Andrey Olkhovsky: "If you don't knock at the door, no one will answer”.
7 september 2022
Our September interview published under the heading of "About people and their good deeds" is with Andrey Olkhovsky, director of Art Sreda (Art Environment), a Nizhnevartovsk autonomous nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting youth initiatives. We are discussing how the nonprofit sector can help facilitate cultural development, and why it is important to participate in grant contests.
Andrei, how did you get into the nonprofit sector? How did it all start for you?
Let's start by saying that it's not easy for an artist to be an organizer. That is not an easy ride, although a fascinating one. I graduated from university in 2013 and realized that I needed to somehow continue evolving. My friends and I had always been involved in street art, graffiti, taking part in various festivals, and trying to expand out to other cities. We tried to shake our own community out of slumber, but nothing seemed to work as expected. I started looking for ways to make it all happen. I joined a youth council, the district's youth parliament. I started exploring various legal pathways. That's when I realized that there are non-profit organizations out there and that all those guys who are doing really big things have already set up their own non-profit organizations and are pitching in to implement their projects. Prior to that, I had had the experience of getting a small grant from the Tavrida Young People's Forum as an individual, but I had never dealt with any sizeable amount of funding. At first, we applied for grants through other organizations, but it was not always practical. So, we decided to set up one of our own. That's how Art Sreda came into being, and we started submitting applications to various contests.
Did you start winning your contests right away?
Yes, almost straight away. At first, we won the grant of the Presidential Grants Fund’s contest, only to be followed by the Formula for Good Deeds grant soon after. Perhaps my second degree in environmental design, something that I pursued on purpose, helped somehow. I had done a lot of anthropological research, studying urban environments and experiences of other cities located near big water. What kind of architecture are they favoring? How do they use their ethnic identity, indigenous issues?
At some point we decided that the walls of transformer substations were no longer commensurate with our level of proficiency and that we needed to start looking into decorating facades and seek additional funding. We ultimately got a subsidy from the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug-Yugra’s Department of Culture and a grant from the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug-Yugra’s Department of Public Relations, and that gave us the opportunity to decorate the facades that we did as part of last year’s festival.
Our key partner this year is SIBUR, and its Formula for Good Deeds social investment program.
Could you please tell us more about the work of Art Sreda, the organization you lead?
Our organization was founded so we could help promote culture in Nizhnevartovsk. We strive to create an enabling environment for our city’s creative residents, an atmosphere that would encourage their development. We have ourselves been down this path and we are now working to create such an environment for beginners.
The Formula for Good Deeds’s grant contest has supported your Mosty festival twice. What is the main idea behind this festival?
Мósty is a Khanty word for "necessary, needed”. The festival's philosophy is about showing that art is necessary, that we need to cultivate it, that we need to develop ourselves, that we need to invest our own efforts in the development of our community. In general, all these ideas revolve around the notion of "necessary" or “needed”. The festival's primary goal is to promote diversity of views, to raise the audience's awareness of what’s out there. And to show that our life is bigger than a few drops of oil and reindeer, as our region is sometimes portrayed by artists and designers from outside this area. We also strive to include new styles and genres of contemporary art. Last year, we did graffiti and murals. This year we wanted to engage even more creative people, those who specialize in mosaics and visual art. That's why we named our festival a "street art festival”.
The festival continues to evolve. Last year, we had 81 applicants who wished to participate, this year this number grew to 206. Next year, we will attempt to include dance, music and other genres of contemporary art. Perhaps, we could try something with street theater, too.
Is your festival organized as a contest?
Yes, that's right. As organizers, we haven't been involved at all in the selection of entries for two straight years. We just created the appropriate environment for submitting applications and for tallying up the results. We have had an independent jury made up of artists representing different artistic genres and fields, members of the public, representatives of the city administration and the festival’s organizers in other cities. The members of the jury assign scores to the submitted entries and then the results are ranked accordingly, from the highest score down.
Do you intend to maintain this practice of making an independent selection of the festival's participants in the future?
We have realized that there are both pros and cons to this approach. Its key shortcoming is that the breadth of the genres represented by the contest’s winner is quite limited. For example, one year we only had muralists and graffiti artists. Next year, we will try to do things a bit differently. We are going to invite some of the contestants on our own just to show how much variety of contemporary art genres there is out there. But other than that, we'll keep the core of the contest’s procedure intact and we'll select other participants of the festival according to the results of the contest.
What is your inspiration in what you do?
Most recently, I've been increasingly inspired by children and younger people. They do find all of this interesting and exciting. Maybe I’m entering that age when one is ready to be a parent. When you see someone’s positive response, this makes you want to do more for them.
How do you come up with ideas for your new initiatives?
Usually it all starts with the selection of a site. As you walk about the city, you can immediately see with a trained eye where it would be worth doing something there, and where it wouldn't be. Talking about sketches, it's usually the result of a dialogue. The residents or the owner organization usually start by stating their wishes based on their own activities and their vision for their neighborhood. To us, this dialogue between artists and the local community is essential. The artists try to take into account all these wishes and incorporate them into their sketches. We also try to maintain this dialogue within our team as well and respond constructively to the feedback we get from our peers.
Does Art Sreda have a big team?
Last year our team consisted of 4 people. We grew very exhausted at our work sites. And I cannot thank enough our guest artists for their understanding they displayed toward our organizing team. They even helped us with some aspects of the work’s overall organization. This year our team has expanded to 12 people.
