‘It’s artwashing’: can galleries wean themselves off Russian oligarch loot? | art and design

Ias of December in Moscow, dozens of international art world luminaries stepped out of the snow and into the vast, pristine galleries of GES-2, a new art centre. Located in a converted power station just a short walk from the Kremlin, the institution was funded by oligarch Leonid Mikhelson’s VAC Foundation. The westerners weren’t its first visitors, however. President Putin had visited two days earlier and tinkled on a piano set up in the atrium.

Mikhelson was one of several oligarchs who was summoned to the Kremlin the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine started. With the Russian super-rich facing prohibition, the glamor of such glitzy art events has faded – and left many observers questioning how connecting the art world has become on Russian money, both in terms of museum patronage and oligarchs’ spending power at the auction houses and galleries in London, Paris and New York.

“Russians have a huge presence not just in the art market but the whole art world,” says Ivan Macquisten, who advises cultural institutions on risk. “We are talking about museums, galleries, foundations.” It’s pretty clear what is – or was – in it for the oligarchs. “If you are associated with an institution that has a reputation within society, it can give you cultural, social and political standing. It can give you access to markets, to influential people – not just politicians, but them too.”

Pristine … the GES-2 arts center in Moscow, not far from the Kremlin.
Pristine … the GES-2 arts center in Moscow, not far from the Kremlin. Photograph: frantic00/Getty Images

Art critic Ben Lewis agrees: “It’s artwashing – it launders oligarchs’ reputations. The more these individuals, and these countries, weave themselves into the international art world, the harder it is to criticize them.”

The arrival of the Russian super-rich in the western art world was heralded in May 2008 when Roman Abramovich, not previously known as a collector, bought Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping for £17m at Christie’s in New York, followed by Francis Bacon’s Triptych for £43m the next evening from Sotheby’s. The purchases came a week after Putin flipped from president to prime minister, extending his power beyond the two consecutive terms allowed under the Russian constitution. The art market, largely unregulated, provides an easy way of shifting money out of the country.

Macquisten notes that cultivating a higher public profile abroad, whether it be through art patronage or sport, can also offer a degree of protection at home. “If you look at someone like Abramovich, by buying Chelsea he became a massive public figure. I’m not saying that made him untouchable, but it certainly made him less vulnerable within Russia. Russian business people have been got at, but they might not have been very high profile. If you are much more of a public figure, the authorities back home might stop and think a little before acting.”

By 2008, interest in Russian art, mainly from Russian buyers, had increased 703% from 2003 levels, and that year the Phillips auction house was bought by the Russian Mercury Group. At the 2011 Venice Biennale, Abramovich and his then partner Dasha Zhukova had provoked the ire of locals by parking their 377ft yacht Luna in the Grand Canal, throwing numerous parties to launch a video art project featuring the artists Gillian Wearing, Sarah Morris and Tom Sachs .

In 2008, Roman Abramovich bought Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping for £17m.
In 2008, Roman Abramovich bought Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping for £17m. Photograph: Cate Gillon/Getty Images

Four years later, Abramovic and Zhukova opened the Garage gallery in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Old gossip column photos show the Serpentine’s Hans Ulrich Obrist hanging with dealers such as Larry Gagosian and Sadie Coles. Star Wars director George Lucas and artist Jeff Koons were also in attendance. British institutions were involved with Garage too. For years, the V&A museum boasted of its advisory work on the foundation’s “branding and positioning” in a since-deleted webpage.

Mikhelson’s foundation also has a presence in London’s public art institutions, staging four shows at the Whitechapel Gallery between 2014 and 2018, with the Whitechapel returning the favor at the palazzo VAC owns in Venice. He has also provided sponsorship and patronage of the Tate in London and sat on the board of trustees at the New Museum in New York, again between 2014 and 2018. Novatek, the gas company of which he is the major shareholder, has been under US federal sanctions since 2014, with Mikhelson recommended for personal sanctions in 2018 by the US treasury. Earlier this month questions were asked in parliament as to why Britain had not put Mikhelson personally under sanctions.

At the Garage, where Abramovich remains on the board, a show of Helen Marten, the Turner prize winner represented by Coles’s gallery, has also been canceled alongside all other future programming. Zhukova is not an oligarch herself, and has spoken out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, telling the New York Post: “The brutal and horrific invasion taken by Russia against Ukraine is shameful. As someone born in Russia, I unequivocally condemn these acts of war, and I stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people as well as with the millions of Russians who feel the same way.”

Zhukova remains a trustee at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but plenty of other high profile Russian billionaires have had to quit their board positions at western institutions since the war began.

Vladimir Potanin and Petr Aven, who were also summoned to see Damn on 24 February, have resigned their respective trusteeships at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Royal Academy in London. In 2020 the Neue Galerie in Berlin staged a show of Russian modernism heavily borrowing from Aven’s collection. Now that Aven in under sanction by the EU and in Britain, were that exhibition to happen now, the museum would presumably be in the awkward position of having to sixteen its patron’s assets.

