What is the unique selling proposition of cultural projects: heaven on earth? A museum iPhone? A range of souvenirs or historical products? Is there a way to make it work without getting lost in clauses and regulations? And is it even remotely possible to explain it in Russian?


What is the unique selling proposition of cultural projects: heaven on earth? A museum iPhone? A range of souvenirs or historical products? Is there a way to make it work without getting lost in clauses and regulations? And is it even remotely possible to explain it in Russian?

—I like it when the system works. We have the biggest workshops that produce meaningful public art. We do not do Christmas reindeer, only serious context art. It is the largest part of our budget, along with the guest houses for those who want to spend a night with art. Food is included in the package. The farms are sub-leased, for us they are a satellite project. Agriculture is less of our concern, although we work fields and sell hay along with organic wooden objects to developers in Moscow. On top of that, we grow our own cereals and lettuce. All together, we occupy an area of 650 hectares, about the size of the VDNKh, but our economy is more sophisticated and our turnover is much smaller.

The idea was to create a Russian take on Versailles. The Rotunda is surrounded by a different kind of farm crop every year. We used to have buckwheat, sunflowers, lupines, and this year we planted flax, so that by mid-July, when we were supposed to hold the Archstoyanie festival, the field turned baby-blue. We want to harvest it and use it in every possible way, from oil to fabrics.

There are 98 people on our payroll: half of them permanent, the rest are seasonal. The farm is a separate entity. On top of that, we have our own сonstruction unit. For the last two years, we have been producing most art objects in-house. We are extremely proud to have built Igor Shelkovsky’s Red Forest on our own. The people responsible for the park’s services are quite efficient.

Nikola-Lenivets is still not entirely self-sufficient. Every ruble of return is reinvested in development, and we use other projects to earn some money for ourselves. We sell our expertise to Vyksa Fest and Alushta. This year, we managed to procure several outside commissions for public artworks for our in-house workshops. We have the right equipment and worksheets for that kind of operation.

For us, the park is like a huge steamer pot where vegetables are cooked all year round.
—We are very proud of our partners, including Megafon that has been with us for three years, and the wonderful Natalia Opaleva, the founder of the AZ Museum, with whom we have established structural cooperation. There are also our long-term technical partners that are in charge of sound and light equipment. Many companies come with proposals of their own. But most importantly, Nikola-Lenivets would never have become what it is if we did everything on a regular paid basis. We rely mostly on agreements and mutual commitments, the communication artistry we have learned as we worked. There is a tried-and-true script on all levels, from patrons to bloggers who want to have an adventure at Nikola-Lenivets and share their experiences with billions of their followers. But we never pay them. Not even the artists are paid for commissions. Igor Shelkovsky was the only exception: he is a commercially successful master, his works cost a fortune. He was even willing to make a gift, but his gallery was against it. That was when AZ Museum stepped in and covered the exorbitant fee. But Alexey Luka, the artist who designed the Mezzanine House, got the right to stay there for any two weeks of the year, alone or with friends, in a kind of a barter exchange.

My own area of expertise is educating moneyed people. Three centuries ago Kluchevsky, our prominent historian, wrote that the Russian intelligentsia is always busy educating the capitalists. For me, it is about finding the means to create cultural heritage. The only way to sell an idea to a businessman is to explain why they need it. Normally, people do not have a clue. There are only a few rare exceptions such as Anatoly Sedykh. He gets the hang of it intuitively but cannot articulate it.

What is our product, then? What are we selling in Nikola-Lenivets? It is about heaven on earth. A way to make dreams come true. And the tinkle of materialised dreams attracts 250,000 visitors per year like a strong magnet. This is what everything is about, not the ‘territory of experiment' or ‘embodiment of artistic freedoms.'
—The context allows us to sell not just bread or pastries, but historical souvenirs. The demand is not for pastila or kalach, not for residences or museums, but rather for a lifestyle, a strong and unique urban identity. All in all, it is an experience for the visitors and local identity for the residents. We highlight and emphasise idiosyncratic elements, features, and images and try to communicate them with state-of-the-art media.

We are into package sales. The kalach bread in itself accounts for just a fourth part of the sale. The rest is architecture, facades, interiors, the way people dress and talk. In sync, they create a place that is fascinating, exciting, popular, and makes you want to come back. There is no way of knowing if it will work outside the natural habitat.

We have two legal entities: the autonomous noncommercial organisation runs museums, while the limited liability company manages production chains: heritage breadmaking, pastila, preserves, and the rest of it. Every site has a manager, just like any production facility. The Museum Bakery is supervised by two teams: it is a small baking factory managed by the Head Baker and a museum that takes care of visitor experiences. Other sites follow the same guidelines. This way, we are able to attract multi-channel financing. The non-commercial organisation receives private grants and state subsidies, and the company’s dividends are reinvested in development. It would be nice to have an institutional partner, a serious investor who shares our values and ideas of public good. But we are still on the lookout.

