All Eyes on Her

It is 10:30 on a Saturday morning in New York, and Dasha Zhukova is preparing to be photographed. The location is the SoHo brownstone of independent curator Neville Wakefield and his artist girlfriend, Olympia Scarry, who have agreed to let this magazine use their airy, art-filled house for the shoot. Zhukova and Scarry are close friends, and Wakefield is curating a project in Venice for Garage Center for Contemporary Culture (GCCC) — Zhukova’s nonprofit contemporary-art space in Moscow — that will coincide with the vernissage week of the 54th Biennale. The 29-year-old Zhukova is discussing with the French photographer Eric Guillemain how they might style the photo session. She’s businesslike but genial. Some props are proposed, including a book for her to hold. She wrinkles her nose at the implication that Guillemain is trying to make her look smart.

Such artifice seems unnecessary. As the daughter of one Russian oligarch, Alexander Zhukov, and the girlfriend of another, Roman Abramovich, Zhukova has acquired a reputation for a jet-setting lifestyle — she has just returned from a vacation in St. Barts and before that attended fashion weeks in Moscow, London, and New York. But it takes more than money and social connections to wrap the art world around your little finger. She and Abramovich are among the world’s most serious collectors of modern and contemporary art, and the GCCC, the first contemporary-art venue in Russia, galvanized the international art world when it opened in September 2008 in a cavernous former bus depot in Moscow that she reportedly spent $3 million to renovate. Practically overnight Zhukova became a symbol not only of a new Russia that wanted to invest recently made billions in cultural endeavors but also of the buying power of emerging markets generally. More media attention followed, not all of it flattering.

About a month before the shoot, I met Zhukova in Los Angeles, in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was casual and laid-back, wearing a sweater, jeans, and flats. But she brought along her publicist for protection. It was a rainy morning during Oscar week, and the hotel was full of celebrities. The photographer Terry Richardson loitered in the lobby, while Steve Martin sat in a corner absorbed in a book. Zhukova seemed right at home — not surprising since, although born in Russia, she grew up mainly in L.A. and attended UC Santa Barbara, where she majored in Slavic studies.

To break the ice, I asked what she’d been up to that week. She told me she’d just met with her friends the fashion writer Derek Blasberg and the art dealer Andy Valmorbida, who were seated at an adjacent table, and the day before she’d visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), on whose board she has served for the past two years. She also attended the Ed Ruscha opening at Gagosian Gallery’s Beverly Hills branch — she likes the new work — and an exclusive preview of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition of Rodarte, the fashion label of sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy: "They’re incredibly talented." After our meeting, she was to lunch at Larry Gagosian’s Holmby Hills residence.

But all this social hobnobbing, she was eager to let me know, was beside the point. Her primary reason for being in L.A. was to see performance artist Marina Abramovic, with whom she was planning an exhibition at the Garage, and Klaus Biesenbach, the curator of Abramovic’s 2010 Museum of Modern Art exhibition in New York and the director of MoMA PS1, who is advising Zhukova on the show. "I’m lucky to get everyone involved in one place," she said. Of course, this confluence was hardly coincidence. Zhukova is a master enabler, a role she understands very well, according to Biesenbach: "She always says, ‘I’m not the curator. I’m not the artist. I want to learn and support.’ She’s very clear about that."

Zhukova’s involvement with contemporary art began when she moved to London after college to live with her father. She and an artist friend attended openings, but her participation in this world intensified once she met Abramovich, the 44-year-old Russian oil billionaire, art collector, and English-football-team owner who is among the world’s richest men. Their relationship has been fodder for the tabloids. She reportedly began seeing Abramovich before his divorce from his second wife. And according to a story circulating last year, he has bought her 100 acres of lunar real estate. Less widely reported on, and of more intense interest to the culture crowd, is the content of the couple’s art collections.

In May 2008, Abramovich paid a record $86.3 million at Sotheby’s New York for a 1976 triptych by Francis Bacon, and he is believed to have purchased at auction prime works by Edgar Degas, Lucian Freud, Claude Monet, and Gerhard Richter, among other blue-chip names. Zhukova won’t discuss his holdings and is self-deprecating about her own. "In the Russian language you use one word if you have a collection and another if you have a gathering of works," she says. "A collection means something cohesive, where you cover all the periods and movements and it’s very thought through. Mine is much more random, because it’s very emotional. There is no pattern." She enjoys art with a note of humor. "I have a lot of Socialist Realist works. I really see the irony in it." She also admires Bacon, but she won’t confirm if the triptych Abramovich bought hangs in the London residence the two share.

The relationship between Abramovich and Zhukova as collectors is often misrepresented, according to Gagosian. "You hear from people that Dasha likes to collect art and she has her rich boyfriend who writes the checks, and that’s not the case," he says. "They do it together, and Roman is very much involved."

When Art+Auction approached Zhukova about doing a profile, we were told that we would be given only limited access. According to her press representative, Nadine Johnson, she was still smarting from an unflattering New Yorker profile by Julia Ioffe published in September 2010. Zhukova would not say much to Ioffe, who seemed to interpret that as proof that she had little to say. The reporter found Zhukova opaque, describing her demeanor as "entirely neutral . . . reminiscent of an empty tide pool" and criticized her for trying to manage access to herself and to her friends.

