The Art World Is a Haven for the Superrich

Many of the Russian superrich who have had their assets frozen in recent weeks have deep connections to the art world. As the curtain is pulled back on these holdings, art’s role in creating and sustaining the 1 percent has once again been revealed.

Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art on March 9, 2017 in Moscow, Russia. (Team Boyko / Getty Images)

For a few dozen Russian billionaires, generally and not always accurately referred to in the West as oligarchs, the invasion of Ukraine has been a lifestyle adjustment. Many of those who once spent their days on superyachts or strolling around Belgravia’s Eaton Square have decamped, some returning to Russia and others scattering to the few remaining ports of call that will take them. As of yet, thirty-eight of them have been subjected to sanctions and asset freezes by the United States, Canada, the UK, the EU, and other nations.

While many in Vladimir Putin’s orbit have faced sanctions in the past — Putin’s friends from the old neighborhood, Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, have dodged them for years — the new sanctions are more draconian. Excluding some key figures, dozens in Putin’s inner circle have been effectively blocked from entering and doing business in several Western nations. Alisher Usmanov, majority shareholder in Metalloinvest, was recently parted from his superyacht, which has the distinction being the world’s largest indoor swimming pool on a boat. Igor Sechin, nicknamed Darth Vader, head of the energy company Rosneft, saw his yacht confiscated at La Ciotat.

But among those caught up in the dragnet, Roman Abramovich is by far the most visible. A multibillionaire with interests in Millhouse Capital and the Chelsea Football Club, Abramovich had his UK assets frozen and was banned from entering the country (part of the peace delegation to Ukraine, he now appears to have been poisoned by hardliners opposed to reconciliation). Having built spectacular wealth through a combination of seemingly legitimate means and shady financial transactions involving numerous shell companies, Abramovich’s ostentation, even compared to other billionaires in his class, is staggering.

In addition to his fleet of superyachts and a 787 Dreamliner, he owns a titanic real estate portfolio. While his £120 million mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens is the most prominent, he is tied to fifty-three luxury residences in the UK; a $50 million, fourteen thousand square foot mountain retreat in Snowmass, Colorado; and a sprawling villa, Château de la Croë, in Cap d’Antibes that formerly housed Aristotle Onassis and Edward VIII.

Abramovich is also a formidable presence in the art scene. For years, he has been ranked one of the world’s top collectors. Over a frenzied, two-day shopping spree in 2008, he spent north of $100 million on Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping and Francis Bacon’s Triptych. He is also a major patron of the arts — with his ex-wife Dasha Zhukova, he launched the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in 2008, a scene-y, art hub that moved to a Rem Koolhaas–designed space in Moscow’s Gorky Park in 2015. Abramovich has accordingly become one of the scene’s the most visible and influential figures. And he is not alone. For the past several decades, dozens of Russian elites have similarly risen to key positions in the world of art.

The recent sanctions as well as the exodus of Putin confidants from prominent posts on museum boards have accordingly pulled back the curtain on how extensively Russian billionaires have penetrated the arts and, indeed, how they have operationalized art for both personal enrichment and nationalist ends. But the sanctions also illuminate the turpitude of the art world more broadly, namely how it long tolerated and, indeed, continues to tolerate stolen wealth, wage theft, and excess.

Fanatically profit-driven and with a high tolerance for transgression by powerful figures, the art world was long a welcoming haven for Abramovich and other Putin confidants. Those who mingled with them at Art Basel or the Venice Biennale were happy to overlook the fact that the billions they spent on yachts, houses, and art were syphoned from the Russian populace. And while it may look like justice to see the Russian elites parted from yachts and real estate, their downfall is merely a pressure tactic and is utterly unrelated to their wealth. Meanwhile, insatiable self-enrichment remains integral to the world they sought to permeate.

The Gang’s All Here

As the Russian Federation emerged from the mayhem of the 1990s, a new class of elites was born. As Anders Åslund, author of Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy, argues, Putin has surrounded and insulated himself with concentric circles of trusted confidants. At the core of the inner circle, Åslund contends, are former KGB pals who have successfully rested control of intelligence and legal apparatuses. A second circle controls the state while the third, the oligarchs, manage the nation’s business interests. Because of special treatment and inside deals, this group has become billionaires and has gone on to become major figures on the world stage.

Flush with cash and looking for places to spend it, many in Putin’s third circle, people like Abramovich and Fabergé egg enthusiast Viktor Vekselberg, turned to buying artwork in the 1990s and early 2000s. Billionaire Petr Aven, whose Swiss holiday home was just seized, has a massive fortune in Russian avant-garde artists and contemporary sculpture in a collection divided between houses in Moscow and Surrey. Putin himself has amassed a monumental portfolio. While the extent of his holdings is unknown, he has come into ownership of the shadowy collection of collector Nina Moleva, reportedly worth up to $2 billion.