Luckily, the museum framework includes production, although originally we intended to outsource both bread and pastila. But nobody wanted to make them for us, so our curatorial research eventually developed into a production facility, a small craft workshop correlated with the exhibitions. These production facilities held us afloat during lockdown. Today, we are rethinking our entire life, including production chains. The demand today is for simple, healthy, accessible food: bread and sugar-free dried jam rather than an elaborate fancy cake. This is our new focus: our audience is now getting the produce at home on a daily basis instead of eating inside the museum. We are able to attract a different audience, the one that cares for a healthy lifestyle, and keep the jobs. There was no need for severe cuts. Our staff is getting their basic salary.

We started the Heritage Library project with support of the Potanin Foundation grant programme for social and cultural innovations. Functionally, the idea was to launch a franchise that would allow anyone to use our best practices in other historical towns of Russia. For us, it was a new perspective on our own activities, an internal audit, an assessment of the ten years of work of the creative cluster and an analysis of the ways our experiences could be scaled up or reframed for other territories with different needs and audiences.
—Museum entrepreneurship is about designing a nice package for heritage. But successful cases are unique, one-of-a-kind products. A ‘museum iPhone' that sells really well is a sum of many different factors.
—We introduced some new formats, and apparently people liked them since they come again, bring their children and are even willing to pay. What attracts them is a different atmosphere, something sophisticated, remote from everyday life, something nice to experience. Then we made the next step by inviting groups of foreign tourists. For them, it is a different kind of adventure: visiting a historical neighbourhood, experiencing the life of an old wooden house. Most of these buildings are in a sad shape, not suited for foreign visitors. But this one offers a sneak peak into a different Russia with an unfamiliar history. We decorated the place with family photos, for people to see what it was like in the 1900s and what the changes looked like afterwards. There is a world of difference between reading a book and visiting a private home to discover family history: even though a part of it has been made up, the tangible version is much more appealing and relatable. Anyone can make a comparison with their own national history. So we found linking a typical wooden house to the history of a typical family a really nice idea.

We organise historical dinners for international groups from eight to fifteen people. In two hours, they are able to ask questions about the history of Irkutsk, listen to a little concert of Russian music, get insights into the local culture, challenge conventions, and overcome barriers. We used to invite professional musicians and artists, for whom contacts with different realities were deeply emotional experiences. We display a certain number of artefacts, depending on the nationality of the guests. The narratives are fine-tuned to suit them. Most often we have guests from Poland who are excited about Polish mementos. But sometimes we would get groups from Korea: there are many tourists from that region but they know nothing of Russian history. Whereas the French visitors are most thrilled by the tangible experiences of daily life and its emotions. They have one evening in town on their way from Baikal, the museums are already closed, the restaurants are too formal. What we offer is a combination of museum and restaurant, complete with song, dance, and a warm welcome. And the morning after they board their flights home, taking away the recollections of their instant immersive course of Russian culture.
—We do not have competition. With a bit of forward thinking, it is possible to stay miles away from the competitors. While inventing new products and building a new industry from scratch, there is no time to waste thinking of competition. Why bother?

By reframing, changing viewpoints, and captivating new audiences we can find new niches of an incredible capacity. Just like running and marathons. Twenty years ago no one would have guessed that all of Moscow could take up running, but today it is a fact of life. What I do not want to do is bring $ 100 batteries from China to sell them for $ 101. What is the point? I have made two rules for myself: firstly, have fun, and secondly, avoid working with people I do not like. In the first part of the programme I have completely succeeded, in the second part I am at 98%. My partners are my buddies. We first became friends and then started working together. By myself, I cannot get anywhere.
—All of our games are socially-oriented. Along with entertainment, they provide people with information. Our packages include background materials and references, and we can see that they actually work. The Where Is the Relationship Going project included a questionnaire for our female users. After 370,000 downloads, we received over one hundred replies, which is a normal rate for game audiences. This way, we know that people have been able to make a connection between their game experiences and their real life, getting important advice for the future or noticing striking similarities between the gameplay and the situations playing out in their own day-to-day experiences. User traffic indicates that people really read the help guides for abusive relationships. This is exactly the way serious issues in a fun package are supposed to work: they are easier to recognise and come to terms with. Sometimes people are more interested in the practical advice than in the gameplay — it happens a lot with Gebnya. The things we talk about are simple everyday protective steps: how to lock your devices, what to do if you are stopped by the police on the street, how to behave if you are summoned for questioning. Our goal is to make the game as relatable as possible. Each game undergoes a series of audience tests to see if the message is getting through. Whenever an episode fails, we rework it. What we do is not just about nice design and fun gameplay that you forget as soon as you log out. Our aim is raising awareness, and we seem to be moving in the right direction.
—The natural habitat of cultural entrepreneurship in Russia is at the intersection of digital solutions, culture, practical tools, and possibly urban design or small-scale urban upgrade programmes. The nation-wide programme launched by the Ministry of Construction creates a lot of opportunities for young architects and urban design in general. Gamification is also an important factor at play: game models were introduced into the museums of Zaraysk and Tsaritsyno. Digital tools are instrumental in heritage interpretation. There are many promising beginnings in independent educational programmes for adults and young adults that fill the gaps left by rigid school curriculums. School and the real world are like parallel universes, and there is a wealth of potential. Collaborations at this juncture will definitely grow more intense.

