By Sophia Kishkovsky
MOSCOW (JTA) — Billionaire art collectors, critics, socialites, gallery directors and other denizens of the international art scene were among the standard guests at the recent opening of a vast, new nonprofit contemporary art space in the Russian capital.
But there was an unusual addition to the champagne-sipping crowd at the launch of The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture: Chassidic Jews.
The nearly 92,000 square-foot space, in a famous constructivist building called the Bakhmetyevsky Bus Depot, designed by the legendary architect Konstantin Melnikov in the 1920s, is on the grounds of facilities run by the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.
“Who in Moscow in the 1960s, or Petersburg in the 1970s, could have imagined that in the beginning of the 21st century a contemporary art center would be built on the site of a bus depot next door to a Jewish center?” marveled Mikhail Shvydkoi, a Kremlin special cultural envoy, at a news conference at The Garage on opening day, Sept. 16.
“If someone had told someone this in a kitchen in 1960, or 1970, or even in 1980, they would have been thought crazy,” he said.
The Garage is the brainchild of Daria Zhukova, a fashion designer, former model and the girfriend of Jewish oligarch Roman Abramovich, who is ranked by Forbes as the 15th richest man in the world. Abramovich has become famous internationally in recent years in part due to his ownership of the Chelsea Football Club in London and as a buyer of extravagant yachts.
He is well known in the Jewish world because of his close ties to the Federation of Jewish Communities; he heads its board of trustees.
Everything at The Garage is on a world-class level. Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, the project’s coordinator, opened the first London-based Gagosian Gallery in 1999. Zhukova told Afisha, a trendy cultural affairs magazine, that her models for The Garage are the Museum of Modern Art in New York and London’s Tate Modern and Serpentine Gallery.
Guests at The Garage’s opening day, including Abramovich and a bevy of bodyguards, walked past the Federation of Jewish Communities’ Beit Shvidler Educational Center — named in honor of Evgeny Shvidler, an associate of Abramovich’s and the billionaire who funded the center — and Sharei Tzedek Charity Center to reach the museum-within-a-museum constructed for the inaugural exhibition.
Titled “An Alternative History of Art,” the exhibition is by the Soviet Jewish émigré artist Ilya Kabakov and his wife and collaborator, Emilia, who are famous for their “total installations.”
Zhukova, who was born in Moscow but educated in California and had been living in London, told Afisha magazine that she discovered the Bakhmetyevsky Garage when familiarizing herself with the federation’s programs.
“I was interested in the Jewish community’s educational programs and was walking around the various buildings when I saw the garage, and asked them about this beautiful building,” she said.
Joseph Backstein, commissar of the Moscow biennale of contemporary art and curator of the Kabakov exhibition, said the project would not have been possible without the help of Zhukova’s IRIS Foundation, her vehicle for art-world philanthropy, and the “huge support of the Federation of Jewish Communities.”
Kabakov, a children’s book illustrator in his everyday Soviet life, was one of the founders of the underground Moscow Conceptualists art movement. He left the Soviet Union in 1987 and became the most famous Russian contemporary artist in the world.
Although exhibitions of his work had been held in recent years at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and at a gallery in Moscow, the current Moscow show, which is spread across three venues with The Garage installation as the centerpiece, is the first major retrospective of the Kabakovs’ work in Russia.
Other works are being shown at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the Contemporary Art Center Winzavod. The retrospective runs at the three venues through Oct. 19.
The project almost fell through when Mikhail Prokhorov, another billionaire who had been on board to fund the show, backed out. The pieces fell back into place, said Emilia Kabakov, when Zhukova — and Abramovich — stepped in.
Abramovich, 42 was not noted for a passion for art before he met Zhukova, 27, a fashion designer and former model, and divorced his wife and mother of his five children, Irina, to be with her.
He is known in Russia for, among other things, his philanthropy in the impoverished Arctic region of Chukotka. As Chukotka’s Kremlin-appointed governor, he was revered there for spending hundreds of millions of dollars of his own fortune — estimated at $23.5 billion by Forbes magazine — on housing and social services. In July he resigned from his post but is now running for Chukotka’s Parliament.
Zhukova, whose father is an oil tycoon, refuses to talk about her relationship with Abramovich, but Emilia Kabakov indicated that Abramovich is writing at least some of the checks for the new venture.
“This is an incredible center,” she said, adding it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the influential couple.
“It’s amazing that our visit to Russia coincided with the opening of this wonderful new center, this new undertaking, which proposes that in this utopian center, in Melnikov’s utopian building, this time will be built not a utopia, but something real, a center of contemporary culture,” Emilia Kabakov said.
Before Zhukova appeared in the picture, the Kabakovs were already working with the Federation of Jewish Communities, attempting to get an exhibition in the bus depot off the ground. Vladimir Shukhov, great-grandson of the engineer who built the unique girders of the Bakhmetyevsky bus depot, credits the federation with saving the building.
“I must bow down in thanks before the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, since it is to a large extent thanks to its efforts that the garage was saved,” he said at a news conference, according the federation’s Web site. “You know there had already been talk of tearing it down and putting up apartment buildings on this site.”
Many architectural landmarks have been torn down in Moscow to make way for lucrative housing projects.
Alexander Boroda, president of the federation, said at the news conference that the organization has big plans for The Garage. It was granted a lease on the building in 2001 and intends, ultimately, to turn it into a Russian Jewish Museum of Tolerance that would depict historical eras from the time of the creation of the world and include a children’s museum, multi-media Hall of Tolerance, genealogical center and exhibitions devoted to the major religions, including Islam.
Boroda said the Kremlin supports the museum and that Vladimir Putin even donated a month’s salary to the project in 2007, when he was still president.
The opening of The Garage in the space is meant to entrench the venue on Moscow’s cultural map in time for the museum’s opening in 2012, Boroda said.