Ronnie Dunn's Secret Stash of Soviet Art


Friday, November 18, 2011

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!”


Slideshow: Soviet Art in the USA

Museum of Russian Art Edvard Y. Vyrzhikovski Cityscape
Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Art

Edvard Y. Vyrzhikovski, Cityscape, 1967.

In 2005, Soviet art collector Ray Johnson founded the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis with financial assistance from client and country music star Ronnie Dunn. Vyrzhikovski’s landscape is one of many Soviet paintings that have appeared in the museum.

Museum of Russian Art Vasili Nechitailo On Kuban Virgin Land
Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Art

Vasili Nechitailo, On Kuban Virgin Land, 1958.

Alexander Laktionov Portrait of Alexander Utesov
Photo by Julia Barton

Alexander Laktionov, Portrait of Leonid Utesov, c1940.

Utesov was known as “the Frank Sinatra of the USSR” — he was also Joseph Stalin’s favorite singer.

Aleksandr Gritsai, Pronya Shilovsky, Alexander Beav, Nikolai and Vasily Ryzhkov
Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Art

Aleksandr Gritsai, Pronya Shilovsky, Alexander Beav, Nikolai and Vasily Ryzhkov, 1982.

Yuri Ivanovich Bosko, A Woman of the Volga
Photo by Joshua Sarantitis

Yuri Ivanovich Bosko, A Woman of the Volga, 1967.

Museum of Russian Art
Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Art

Geli Korzhev, Anxiety, 1965-1968.

Korzhev, now in his 80s, is still painting in Moscow.

    Music Playlist
  1. I Can't Help Myself
    Artist: Ronnie Dunn
    Album: Ronnie Dunn
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  2. Hillbilly Deluxe
    Artist: Brooks and Dunn
    Album: Hillbilly Deluxe
    Label: Arista Nashville/RLG
    Purchase: Amazon
  3. Boot Scootin' Boogie
    Artist: Brooks and Dunn
    Album: Brand New Man
    Label: Bmg Special Product
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  4. Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op.36
    Artist: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
    Album: Rimsky-Korsakov: Greatest Hits
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  5. Little Miss Honky Tonk
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    Label: Arista
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Julia Barton

Comments [5]


Great piece! Leave it to Studio 360 and ace journalist Julie Barton to come up with something this cool and surprising.

Nov. 22 2011 07:17 AM
Jennifer from Dallas, TX

The story brought a tear to my eye at the end where Julia so aptly points out the balancing act we all have to do to stay in favor with the powers that be. Whether you’re a Russian artist, a Country singer that likes to collect art, or just a guy pulling an 80 work week to make ends meet, you are told to toe the line and do what is expected of you. We are all just trying to live the best way we know how.
There is nothing more American than looking past your prejudice and saying “Hey, I really like that piece of art.” Ronnie Dunn is Country “AAA” grade. Country is about freedom after all. I hope we never forget that.

Nov. 21 2011 03:55 PM
Lauro from Saint Paul

I've known about the museum for years, but never been. Now I'm arranging to meet friends there and maybe even do some holiday shopping for tsotschkes. Thanks Julia Barton and Studio 360!

Nov. 21 2011 02:43 PM
Steve Marquardt from Lake Lillian, Minnesota

Although I live 90 miles west of Minneapolis, I try to see every exhibit at the Museum of Russian Art. Having this Museum nearby is a real treat for this Russophile (as distinct from Soviet sympathizer, although Soviet sympathizers would enjoy it as well).

Nov. 20 2011 09:55 AM

This is my favorite fact I learned this week.

Nov. 20 2011 02:15 AM

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