Russian, Indian Billionaires Join Top U.S. Museum Boards

In 2011, Russian billionaire Leonid Mikhelson helped pay for a giant stainless-steel slide during a retrospective by Belgian artist Carsten Holler at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. It was the most popular exhibition in the museum’s 35-year history.

Last month, Mikhelson, whose net worth of $16.2 billion ranks 45th on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, was elected to the museum’s board of trustees.

International trustees now make up 20 percent of the museum’s board, including new arrivals Jose Olympio Pereira, chief executive officer of Credit Suisse Group AG’s Brazilian unit, and Hank Latner, managing director at the Shiplake Development Company in Toronto, Canada.

“Our mission is to cover contemporary art from around the globe,” Lisa Phillips, the New Museum’s director, said in an e-mail. “As art is thriving in so many centers, it is imperative to have an active group of supporters with diverse perspectives and deep connections to these communities.”

In addition to fundraising and gifts, international board members help negotiate loans and navigate bureaucracies abroad.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s international trustees include Alejandro Santo Domingo, a Colombian billionaire whose net worth of $13.8 billion ranks 66th on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Asia Society

At Asia Society, 12 of the 45 trustees are non-American, hailing from countries including China, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia.

“We’ve been more proactive in recent years and are working on identifying more people,” said Elizabeth Lancaster, Asia Society’s senior executive associate. “Potentially, we can have up to 70 people on the board.”

In 2011, the organization named Hong Kong-based real estate developer Ronnie C. Chan as co-chairman of the board, which also includes Indian billionaire Jamshyd N. Godrej and Lee Hong-Koo, a former South Korean ambassador to the U.S.

“Getting on the board of a museum is one of the most unquestionable ways to establish someone’s name beyond business activities,” said Sergey Skaterschikov, the founder of Skate’s Art Market Research.

Guggenheim Museum

Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin joined the board of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2002. The museum has two other international trustees: Finland’s Carl Gustaf Ehrnrooth, elected in 2008, and Dimitris Daskalopoulos, president of the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises in Greece, elected in 2009.

Potanin is the CEO of OAO GMK Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest nickel producer. With a net worth of $14.5 billion, he ranks 59th on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. In 2005, his charity fund sponsored the museum’s blockbuster exhibition “Russia!” which drew 405,780 visitors.

Dasha Zhukova, the partner of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, opened the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow in 2008. The following year, Zhukova was elected to the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

For Russian collectors, joining American boards offers social prestige, connections and a tantalizing opportunity to shape the future.

“If you are on a museum board in the West, you are actively engaged in creating art history,” said Maria Baibakova, who is a member of the Russian and Eastern-European art acquisition committee for the Tate in London.

Most Russian museums are governed and funded by the state. “They are not buying art, they are not accepting gifts, they are stagnant,” she said.

Los Angeles

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has at least four international trustees, including Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk, who joined in 2009, and Eugenio Lopez, heir to the fruit-juice fortune of Mexico’s Jumex Group, who joined in 2005.

Tina Ambani, a former Bollywood star and founder of India’s Harmony Art Foundation for contemporary artists, became the first foreign trustee at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, in 2008.

The museum began acquiring Indian art in 1800 and has one of the largest collections of modern and contemporary Indian art outside of India. Ambani’s husband, Anil Ambani, has a net worth of $5.7 billion and is the younger brother of India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani.

“She represents and advocates for PEM in India,” said Dan Monroe, the museum director. “We anticipate continuing to develop our board in terms of global representation.”

Ambani lent the museum a large reflective sculpture by Anish Kapoor, which is displayed in the museum’s atrium. Prices for Kapoor’s sculptures on the primary market start at 500,000 pounds ($759,450) and his auction record is $3.9 million.

Muse highlights include Jeffrey Burke on books and John Mariani on wine.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.