In some cases, these acquisitions were part of an effort to recuperate and celebrate Russia’s cultural history. As Elise Herrala, visiting assistant professor of sociology at Haverford College and author Art of Transition: The Field of Art in Post-Soviet Russia contends, there are many collectors in the Russian art world, people like Viktor Bondarenko, who collect Russian art out of a sense of “national responsibility” to preserve Russian heritage.

However, for others, art provided an ideal means of diversifying kleptocratic wealth. Art, bought through private sellers or international auction houses, would serve as a far more opaque investment than property or cash, allowing Russian elites to launder money and circulate wealth surreptitiously.

In 2016, the Panama Papers lifted the lid on a vast array of financial double-dealing. Regarding art, they detailed how elites, including Russia’s Dmitry Rybolovlev, used shell companies and off-shoring to illicitly move billions in artwork. In 2020, congressional investigators uncovered how the Rotenberg brothers had used shell companies to avoid sanctions and purchase millions of dollars of artwork in the United States, including like René Magritte’s La Poitrine. As investigators concluded, the brothers had been “enabled by the secrecy and anonymity with which the art market operates.”

The Grand Tour

Art also allowed oligarchs, who remain loyal and closely connected to Putin, to promote Russian interests abroad.

In addition to building collections, Russia has long been pumping money into the art world, often at the apparent interest of burnishing Russia’s international image. Herrala contends that such endeavors may be read as expressions of Russian “soft power” abroad, though she notes that the Sackler family, the pharmaceutical dynasty responsible for OxyContin, has done the precisely the same with its funding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, and numerous other museums.

In 2002, Vladimir Potanin bought Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square,” what writer Tatyana Tolstaya called “the most famous, most enigmatic, and most frightening painting known to man,” at auction for $1 million, less than median asking price for a home in Manhattan. Snatched from the collection of the recently imploded Inkombank so that the painting could be hung in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Potanin paid far less than it would have been sold for abroad. Indeed, the purchase by one of Russia’s rising elites appears to have been one of many pieces of nationalist theater meant to bolster the image of a new Russia flush with cash. As Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoy was quoted saying in the New York Times, ”I hope this will serve as an example for Russian entrepreneurs and industrialists, who are not doing as badly as it would seem, and they can afford to buy quality things.”

Three years later, Potanin gave the Kennedy Center $5 million to fund the Russia Lounge, a cultural space seemingly calculated to present a cosmopolitan and neoliberal image of a nation ready for international business partnerships. As described on the website of Potanin’s foundation, the lounge served “to present American audiences with an image of contemporary Russia stepping aside from traditional historical and cultural clichés.” The site goes on to oversell the “spectacular architectural forms” designed by architect Sergey Skuratov, noting that the space “is an allegory of the eternal ambitions of humanity to aspire above and beyond, a thirst for movement, and the illusion of overcoming material borders.” This month, the Kennedy Center changed its name to the “Opera House Circles Lounge.”

In 2021, Putin himself cofunded a traveling exhibition on international unity titled “Diversity United.” A risible effort to sell a progressive and tolerant image of the country, the exhibition included work of artists from thirty-four countries, and generally celebrated freedom and human rights. Since its opening, the show has been met with extensive criticism and protest. In February, an open letter by Jörg Heiser, Hito Steyerl, and Clemens von Wedemeyer regarding the exhibition’s presence in Berlin called out “Diversity United” for “art-washing” Russia’s interests including its oil and gas projects. In late February, the German government pulled its funding for the show.

Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools

Beyond its international ventures, many of Russia’s wealthiest have sought to transform Russia itself into a contemporary art haven and bring it into archipelago of international art destinations. In addition to the Garage, Moscow now claims the troubled, Renzo Piano–designed GES-2 House of Culture founded by (the unsanctioned) billionaire Leonid Mikhelson. But while these efforts, until recently, have been successful, they also indicate the willingness of the global art world to ignore exploitation, even violence, when money is involved.

For the last several years, Moscow’s Garage Museum, run by Dasha Zhukova, has played a pivotal role in providing a haven for contemporary arts in Russia while expressing an image of a hip, globally relevant nation. Zhukova, the daughter of Alexander Zhukov, whose numerous offshore interests were exposed in the Panama Papers, is also on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Shed, where Frieze New York has been held since 2021.

The museum includes a publishing arm, artist studios, and, until 2021, a music series with the likes of such artists as Michael Rother and Ibeyi. Its magazine was taken over by VICE in 2014 (though it hasn’t published new content since 2021). Befitting a museum of its stature, the Garage has been home to numerous big-name exhibitions by such blue-chip artists as Louise Bourgeois, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Yayoi Kusama.

