Dasha Zhukova: Russian Public Now Less Skeptical About Contemporary Art

The founder of Moscow's Garage Museum of Contemporary Art speaks on the occasion of its grand re-opening, and discusses politics, the ruble, and Russia's approach to experimental work

Source: Nikolay Zverkov/Garage Museum of Contemporary Art via Bloomberg

Founded in 2008 by art autodidact Dasha Zhukova, Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art is the first philanthropic institution in Russia with a public mandate for contemporary art. It's home to the largest archive of Russian art from the 1950s to present day, and it is permanently moving to a new space that will open to the public on June 12. After four years in a building designed by Constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov, and then a few more in a temporary pavilion especially conceived for the museum by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, the 34-year-old wife of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich asked Rem Koolhaas and his OMA studio to undertake the renovation of the 5,400 square-meter building in Moscow’s Gorky Park. With a unique 11-meter wide profile and a facade of polycarbonate, the new Garage building includes five exhibition galleries, a screening room, an auditorium, and educational spaces as well as a bookshop and café. I spoke with Zhukova, who divides her time between London, Moscow and Los Angeles, by phone. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation, wherein Zhukova discusses the challenges of opening a global-scale fine art museum in a tricky Russian economic climate. 

On changing Russian attitudes toward contemporary and modern art, which for decades was quashed under Soviet rule: 

Reactions are always mixed, as with many things, but our core audience has definitely grown. When we first opened there was still a bit more skepticism but in the past seven years, people’s perspectives and tolerance—at least our audience’s—have opened up.  

What I’m particularly proud of is that the average age of our team is 27. That’s phenomenal because it’s truly contemporary to be driven by young people. 

The exterior of Garage's new building in Gorky Park designed by Rem Koolhaas.
The exterior of Garage's new building in Gorky Park designed by Rem Koolhaas.
Photographer: Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo

On her own collection: 

I prefer to support artists of my own generation. My taste varies. The way I go about it is really a mix: a lot of it is from exhibitions I go to or from someone that helps. I really love single-artist shows, when you can walk into an artist’s environment. I spend a lot of time in London, Moscow and Los Angeles—I really get to see all galleries, established and smaller size. Also the Internet has brought a lot of accessible art around the world. 

I’m an investor in Artsy. I use it a lot when I can’t get to an art fair because a lot of the galleries put up whatever they’re showing and they get a much wider audience through it. I find that very helpful. 

A model of the new Garage Museum.
A model of the new Garage Museum.
Source: Nikolay Zverkov/OMA/Garage Museum of Contemporary Art via Bloomberg

On choosing Gorky Park and Rem Koolhaas: 

As a little girl I grew up with Gorky Park, so I have a sentimental attachment to it. At the time it was a magical experience to go there, always such a treat. Then in the early 1990s it became very dilapidated, aggressive. And then when the new mayor Sobyanin was elected, he decided with his team to clean up the park and fully give it back to the public. They really gave it a big push. 

Gorky Park.
Gorky Park.
Photographer: Michael Runkel/Getty Images

I wanted to show Rem the park. As you know his career is very much influenced by Russian history and architecture. Rem and I were friends and I took him through the park and thought he would be a great person to get some advice about master planning Gorky Park. And as we were walking through the park and speaking, it just stood out that he would be the perfect person to work with. And so we looked at the building and definitely had a similar philosophy about how to approach it. 

On sourcing work for shows in the face of international political discord: 

Although we are a publicly minded museum, we are privately funded so we are completely independent. People understand that cultural exchange is very important and even at a time of political difficulty and breakdown on some level, I think that people find that culture is a bridge that is infallible. 

We’ve worked with LACMA, MOCA, I think MoMA for one of our recent shows, and there is some difficulty but we have been able to work around it.  

Zhukova and architect Rem Koolhaas, who designed the new building, at a preview opening of Garage.
Zhukova and architect Rem Koolhaas, who designed the new building, at a preview opening of Garage.
Photographer: Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo

On financing a museum in the era of a troubled ruble:

We’ve raised a lot of our funding through corporate sponsorship, and we felt a change in the companies’ desire to be in Russia and the size of their budget. So it’s definitely had an effect on us. 

On Garage's financial structure:

We provide for two thirds of the program and for the rest we fundraise, and the reason we do this is that we want to grow our education department, our research department and we also want to have a sustainable model because we want to be around forever and ever.  

Garage's previous temporary pavilion by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.
Garage's previous temporary pavilion by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.
Source: Ilya Ivanov/Wikimedia Commons via Bloomberg
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