Zhukova can come across as aloof, says Wakefield, who met her through art and fashion circles. But "once you’re close to her, that impression disappears. She’s navigating a number of different worlds, and that probably provides ammunition for people who want to say she is not fully immersed in any of them. When she gets behind something, she does it wholeheartedly — and takes risks." She has loyal supporters throughout the art world. In fact, no one has anything bad to say about her, describing her instead as energetic and curious. Cynics may deduce that nobody wants to get on the wrong side of that much money, but those who know her well laugh off such suggestions. LACMA director Michael Govan characterizes his board member as "down to earth" and "focused on long-term objectives." Since joining the board in 2009, she’s also been a potent partner in realizing some shorter-term aims: When Govan was negotiating with the Hermitage for loans for the "Gifts of the Sultans" show opening this month, she arranged a dinner with him and the museum’s director, Mikhail Piotrovski, in St. Petersburg. Says Gagosian, "She strikes a nice balance between being quite confident but also readily admitting if she doesn’t know something." According to Marc Glimcher, president of the Pace Gallery, once you’re in her inner circle, she regularly rolls ambitious ideas at you: "You’re one of several bowling pins, and she’s throwing balls all the time. Sometimes she knocks you over."

Glimcher first met Zhukova in December 2007. The New York-based art adviser Sandy Heller, a Rothko specialist, dragged him from his booth at Art Basel Miami Beach to the Raleigh hotel for drinks with Zhukova and her then adviser on the Garage, Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, a former Gagosian Gallery director who last fall went to work for Pace in London. Zhukova was determined to show Rothko in Russia. Glimcher was skeptical. Between customs and climate control, he says, "telling someone, ‘Send your Rothkos to Russia,’ is an instant no." But architect Jamie Fobert, who led the Garage renovation, provided top-notch climate control in the 1926 Konstantin Melnikov-designed building, and after Pace sold disgraced financier J. Ezra Merkin’s $150 million group of Rothko paintings, their new owner agreed to loan them to Zhukova.

The historic show opened last year. Zhukova adopted the veteran New York art historian and critic Irving Sandler’s somewhat radical and untested recommendation that she dim the lights in the galleries to create a meditative environment to match the mood of Rothko’s works. Reactions to this presentation were mixed, she says, laughing, with some viewers interpreting it as harking back to Soviet-era thrift. "Either people got it, or it was, ‘This is terrible. We know it’s Russia, but get with it!’"

Over the past six months, Zhukova has been vigorously pursuing her art world ambitions. Last fall she quit as editor of the British fashion magazine Pop and became creative director of the Web site, set for a soft launch this month. The site, which will use technology similar to that employed by the Internet radio station Pandora to suggest to visitors pieces they might like based on criteria they enter, counts among its investors Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Google’s Eric Schmidt. Zhukova also has a publishing venture on her plate but won’t give details.

Zhukova parted with Pop, she says, to focus on the Garage. She is moving the gallery to another Moscow location at the end of this year and launching a branch in St. Petersburg, on which, as with her other ambitious projects, she has sought informal advice from Govan and others. With this expansion in mind, she has installed a new team headed by the 28-year-old former Moscow art-listings publisher Anton Belov. The two share a vision for the three-year-old institution, she says, which is to make it "more democratic . . . for people who don’t know art."

Zhukova explains the relocation by pointing out that the Garage’s current space, although beautiful and historically significant, can be "difficult to work with." There are also, she says without citing specifics, complications with the lease; the 92,000-square-foot redbrick Constructivist structure is owned by the government and was leased to the Garage by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, of which Abramovich was a board member. Zhukova also notes that the location near the Olympic Stadium is a drawback: "The traffic in Moscow is unbearable," and the Garage is a 15-minute walk from the nearest metro station.

The Melnikov Garage is going out with a bang. Its final exhibition, opening in September to coincide with the fourth Moscow Biennale, is a version of MoMA’s Marina Abramovic show, which, in its reliance on viewer participation, fits with Zhukova’s democratizing mandate for the GCCC. Attendance at the Garage has been impressive: It had 200,000 visitors its first year, and 100,000 a month during the last Moscow Biennale. The numbers could climb during Abramovic’s show, which drew more than 560,000 visitors for its MoMA run.

As for the St. Petersburg branch, Zhukova plans to open it in the $400 million arts complex Abramovich is creating on the manmade New Holland Island and has held a contest to choose an architect. The list of those invited to compete include the London-based firms David Chipperfield and Dixon Jones Architects and the Russians Alexander Brodsky, Studio 44, and Yuri Avvakumov. While respecting the setting, Zhukova says, she wants to "push the envelope" with the design.

The New Holland complex itself is promising but poses logistical difficulties. Gagosian, who has organized contemporary-art projects in St. Petersburg, says it "would be a game changer" for the city, which doesn’t have much of a contemporary scene. Only in the past decade has the city’s venerable Hermitage Museum hired a curator in the category, Dmitry Ozerkov (who also happens to be one of Zhukova’s GCCC advisers). The long-vacant site, however, has an aging foundation that needs sophisticated reinforcement. Developers and art collectors Shalva Chigirinsky and Igor Kesaev tried and failed to realize a project there before. On the other hand, the city is prime minister Vladimir Putin’s hometown, which has led to speculation that Abramovich’s much-reported Kremlin ties may help make the project a reality.

Meanwhile, Zhukova is working with Wakefield on the Venice show: a JumboTron floating on the Grand Canal and projecting short films by artists that play with the language of advertising. It should come off as tartly ironic in a city founded on commerce that has attempted to ban public ads. The concept sounds like another of Zhukova’s "bowling pins," in Glimcher’s term, this time aimed at the international art world. It is sure to be a strike.

"All Eyes on Her" originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's June 2011 Table of Contents.