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SAMARA, Russia (Reuters Life!) - The ruble is tumbling and energy firms are cash-strapped, but Russia's second largest gas firm Novatek believes art should not be forgotten in times of crisis.
The firm, in which gas giant Gazprom has just under a 20 percent stake, is sponsoring the exhibit of 30 paintings by one of Russia's most esteemed 20th century artists, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, on his home soil in southern Russia.
The works are on loan until next month from St Petersburg's State Russian Museum, and are on display in the city of Samara in a gallery owned by Novatek's Chief Executive Leonid Mikhelson, celebrating 130 years since the artist's birth.
"Our life is not just about business... This is our contribution to the life of the country," Novatek's Deputy Chairman Vladimir Smirnov, who was born in Samara, told Reuters, adding that the firm wants to keep supporting art despite the crisis.
Smirnov declined to say how much it cost the firm to sponsor the paintings, which are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Petrov-Vodkin, like Mikhelson and Smirnov, studied in Samara, a large trading city on the Volga river about 860 kilometers (534 miles) southeast of Moscow that was closed to foreigners during Soviet times. Novatek runs a polymers plant there.
Art critics and museum curators were jetted in for the exhibit, and later scurried across the enormous frozen Volga on hovercrafts to stay on Novatek's private island.
"When the world is crashing all around us, it is wonderful to see a company helping the arts," said Russian art queen Olga Sviblova, curator of the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and founder of the Moscow House of Photography.
Mikhelson said Novatek wanted to bring art to the regions.
"This is about returning art to Samara, to returning art to where it comes from," he said at the exhibit's opening, pointing to Petrov-Vodkin's much-loved 1928 painting 'The Death of a Commissar', which depicts a Bolshevik collapsed in a comrade's arms against the rugged, stone-littered Russian countryside.
His 1922 portrait of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova shows her large, saucer-like eyes staring out from a blue background, while his 1921 work 'A Boy in Samarkand', showing a child with a skullcap in the desert with a mosque, also features.
His world-famous, pre-revolutionary 'Bathing of a Red Horse' remained in Moscow's Tretyakov gallery, but the exhibit featured a smaller painting of a man riding on a red horse into the clouds.
Novatek will also finance the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in June, for which the firm has already pledged 300,000 euros ($382,800).
Mikhelson told Reuters recently in an interview that the firm as a whole would invest between 15 and 22 billion rubles this year and that there is no need for state help in finding credit.
It also spends around 10 million rubles ($289,400) a year on projects at the Russian Museum in St Petersburg and Moscow's Kremlin Museum, and is the sponsor of a Moscow chamber orchestra founded by leading Russian composer Yuri Bashmet.
Interest in the motherland's art by Russians at home and abroad has grown over recent years as the economy boomed.
Russia's new super-rich have been using their vast fortunes to bring native art back to Russia in what experts say stems from their desire to re-connect to a pre-Soviet cultural heritage.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman, editing by Paul Casciato