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Russian Billionaire Backs `Soviets’ at Manhattan’s New Museum

Leonid Mikhelson
Leonid Mikhelson, Russias 15th-richest man, has thrown his wealth behind a museum show opening today in New York to mark the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Photographer:Dmitry Beliakov/Bloomberg

Billionaire Leonid Mikhelson, Russia’s 15th-richest man, has thrown his wealth behind a museum show opening today in New York to mark the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mikhelson’s awkwardly named foundation, Victoria the Art of Being Contemporary, is sponsoring an exhibition at Manhattan’s New Museum that examines the disintegration of the Soviet bloc through the work of 56 international artists, including 14 Russians. It is called “Ostalgia.”

“The title is an appropriation of a German word ‘Ostalgie,’ or nostalgia for the time before the fall of the Berlin Wall,” said New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni, the show’s designer. “It’s about a moment in history and a state of mind.”

Mikhelson, with a fortune estimated at $9.1 billion, has a history of supporting the arts in Russia through his OAO Novatek, the country’s second-largest gas producer. “Ostalgia” is his first private philanthropic venture in the U.S.

Named after his teenage daughter Victoria, Mikhelson’s two-year-old foundation promotes Russian contemporary art abroad and supports it through grants and new commissions.

“Ostalgia was a perfect project to back,” said Teresa Mavica, Italian-born, Russian-speaking director of the foundation, in an interview this week. “We want to take Russian art outside of its ghetto and have the best Western curators tackle it.”

Mikhelson didn’t come to New York for the opening, dispatching Mavica and 18-year-old Victoria, who is listed as a member of the advisory board on the foundation’s website.

‘Building a Bridge’

“Our goal is to be recognized beyond Russia,” she said over a yogurt-and-granola breakfast. “It’s about building a bridge between Russian and Western art and smashing negative stereotypes about contemporary art in Russia.”

Her father was one of the first people whose view on contemporary art she needed to change. Born in 1955 in a town on the Caspian Sea in the Republic of Dagestan, Leonid Mikhelson graduated in 1977 from the Samara State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering. Before helping to establish Novatek in 1994, he spent most of his career building gas pipelines. As an art collector he initially gravitated toward works from the 19th and early 20th century.

These days, his office is decorated with blue-chip artists Gerhard Richter, Christopher Wool and Olafur Eliasson.

“He is a huge fan of Rudolf Stingel,” said Mavica. “He owns many works,” including the artist’s 11-foot-tall black-and-white self-portrait exhibited earlier this year at Gagosian gallery in New York.

Personal Project

Although Novatek has funded various cultural activities, including the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009, the Victoria foundation is Mikhelson’s personal project.

By placing the Russian artists alongside their counterparts from Romania, Poland, Hungary, Germany and the Czech Republic, Gioni highlighted their common preoccupations.

Boris Mikhailov’s snapshots of ordinary (often naked and awkwardly framed) Soviet citizens in the 1960s and 1970s capture the vulnerability and drabness of life.

German artist Helga Paris’s 1984 black-and-white photographs of female factory workers, with their stern eyes, pressed lips and drab garb, complete the picture of the struggles behind the Iron Curtain.

Olga Chernysheva’s video looks at the new Russia by juxtaposing young boys in crisp Soviet-era uniforms with scantily clad cheerleaders. In British artist Phil Collins’s film, a former Marxist-theory teacher talks about his shattered identity after the Berlin Wall came down.

Gioni would not disclose the amount of Victoria foundation’s sponsorship, but said it also helped with research, access to the artists and many logistics.

“If you just need a check, don’t come to us,” said Mavica. “We like to be involved in producing the shows we support.”

(Katya Kazakina is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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