On December 1, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops gathered at the Ukrainian border, the Russian President Vladimir Poutine takes a trip to a new contemporary art museum in Moscow. Little adept at the vanguard, Putin stopped at the not-yet-opened outpost of the VAC Foundation in a Renzo Piano–space designed at the invitation of the founder of the foundation, Leonid Mikhelson, the elegant, mustachioed president of the gas company Novatek and the petrochemical company Sibur, and a close associate of Putin. Novatek is the country’s largest gas supplier, and as of last October Mikhelson had an estimated net worth of $35 billion, making him Russia’s richest man. He has put much of that wealth on the art market over the past decade and now competes with American mega-collectors like Bill Bell and Peter Brant for the works.
Putin strolled through Moscow’s new VA-C complex, called GES-2 House of Culture after the power plant it replaced, taking in Ragnar Kjartanssonpaintings, film sets and production materials by the Icelandic artist, which make up the artist’s installation St. Barbara. At one point, Putin spotted a piano. As he is known to do, the President sat down to briefly tickle the ivories, delighting other visitors such as the Mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin and the general director of the museum Therese Mavica. By all accounts, Putin gave his blessing to the whole place.
When the press was admitted to GES-2 later in the week, a German journalist asked about the possibility of having a fruitful dialogue in Russia despite the pesky authoritarian habits of the museum’s recent VIP visitor. Curators returned the favor, bristling at the idea of bringing politics into the museum.
“Where do you come from?” Mavica replied “Don’t you think your country has its problems?
Three months later, Russia was in far more trouble than in December, and the new private museum run by a mega-billionaire was in turmoil. Mavica has announced that she will be stepping down in January, amid controversy surrounding the installation of Urs Fischerthe 43 foot tall sculpture Large Clay No. 4. According to a vocal contingent of Muscovites who have to see the public artwork adjacent to the Kremlin every day, it looks like “a pile of shit”. (Count Mikhelson among Bell and Brant as one of the only art lovers who could score one of Fischer’s five-story mega-works; Mikhelson bought his directly from the artist.) When Putin Invaded Ukraine, the chief curator Francesco Manacorde resigned in protest saying, “Current events have significantly altered working and personal conditions, so I have come to the conclusion that I will not be able to continue working with the same dedication of which I could be proud. Kjartansson pulled out of the show, citing that Russia had become a “full-fledged fascist state”.
“It’s not possible to have this work when this horror begins,” the artist told an Icelandic newspaper.
The problems are mounting for Mikhelson, whose net worth has been reduced by $10.5 billion in 2022 and who in all likelihood will not park his $150 million yacht, Peaceful, by the Giardini at the Venice Biennale next month, despite the VAC Zattere art space opening in the Italian city in 2017. A VAC spokesperson told me this week that after years of planning, all programming in Venice will be dropped this year.
Mikhelson will likely have plenty of company on the sidelines – or in international waters or the UAE or wherever you take your mega-yacht while trying to avoid seizure. While big-ticket collectors across Europe, the United States and Asia will be eager to attend this year’s Biennale, often referred to as the Art World Olympics, after an extended hiatus from three years, the Russian oligarchs who have regularly appeared in recent years on the Grand Canal to organize sumptuous dinners in palaces will be conspicuously absent from this tour if current trends continue. Most of the Venice insiders I spoke with this week assumed that the contingent of Russian billionaires would be virtually non-existent this year, with the threat of sanctions and asset seizures looming in the EU and much of of the world elsewhere. Apart from Roman AbramovichIn Monday’s brief public appearance at an airport in Israel, the oligarchs have been largely ignored outside of Russia since the war began.
That would mean Abramovich won’t be on hand to grace the art world with one of his of them yachts, as he did in 2011, when the 337-foot Moon Venetians and tourists enraged by blocking everyone’s view of San Marco. Mikhail Fridman-who bought Warhol’s Four Marilyns from Larry Gagosian for $38 million just to return it to the financier Halit Cingillioglu for $44 million in 2015 – is also unlikely to be there to finance the Russian pavilion, as it has been doing since 2012, according to documents provided by Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank, which he founded in 1990. Viktor Vekselberg is perhaps more known for collecting Fabergé eggs than for contemporary art, but he still managed to make it to the opening dinner of the Russian pavilion in 2015, and parked his yacht, Tango, in Venice in 2018 to see the architecture biennale in September of the same year. Don’t count on his presence this year. The same goes for Vekselberg’s business partner Len Blavatnik, who was in Venice in 2013 and attended a dinner for the Austrian Pavilion at Ca’ Barbaro, a Gothic-era palace that counts John Singer Sargent and Henry James as former residents.