Russia’s Red Temple of Contemporary Art and its Jet-Setting co-founder lose major exhibitions
In light of current events, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
In June 2015, the art collector Dasha Zhukova and her then husband, Roman Abramovich, chaired the opening of the Rem Koolhaas– designed the headquarters of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, a Moscow institution founded by the couple in 2008 as the main hub for artists living in Russia’s 11 time zones. For guests at the exclusive multi-day party, the day began with a champagne-soaked caviar breakfast followed by a multi-course lunch at Café Pouchkine, where waiters filled glasses with vodka as if they held tap water. Nights were spent in nightclubs overlooking Red Square, where the Russian flag flew atop a dome over the Kremlin.
It all led to a black-tie dinner with a stunning cast of cultural and political bigwigs, perhaps unrivaled in the world’s greatest country since the days of the czars. Inside the museum’s sprawling new home were collectors such as Eli Broad and george lucas mingle with artists Jeff Koon and Alex Israel, arrived by private jet with his art dealer, Almine Ruiz-Picasso, and her husband, Bernard Ruiz Picasso. From New York came a dozen MoMA curators, as well as Thomas Campbell, then the manager of the Met. Trader Gavin Brown was volleying ping-pong balls with a longtime performer Rirkrit Tiravanija, while the French billionaire Francois Pinault caught up Larry Gagosian, who opened a pop-up exhibition in Moscow in 2008 so oligarchs could buy art in their hometown rather than travel the world.
And among the tuxedo-clad legions of global cultural and financial figures was Harvey Weinstein, connecting and building in the middle of a Yayoi Kusama installation with the original soviet oil and entertainment macher Len Blavatnik, whose fortune has filled the coffers of American politicians of right and left.
I was there to report on the surreal spectacle unfolding in Gorky Park. At one time I followed the models Karlie Kloss and Natalia Vodianova down the stairs and inadvertently ended up in a demarcated VIP area at the rooftop bar, where Wendi Murdoch was chatting on a bench with a jewelry designer Jennifer Meyer, and I spoke to some very tall Russian gentlemen who told me, cryptically, that they worked in the energy industry in Houston, Texas.
Suddenly, a tall blond man with long hair approached. It was Abramovich, the billionaire oligarch who was pals with Vladimir Poutine since the 1990s. After snapping up the country’s third-largest oil company at a bargain price in the fog of the post-Soviet breakup, Abramovich used his considerable political capital in 1999 to join the chorus recommending to Boris Yeltsin that President Russian appoints the former KGB officer, then serving as his prime minister, as his chosen successor. Abramovich became a favorite son, nicknamed among Kremlin brass “MR. ONE.”
I asked a single question to MA
“Is the new Garage Museum what you were hoping for?”
“Yes – and that’s it!” he said patting me on the back and quickly retreating to the creepy looking “Houston” energy guys.
Well, story time is over. Such an assembly of cultural personalities in Moscow is in any case fiction. In the weeks since the start of Putin’s war to conquer neighboring Ukraine, the world has almost completely turned its back on Russia, exiling pro-Putin figures from artistic spheres and withdrawing from any cultural events in Moscow. . For most citizens of Western countries, it would be difficult to travel to Moscow, even if you wanted to for some reason. No US commercial airlines can fly, and most US-based airlines have cut all partner flights. If you enter somehow, leaving might become a trickier issue.
As Russia has become an international pariah, it has meant a huge change in fortune for Zhukova, who has spent the past 14 years making big, glitzy purchases from the world’s top galleries on the basis that they would go to her very important Russian artistic institution, The garage. (Everyone still pronounces the name in French.) In addition to the snafus trips, Abramovich, who divorced Zhukova in 2018, was already short selling Chelsea FC and its London mansions when the British government froze its assets in the country on Thursday. Last week the Eclipse, Abramovich’s billion-dollar mega-yacht left St Maarten and headed for international waters following other yacht seizures.
Zhukova comes from a family that is also connected to the explosion of wealth created during the demise of the Soviet Union and the creation of a free market economy through brute force and cronyism. His father, Alexander Zhukov, is a mini-garch with ownership ties to a number of oil and gas companies operating in the Black Sea, and has homes in London’s upmarket Kensington district and Sardinia, as well as a 400-acre property in Moscow. (Dad Zhukov was unlucky enough to use a Panama City-based law firm called Mossack Fonseca, meaning his theft and dealings were chronicled in Panama Paper leaks.)