Seniors of golden and silver age are a growing audience. All of us want to do something for those groups since we shall all come to use these products and face these challenges in the future. The existing situation is not right.
—Digital and sharing projects are fascinating to watch, they have been spurred by the pandemic. Mutual support, civic solidarity, sharing and caring: these are all big words, but they are working in big businesses as well.
—The Private Museum Festival in Yaroslavl region organised by the Association of Cultural Managers was a good example of cultural entrepreneurship.
—Over 50% of private cultural businesses work in a grey zone. So much for the better, otherwise they would not be able to survive. It is not for us to inform the authorities of more opportunities to strip people.
—Other businesses will be drawn to the cultural sphere in about five years, when it shows significant growth. At the moment it soldiers on with hardly any regulations, beefing up. As soon as it gets big enough, people will instantly be taxed, the way it is happening with tour guides in the Russian regions.
—We are a lucky family: my husband is an entrepreneur while I am an art patron. I am totally disinterested in the process of making money, although I help my husband while he is at it. What really drives me is all kinds of philanthropy.
—I am not thinking in terms of creative entrepreneurship. I prefer to concentrate on mutuality and solidarity. Do we want to be seen as a platform that amplifies or rewards a statement? Oh yes. To get there, we must work hard on our image and reputation. Do we perceive artists as entrepreneurs? Definitely not. What we can do is train them to read their contract agreements with more attention. We would like to prepare a new edition of Evgeniya Abramova’s Creative Work: Some Legal Aspects, originally published by the Centre for Social and Labour Rights in 2013. I happened to read the booklet during my curatorial studies, when it was distributed for free. But since then, many innovations have been introduced into the legal framework, including self-employment, so we need an updated edition. We must raise legal awareness among artists and promote a culture of artistic production.
—There is a growing tendency to use the self-employment scheme, which is verging on entrepreneurship. People want to do what they like, and do it with as little red tape as possible. This is a strong trend of 2020. In a way, the solution was suggested by the pandemic: everyone came to appreciate the transience of life. People drift away from museums and theatres, resorting to self-employment to start their own micro-businesses and achieve fulfilment.
—At some point we tried to apply an open-source approach: the Discover Permian Period project that we realised with the Potanin Foundation grant in 2013−2015 included a brandbook with a set of designs, patterns, and solutions for everyone to use. Then we found out that in the town of Gubakha, in a four-hour drive from Perm, a local businessman installed a monument to an ancient sea shell using our design. Should we see it as a triumph or a failure? A triumph, I guess. Although it feels more like barnacle shells anchored to a whale.
—The creative sector is bigger than the cultural one because it includes both the conventional and the unconventional business models. In any way, the right language to describe them is English. My students have to read mostly articles published in international journals. In Russian, the debate over the boundaries of creative industries is only just starting.
The VDNKh, an acronym for Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, is a huge 1930s trade show and amusement park transformed into an open-air museum complex, one of the pet projects of the Moscow government.
The Rotunda is an Alexander Brodsky project of 2009.
The Red Bridge is a 30-metre pedestrian wooden bridge by Igor Shelkovsky. More about Arkhstoyanie festival of art, performance and music on Image:
From 2017 to 2020, the Archstoyanie team curated the public art festival at Vyksa, an industrial town outside Nizhny Novgorod:
Alushta Green is a festival of environmentally-oriented cultural projects launched in 2019:
Megafon is the second largest mobile phone operator and the third largest telecom operator in Russia, placed under US, UK, and EU sanctions in March, 2022.
AZ museum website:
Alexey Luka about the project: Image:
Anatoly Sedykh, b. 1964, is the owner of the OMK United Metallurgical Company and the founder of the Vyksa Fest that debuted in 2010.
Pastila is an apple-based traditional sweet treat. Image: @pastilakolomna.
The Heritage Library is an initiative of the Centre for Cultural Innovations in Culture of Kolomna. Read more:
Gebnya is a scornful label for security services that comes from the abbreviation KGB, the main security agency of the Soviet Union. In 2018, the eponymous game was the first project of the future Noesis studio.
Housing and Living Environment was one of the national priority projects of Russia in 2019−2024; the All-Russian competition for the renovation of small towns and historic settlements was launched in 2019.
Museum Retreat was a festival of museum tours held in 2019 and 2020.
Tour guide licensing became obligatory in Russia since 1 July, 2022, but the initiative was first mooted before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The museum and nature reserve website:
Read more about Zaraysk Kremlin:

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