In 2015, only a year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and after the country’s suspension from the G8, the Garage held a star-studded reopening. A multiday affair, the event sought to dazzle guests with Russian hospitality. Attendees were treated to “Champagne-soaked caviar” breakfasts and black-tie dinners with “caviar, vodka shots, big men in chef’s whites carving up bigger planks of smoked salmon” with a soundtrack of “Mambo No. 5.”

The event attracted some of the most prominent figures in art and culture in both Russia and abroad. Art dealer and gallerist Larry Gagosian — himself bankrolled by Abramovich and Mikhail Fridman, the Israeli-Russian billionaire and founder of Alfa Bank — was there along with a host of (some now canceled) celebrities including Jeff Koons, Woody Allen, George Lucas, and Harvey Weinstein. Also present at the reopening were Karlie Kloss, the former model turned coding impresario and wife of Joshua Kushner, and Wendi Deng Murdoch, the ex-wife of Rupert Murdoch and a woman whom US intelligence believes may be a Chinese intelligence agent.

With funding from Kushner’s venture capital company, Zhukova and Murdoch cofounded Artsy, an online art brokerage, in 2009, now the largest online art market in the world. It is also notably hosting a benefit for Ukraine, “The Artist is Present: A Benefit Auction for Ukraine,” that offers patrons the opportunity to sit with Marina Abramović in a recreation of her 2010 performance “The Artist is Present.”

Ignoring the pong of actual political intrigue in these tessellations — Murdoch is alleged to have lobbied on behalf of the Chinese government for a garden project in Washington DC that would have included a tower that could have been used to surveil the White House — the intimacy of elites from the world of art and culture with Abramovich, Zhukova, and other Russian billionaires indicates the striking indifference of major art world players regarding Russia’s political transgressions and kleptocratic practices. Eating caviar and dancing to Lou Bega songs at a parties funded by the stolen wealth of everyday Russians, guests were happy to ignore where all the money came from. The funk of militancy also did little to deter revelers in 2015, even when Russia was flexing its muscles during what turned out to be a test run in Ukraine.

While contemporary art world players, and the Garage itself, have sought to condemn the Russian invasion — the Garage has called the war “a tragedy” — that oligarchs long permeated this scene underscores the effective indifference of the upper echelons of the art world to all manner of political violence and capitalist excess. But, of course, Russia is only part of the story.

Give Me Your Money

In a recent New York Post article on Larry Gagosian, an unnamed source called the gallerist’s Russian clients “Bond villains” who “are dangerous, repulsive and devalue art by their very presence.” Such a comment, while smacking of Russophobia, neglects the extent to which, beyond Russia, exploitation and capitalist excess have never been far from the top tier of the art world. While Abramovich and others are a particularly ostentatious kind of capitalist, they are ultimately only one component in a larger ecology that overlooks (and, of course, profits from) some the worst excesses of global capitalism.

Arts workers across all sectors are unfailingly mistreated and underpaid. As journalist Nastia Voynovskaya contends, the passion of arts workers has often been used as a means of exploitation: “because they take pleasure in performing, taking photos or writing, onlookers see the opportunity to do this work as a privilege in its own right — and use that reasoning to justify a lack of compensation or benefits.” In recent years, entry-level arts workers have reported notoriously poor labor conditions including being forced back into galleries during COVID and made to sign non-disclosure or non-compete agreements. In 2021, a study found that arts workers of color were paid 35 percent less than white workers.

Meanwhile, the art world remains the domain of a few enormously wealthy artists who chase profit seemingly without compunction. Damien Hirst remains the world’s wealthiest artist. Of his latest show at Gagosian Britannia Street, Jonathan Jones wrote, “This is art for the penthouses of oligarchs who look out of their windows and ask who really cares about all those pieces of meat walking about down there.” In 2020, it was reported that Hirst laid off sixty-three staffers despite receiving $21 million from the UK government. In late March, it was revealed that Hirst claimed £1.3 million from a UK COVID relief fund.

Perhaps most significantly, the world’s major art collectors include a host of unsavory characters from business and politics. In addition to oligarchs Abramovich and Rybolovlev, the coterie includes Jeff Bezos, who presided over Amazon’s legendarily abysmal working conditions, the Walmart heiress Alice Walton, whose company is notorious for low wages and opposing unionization, and hedge fund billionaire Dan Och, who was fined $400 million in 2016 for paying millions in bribes to African leaders. The list also includes Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, former prime minister of Qatar, whose office it has been alleged was connected to transfers of money to the al-Nusra Front.

The centrality of these players, and art world’s tolerance of their transgressions, indicates that the problem was never simply the Abromoviches. Western nations, and the art world, have recently singled out oligarchs — but this is ultimately just a distraction from the greed that runs the game. As Bernie Sanders said in late March, “We talk a lot about Russian oligarchy . . . but anybody who thinks we don’t have an oligarchy in this country is surely mistaken.”