Russian Oligarchs as Art Patrons

For a while now, wealthy Russian oligarchs have been collecting art. Perhaps the earliest Russian oligarch who was an avid art patron was Empress Catherine the Great. She became Empress of Russia in the late twentieth century and collected thousands of art pieces and commissioned numerous others. The next time Russian oligarchs became prominent art patrons was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sometimes these oligarchs collected or commissioned art in Russia. One oligarch spent one hundred million dollars to return imperial fabergé eggs back to Russia and to create a museum to showcase them. Other times, these oligarchs donated money or art to U.S. institutions. Famous institutions, such as Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Lincoln Center, have all been beneficiaries of Russian art patrons. Many times these Russian donors try to celebrate their homeland with donations. For example, Leonid Mikhelson, a wealthy oligarch, helped to fund an exhibition at the New Museum in Manhattan that shows Russian contemporary art. Others sought to recapture Russian artwork lost during the revolution and Soviet times. One Russian oligarch named Vladimir O. Potanin financed an eight hundred year survey of Russian art. This exhibition was shown at the Guggenheim Museum in California and was called “Russia!” Not only have oligarchs been donating, but one oligarch also was a patron of Fort Ross. Fort Ross is a state park located in California that shows a reconstruction of nineteenth-century Russian settlement. Fort Ross continued taking donations from the oligarch until sanctions were placed on him. Many oligarchs are trying to build a bridge between Russia and the United States with these art donations. Although these donations are not influenced by the Kremlin, they reflect Putin’s effort to use “cultural diplomacy as a tool of foreign policy.” Putin wants Russia to be presented in a softer sense, as Russian expert Andrew Foxall said, “When Western publics think about Russia, Putin wants them to think about Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky.” Although some institutions have stopped taking donations from oligarchs who are heads of companies that have had sanctions placed on them, some institutions are still accepting money from oligarchs. This creates tensions between the institutions and the U.S. government. Whatever the reason for Russian art patronage, it is a way to showcase Russian culture and learn more about it.

-Katya Luchette ’22

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