Plus, we now have volunteers who help us. It's fair to say that we forged a tiny community of art volunteers, our apprentices. These are people who know how to draw and are willing to help out the artists while using this as an opportunity to acquire experience of working on large projects. And they generally help with all sorts of minutiae, for which I would like to thank them sincerely.
What is your personal role in Art Sreda's initiatives??
Originally, my role was to be “everything and everywhere at once”. This included paperwork, bookkeeping, accounting and reporting. I guess I was keen on understanding the overall process myself, to figure out all the nuances so that I could delegate my functions to someone else later on.
This year I no longer manage our social networks’ accounts, nor do I work with volunteers or edit photos. My role these days is more focused on making deals, getting approvals, and handling the most challenging issues that arise along the way. To give you an example, this year we agreed on decorating a façade and I flew away to defend our project at the Utro Urals Youth Forum, but by the time the artist arrived at the site the city had started some landscaping work next to the façade we had picked, and we had to urgently start looking for new equipment, and to reconfigure the whole deal online. Besides, I work with my team, interact with our artists and, I guess, remain the "inspiration" behind the festival. But sometimes I also cut grass for the artists, and paint walls, etc. We're like one big creative family.
Let's talk about your experience with participating in grant contest. Why is it worth taking part in the Formula for Good Deeds grant contests?
If you don't knock, nobody will answer. You have to try; you have to submit your application if you feel you have a great idea and it needs to be executed.
You have experience of participating and winning other contests as well. What makes the Formula for Good Deeds grant contest stand out?
I really enjoy working with the Formula for Good Deeds team, because the company's views are not conservative. While they are strict, they are nevertheless open to new things, to younger people, to contemporary art, and to classic art. They always give you feedback. They help make your work exciting.
What should one pay particular attention to when drafting a grant application?
Number one, read the rules for submission carefully. Understand what you're applying for, what subject matter you're interested in. This is essential. Number two: you have to be articulate and show an understanding of the gist of the project. I have seen too many cases where people write an application about apples, but then end up asking for money for baskets, and laundry baskets at that. And, thirdly and most importantly, all social projects ought to be people-centered. The core of any social project is not in making a personal gain, but in producing benefits for society. Too many people submit projects for the sake of their own gain, but this one here is a story about advancing our society and positioning ourselves as active citizens.
What factors must one consider when implementing any social project?
After you get your grant, it's important not to slack off and to get everything done as quickly as possible, at least a week ahead of schedule. Because time flies very quickly. It is equally important to hire a good accountant who will be overseeing procurement and keeping track of the project’s finances. This is especially important if you are working on a creative project. If the project has no proper accounting, you should not bother to start at all, because you will not be able to prepare your accounting records later on.
What is Andrey Olkhovsky's secret to success?
You have to always try to be creative, be versatile, and try to make time for making art.
These days it's very trendy to discuss some mistakes that you shouldn't repeat. What would you do differently now?
You can't gain real experience without making mistakes. The first mistake to consider is setting unattainable goals, or hard-to-reach numbers. That is the first useful mistake to be made. It happens sometimes that people set before themselves the goal of having, for example, 3 million views initially, but ask for only 500,000 rubles for the whole project. And then they start wondering about how to generate that many views. Once you have made a mistake such as this, you tend to grow more aware of things. The second mistake one shouldn’t avoid making would be to assume a speaker’s or an artist’s fee without first asking them directly about how much they would be willing to do their job for. These are the two mistakes I would advise one to make in order to better understand the realities of this world.
And finally, a question about Art Sreda's and your own personal plans for the immediate future. What should we be expecting from you?
This year we're almost done getting ready for the festival, almost all of the sites have been prepared. There are only a few things left to be done in Nizhnevartovsk and Surgut, where the members of our team wanted to do some art work. We received some extra funding for this from the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs.
Later on, we want to turn our festival into a federal district-level event and in the next 3-5 years after that make it into a biennale. The biennale is a great format allowing you to prepare for a whole year, and then put on a good show the next year. But you still need to get more experience to be able to do that. Next year, we are planning to hold the festival in Nizhnevartovsk, Nizhnevartovsk District and in Pyt-Yakh. We've already worked in Pyt-Yakh, and we've made some good connections there. And I've lived in Nizhnevartovsk District for 26 years.
We really want to expand into large-scale projects that would be interesting from a commercial point of view: water reservoirs, industrial facilities, an airplane. But these are still more like pipedreams.
We also understand that we need to start looking for a building of our own. I don't know where it will be physically located, though. We would like to build a space where we could hold events, such as exhibitions, for example. This would allow us to be more independent in what we do. Right now, we are looking for a space that could become a point of strength and attraction.
Dear readers! To find out more about Art Sreda's projects, please visit its official Vkontakte group at https://vk.com/artcreda, and to learn about the Мósty festival check out its VK group at https://vk.com/mosty_fest86 or its Telegram channel at https://t.me/mosty_fest86.
As a reminder, applications for grant and interregional projects contests implemented under SIBUR's Formula for Good Deeds social investment program will be accepted until October 16, 2022 at https://contest.formula-hd.ru/.
Should you have any questions, please contact our coordinators via e-mail: for question about the grant contest - at email@example.com, for questions about the interregional projects contest - at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There will also be an opportunity to pose questions to the coordinators during the webinar on "Fundamentals of Social Design," which will be held on September 22. It will be useful to both experienced participants and newcomers. To register for the webinar, send in your request to: email@example.com.