Julia R. Barton
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11.17.11

Soviet Art, Country Music

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Why does a country music megastar and all-American guy like Ronnie Dunn — half of what was Nashville’s biggest act, Brooks & Dunn — have a house full of paintings from the Soviet Union? It’s a long story.

Twenty years ago, in the fall of 1991, the Soviet Union was being dismantled, and its highly managed art world vanished in a puff of smoke. Unchanged since Stalin’s time, the government-run Artists Union practiced Socialist Realism as the official style, timid in theme and precise in execution. If you weren’t a member of the Artists Union, tough luck — you couldn’t even buy real paints. When the free market came in, the tables turned fast. For Western collectors, who had the money, dissident and underground art (Grisha Bruskin, Komar and Melamid) was hot; official art (Sergey Gerasimov, Nikolai Timkov) was not.

"We found a lot of paintings that were pulled out from under a bed," recalls Ray Johnson, a Minneapolis collector who went hunting for official art in the decaying empire. Johnson was emphatically not looking for Communist kitsch. "Maybe five to ten percent of the pieces were purely propaganda, or pieces that the government thought they could use to their advantage. But most of the work the artists did they did for themselves and remained in their studios, until people like myself came from all around the world to collect what was in the studios, as opposed to just what was presented by the museums."

Johnson assembled the largest private collection of Soviet-era paintings outside Russia, and founded the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis with a financial assist from his client Ronnie Dunn. Still, Dunn knows that his passion for Socialist Realism clashes with his image as Nashville royalty. “I kinda don’t want the secret out, to be honest with you,” he tells Studio 360. “I gotta go work on my pick-up, change the oil on my truck. I don’t know anything about this art!”

PRI’s Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, Nov. 18, 2011

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