
As soon as technology would allow people to have more free time, they inevitably would switch into a creative mood.
Already, the creativity business is paying super well in science, in education, everywhere.
“Creativity is the ability to see the world in a different way, to aggregate the knowledge, to create new knowledge, to create new views, new ways of doing things”.

6.TVA: Business in Art is more like Theory of Relativity or more like String Theory?
Dmitry Aksenov: I think Art and Business is more String Theory. It is overwhelming, consolidating everything we do. Culture, and our creativity is dominant, an embedded ability, it doesn’t matter if is a business or how you take care of your daily life
TVA: Thank you very much for the first time before your time and interview
Dmitry Aksenov: No pasarán! Culture will dominate. We will see changes coming up soon… 🙂

Immaterial Future (IF), a Vienna-based non-profit association, is established in 2021 to shift our world’s growth model towards intangible production and consumption, with culture as the main vector of change. It aims to leverage culture’s huge untapped potential to positively impact every single human, breaking away from its elitist confines and becoming more accessible to all.

For more details, please visit https://immaterialfuture.org

All visual materials were integrated with Immaterial Future consent

Copyright  ©viennacontemporary ©Margarita Lukic, ©Niko Havranek ©kunst-dokumentation.com

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