A gallerygoer takes a selfie at Moscow's Pushkin Museum.  The oligarch Alisher Usmanov facilitated Tate's loan of 112 works by JMW Turner to the Pushkin.
A gallerygoer takes a selfie at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. The oligarch Alisher Usmanov facilitated Tate’s loan of 112 works by JMW Turner to the Pushkin. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

“Any museum will vet who comes on their board, but as times change, the risk changes, and what is acceptable changes, which is why you are seeing these resignations now,” Macquisten says. “If institutions now assess any Russian money to be risky money, that might very well create big financial problems for them.”

Sponsorships such as Tate Modern’s 2019 Natalia Goncharova retrospective by Letter One, a company owned by Mikhail Fridman, a close associate of Aven also under sanctions, are therefore inconceivable now. The EU described Fridmanas an “enabler of Putin’s inner circle … he actively supported materially or financially and benefited from Russian decision-makers responsible for the annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of Ukraine.” Fridman and Aven released a joint statement describing the measures taken against them as “spurious and unfounded basis” and say they will contest them.

In 2008, yet another oligarch, Alisher Usmanov, also now under sanctions in the UK, and facing them in the United States, facilitated Tate’s loan of 112 works by JMW Turner to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. At the time the deal was hailed by the British Council as “a vital way of supporting the bonds between two countries”. Usmanov also offered significant funding for the restoration of the Cutty Sark, opened by the Queen in Greenwich in 2012.

A spokesperson for the Tate said “There are no UK sanctions on any of Tate’s current individual or corporate supporters and any historic relationships with former donors associated with the Russian government have now ended.”

Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the RUSI defense and security thinktank, suggests that remaining in Britain is too risky for Russian billionaires anyway. “These oligarchs are obviously very concerned about the protection of their assets and their loss of standing in what I guess we might call polite society in the west,” he says. “I suspect they will sit in opposition to the war, because they will know a war of this magnitude will lead to sanctions. They will be moving their assets to other places, to Dubai, assets like superyachts to the Maldives, out of their traditional European vendors such as Switzerland, London, Monaco, Paris.” Le Conseil des Ventes, which represents French auctioneers, has advised its members that even if a sale is cancelled, any assets or funds belonging to those under sanctions must remain in its possession.

The Rothschild Fabergé Egg … bought by Alexander Ivanov, handed to the Hermitage and then loaned to the V&A.
The Rothschild Fabergé Egg … bought by Alexander Ivanov, handed to the Hermitage and then loaned to the V&A. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

If the exodus of Russian money causes a headache for western museums, then it also poses a problem for private art galleries and the auction houses. Under the 2019 EU anti-money-laundering rules, copied over to British law post-Brexit, all transactions over €10,000 require due diligence. As part of that, those under sanctions should be easily identifiable. Macquisten says the rules will have an effect beyond named individuals. “Within those checks you have to ask if a person is a politically exposed person.” That is a person entrusted with a prominent public function. “From now on, as far as I can see, any Russian buyer, and indeed Ukrainian, would be seen as politically exposed.” On Tuesday the UK banned all exports of art to Russia and Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams have since been forced to call off their June Russian art auctions.

In the States, where auction houses undertake only voluntary anti-money-laundering checks, and most commercial galleries none at all, sanctioned individuals have been found buying art through advisers and a complex arrangement of shell companies. A 2020 Senate subcommittee found Arkady, his son Igor, and Boris Rotenberg, Russians who are under sanctions in America, were able to buy $18m worth of contemporary and modern art at auction and privately. Despite this, the committee only recommended tightening the laws on antiquity deals.

Given around 500 super-rich Russians control more wealth than the poorest 99.8%, the vast majority of which is estimated to sit outside Russia, is hitting monied art lovers the most effective weapon in the economic war against Putin? Ramani warns not. “The oligarchs do not have the kind of influence over the executive branch in Russia under Putin that they did under Boris Yeltsin during the 1990s … What could move the needle is the massive devaluing of the Russian currency. The collapse of the Russian economy will bring people out on to the streets. People power is much more powerful than oligarch power in Putin’s Russia.”

Yet the Rothschild Fabergé egg offers a picture of how entwined cultural institutions have become with Putin’s Russia. The jeweled art object, from which a diamond-set cockerel pops out the top hourly, was bought by Alexander Ivanov, who made his post-Soviet millions in computers, for $14m at Christie’s London in 2007. His intention for Putin to present the work to the Hermitage Museum was almost thwarted in 2014 when just days before the ceremony, 50 officials, including British HMRC inspectors, raided his private museum in the German spa town of Baden-Baden. Nevertheless, the Hermitage received the jewel from Putin’s hands, enabling them, in turn, to lend it to the V&A, where it sits proudly in Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution, the museum’s current show dedicated to the company.

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