“A sunny industry for shady people”: Inside the world of Oligart

How the art world helped launder the reputations of the kleptocratic classes — and created a modern monster in the process

A magical summer night at Moscow’s Garage Museum, where the champagne flows in rivers and the caviar is stacked in piles big enough to be visible from space. Dasha Zhukova and her husband Roman Abramovich have pulled out all the stops to inaugurate their new gallery and invited the biggest names in art, fashion and Hollywood. 

There’s Karlie Kloss, George Lucas, Stella McCartney, Arianna Huffington, Miuccia Prada, Wendi Deng and, this being 2015, also Harvey Weinstein. Tiravanija, the Thai concept artist, gives a performance and the Kuban Cossack Chorus yodel out their hits. The sexy tunes of Michel Gobert, who does Dior’s runway music, float out from the rooftop long past midnight.

The gossip columnists are having the time of their lives: the place is packed with stars who, after several Beluga vodka cocktails, are happy to be papped and pay tribute to their hosts, Zhukova and Abramovich. “You know how people make guest lists for their fantasy dinner parties?” the artist Jeffrey Deitch coos to an interviewer. “Dasha not only did that, but everybody actually came.”

The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow

It was only a few years ago, but how anachronistic this event now sounds. It would be hard to imagine those same celebrities appearing at an oligarch’s gallery opening today. Most of them are desperately scrubbing their Instagram feeds and Wikipedia pages of any hint of proximity to Russia, let alone its more light-fingered sons. The Victoria & Albert museum used to preen about the advisory work it gave to Garage on “branding and positioning”, although this has now been deleted from its website. Looking back, that glitzy night at Garage feels like the high water mark of oligarchian patronage to the art world — a weird, receding era of our modern cultural history when galleries and museums were happy to take dark Russian money hand over fist. As the invasion of Ukraine has forced the art industry to cut ties with its Muscovite backers, curators and dealers are starting to queasily wonder: how did we ever get in so deep?

The art world, until very recently, shamelessly courted Kremlin-backed billionaires. That Garage opening saw the eager attendance of Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Serpentine’s artistic director, dealers like Larry Gagosian and Sadie Coles, and the megastar artist Jeff Koons, whose giant balloon tat has besmirched many a public space.

At the same time, the boards of prestigious institutions were all too happy to accept Russian money and reward donors with senior positions. Pyotr Aven, a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, became a trustee of the Royal Academy. Leonid Mikhelson, the energy giant, funded the Art Institute of Chicago. Viktor Vekselberg, the aluminium magnate, was an honorary member of the Tate Foundation, donated to the MoMA and gave more than $5 million to the John F. Kennedy Centre. Carnegie Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Lincoln Centre have all gladly taken money from wealthy Russians and their companies.

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