Elena Baturina: the oligarch who loves craft and design

January 10, 2014 · Print This Article

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Capitalism and craft collide in a new initiative from philanthropic think tank BE OPEN. The Russian foundation is staging a major show for traditional makers in India, in a slick new space dressed with the help of local architect Anupama Kundoo and local designer Sunil Sethi.

It might be the shock of the new for the craftsmen who can trace their knowhow back to the time of the Mughals. Indeed, prices may well go up. But, it is argued, without new markets, some ancient techniques will be lost. So pumping up the craftworld, as if it was the artworld, can look like a good idea.

BE OPEN Founder Elena Baturina sits in a well-appointed office at an exclusive address in Mayfair. She fields questions in English and replies in Russian through a friendly interpreter. Both the woman and her surroundings are imposing.

Being aware I am sat with the richest businesswoman in Russia makes the encounter a little surreal. Now might be the time to disclose that I have previously subbed and provided copy for the foundation.

“We have to find markets for these products,” says Baturina. “We can already see now that the next generation of craftsmen is not as skilful as the one before. So unless markets are found for their produce, the skill of the craft will die out.”

The show is at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, a venue provided by an enthusiastic Indian government. But BE OPEN will be taking their unique stage around the world, with Japan in the frame already, helping the programme to live up to its title (North/South – East/West).

“It wasn’t an easy job,” she says of the BE OPEN intervention in New Delhi. “We tried to identify unique craftsmen who used local materials to produce something extraordinary.”

So visitors can expect objects of beauty made with inlaid marble, wood and metal. Designer brand Hermès has already started tapping up the very best Indian makers.

Since business has become synonymous with technology, the apparently altruistic BE OPEN program has thrown up a surprise or two for the Russian entrepreneur.

“We are very excited about the possibilities of craft and art produced by hand,” she says. “It’s always very interesting to show how the structure of business, which is very technological and logical, can benefit from craft produced individually by hand.”

Baturina is clear that North/South –East/West is not framing handcrafts as a business opportunity. “It’s not a business glance at it; it’s a glance at art,” she says. And indeed, on the evidence of past activities by BE OPEN, the founder seems driven by genuine interest rather than the bottom line.

Her “main work,” as she calls it, focusses on educational institutions; “One of the new things which we are trying to do is to compile a ranking system of all universities around the world involved in design,” she says, hoping this will be of use to would-be students and design schools alike.

This new project gets underway in South America, where schools and universities have been keen to get involved. “I think it’s more important to do it in countries which are lesser known. Who knows about design schools in Brazil? Do you?” I shake my head. “That’s why.”

Another scheme with an eye on the future is the BE OPEN Young Talent Award, which is designed to help budding designers and enable them to live for a year and make a few proverbial mistakes. The cash Award takes the form of money which can be spent on school fees and living.

“I think it’s a very good way to let a young creative feel that there’s a way of expressing their ideas. It enables them to see that although sometimes the thing they produce isn’t perfect, but they can feel that their work is valued,” says Baturina who spent her early days learning design and engineering in a Moscow factory.

On the way out I notice a kinetic sculpture on the wall. An LED ticker in Cyrillic passes into a knot of steel and comes out the other side in numerical form. Baturina’s aide tells me that the input is lyric poetry by Pushkin; the output is currency conversion rates.

As the Russian Roubles flow into these new artistic ventures it remains to be seen by how much BE OPEN improves the lives of Indian craftsmen and design students, but the foundation may yet reverse the flow of the piece on the wall: putting money in, getting creativity out.

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